Barbel Theory Applied to a Career in Tech

Written by Azat Mardan

After reading Nassim Taleb’s great book Antifragile, I saw how one can apply the barbell theory, which he described in the book, to building a career in tech:

  • Focus 80-90% of fundamentals like algorithms, data structures, specifications (W3C), standards (ECMAScript), etc.: These concepts are less prone to changes.
  • Focus 10-20% on riskier but more promising new things which haven’t even been discovered by early adopters let alone the early majority.
  • Focus 0 on stuff in the middle

If your bet on 20% of the riskier stuff is correct, you’ll be ahead of the Rogers’ bell curve. If not, then you are still safe with your 80% in the fundamentals. Maybe you even learned something like a special pattern which can be applied to another concept or language in the future. For example, functional programming.

In my career, I followed the Barbell Theory without knowing about it. I got bachelors and masters degrees, the safest bet one can make. Then I focused on web development which is NOT very exciting but very ubiquitous and always in demand. That’s my 80%.

Then, I branched out into Node.js which was very controversial in 2011-2012. Node.js is mainstream now. Also, I started writing books which is one of the most riskier activities to do (high chance of failure).

In his book Quitter, Jon Acuff starts the narrative with advice NOT to quit a job. I agree with him 150%. It’s way better and easier to take long-term riskier and more impactful bets when you have your steady base. Your 80%. I did my writing while still holding a full-time job. That’s barbell again. Moreover, teaching in-person and online, working full-time job, and writing fed one of another. Writing and teaching made me a better developer and vice versa.

So start a project on a weekend. Pick up a new language and read learn it over the holidays. If there’s a book on the language or framework—it’s too late. IGNORE the stuff in the middle. Ignore the noise, but know about the trends, and see a big one you can jump on while still standing on a solid ground. That’s the barbell theory in action.