What’s in a career?

I’ve spent the past fifteen+ years working in technology, and while I never intended to work in the industry, I’m grateful that I fell into the profession at a time when falling in was good.  It’s a rare profession, in that, you can make it without a degree – or at least you could back when I started, and I suspect you still can if you get the right opportunity at the right time.  I got in during the dot com boom, when spelling the name of a particular technology correctly would often get you the job.  I started in project management, but eventually felt like I’d be a better project manager if I knew how to program, so I learned how to code, and switched direction.  Eventually, I melded the two together and worked my way into management positions.  In the early years, anything I did felt exciting, especially compared to working in a restaurant or a factory, which were the two options available to me had I stayed in the Midwest.  Occasionally, I got bored, and when that happened, I’d switch jobs and things worked out well over time.

A few years ago, I finally decided to go back to school, even though I’d already made it far enough in my career that I didn’t really need to.  It was one of those things I just wanted to do – a Bucket list sort of thing – and so I did.  Three years later, and I’m very close to finishing my Master’s degree.  In the few years I’ve been in school, I’ve worked freelance a bit and did a six-month stint working for a friend whose start-up got funded.  I took another six months to focus on my Master’s, and just over 4 months ago, I joined the workforce as a full-time employee again.  I was close enough to the finish line that I figured I could finish my Master’s while working, which has gone fine.

What I didn’t expect was the impact my Master’s program would have on me in terms of really evaluating what I want to do with my career.  Lots of people that go through the program I’m in come out changed in the end.  I read that a lot before I started, but didn’t really expect it to happen to me.  My M.A. will be in Organizational Leadership, and the focus is very much on the sociological and psychological elements of organizations and management.  It’s also a very personally focused program, meaning practically every course is designed to encourage the student to really reflect on him or herself, and look for meaning in the things we do.  I’m a thinker and I analyze things around me all the time, sometimes too much, but in any case, it was a perfect fit for me.

The problem I face now is in finding the right company to work for.  I don’t want to just work in technology to work in technology.  I want to be able to be passionate about what I do, and I don’t think that will come without finding a company I can feel passionate about.  So, I’m starting again with a short list of companies whose products and services I use and enjoy, whose philosophies are in line with my own.  I have no idea whether I will be successful in getting my foot in the door or not, but I have to think that a smart company will realize how valuable it is to have employees that already love their products.  Of course, I have to have the skills, too, but that’s not the part I’m worried about.  It’s all about getting that first introduction, that first contact, an opportunity to show your stuff.  I sent my resume to one of the places I’d really love to work for last night.  Their job listing made clear they get hundreds and hundreds of resumes for every position, and they ask people expressing interest to make themselves stand out in the email they send with their resume.  Below is the email I sent.  If this doesn’t get their attention, I’m not sure what would…

I am writing to express my hope that this email marks just the first of many conversations I will have with you.  I would like to join your team, first and foremost, because I love [Your Product], but that is not the only reason.  Your company has a unique philosophy, as I’m sure you’re already aware, but you may not know how well aligned your philosophy is with my own.  I think collaboration and open source are great things.  I believe in simple, yet powerful.  I think customers should be happy.  I think people need new things to keep them engaged for more than short periods of time.  I think people need technology to be easy or they will go find another service that makes it so.  I think people that use a free service are more than willing to pay for premium upgrades if that free service is rock solid and high quality.  [Your Product] is all of those things, and more, but I will stop here in an attempt to stay brief, as you requested in the job listing.
On to a few reasons why I may be the best person in the world for this position…
I have worked in technology for fifteen years, almost entirely on web or mobile projects or products.  I love the Internet, writing, playing pool, watching crime shows, and getting things done.  In fact, I am the best multi-tasker I know, which is one of the reasons I would be a perfect [Job Title] at [Your Company].  For more on my multi-tasking obsession, see point 3 on this blog post.  You’ll also be excited to know that I was the co-founder of a web hosting company once upon a time, so I understand what your clients want.  I have worked at a handful of start-ups, and flourish in an environment where good ideas get somewhere, without a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that suck the life out of employees.  I have been a developer, a project manager, a product manager, and a manager of all those types of people in places as diverse as a marketing agency, an insurance company, a utility company, a software consulting firm, and a hair salon.
I have attached my resume for you to review at your convenience.
In closing, I would like to add that when you read my resume, you may think I am overqualified for the [Job Title] position.  If that is your first instinct, I urge you to set aside that concern.  I am currently gainfully employed for a company that pays me a healthy salary, but I am bored out of my skull.  I want more than anything to work for a company that I can be passionate about, and I really would be an excellent [Job Title].  That said, if there are other positions for which you think I might be the right [fit], I am happy to discuss them.  Finally, you currently have only one employee that is a Wisconsin native – or at least only one that is willing to advertise himself as such.  I, too, am a Wisconsin native, and you should really employ more than one person that hails from the frozen tundra.  We bring a unique perspective, especially on meat and potatoes, squeaky cheese, and the Old Fashioned.

