Manufacturing guy-at-large.

charlie o'donnell on careers

Added on by Spencer Wright.

this afternoon i attended a talk about career paths.  it was given at General Assembly  by Charlie O'Donnell, of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, an early seed venture capital fund.  i found it highly engaging - O'Donnell really pumped me up for a full three hours - and i wanted to put my thoughts in writing here.

O'Donnell's basic message - which i won't, of cours, do justice here - was one that you can't help but encounter these days.  first, figure out what you want to do; make it fairly specific.  next, become an expert in it.  and create content, All. The. Time.  put yourself out there however you can, and the thing you want will end up coming to you.

O'Donnell approaches the subject in a way that is less self-help than The Landmark Forum, less doe-eyed than Malcolm Gladwell, and less gushy than Gary Vaynerchuk.  and moreover, i tend to be a defender (albeit a sometimes hesitant one) of all of those.  The Forum, despite its cultishness, is at the least a great source of perspective on how fucked up *everyone* is; better yet, i found it to be a powerful, if somewhat troubling, experience.  the worst thing i can say about Gladwell is that he makes obvious-and-yet-totally-bizarre arguments about how putting in five years of full-time work (or, if you prefer, 416 straight days) on a subject will make anyone into an expert; on the other hand, he also pointed your truly towards Harvard's highly disturbing Project Implicit, which has done a lot to inform my idea of my own racial impartiality.  and Vaynerchuk, in spite (or because) of his ebullience, makes a good case for pushing lo-fi content for the sake of pushing content.

O'Donnell comes from a totally different place than the sources above, and gives totally practical advice.  like any reasonable person, he's short on promises: he states at the beginning that he's good at getting someone a job a year from now, as opposed to a week from now.  he goes on to recommend a diversion from the standard "paint the world with your resume" model, advocating instead that you reverse engineer your career.  this basically involves writing a list of job requirements for the position you want, and then getting them done.  which, when you consider (as O'Donnell says) that most young companies use "x years experience required" as a proxy for some number of job skills, isn't at all an impossible task.

like Vaynerchuk (and basically anyone with a head on their shoulders), O'Donnell insists that driven people should create content incessantly: 

i've been blogging for nine years now, and nine years from now, you will wish you had a nine-year old blog. 

he also talks convincingly about taking on consultation work in lieu of full-time employment (debunking, in the process, the notion that consultants must be more expert than employees; after all, consider whether companies should be committing long term to non-experts without trying them out on a limited basis first), and about productizing your contract work.  offering an hourly rate - however modest - to a company with limited resources is like offering to blow a hole - however modest - in the hull of a seaworthy boat (his analogy).  instead, he suggests that consultants work on a per-project basis, and structure those projects in such a way that the results - and expenditures - can be easily quantified.

O'Donnell also has interesting ideas about skating where the puck is going.  he notes that if your goal is to be, for example, a top tier UX designer, then you'll always be behind the curve if all you do is learn what the top tier UX designers know.  he argues instead that one should aim to learn what questions the top tier UX designers are asking, as that will provide real insight into the direction that the industry is headed, and will present real opportunities in one's career.

lastly, O'Donnell touched on something that i'm aware i haven't fully grasped how to display in my own career search: the ability to adapt to a shifting landscape.  growing companies need people who are able to grow, learn, and sometimes pivot, and it's important that individuals find ways to express that i am somebody who will have future knowledge.  i think this cannot be understated: knowing what's best suited for today's marketplace is great for today, but i want to be someone who is great for always.  when i consider career opportunities, i am looking for fields where the ability to learn is a key requirement; i must, in turn, find ways to express my ability to learn new things.


my own enthusiasm for the think market (i.e. the marketplace of ideas, books, and speakers ranging from self-help to self-empowerment to bizdev to behavioral economics) is, i would say, higher than most of my demographic.  regardless, i will gladly pay my $34 to spend a couple hours on a friday afternoon listening to a VC talk about how to get the job you want.  part of this has to do with my own place at the moment (viz., i don't have a full time job), but mostly i think it's just my disposition.  i like thinking strategy, and i like thinking self determination, and i like thinking that the only obstacle between where i am and where i can be is myself, and i like finding ways to make myself a non-obstacle.

since i stopped working on bicycle frames, i've learned a lot about what it is i want out of my career.  i like working with systems, and the bicycle world lacks the kinds of standardization that really excites me; it's very ad hoc.  i enjoy home design and architectural ergonomics, but the construction world is highly disorganized, and i have had a difficult time fitting into the contractor/tradesman structure.

when people ask what i have been (this is after they've asked what i do, to which i have taken to replying with "yeah, exactly"), i tell them that i've been an industrial/physical product designer (the phrase "robot doors" often pops up as well, but that's a different conversation).  when they ask what i want to do, i talk about the internet of things, home automation, and consumer electronics.  but the fact is that i'm figuring it out.  i genuinely enjoy learning, and i like keeping myself somewhere over my head (...that feeling of being good at what you do, but not being quite good enough, but knowing that you could be...).  i like being an early adopter, and i like having (and expressing) my somewhat-original opinions about what the world will be like.  and i want to be able to shape that.  having a vision of your world, and having the tools to make that vision come to life - at least a little bit - is a powerful and fulfilling experience.  

the hard part is knowing what my world will be.  when i was in college, my world was the campus cycling community.  i was plugged into it, and i had a real ability to shape it - and also, inevitably, to be shaped by it.  after i graduated, my world was a fifty year old building, and i shaped the hell out of it.  but so did my plumber, and his team of slackers who would show up late and spout off racist slurs at work - but who i was deeply dependent on for all of two years, an arrangement which is still troubling to recall.  when i was building bicycle frames, my world was smaller yet; my business was an extension of myself, and it suffered with my inability to engage with the broader community, which i felt increasingly detached from.  the chance to shape one's world comes with the danger that one's world begins to look like oneself, and when i shut down TCD, i began to finally process that lesson. 

of course, one doesn't always have that chance.  most recently, my work at RWD allowed me the chance to shape a project with totally new and powerful tools, but my ability to use those tools as i would prefer was limited by my position, and by the structure of the project.  i recognize now that i navigated my place there in ways that i would not repeat; at the same time, the project that i was shaping was troubled in ways that i could never hope to change, regardless of my tactics and abilities.  in the end, it became evident to me that no amount of sticking with my job would get me any closer to the career i wanted.  and i left. 

pivoting is tricky.  especially if all you know is that the path you're on isn't the right one. 


my path will play itself out, and i continue to not be overly worried about it - aside from staying in on a friday to bill for some freelance work, research a dozen topics, sift through my Pocket queue, and turn out some lo-fi content.  if anyone has any thoughts to share, i'm all ears.