Manufacturing guy-at-large.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

summer approaches, and the current phase of my life has begun to take some shape. my life, and direction, is largely in flux, a fact which i have respect for - and some uneasiness about.

i've been going on my share of job interviews lately. i've also been dating, and talking a lot - to friends, acquaintances, and anyone who will listen - about the recent disruptions in my life, and the tack that i have taken as a result. i talk a lot about startups and new technologies, and inevitably i'm asked (often with a touch of skepticism), "so, why do you want to work in tech?"

in february, i quit my job on short notice and packed up my life to move to new york. my immediate goal was to explore areas of the world that have, for the past five years, been largely missing from my day-to-day life. i was primed for a pivot, and put much of my energy into discovering what was out there. since i graduated from college, i have worked primarily in construction, design and manufacturing, and these areas have been highly rewarding to me. i have had the opportunity to see significant projects to completion, an experience which has enriched my sense of accomplishment, strength and self worth. i have transformed physical space. my efforts - my sweat; my mental, emotional and corporal commitment - have enabled real people to engage in real interactions. my ideas - things i dreamed up - have been transformed into objects that my contemporaries use in their daily lives.

but i have also, to some extent, sat by as my generation has explored a collective interest in new modes of experience and interaction. every time someone would remark at how cool my bicycle framebuilding business was, i couldn't help but feel that their romantic appreciation of my craft carried with it a degree of unintended condescension. my thing, as it were, was cute. regardless of the personal satisfaction i gleamed from the work i did, my craft was mostly just a mimicry of a process that has been largely unchanged for a century. put more directly, nothing i was doing was changing the world.

another of my frustrations came from the risk inherent in a career in design. early on, i realized that the bicycles i built were only marginally better than their commoditized equivalents. sure, i had an aesthetic perspective, and there certainly are framebuilders who have built successful careers by differentiating their product in interesting ways. but income distribution in design professions tends to be long-tail; one needs to be very good - or at least very lucky - to be successful. in the bicycle industry, my career prospects were generally poor. whatever direction urban transportation is heading in, custom bicycle frames will forever be a niche product, and my impression remains that the industry is just about as flooded as the market for microbrewed beer.

so, GTTFP already: i want a pivot.

i have spent a while recently thinking about what, exactly, i have liked about my career. a few points:

  1. i like being appreciated.
  2. i like being compensated.
  3. i like being a little over my head. i prefer to stay right on the edge between the things i know i don't know and the things i don't know that i don't know.
  4. i like collaborating with people who are better at what they do than i am.
  5. i like having an understanding of long-term objectives, and i like being a significant factor in the achievement of those objectives.
  6. i like working with people like myself.
  7. i like being fully responsible for the execution of a project, however large or small.
  8. i like working on a new thing that will change some part of the world.
  9. i like working in emerging markets.
  10. i like working on things that people like me want, and want to interact with intimately.
  11. i like for the product values and interests that i have to overlap significantly with those of my collaborators and our product's users.
  12. i like being rewarded for my ability to identify, assess, analyze and solve problems, and i like it when those problems require me to learn about a new area of the world.
  13. i like clear objectives - and clear metrics by which they can be judged - over aesthetic, or "gut" feelings.
  14. i like working on general purpose technologies.
  15. i like working on cross-functional teams, and having responsibilities in many categories of business

some of these items depend largely on my position in an organization and the state of the project. some are temporal and are will change as industries shift. some are my own temporary baggage and will, given enough time, become less important.

but overall, the list reflects ideas that have been simmering in my mind for a long time. and they're things i feel strongly about. and looking back on my short career, i know that i have missed a few of them completely.

my career in construction, manufacturing and design has offered me appreciation, compensation, and challenge. it has offered me opportunities to work with bright, intelligent people on projects that i could conceive of both in close and far perspective. i have been rewarded for my analysis and problem solving abilities. i have been able to exercise a broad array of skills on a day to day basis.

but i have not, for the most part, worked with my contemporaries; nor have i worked for them. i have not changed the world, or been able to implement - and live by - the kinds of quantitative metrics that i would prefer be the measure of my project's success. in critical ways, my career has split me from my generation and the activities it values. and despite the fact that my career has offered me many opportunities to work with intelligent, interested people, it has more often put me in a place where the mere mention of wikipedia draws silence.

in short: i don't want to be the guy who knows how to attach a picture to your email.

i would prefer to be the guy who emails you to ask why the jQuery code he borrowed shows popups with 90% opacity in one context and 100% in others - and then figures it out on his own :). i want to be the guy who struggles to restore the firmware on his inherited XBee. i want to be the guy who doesn't really understand why you like Vesper so much. i want to be the guy who quizzes you about whether you would ever accept SLA parts as everyday objects.

it'll likely be a little while before the shape of my pivot's arc becomes defined. the list above represents what i know i don't know, and i'm still working out the boundary of that region and optimizing where i want to be in it. but i'm working on it.

  1. i prefer Paul Graham's excellent definition:

    A startup is a company designed to grow fast...For a company to grow really big, it must (a) make something lots of people want, and (b) reach and serve all those people."
  2. some months prior i had indicated my intention to move on, and i had been in communication with my boss regarding a six-month transition schedule. but as these things go, our interests were not aligned. my departure was a surprise to some, but not to my immediate counterparts or anyone in upper management. nevertheless, this specific aspect of the arc i now find myself following is one which continues to impose itself in my mental and emotional space.

  3. i did not consider myself to be a physical person until well into high school, when i began working - during spring and summer breaks - as a laborer for my father's construction company. the act of busting one's ass for eight or ten hours was powerful, and transformed the way i thought about my body and my level of toughness.

  4. even after i became fairly proficient, and even if i kept my living expenses low, it was essentially impossible for me to sell a bicycle for less than $2k. at that price, even my closest friends couldn't justify buying from me, and i took to admitting that most taiwanese made bikes were, really, just fine.

  5. cf. my recent post about Adam Davidson's fantastic nytimes piece.

  6. according to the Brewer's Association, the number of US breweries has gone from just 89 in 1980 to over 2400 in 2012. cf. also this beautiful graphic (taken from the same Brewer's Association data) from the New Yorker showing brewing industry change in 2012 by state.

  7. "Get to the fucking point." see Brad Feld on the subject.

  8. cf. the following excerpt from MGI's report on Disruptive Technologies:

    General-purpose technologies also tend to shift value to consumers, at least in the long run. This is because new technologies eventually give all players an opportunity to raise productivity, driving increased competition that leads to lower prices. General-purpose technologies can also enable — or spawn — more technologies. For example, steam power enabled the locomotive and railroads, and the printing press accelerated learning and scientific discovery. General-purpose technologies can take many forms — including materials, media, and new sources of energy — but they all share the ability to bring about transformative change.
  9. i reject the argument that the hobbies popularized by greater hipsterdom, e.g. beermaking, are genuinely valued; ultimately, society just isn't willing to pay a brewer the same salary that they'll pay a software developer.

  10. i have, after all, fixed my footnote opacity problem; i've got a plan for how to troubleshoot my XBees; i've got (and have mostly determined not to use) Vesper; and i'll go ahead and assert that most people don't want SLA parts on their desk, and won't change their minds about that anytime soon.