People don’t write about complexity

I make an effort to regularly surf other blogs, mostly on WordPress, because it’s easy and I’m lazy, but I also keep a list of blogs in Google Reader.  I hit a couple of tags regularly – Random, Rants, Writing, Musings, Life – you get the picture.  Now and then, when nothing grabs my attention, I search for more specific topics.  In a week, my final course in my Master’s program begins, and it’s not a real course – it’s a seminar, where I have to choose to write a thesis or a theoretical paper.  If I did a thesis, I would have to do some kind of study, gather data, analyze it, draw conclusions, etc., etc.  I’m not that interested in doing a study – I think it’d be difficult with no money and not enough time, so I’m leaning towards the theoretical paper.  I have a topic in mind, though I still need to come up with a more in-depth idea.  The topic is complexity theory, which I’ve written about once before.  It fascinates me to no end, so while many people dread this part of their degree program, I’m really looking forward to it.

In anticipation of kicking off my new project soon, I searched WordPress for ‘complexity theory,’ assuming many people had written about it and I might find some interesting ideas for my project.  I was wrong.  Seems there aren’t so many people writing about complexity theory, at least not in blogs, so I will have to look for further inspiration elsewhere.  I don’t know why I’m surprised I found no exciting blog posts about complexity theory – I realize it’s not a topic on the tips of everyone’s tongues as they gossip around the water cooler – but I somehow assume that absolutely anything I am interested in or need an answer to is a simple search away, and on the rare occasion where that doesn’t turn out to be true, I’m flabbergasted.  I wonder how I ever got by without the Internet.


I’m currently taking a research course.  It’s the final formal course in my Master’s degree program, and after this, I will just have to do my thesis.  In this research course, I have to design a study.  I don’t have to do the study – I just have to design it.  Which still involves tons of reading and hypothesizing and reviewing articles and writing.  I’ve chosen to study complexity science and complex adaptive systems, and how the principles of complexity may be useful when applied either directly or metaphorically to software project development activities.  This sounds spectacularly interesting to you, I’m sure.

Anyway, in order to figure out where I wanted to go with this stuff, I had to do a lot of reading on complexity to give myself a basis for the rest of the work.  I had been introduced to the concept in an earlier course, but really didn’t know about it in any depth.  One of the books I chose as a primer for myself is called Simply Complexity – a clear guide to complexity theory.  After having read the book, I can say I support the author’s assertion that it is a clear guide to complexity theory.  One of the reasons the author was successful was because he chose illustrations that were more entertaining than the core concepts alone would have been.

Quick background -you can think of agents as people, and a complex adaptive system as any group of people.  An oversimplified way to explain complex adaptive systems is that they are open systems that consist of many agents that have some dependencies upon each other, interact together, can learn based on their own memory or other kinds of feedback, and therefore, they adapt over time, causing events to emerge at the whole system level, even without any kind of external controller telling them all what to do.

A typical example might be a traffic jam.  Lots of people are trying to choose the best route to work, and they make their choices based on their memory of traffic patterns, and maybe a news report of what traffic looks like at the time they are leaving.  They make their best guess, which can only be judged right or wrong based on what everyone else out on the road chooses to do.  In that way, a traffic jam can form, consisting of a particular set of people, even though no single person coordinated the movements of all those people to get them to the places on the road at the exact times to create that particular traffic jam.  The people that chose an alternative route were “right” in this case, though they couldn’t know they would be right until they got out on the road and drove to wherever they were going.

Fairly late in the book, the author attempts to explain how various types of mathematics and science can be used to explain the way agents in a complex adaptive system behave.  He shares the results of a study that modeled human relationships and measured a virtual society’s dating habits to address the question of whether society is moving in a direction where there are fewer and fewer long-term relationships because individuals have become more and more picky about their mates over time.  Virtual people were given lists of things they liked and disliked and a simulator had them wander around meeting others who they would pair up with based on how many elements of their lists were in common.  The more they had in common, the longer they stayed together.

Each person in the population was labeled based on whether they were currently single or in a relationship and how many previous relationships they’d been in.  Someone that was never in a relationship before and was still single was labeled 0S, and someone who was in a relationship and had two prior relationships was labeled 2R, and so on.  It turns out that this labeling is what scientists studying nuclear physics do to describe radioactive decay.  An atom starts out whole (0S), having never lost any part of itself to decay, then it decays a bit (0R), then stabilizes (1S), then decays (1R), then stabilizes (2S).

It is a little sobering to try to categorize yourself this way.  If I count only serious relationships, then I am currently a 6R, but if I add in some of the questionable ones that didn’t last long, but still existed, I’d guess I’m more along the lines of a 10-12R.  Measuring your own relationships, where do you sit on the scale of radioactive decay?