Sticking Your Own Fork In The Road
23 April, 2020
A friend recently asked for some career advice. ”Should I be an individual contributor or a manager?” Everyone faces some variation on the question, "How do I know what direction is best for me?"
I told him that back in the 90s, I worked on Wall Street. We had some really great developers. I admired their skill and knowledge. But I noticed that by their mid-30s, many of my colleague-heroes were switching to management. Not so long after that, they felt they never wanted to program another line of code. Instead of continuing to chase their talents and feed their curiosity, they took up hobbies like golf. Some even retired. Some in their 40s! I thought it was kind of tragic. Superman can’t retire! I told my friend to think twice about management if he really loves his field. Personally I have gone the other way.
I spent a big chunk of my career in finance, starting in the mid 1980s. For a long time it offered every challenge I could have hoped for. By the early 2000s I had had a rewarding career. I was good at what I did. I still have bond formulas in my head and could still figure out your mortgage payment on a calculator that has only addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Yet I knew I was not going to be president of Morgan Stanley or learn much more about markets. I developed an itch to move on. In the gloom that followed 9/11, one day I imagined my tombstone. On it was written “Bond Guy”. I needed something else. Big tombstone I guess. Time to bust a move.
I quit to pursue a Ph.D. in machine learning, and I moved my family to Australia. This change was a big adjustment--for the whole family. Australia is a great country with great people and we made many lifelong friends. But it was far from home in the US. Was I doubling down on a commitment to lifelong learning, on the other side of the planet, just to mix it up and not be burned out on Wall Street?
This wasn’t the first huge change I made in my life. There are several things I have done in life that looked crazy to some people who were looking on at the time.
When I was 13 years old, I was given the chance to go to a local college to take a class or two. I loved it. I ended up going to college full time after ninth grade. Some (not all) of the other kids thought it was cool. The parents of the other kids generally thought it was crazy. Skip high school? Miss prom?
At 16, old enough (barely) for Mom to let me move out of state, I transferred to the University of Chicago and I graduated when I was 18. It’s not easy to start college when you are 15. Or get a real job when you are 18. But I learned independence and thinking for myself at an early age and that has never left me. Also, I did get a job after college and had a great boss and colleagues. Lucky I guess.
Life cycle economics suggests that switching my career after 20 years wasn’t the smartest move. I could have cashed many more bonus checks, and bought an even nicer house in Connecticut. I could have joined an exclusive club, and sent my kids to very nice private schools. Or could I? The financial crisis came just 3½ years later, ending the careers of many folks I knew. The ones still in banking tell me it was never really the same after that. I have many friends who are still recovering from that nonsense, and some think I am a genius for having seen it coming. I’m not sure, but It would be impolite to correct them.
These days I am extremely interested in my work. The work has led me around the world to meet and work with many great researchers and business people that are having a growing impact around the world. Everyone has heard of machine learning now. The Governor even says “we’re going to fight forest fires with machine learning”. Every modeling technique I learned about is now called AI. Cool, I guess. Mom is proud. Some of my old friends think it’s amazing that I saw it all coming. Maybe, but it would certainly be impolite to correct them either.
I am not sure my path should be taken as advice for anyone, let alone everyone. I have a patient and very bold partner in my wife. Many decisions have unavoidable risks attached that passion won’t overcome. But sticking with the well-traveled path or the crowd isn’t always as safe as it looks. If something is really driving you and you can identify it, consider yourself lucky. If you are receiving the signal, it’s the only signal you will know is true.
This wasn’t always true for me. It took a long time to identify my calling. If you asked me any time up to age 40 what my five-year plan was, I never had a truly good answer. I always wanted to take advantage of whatever is interesting. There are a ton of fascinating things to learn about, why plan that out? I always managed to find a way to help the companies I work for and things worked out. As you can see, things changed.
When I walked away from Wall Street my main thought was “there must be better ways to build systems”. That was my drive. I needed to be involved with technology. Now, I can see that my interest actually goes back a long way. I remember an economics class I took in 1974-1975. I was 13. That single class made me realize the economy is just a system like a large car engine. For me, systems are interesting. No, fascinating. Back then I knew that I wanted to better understand the economy as a system. Later, building advanced systems with software became much easier and attracted my interest too.
So what have I learned in the 16 years since I stepped away from Wall Street muttering “there must be a better way to build systems”? Two really big things I would say.
First, as the world now understands that machine learning is a great way to build systems. I already said that and so did the Governor. Let me mention a second less wildly popular topic. Functional programming is a fantastic way to think about systems and build systems, including machine learning systems, though it is not as widely appreciated yet. If you are looking for the next high impact invasion from computer science, check it out. Today I am helping launch a research institute that will help bring more math in computer science.
I haven’t had to forget everything from my earlier career. I still have a big chunk of Wall Street thinking baked into me, and this can be very helpful. For example, I used it to help get my Ph.D. I could follow some of the research I needed from physics by translating the concepts into the language of finance so I could understand it better. After getting my Ph.D., I found I could combine my business experience with my new technical expertise, which made both more valuable. There’s no need to toss your life learnings overboard. You can bring new perspectives to your new field.
Nowadays I spend all my time analyzing systems from all sorts of angles in all kinds of ways. And I am participating in a wave of new technology development. Making that high risk mid-career switch enabled me to do that. Genius move or lucky? I won’t correct you if you say “genius move”. But only because it wouldn’t be polite.
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