The excruciating pain of being a neo-generalist 

We are restless, not just because we are bored, but because we want to do big things, and we can’t seem to devote enough time to be as laser focused on anything for several years as society demands from us.

Source: The excruciating pain of being a neo-generalist | Kiko Suarez, PhD | Pulse | LinkedIn


Words in the works

A lot has been happening over the past couple of weeks, quite a few things I want to write about and ideas to explore. It’s just been a very busy couple of weeks, and all of my writing (and coding and much of my thinking) has been aimed at my day job. You know, the one that pays the bills.

Here’s a list of drafts I’ve created in the past two weeks or so that I’m working on in bits and pieces and will hopefully start pushing out in the next couple of days. Or maybe over the Christmas slowdown. (“Christmas slowdown”? Yeah, that’ll happen :)

  • Layers of abstraction and the cost of convenience
  • Passion and Warfare in St. Louis – an evening with Steve Vai
  • If everyone gave him $20
  • From Android to iPhone
  • Some notes and thoughts on WordCampUS 2017
  • Accidents of Phenotype
  • The work of art (as opposed to “a work of art”)

And one I haven’t started yet that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years and was brought to the front earlier tonight, that will likely be called What Capital Wants  (see Capitalism is Skynet for a hint what that might be about).

But right now I need to put together some notes on a proposed talk about crowdsourcing innovation for JiveWorld 2017.

Imagine no employers, no employees too

In my June 2008 post The evolution of the employee-employer relationship I wrote the following:

The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.

This was in response to some things I had read at the time and was something of a follow-up to another post from April 2004, in which I wrote:

I’ve long believed that the prevalence of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

Though I haven’t written much (at all?) about this particular aspect of thinking in bits since that 2008 post, the ideas are never far from my the front of my mind. It is hard not to think along these lines as I wonder about the future of work. Not just for me, but for my kids, and for the people with whom I work every day. Even within an organization, there is a certain amount of this, where HR acts as the “agent” and the employee moves about inside the organization based as much on their own needs and desires as the organization. (If, that is, they are lucky enough to work in an organization that “gets it”.)

b9fhxmdwI closed that 2004 post with the thought, “This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

Some interesting questions that Stephen DeWitt is working on answering. Here’s a description of what DeWitt is doing as CEO of Work Market, from the article/interview A Total Rethink of How Work Should Work:

In short, Work Market hopes to instrument a wholesale rethinking of how work gets done in our society — from a world of traditional corporate employment to a world where every skilled worker can act as an enterprise of one.

Or, to look at it another way, where an organization consists primarily of management and the workforce is “on demand”. Where the focus is not on building, growing, and sustaining a large organization but on doing the work, creating value, getting shit done. Where each member of the team can contribute their expertise – whether it be financial, management, technical – and all benefit from the arrangement. On their own terms.

More flash team than gig economy, where the labor is not a commodity but where each participant competes based on skills, past projects, reputation, etc etc. All those things that in the past would have led to promotions and raises and bonuses will now lead to more work, higher rates, and more choice in the work you accept.

Obviously, there is much more to it or it would already be the norm. There are examples of where it is working and organizations who are using it, but it will be many years before it is more widespread. And, of course, the transition will not come without pain, without costs, without some collateral damage to the workforce and organizations who are not able, or interested, in making the change.

Are you ready to be an “enterprise of one”?

A world without work is coming – it could be utopia or it could be hell 

Preparing for a world without work means grappling with the roles work plays in society, and finding potential substitutes. First and foremost, we rely on work to distribute purchasing power: to give us the dough to buy our bread. Eventually, in our distant Star Trek future, we might get rid of money and prices altogether, as soaring productivity allows society to provide people with all they need at near-zero cost.

