Foxes and Hedgehogs

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing”. Isaiah Berlin used that as quote as the basis for his famous essay in which he used this as a framework for dividing writers and thinkers into two categories.

So with apologies to both Archilochus and Isaiah Berlin, I’ll steal this as a framework for categorizing technologists today.

In my career I’ve worked with some software guys who were definitely hedgehogs. One was a programmer I worked with named Sam who knew more about the Perl programming language than anyone else in the world – probably more than the guy at Unisys who developed it. When I worked with Sam in 1994, Perl was the ubiquitous glue that made web applications possible so it was a very in-demand skill. Today, pretty much nobody uses Perl. Except Joe, who is still marketing himself as an freelance Perl expert. Sam’s a hedgehog.

Another friend of mine got his Computer Science degree in the 1980’s, and prides himself on how many different programing languages he’s used in his career. He’s more of a fox.

At Tivix, we are definitely biased toward foxes. It’s such a fast-changing landscape today that the technology tools that we use two years from now will almost certainly be different from the tools we will be using two years from now. Foxes will be able to adapt.

Clients hire Tivix in order to solve problems. And you can’t create innovative solutions without knowing the full range of tools available. Maslow made the famous observation that if the only tool you know is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Hedgehogs know their hammers. Foxes know all the tools.

In fact, at Tivix we think about this a lot in our hiring. We often interview applicants who have recently completed one of these “code academies” that are very popular these days – usually an 10-12 week intensive program to learn coding. By necessity these academies are focused on one particular technology stack – Ruby on Rails, for example. And so these people come out of the program as young hedgehogs – they only know one thing.

By contrast, when we hire someone out of a full university engineering program they probably spent 75% of their curriculum learning the fundamentals of engineering – the process by which successful things are designed and built – and maybe 25% of their study was learning the syntax of particular programming languages. These people tend to be foxes. They know a lot of things and want to learn more.

There is plenty of room in the world for both foxes and hedgehogs, of course. But for us as a technology consulting firm we like doubling-down on foxes.