The Balance Of Fueling Innovation

Most entrepreneurs I know strive to read anything and everything about markets and industries, priding themselves on their breadth of knowledge, confident that such breadth will be a form of insight when The Big Idea comes.  Previously I fell into this content-hungry category, subscribing to several busy tech blogs, anxious when I couldn’t read everything in my feed.  However, an essay by Glenn Kelman provoked me to try an experiment.  Several weeks ago I unsubscribed from every tech blog except A VC and stopped checking Twitter regularly.  My experiment goes somewhat against the advice of a fantastic book by Steven Johnson, whose thesis is that ideas start as hunches, and, by connecting with other hunches, grow into a world changing phenomenons like evolution and the internet.

Reading Glenn’s recent post on friendship and solitude, where he talks about the importance of solitude for leadership, I realized that my experiment has worked.  The number of blogs and tweets per day I read has dropped dramatically.  While the number of ideas and hunches I’ve created has increased dramatically.  And I’m significantly more productive each day!

I believe that we need to balance between consuming and thinking.  We need to read about our industry, but we also need to escape our busy lives and think by ourselves.  So I challenge you to turn off Twitter sometimes, close your RSS reader, and fall into a place where your own ideas can dance and move and grow.  I spend most of my evenings eating with friends, sometimes feeling lonely when I have a night to myself.  And I don’t enjoy cycling by myself.  But times of solitude and even loneliness help us think, help us develop our ideas that perhaps one day will change the world.

Internships and the Importance of Diversity

Last week I was introduced to a UW CSE junior considering an offer from a startup and a very lage software company, both based in Seattle.  As I was providing insight around corporate culture and valuable career experience I realized that what’s most important for an internship is diversity.  Interning is the best way to quickly get a glimpse of a corporate culture or a certain role.  For example, throughout high school and college I interned as a product manager, software engineer, and marketing specialist in both large and small companies.  All of this diversity gave me perspective on what I enjoy doing, the type of company I want to work for, and ultimately how I want to start and pursue my career.

At least in the software industry leaving a full time position before a year or two doesn’t look good.  You should contribute at least a year to the company you’re working for, ideally two.  And the older you get the more specialized you become, causing career u-turns and changes to be more and more taxing on your personal brand.  For example, if you spend two years at one software company and three years at another, you’re now 27 or so, perhaps engaged or married, very specialized, and less likely to be daring enough to try something new.  I’m not arguing that people at a certain age are unable to try new things.  My argument is more around practicality.  The older you are the more specialized you become, the less practical it will be to try something new.

For me, interning taught me that I prefer working for small startups in a role that isn’t well defined.  I like coding here and there, thinking about product positioning and vision, helping customers with their issues, and solving customer problems with software.  I prefer startups because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, desperately trying to change the world, passionate about their work and their place in the industry.  Leave me a comment if you’d like to hear more about why I prefer startups, or marketing/PM instead of engineering.

Otherwise, I challenge you to intern as much and as early as possible.  The more diverse work experiences you can have the more likely you’ll be to find and pursue something you love.  And pursuing something you love is absolutely critical for living a happy life.  I’m truly sad whenever I see a friend update their Facebook status early in the week, exclaiming how excited they are for the weekend to come.

Update: Justine brought to my attention that trying research is also a great way to get a diverse experience.  Researching brings yet another perspective to the table, perhaps shining light on a career you never considered.

Update2: Take a look at Savan’s comment.  I totally agree with him that the my original argument about specialization isn’t true.  As you get further and further down your career path you can either become more specialized or grow a breadth of skills, depending on your interests.  Savan and I have certainly taken a broader skill approach, trying new companies and new things.  And several of my friends have taken the specialization approach, working at Google for several years and becoming uber hackers and code champions.  Thanks, Savan.