Source: A world without work is coming – it could be utopia or it could be hell | Ryan Avent | Opinion | The Guardian

The Neo-generalist and functional resumes

It has been many years since I’ve really given my resume much thought. I have, of course, kept it (and my LinkedIn profile) up to date in terms of my actual job, and mostly up to date in terms of the work I’ve done in the course of those jobs. But it is a straight ahead chronological resume, following the standard (if there is such a thing) configuration of most recent job first and going back to the last x number of jobs and listing various responsibilities and accomplishments in those jobs. Not necessarily the work I’ve accomplished, but more the “important” tasks I completed. (The full version currently weighs in at a solid 7 pages.)

A key factor in my neglect of the resume is the fact that I’ve worked in the same environment for all of my adult career, and that type of resume is how you are judged, the primary consideration when looking for a new position (and how the company for whom you work demonstrates its range of skills to potential customers). A focus on what you’ve done in the past, with a demonstrated progression of skills and responsibility within a (generally) narrow specialization, not to mention specific education milestones and certifications specific to that narrow field.

My recent online reading (and writing) and involvement with various meetup groups, communities, and organizations (including a nascent startup) here in St. Louis and around the world (online) got me thinking about this resume, and how I present myself and what I do as opposed to simply what I’ve done). And the books I’ve been reading this summer, including Rise of the DEO, Service Design for Business, Managing for Happiness, and Liminal Thinking have got me thinking about what exactly it is that I do do. But it was a book I haven’t read yet (bought, dispatched, not yet delivered) that really got me thinking about what I do, and how to explain it.

From the back cover of The Neo-generalist:

Have you encountered difficulties describing what you do to other people?  Yep. 

Have you ever labelled yourself in order to be understood?  Double yep. 

And even more to the point from the Preface (posted on the book’s website):

Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, our society has remained in thrall to the notion of hyperspecialism. This places constraints on the ways in which we are educated, the work we do, the people we socialise with, how we are recruited, how our career progression is managed, how we label ourselves for the benefit of others’ understanding. To counter and challenge these social norms, the neo-generalist has to learn how to give expression to their more generalist tendencies, even as they practise various specialisms, guiding others as they do so.

Which is exactly the conundrum in which I find myself.

To give you an idea here is a list of some of the things I’ve done through the years, in (not reverse) chronological order:

  • Responsible for the operation of a 24/7/365 communications facility in support of mission critical operations, including designing of communications networks, maintenance of equipment, and training of personnel and the periodic (several times a year) requirement to shut it all down, pack it up, drive it to a farmer’s field somewhere in Europe and set it all back up again. And, of course, return it to the buildings.
  • Designed and executed logistics for the upgrade of all equipment in a communications organization, including replacement of vehicles and communications equipment (which involved a range of activities including inventory and inspection of old equipment, disposition of old equipment (including rail and other transport manifests), inventory and inspection of new equipment, arranging a place where all this could happen, and making sure that all the paper work was correct at the end of it all.
  • Chief executive of a communications company of 150+ people, responsible for providing mobile network services for a customer organization consisting of mobile operation centers operating in unforgiving physical locations. In addition to the network design, maintenance, and training operations, responsible for housing and feeding of company members as well as all financial aspects of the organization. (Best job I ever had, probably the best I will ever have.)
  • Test officer for mobile and man-portable satellite communications terminals.
  • Assistant project manager responsible for the fielding of manpack tactical satellite communications radios to the US Army. Included all aspects of coordination, planning logistics, coordinating training, and ensuring the receiving units were satisfied with the products. (Basically the other end of the job 2 above; I learned a lot from job 2 that went into my success here.)
  • Assistant CIO responsible for implementation of Public Key Infrastructure within the organization, including distribution of required hardware, development of appropriate policies and guidance, and execution of training.
  • Systems engineer including
    • Develop requirements for next generation tactical network communication systems
    • Develop operational concepts for the next- next generation tactical network communications system when the next generation system was deemed not next generation enough
    • Refine operational requirements, act as intermediary between requirements creators and vendors designing systems to meet the requirements
    • Review and approve (or not) designs at preliminary design reviews, system design reviews, etc.
    • Work on the edge of the system, integrating with the next- next- next generation system, ensuring the interests of the program for which I worked and the end user were considered in the development of the other system
    • Integration of systems onto platforms for which they were not designed, involving coordination between many different parties while keeping in mind the desired end state.

