DRMacIver's Notebook

Being an ideas guy

Being an ideas guy

I have a complicated relationship with the fact that I am that much maligned creature, an ideas guy.

(I'm going to use the gendered term "ideas guy" throughout because a) The stereotype of the ideas guy is very much a guy b) We don't have a good gender neutral term as a result and c) I am a guy)

I am much better at ideas than follow through. My ideal situation is to be in an environment where my main role is to consult on or suggest problems rather than do the legwork of seeing things through to completion.

This is not a popular archetype. People like me are generally seen as being selfish - wanting to do the fun bits and let other people do the hard work. It's not entirely unfair. I'm not averse to hard work, but I am averse to sustained hard work - ideally I'd work hard on a problem until I get bored of it and then hand it over to other people. Sometimes I get bored of things after a couple of days, sometimes they hold my attentionf or months, very rarely they hold my attention for years.

I will say in my defence that I've done my time in the hard work mines. My career has been an endless series of looking for places where I get to go do clever researchy things, I then come in and immediately concluded that what they needed wasn't clever research but responsible engineering and then, reluctantly, admitted that yes I could provide them with that.

I don't mind having done that. I think it's very hard to have any good ideas in a space you've not developed a solid foundation in. But I did it for ten years, and burned out, and enough is enough. This sort of thing is not what I'm for - I can do it, because I'm pretty generically competent, but it doesn't make me happy and burns me out.

It's also a poor use of my abilities, honestly. I am much, much, better at getting other people unstuck than I am at working reliably. As a result, if you add me to a team in this capacity, I probably expand the capacity of the team immensely, but if you add me to the team as one of an interchangeable set of developer roles I still make things better, but I'm just a good developer, nothing very exciting happens. I'm a far better force amplifier for other people than I am a worker on my own.

This is, I think, a major deficiency in our conception of teamwork. We treat "being a team player" as meaning being part of a homogenous group of people where you're supposed to take on the same responsibilities as everyone else. Sure, maybe you have different skills, but "I'm not able to do that work" is supposed to be the main reason to refuse work.

I don't think this really properly respects the strengths of heterogenous work, or the variation in people's individual abilities. Certainly it's not reasonable to expect to only get to do the fun work, but it's also not reasonable to to ignore your team's individual strengths and weaknesses when planning, and if someone is able to vastly improve the capabilities of others, it's better to have them doing that. Some of us are smarter than we are reliable, and trying to "fix" that will generally not result in someone who is both smart and reliable, but someone who is miserable and unmotivated and maybe if you're lucky slightly less unreliable than they otherwise would be.

I think the way out of this is partly to think about what ideas guys are for.

This notion of being a force amplifier for others is not, generally speaking, part of our typical conception of what an ideas guy does, and I think this is because we're confused about a number of things.

The first is that we assign credit too heavily based on who has the idea. The reason the ideas guy is so unpopular is that it's very attractive to people who want credit without doing any work. As a result you get a lot of glory seekers. Most of them also have shit ideas.

Ideas don't deserve none of the credit, don't get me wrong, but the people who do the work to actually execute on the idea are typically as or more important than the ideas guy that got them started.

Another is where we need ideas. I think your classic stereotypical ideas guy just comes up with an idea for a project then delegates it to other people and sits back and relaxes, or goes on to come up with another project to hand off to someone else. This is how you get the Stargate program. This is a bad use of the ideas guy, because they mostly end up creating work ungrounded in the reality of its execution.

I've been reading a bit about the history of Bell Labs recently, and one of the things that was most interesting about it was the role of AT&T in how effective Bell Labs was. Obviously they were a source of funding, which was important, but more importantly they were a source of problems. John Gertner's "The Idea Factory" describes Bell Labs as a problem-rich environment. You had rooms full of smart people, and their job was mostly to be on call when someone wanted to know how to best place telephone poles or reduce noise on a line. Bell Labs basically invented the entirety of modern computing (e.g. both the transistor and information theory came out of Bell Labs), but the thing that really made it work was that people there were doing research in response to many mundane and practical concerns.

Conveniently, almost every attempt to execute is a problem-rich environment, and it seems like it would be great to have an ideas guy responding to that - someone who you can go to get help when you're stuck, or who can proactively investigate ways to improve. You can think of this as the servant ideas guy, in analogue with servant leadership.

Something like this feels like my ideal role, or perhaps that it used to be. To a degree this is already what I do with my consulting work, although that's less embedded in the team than I would like.

I think what I want these days is some mix of servant ideas guy and classic ideas guy - I do actually want to have ideas for direction (although I need to get out of my current malaise if I'm to do that), but I need other people around and working with me to properly go in that direction.

This doesn't necessarily involve me being "in charge" - it works just as well if a bunch of people get together to mutually agree to work on the same problem - but it also doesn't involve entirely working on other people's problems like consulting or normal employment do.

Either way though, it's time to get comfortable with this as a key part of who I am, and what I need to thrive. I suspect many others need this too.