The T-Shaped Employee – An Update

The T-Shaped Employee – An Update

A few years ago I wrote an article about being a T-Shaped Tester. It seemed to resonate with many people who expanded on that post with testers of all different shapes and sizes. In reality, it wasn’t really an article just about testers, the T-Shaped idea (originated by Ideo) applies to any role in the business.


I still like the T-Shape model to describe the modern employee, but also the role of management.

One thing I spotted as I went through my career as an Engineering Manager was the way in which the nature of each role changed as the market shifted, our own expectations of people rose and as people pushed the boundaries of their own role.

A common thing many assume with the T-Shaped idea is that it’s static. I don’t think it is. It’s always in flux.

The core skills (the main vertical part of the T) expand and grow and morph over time. What was once a set of core skills is no longer enough. More skills are needed.

The additional capabilities (the horizontal part of the T) also changes as new tech, new idea and new departments form. Many of these additional capabilities merely become core skills. This is a good thing.

T-Shaped employee picture

I will use the role of Scrum Master to explain a little more.

The core skills of a Scrum Master 10 years ago may have been a general knowledge of Scrum (or other framework), an ability to run the ceremonies and experience of working with product owners on backlog maintenance etc. (many people still hire for these sorts of skills).

Today the expectations (at least for me) are that scrum masters are experts in communication, can facilitate very difficult meetings (like a 5 Whys, or heated prioritisation meeting), are experienced at improving cross functional processes (with people who don’t always like to change), are tough but fair and are disciplined in following the process.

Within your own company the role will morph and change with the technology, demands and changing business needs. As more Scrum Masters with new skills enter the team the emphasis of management should be to share those skills with the wider team, thereby removing single points of failure, but also bringing the team skill level up even further.

As the expectations for the role increase, others doing that same role must keep up. A managers job is to help them, support them, give feedback and encourage them to keep up with the rising bar. If they don’t keep up, a managers job is also to have tough conversations about performance.

For some people this constant need to grow can be painful and unwelcome. If you hire the right people they’ll embrace it and see it as valuable, for both their career now and their employability in the future. For managers this aspect of their role can be daunting – so they avoid it. It’s why weak management will unlikely lead to agile. Agile requires discipline and growth – managers are responsible for creating the right conditions for this to happen.

As someone’s core skills expand, grow and morph so too does the main part of the T. So too does the need for more additional capabilities. One thing I saw often was additional capabilities becoming core skills (presenting, process improvement). For example, as more Scrum Masters became really good at presenting (something I actively encourage all my team to learn how to do) this no longer remains an additional capability and instead merely becomes a core skill for everyone.

The T-Shaped model works when explaining how roles must grow and change (which is why the dreaded job description is often a waste of time). The T-Shaped model is a useful model to explain how the market shifts and how the bar keeps rising in your company (or not). It is also a useful model to explain an important aspect of a managers role. Your goal as a manager is to expand the core skills of your team, and bring in additional capabilities that make sense for that person and role.

And this is an important point. As much as I believe core skills should expand and others should keep up, it’s also important to balance this with the needs, strengths and desires of your people. It doesn’t make sense to create a team who are all alike. Diversity is to be embraced, but some core skills should be across the board as the role increases.

If you’re hiring people right now with the same skill-set and expectations as you were 10 years ago I think you’ve failed as a manager. The skills required now should be very different if you’ve talked to people about their performance, asked for more, evolved the processes and methodologies and if the business is growing and changing.

I strongly believe that good management is about improving the capability of the business by helping people improve their own capabilities. The T-Shaped Model helps to articulate this. It’s a useful way to explain what management should be doing – helping people develop in their core skills and additional capabilities.

Of course, all models are wrong, it’s just some are more useful than others. I still rely on the T-Shaped model – it’s an actively changing model that explains what I believe managers should be trying to achieve, and what individuals should strive for. I’ve certainly found it helpful in my career.