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Pigeonholes, engineers, and writers

3 min read

I've always envied people who have built a career around one particular skill. Career engineers, for example, have had the luxury on going deep on that one set of skills, honing their understanding of algorithms, toolsets, protocols and approaches for years. Often, they have a real love of these underlying ideas. They'll sometimes argue about which programming language is better.

I started out as a storyteller. My ambition was to go to university and study computer science and drama; something that turned out to be impossible at the time in the British system. In 1996, when I applied to go to university, my idea was that software was an opportunity to tell stories in interesting new ways. I was right, but very few other people saw it that way, and there wasn't an opportunity for me to study the art and craft of language and literature together with the art and craft of software.

So I made a pragmatic decision: I'd go down the software route, not because I loved it, but because it would probably pay me better. I don't believe that's why someone should choose an academic discipline, in an ideal world, but sometimes trade-offs must be made. (I've never gone back and studied writing and literature, but it's something I would still dearly like to do.)

I became an engineer after graduation - although I also had a website on the side that was getting millions of pageviews a day. Then I became a startup founder. And then a CTO. And then another startup founder.

I was writing thousands of words, putting together pitches and decks, speaking all over the world, having partnership conversations and leading product development - but all the while, I was still described as an engineer. It was a label that stuck.

This is a disservice to the people who have spent their life in true engineering. It's also a misdescription: I'm not a top-level engineer and could never pretend to be, but I understand the technology and how it fits into the broader narrative, and the broader social context. I can lead products well because I can understand both the engineering and the business sides. I can use human-centered design and design thinking - both journalistic processes - to de-risk businesses quickly. I can wrap it all up in a narrative, and I can use that narrative to build a community of support that snowballs, Katamari-style. It's not something that fits into a neat pigeonhole, but I think it's more interesting.

I've become really appreciative of other people who don't fit into the pigeonholes that others try and fit them in, both in work and life. Observing from the outside, the people who are really making change are multidisciplinary, often guided by an overarching mission. They're not worrking on something because they want to become the best at a particular skill, but because they want to build something that achieves a certain effect. It's the difference between trying to ace an exam on a particular subject, and trying to create something that nobody knows exactly how to grade because it uses so many different skills. That can make it more difficult to find the right job - I've often had to make jobs for myself, and when I haven't (like now), I'm drawn to collaborate with similarly multidisciplinary outsiders. But for me, it also makes for much more fulfilling work.