What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

There were two good posts on careers in the blogosphere recently. Ross Mayfield advises future entrepreneurs in a piece entitled “Budding Entrepreneurship.” I liked all of his points, but my favorites were:    (15C)

  • Change your major.    (15D)
  • Take responsibility beyond your years.    (15E)
  • Have fun with failure.    (15F)
  • Do different.    (15G)
  • Be a businessperson.    (15H)

Alex Pang offers a much different, much more personal take in his essay, “Journeyman: Getting Into and Out of Academe.” Alex’s post resonated strongly with me, but before I talk about his essay, I first have to commemorate this moment. We haven’t actually crossed paths physically before (as far as I know; we both happen to be frequent patrons of Cafe Borrone, so it may have happened), but we’ve crossed paths spiritually in many ways, and this will mark the first time we cross paths online.    (15I)

I studied History of Science in college and have continued to pursue my interests in that field in small ways. One of those was an extension school class at Stanford I took in 1998. The class was on postmodernism, but Tim Lenoir, who taught the class, soon learned of my other interests and showed me a project he was involved with. It was called the MouseSite, and it was an online oral history of the mouse (the device, not the rodent). Alex was also involved with that project, and his name stuck with me because his middle name is Korean.    (15J)

Fast forward five years. I accidentally discovered his blog several months ago via GeoURL, and I’ve been enjoying his entries ever since. (I’ve bookmarked at least two of his past entries with the intention of blogging about them, but never got around to doing so.)    (15K)

I didn’t follow the same career path Alex did, but I did some of the same soul-searching that he describes in his essay. I have always loved scholarship, and to this day, I long for the days I used to spend lost in the stacks at the library, taking pleasure in all of the things I didn’t know. As brilliant and as diverse and as intellectual as the Bay Area is, it still does not come close to the experience I had in college of being immersed in scholarship and surrounded by scholars.    (15L)

The flip-side of this is that I’ve also always been interested in entrepreneurship and social change, neither of which are commonly associated with academia. Resolving this schizophrenia has not been easy. Pang suggests that the institutional language (at least in academia) is so narrow, we don’t even know how to think or talk about careers that deviate at all from the “path.”    (15M)

I chose to work in the “real world” and pursue my scholarly interests on the side. This was possible from the beginning because Jon Erickson — the editor-in-chief at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, my first employer, and a good friend — strongly encouraged this. As a curious side note, one of my responsibilities at DDJ was putting together its special issues on software careers, which included writing editorials. Of the five that I wrote, four were about the importance of spreading your wings and extending your learning outside of your given field. My favorite was a piece entitled, “Reading, ‘Riting, and R-Trees.”    (15N)

I loved my work and the people at DDJ, but I eventually left because it only took me 80 percent of where I wanted to go. The boom made it a great time to explore, which I did as an independent consultant for four years. Then the boom became the bust, and I had to start thinking seriously again about what I wanted to do.    (15O)

I did two things simultaneously: I applied to a few Ph.D. programs in History of Science and I started Blue Oxen Associates. I did the latter with the belief that my (and other academically-oriented people’s) skills and interests were valuable in convergent ways and that there was an opportunity to create something that took advantage of this. I was directly inspired by organizations like Institute for the Future (which currently employs Alex).    (15P)

Last spring, a few weeks before we threw our launch party in San Francisco, I received an acceptance letter from one of the programs to which I applied. I decided not to go back to school, a decision that was more gut-wrenching than most people probably realize. Blue Oxen was progressing the way I had hoped it would progress, and a lot of people at that point had begun to jump on the bandwagon. I couldn’t give up on the vision at that point, and more importantly, I couldn’t give up on the people who supported me and were counting on me.    (15Q)

We’re still progressing, but we’re also still several years away from my larger vision for the company. I probably shouldn’t admit this here, given how I rant about being action-oriented and changing the world, but part of that vision has me sitting happily in a corner of the library, following some obscure and fascinating train of thought, and then joining fellow researchers afterwards for coffee and speculation about the life, the universe, and everything.    (15R)