Oligodendrocytes and astrocytes are macroglial cells of the vertebrate central nervous system. These cells have diverse roles in the maintenance of neurological function. In the embryo, the genetic mechanisms that underlie the specification of macroglial precursors in vivo appear strikingly similar to those that regulate the development of the diverse neuron types. The switch from producing neuronal to glial subtype-specific precursors can be modelled as an interplay between region-restricted components and temporal regulators that determine neurogenic or gliogenic phases of development, contributing to glial diversity. Gaining insight into the developmental genetics of macroglia has great potential to improve our understanding of a variety of neurological disorders in humans.