Issue no. 0015
“In a memorable, extemporaneous work of performance art in the middle of the HR department’s open-plan workspace, he had explained that work of a routine, predictable nature could and should be embodied in computer programs. If that proved too difficult, it should be outsourced to humans far away. If it was somehow too sensitive or complicated for outsourcing, then “you people” (meaning the employees of the HR department) needed to slice it and dice it into tasks that could be summed up in job descriptions and advertised on the open employment market. Floating above all of that, however, in a realm that was out of the scope of “you people,” was “weird stuff.” It was important that the company have people to work on “weird stuff.”
Neal Stephenson, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.”
My sister, a doctor, has no idea why anyone pays me money for my time. I, however, have an exact idea of what she gets paid to do1. It's much harder to classify "oh I take random projects that executives don’t want to do”.
I’m annoyed that when people will ask "what exactly is it you do around here?" and I won't be able to give a clear answer. People will ask “where do you work?”, and they won’t know where it is2. Friends won’t understand. Their parents certainly won’t3. It probably doesn’t serve me well on dating apps.
This goes against the social training that pushes toward categorization. Most of our social technology is creates cogs in the machine that are standard shapes and sizes. A third year biglaw associate is a third year biglaw associate, and while lawyers probably have intense arguments about whether Skadden or S&C is currently cooler4, those fights are internal to the guild. Every bigtech engineer seems to be solely focused on making L(N+1).
Illegibility makes it hard for other people to know where you fall in the pecking order, which is terrifying for most people.
Another thing is it’s surprisingly easy for people in relatively illegible positions to seem more competent than they are. The distracting smooth talker and the person holding everything together are maybe distinguishable in a meeting, if you have enough context to identify the bullshit. It's rather harder to tell on Slack, let alone in an interview. People can get away with solely adding half-thought comments to Google docs for a very long time, as long as they occasionally do it around 9pm.
The high context, difficult to classify work is illegible by nature. There is variance in illegibility. Measuring support tickets per week closed, or sales quota attainment, is easy. Making a chaotic project go less chaotically than it would’ve otherwise is a lot harder to objectively measure, though people at the ground level usually know who was helpful and who was not.
The people who work on special projects6 are usually unsung, sometimes heroes. They work hard and few have heard of them. There is a clannish quality. People who have done it immediately click, and people who have not have their eyes glaze over.
People describe special projects as wearing multiple hats7 or a SWAT team, but in my experience it's more like wearing a red shirt at an understaffed Target. The cash registers are down, Glenda has the flu, and someone shit in the dressing room.
Part of my journey has been learning to embrace and accept the illegibility. If most of the company doesn't know what I do, that's fine. But every time someone external asks me what I do, I debate whether to give a Starbucks job8 to avoid the conversation9.
It’s a job unlikely to get a tick-tock promotion every year to put on linkedin. There are few opportunities to empire build. But if I can demonstrate to the people who matter that I can get difficult things done, that's it. If my teammates want to work together again, that's it. If I'm proud of what I've accomplished, that's it.
Type stuff into Epic ;)
Now that I’ve conned my way into some fairly successful organizations, I instead get to bathe in the warm glow of the halo effect, at least among fellow startup people.
An under-appreciated factor in startup recruiting is how much mom and dad want you to work at Google, and they may even think it affects your marriage prospects.
I assume they have contests to see who has the best-polished shoes, or something.
PC does CS?
There is not a 1:1 relationship between people with the title and people with the activity.
What is this, TF2?
Frappucinno for Cari, Carol, Karen?
This is also exactly the problem I have when someone asks me where I’m from in San Diego, and I need to get a better sense of whether they actually know San Diego at all or whether they’re just asking if I was born at SeaWorld.