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Getting My Stories Right – Career Repositioning

Everything’s in flux! To me, this is the most interesting sort of time in my career. I’ve made several successful transition leaps—print to webmaster. Webmaster to SEO. And now SEO to some yet-unnamed but more important evolution of my career—a culmination of everything. What is it called? I’m not precisely sure. I’m drawn towards some sort of soup-to-nuts tour de force marketing technologist. “MT”-alone sounds—I don’t know—empty. I need something to say I’m the architect and the programmer—the doer! But for lack of anything better, I’ll probably stick with MT.

I’ll tell you one thing. It’s not going to be social media. Being popular on line should be a side effect of the other hopefully brilliant things you’re doing—and not an end-in-itself. Everyone and their mother is jumping on the social media bandwagon. Literally! Is your mother a social media guru yet? And what is social media, anyway? Blah, blah, blah echo chamber. Not interested. Like public relations before it, the rules are fuzzy, very personality-driven, and has a low barrier-to-entry. But ask one of them to set up their own web service—and silence.

In other words, social media is a great place to plant a flag in a new career where a lot of credentials aren’t really required. It’s heavy overtones of the endless parade of marketing gurus and self-help books. With the rise of Google+ I myself am tempted to become an authority on becoming an authority. It’d be a great way to breath a few more years of relevancy into my SEO-career. But I must resist! I feel vaguely contemptuous at the mere thought—maybe the aftertaste of SEO.

Instead, I’ve got a pretty good idea where I’m going—if not what it’ll be called. Right now at my place of employ, we’re labeling it “internal projects”. It’s work that’s not quite ready to be billed against clients, and not in the critical path of productivity enough to go to the IT department or even the normal often necessary but sometimes time-consuming scoping process. Instead, the benefit of these types of things are only realized if you act fast and hit that window of opportunity. But you have to be at the peek-of-your-game to deliver quality and speed in marketing endeavors that require using technology in new ways.

The biggest challenge right now repositioning myself for this is forcing myself to regularly get into “the zone” and actually be at my peek. I need to ensure that what I’m working on is more interesting than anything else I could be doing. In have to care. Ideas have to rapidly become proof-of-concepts, rapidly become prototypes, and perhaps the prototypes be ready as completely viable production instances.

So, what’s this type work look like? Well, I can put it in terms of what it USED to look like. Take web state-fulness, for example, by which web apps have memory between page-loads. So simple, but the http protocol was designed to be fire-and-forget, so we’ve been suffering ever since. I’ve used maybe every hack to get around statelessness, from cookies to passing parameters on the URL to hiding them with JavaScript in iframes, to the kooky Microsoft ViewState postback method. Modern equivalents might be giving Google Docs OAuth login to Facebook and such. I have a talent at connecting dots such as this that no one else even realizes the benefits of connecting.

This dot-connecting ability has made me rather effective at realizing successful internal company projects that are almost impossibly ambitious by most reasonable standards—but which still never amounted to much industry-wide. That’s because internal projects most often fade into obscurity and do not even become a footnote due to the closed doors of internal company workings. On rare occasion, something pops out into the industry, such as happened with HitTail and 360iTiger.

For example, in my first professional job out of college at Scala, I programmed a whole Ruby-on-Rails-like framework in VBScript just in order to be a sort of über-web-salesmen. I controlled the website and generated about 10 sales-leads per day on a product with maybe a $50K total customer value—but couldn’t get a single sale-lead followed up! This struck me as egregiously offensive since I worked on commission, so I created a system that took away the salespeople’s option of not responding. I proceeded to drag the company kicking and screaming to success, transforming its culture in the process. But it left me greatly empty handed since my solution was uniquely tailored for Scala, and VBScript ultimately went away. This all played out on and off between 1997 and 2003.

And as another example, in 2004 I hopped over to NYC to become a VP of a PR firm and eventually created HitTail—a keyword suggestion tool been in continuous use as a secret weapon of the SEO community ever since. I squeezed every ounce of performance out of SQL Server, interacting with billion-row tables with performance like if they only had a few dozen rows—bringing ISAM-like efficiency to SQL. Whatever the situation, I find technical solutions to often tedious and seemingly and intractable problems. But I never quite hit it big with them.

So you see, an unpleasant repeating pattern here is that I regularly do the impossible behind closed doors and working towards the wrong goals. I heard somewhere that repeating behavior that harms you without learning and changing your ways is the very definition of insanity. When things go belly-up or I leave a job or a software stack goes out if style, I’m left empty-handed. That seems to happen to me a lot. So in the interest of not allowing myself to REALLY believe I’m insane, I slammed the brakes on my next maneuver and made a study if it, and determined to know better.