I think you get the idea. Like most people, especially most people in the Army, I started out in the jobs that my career field said I should start in. While I didn’t have a choice in the job, I did have a choice in the work. As my career progressed, especially after leaving the Army, I did have a choice of job, and often based my decision based on the type of work I’d be able to do. And, as importantly, how I’d be able to do it.

Though I didn’t have the words or terminology for it back then, I realize now that I’ve always had a human-centered approach to my jobs. Although getting the job done was always important, how it got done was very important to me. Though not to everyone. A story from my first job….

On my unit’s first deployment to a field exercise after I had joined, one of the comms links was just not coming in. It was a training exercise and so, naive me, I was using it for training. What I didn’t realize is that others (my boss and his boss) saw it not as a training exercise for me and my team but for them. (This is, if you are familiar, the curse of the Signal Corps.) So when my boss came out to the rig and saw me in the door, he started chewing on me before he even arrived. “Why are you out here, why aren’t you in their making this work!!!” I had no words except, “This is [her] job, she needs to do it. Besides, I don’t know how to make this work.”

When I was in the Army, it was easy to tell people what I do – “I’m an Army Signal Officer.” Once I left the Army, it was a bit less straightforward. “Systems Engineer” is no help to most people, and the tasks I was performing weren’t any better at getting across what I did. So, for the most part, I was “in computers”. Even now, that is pretty much what most people think I do, though it might be a bit more expansive, “He does corporate IT.”

Which is kind of true. My current job title is Solution Designer (Enterprise Social Networks) and Community Strategist, whatever the hell that means. Again, a lot of tasks I perform on a daily basis, but listing those doesn’t really get across what I do, nor how I do it.

Which gets me back around to neo-generalism. Though I haven’t yet read the book (dispatched, not delivered), what I’ve read from the authors leads me to believe I am a neo-generalist. Which makes sense, because I’ve very often found myself acting as both generalist (connecting the dots) and specialist (building the dots). The chronological resume format doesn’t – can’t – really convey this to the casual reader typical hiring manager / resume screener. Which gets us, finally, around to the functional resume.

Nearly everything I’ve read about functional resumes, as I’ve been thinking about and doing research for revamping mine, paints them as a last resort, something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. As I’ve gone through this process, though, I’ve come to realize that this is because most people look at jobs, at work, in terms of specialization. That if you don’t have a good cohesive chronological narrative of tasks, there must be something wrong with you.

And, to be clear, if you want a job that builds on a specific specialization, it is probably a good idea to have a chronological resume with some good details on what you’ve done.

But I’m starting to think that for me, and for other neo-generalists who are interested as much in how they work as the tasks they perform, the work they do and not just the job they have, a functional resume may be the way to go.

tl;dr I’m going to update my resume, and it is going to be a functional resume.


The Age of Social Transformation (Drucker, 1995)

This is true whether the knowledge worker commands advanced knowledge, like a surgeon, or simple and fairly elementary knowledge, like a junior accountant. In either case it is the knowledge investment that determines whether the employee is productive or not, more than the tools, machines, and capital furnished by an organization. The industrial worker needed the capitalist infinitely more than the capitalist needed the industrial worker–the basis for Marx’s assertion that there would always be a surplus of industrial workers, an “industrial reserve army,” that would make sure that wages could not possibly rise above the subsistence level (probably Marx’s most egregious error). In the knowledge society the most probable assumption for organizations–and certainly the assumption on which they have to conduct their affairs–is that they need knowledge workers far more than knowledge workers need them.

The Age of Social Transformation