T-shaped people was a phrase was first coined by Tim Brown, CEO and co-founder of the design firm, IDEO. He defines the term as
The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.
I recently read the hiring manual for Valve, one of the largest and most successful privately held video game companies. (They’re the guys behind Half-Life and Dota2). In Valve’s employee handbook, they define the ideal job candidate even more succinctly as:
Both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things—the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline—the vertical leg of the T).
Unfortunately most people that I’ve met have been more “I” shaped than anything else. I’m also guilty of this. As a former engineer, I used to really enjoy the technical aspects of design and being hands-on putting a product together. However I did not understand marketing, sales, customer service, or even basic finance. This hindered my ability to see the big picture and diminished my ability to work with others on major projects.
Similarly, I talk to a lot of classmates who come from extremely strong finance and business backgrounds who want to start their own business or get into tech. These guys are all really smart and have really strong business backgrounds but have never bothered to learn how to program or even the basic intuition behind design, which is critical to communicating with the people who are building the products in the tech industry.
Likewise, I’ve also met programmers, who are really good at making software products, but are completely clueless about the basics of finance, marketing, sales, and hiring. If you want to start a successful company, you can’t expect to outsource critical areas of your business by just bringing in someone if you don’t even know the basics of that subject matter yourself.