Being Unusual

As much as it can be uncomfortable to be the “odd man out”, I think it actually leads to benefits in many situations.

When I was at university for my undergrad, I found it quite cosmopolitan (and it was compared to the small town in Northern Ontario I grew up in). Next door to me were students from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Bangladesh. Some students from Toronto would laugh at me and say they looked around campus and saw nothing but white faces, but I delighted in the exposure to new ideas and cuisines.

I really noticed that all the people from overseas could date as much as they wanted to. When you have a campus full of Canadians, I guarantee there are going to be a certain number of people interested in Afghani, Chinese or Bengali people, and then you have a lock on the market!

I experienced this personally when I was teaching in Taiwan. Any Taiwanese woman who liked white guys had slim pickings (so they even had to consider ugly guys like me).

I’m sympathetic to people who are uncomfortable being the object of attraction based on their race, but a date is a date. As they sing on Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist“.

John Reed writes about this topic in a broader context than race or dating. He makes the wise observation that none of your co-workers will be impressed that you’re a doctor when you’re working at a hospital (there are lots of doctors running around). Other university professors won’t be amazed at how smart you are (there are a large number of smart people drinking coffee on any university campus) and none of the other mechanics working at the garage will be singing your praises because you can change an oil filter by yourself.

He suggests that you work in a field where your abilities are valued, but rare. I had this experience where I worked at a couple of publishing companies on short term contracts (doing web development). Their staff could barely use office and were wildly impressed by anything we created. The downside was they wanted to pay wages closer to publishing industry wages instead of computer industry wages and it could be annoying having to explain things over and over to people who clearly didn’t get it (some of whom were making big decisions that would impact the project).

I think a good way for a techie to slip up the ranks to upper management would be to focus on a non-software or hardware industry. Keep getting experiences in that industry, and keep looking for promotions (even if you have to move companies to get it). There won’t be as many people competing for the CTO position (compared to people gunning for the COO or CEO positions). Your blend of industry experience and technical knowledge will be rare and valuable.

Conversely, I certainly was never the star at software companies I’ve worked at. However, I’m able to present ideas in written or verbal form better than the average computer nerd. After I went to a conference at a startup I worked at years ago, I wrote up a brief overview of the sessions I attended and the vendors I talked to and sent it out to everyone at the company (with the idea that it would give them a feel for the “buzz” at the conference). I got compliments on it from the receptionist up to the CEO (who told me that even if my programming skills were no good, there’d be a place at the company for me given that I could write something like that).

At the time I was perplexed. Long term readers are probably just as confused that anyone would compliment me on my writing skills. It wasn’t that the writing was particularly gifted, it was the blend of being able to understand the nuances of the technology industry, and convey those in writing that was rare, and therefore valuable.

Do you work in an area where your talents are rare? Could you move to an area where they’d be valued but scarce?

14 replies on “Being Unusual”

Interesting post and I always enjoy your selfdeprecating humour but I must say, you have mad writing skills, and not just for a techie. 🙂

I do work in an area where my skills are rather rare. However, I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily valued for it. 🙁 Sometimes skills can be less valued when there’s little appreciation for the knowledge or experience required to become profficient at those skills. As an engineer, I do a lot of data analysis that many of my customers are clueless about. Most non-technical people just want to know if their product is “good” or “bad” and they expect that the results are instanteous (doesn’t the computer just *give* you the results?).

Personally, I prefer to work around other techies, as they seem to have a lot more respect for the skills required in the work I do and they generally realize that, just because it’s science, it doesn’t mean it’s always either black or white.

Even in software engineering, there are areas which are considered “less sexy”, therefore people with mediocre skills, such as myself, who choose to work in these areas, are appreciated. For example, UI or Configuration Management vs. Rendering,or Engine.

This is good advice. The most successful businesses didn’t get that way by out-competing everybody. They got that way by choosing a niche where they didn’t have to compete.

I have respect for people in my field who are awesome. So, if you’re the awesomest one, then you’re ok hanging out with people who do the same kind of work as you. But if you’re not, then yeah, you’re no big deal. 🙂

I picked up some technical skills that I’ve started applying to my field that gives me a slight competitive advantage… the downside is that I have to sell the skills first, since they are not typically used in the field. Luckily for me, I’m also the awesomest. 🙂

This comment has nothing to do with the article really, I just think it’s cool that I’ve been subscribed to your blog and it turns out you’re also from small town Northern Ontario. Makes me curious if we’re from the same area and/or know any of the same people. (Does the name Greenstone mean anything to you?)

Your writing example is a good one even if you’re not in a “niche” career. I’m lucky in that my profession is extremely rare over this side of the pond, so we’re in big demand, but my star really rose (with the commensurate kick to salary and bonuses) when I asked to get involved with recruitment and mentorship and proved fairly good at it. Sometimes I wonder why, but it beats dealing with clients a lot of the time, and it’s an extra wee line for the resume if necessary.

Andrea: Andrea Greenstone?!?! I took you to the prom!!! Just kidding, I don’t think I’ve ever met any Greenstones…

Guinness416: I imagine the construction industry is a good example of one where there’s a strong demand for skills not typically associated with the industry (such as mentoring and recruitment).

Hah! Actually I meant Greenstone as in geographically. It’s the new name of the amalgamated area where I’m from (Geraldton, Nakina, Longlac, Beardmore) but I guess that means you’re not from there.

That’s the rub about writing. Everyone in the world is impressed when you can string together readable, cogent thoughts. Everyone except your peers and industry. 😉

Fortunately I’m in a place where my decent writing skills are given way more credit than they deserve. Your point is well taken!

Kyle: Sorry, your comments keep ending up in our spam bin (I can’t figure it out). I used to believe EXACTLY that, but I’ve since come to believe that if a company is worth operating you’ll have competition (and, in fact, lack of it is often an excellent reason not to open a business). I suspect growing OUT of a niche would be an excellent way to launch a business, but hiding in the niche didn’t work out very well for me.

Sara: So that means writing ability is the common ability in your area, what are you good at that’s scarce?

Can you quickly attain a superficial understand of complex topics? Can you mentor junior writers? Can you negotiate with clients and suppliers? Can you figure out technical problems with the publishing software you use? Can you smooth over interpersonal conflicts between other staff writers? Can you make the best darn latte east of Seattle? etc, etc, etc.

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