With Microsoft retiring Active Server Pages (ASP), the Active Data Object (ADO) and all that good VBScript stuff was making me go more obsolete by the day. I didn’t move to .NET―but I’m ashamed to say, not for lack of trying. You gotta be a “real” (read: PROFESSIONAL) programmer to make that move. Whether a deliberate decision or providence, the cycle was finally broken. That was maybe 5 years ago I started the research and probing attempts at making the switch.

Well, now I’m over forty, I have a kid, I have a Manhattan mortgage, and I can’t afford such meanderings. I can’t get wrapped up in fads or dead-end career paths. And I have to do things thoughtfully and correctly—and in a semi-public fashion, so I can build up whatever notoriety it’s worth. In simply blogging the revolution and trying to employ good practices while doing it—instead of getting into social media. That’s my plan—but doing it with exactly the right hardware and software stack that it’ll be the last time I ever have to do it.

So in other words, the revolution I’ll be blogging is avoiding yet another trendy vendor-ridden tall software stack—and instead, going old-school. I have this almost visceral need to simplify and go after the disruption-proof timeless bits these days. What is this “old-school” of which I speak that is still so important?

It took me until darn near forty years old to piece it all together—though the clues were there my entire life. I’ve got to productize it now, because I still have nothing to sell. As usual in life, I AM THE PRODUCT. However, I myself am not scalable. But what I have to teach may be. I’ve got a great message now, and it’s time to dust off my communication skills and make MY ding in the universe—in the total opposite way as Steve Jobs. Oh yeah, that old-school stuff. A little more explanation, by way of contrast with Uncle Steve…

Jobs built an empire. I’ll build none. He tied awesomeness to particular hardware. I’ll tie awesomeness to generic anything-hardware (or even virtual). He invented a very particular tall software stack that you have to use. I’ll strip away as much software as possible to the generic lowest common denominator and teach the user to build it up according to his/her needs. He spurned type-in user interfaces and championed graphics. I’ll champion the type-in interface and spurn graphics. He tried to retire the “old-school” way of doing things. I’ll make it cool again.

But to do that, I need the formula, and to communicate it super-effectively. And I think it all comes down to stories. You can take the contrarian approach—so long as it’s also correct—so long as your stories are good enough and win people over.

It’s been quite an awakening that I never really knew the important stories for the old-school way until recently. Some of the most exciting stories in human history were actually playing out when I was just born (the rise of Unix), and on through my teens at which time—before the Web—those innovations only reached me as video games and home computers. And at 12 years old, I got the Coleco Adam instead of the Commodore 64, which really set the tone for my inauspicious path.

The irony of this horribly wrong computing platform choice only compounds in the fact that I actually then interned with Commodore which was right in my back yard right as THEY themselves were becoming the losing-horse.

What’s worse, I totally fell in love with “their” Amiga technology (more like Atari’s) and invested much of my youthful passion into it—to the point of attending shareholder meetings and trying to save Commodore. I made an interactive multimedia demo as my College senior-thesis as to how it would be done. I went to work for a Commodore spin-off company called Scala after college. I held out hope entirely too long that the best technology would also be the one that won—making all my invested time worth it.

The Amiga was so inherently and obviously better than anything else I’d seen. And I had good friends who swore up and down it compared favorably to the coveted Symbolics, Apollo and CGI workstations of the day—which were just starting to be used to make computer graphics for the movies. The impossibly sophisticated NewTek Video Toaster peripheral came along and seemed to vindicate all these beliefs. I mastered AREXX for inter-process communication, DeluxePaint for graphics, and Scala for multimedia.

Fortunately with the Amiga, I was triangulating in on what what was really important—because the Amiga wasn’t terribly dissimilar from Unix. It had a similar command-line interface, command-set, and even command-piping. All the inter-process communication stuff I learned for AREXX is the same as today’s API-everything-mania. I just wasn’t learning Unix (or Linux) precisely, and was massively distracted by the sexy multimedia bits.

I actually liked the graphics bits so much, I went to school for graphic design. My first choice was mechanical engineering, but physics did me in. Computer science didn’t even seriously occur to me—probably because of some sort of inferiority complex. I thought “those people” were somehow smarter than me.

I hated my Pascal classes, and felt that everything cool had to be written in C or C++, and required mastery over heaps, stacks, and pointers. Even in the halls of Commodore, I put those software engineers that lived on the other side of locked doors way too high on a pedestal.

Well no more. I realize now, I simply got the wrong stories. My dad was not qualified to guide me. The Web hasn’t happened yet. My public school education barely had computer classes. My one summer of science camp didn’t hook me. These are the things I want to help fix for another generation.

And so my stories begin. And so, I’ll start tapping into my 40+ years of life experience to make a power-packed formula for producing powerful people. And I’ll do it as I once again reposition myself in a career soon to be more in-demand than even SEO was—the discipline of doing things rapidly, making them ready to scale, and not hoarding the love, but rather packaging the process I myself went through to get there.