No one is good at everything, so do more of what you do well.

It seems to me that one of the keys to being a really successful engineer lies in figuring out what you are really good at doing and doing more of that. No one is good at everything — or at least, very few are — so you must specialize.

Some of us resist this idea. We don’t want to be “pigeon-holed” or unduly restricted. We get bored easily. We are creative. We like to learn new things. There’s nothing wrong with that, but …

The market doesn’t reward lack of specialization — It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about doctors, lawyers, management consultants (ahem!), architects, planners, or engineers — the specialists are the ones who always get paid more. They are in shorter supply and (theoretically) aren’t learning at the clients’ expense.

It is hard (if not impossible) to market yourself to the whole world — This is something few engineers consider but it is extremely crucial. When your group of potential buyers for what you are selling is small and super well-defined, marketing is as simple as building a complete list and then hammering away on that audience through dozens of different methods and channels. When it is large and ill-defined, it gets very expensive to reach anyone!

You can specialize and still keep learning — Your learning is just more relevant. This one always gets me. If your knowledge base is deep versus shallow and a mile wide, you will have to learn to keep up or you won’t be seen as a specialist any longer.

You must be creative to be successful as a specialist — Just because you work with the same types of clients or facility types or problems doesn’t mean you want to do the same thing or do it the same way every time. Do it better. Be different. Creativity is lacking in our field but not because of specialization.

Everything is going to get a lot more efficient when you specialize — Doing something over and over — working with the same kinds of problems or facilities repeatedly — is how you learn what people really want, and that’s how you can get to where you can anticipate problems before they occur. That makes life easier and makes your projects much more efficient.

There’s nothing wrong with these things either. If you hear people talking around the coffee pot that engineering is becoming a commodity, you’d better think long and hard about why that’s the case. I bet you’ll find that lack of specialization is at the core of your problem!