First off, sorry for the interlude between posts. I had an incredibly relaxing and unplugged vacation followed by the work I’d left behind and then some.
As you’re probably figuring out, these blog posts are somewhat autobiographical and somewhat philosophical based on my life (regardless of my pronoun usage). I’d had a topic on the list for Making Your Own Destiny and had a coworker recommend another TED Talk I hadn’t seen. This was from a former DARPA head, Regina Dugan, who did a presentation themed “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail.” These two subjects melded a bit, and here we are.
Regina’s talk had to do with removing the penalty for failure and having the freedom to do so in order to accomplish great and impossible achievements. There were some amazing accomplishments shown and I’d bet that DARPA’s project on hypersonic flight is vastly different from North Korea’s missile program when it comes to penalty for failure. The talk also shows some videos that tie you back to childhood invincibility. Back when anything was reachable given imagination.
As we grow up, it can be a different story. Each success at school is needed to put you in position to achieve the next one in a chain that can’t really be broken. College is there to prepare you for a career which you start to go down, maybe get married, have kids, get a mortgage, and so forth. Change, risk, and the dream of the impossible gets tougher for most of us. At the same time, many of us don’t end up in the careers we dream of as kids either. At some point, many of us do make a change in our paths and make our own destinies.
When I was young, I wanted to design cars. I read about cars, took advanced math and science classes, and went on to get a couple degrees in mechanical engineering. My first job out of grad school was designing pharmaceutical filling and packaging machinery. It filled vials on a moving conveyer by matching their speed, dropping the nozzles into the bottles, filling them, retracting, and repositioning for another set of bottles. Everything was mechanically actuated. It wasn’t exactly designing cars, but I was using the skills I’d learned and did some cool things. Over the course of doing this, I evaluated some rather expensive high-end analysis software. While I did that, I realized that the people who came in and understood my problems then showed how their tools could solve them had amazing jobs. It hit me that even more than teaching me to design things, engineering school showed me how to solve problems. My next job was at the company whose software I bought and I worked there for six years. This was a key shift in what I’d dreampt of as a kid and while it doesn’t seem like a big career shift, it was me making my own destiny. I probably wouldn’t end up doing much pure design of cars or anything else from here.
That led me through some of the introvert-to-extrovert changes since, of course, I had to speak in front of people and perform under pressure as a big part of my job. Really enjoyed the work and the tools. The product was phenomenal, I could make it sing, and I got to show other people and companies how to improve their capabilities with it. Eventually, though, the company underwent some changes and I realized that I’d gone about as far as I could there. This was 1999 in the .com bubble so I decided to make another change in my destiny. I left the place I had worked at for over half a decade and joined a startup that did collaborative design streaming. That was a small shift in domain since it was still in the mechanical space. It was also a small shift away from design. Being Y2K, that company didn’t last long and I made an even bigger step to an ecommerce company. Then that didn’t last long and I went to an ebusiness company where I’ve stayed for a dozen years. All this happened in the course of twelve months.
Those were huge steps and I wasn’t so sure I could pull it off. My wife and I had moved into a house and had our first child before I made that big change in 1999. Failure really wasn’t a option. I still felt it was OK to make these changes but the element of risk had crept in. I don’t regret the changes or look back and dream of designing cars. Rather, I’m happy that I was able to look at what I wanted to accomplish and make those adaptations. The move to the software industry then completely away from mechanical engineering were not easy and definitely kept me up at nights.
The process of remaking my career direction doesn’t seem like building a Mach-20 plane or nano structures. It did take me far different places than I imagined when I went to school though. It is interesting to look back and reflect on a few key moments where you can point to life changes. They may impact the world as a whole or just your world. The important thing is recognizing those moments – big and small – and thinking about where you want to go.
As an aside, I originally had a Terminator 2 theme to this topic. Strange? No, it could have worked. I thought that battling the killer cyborgs of your life would leave the future wide open. The ending is NOT Arnold dropping himself into the pit of molten steel. It’s Sarah and John Connor driving at night with the headlights shining on the dark road ahead. A future they once seemed destined to have was defeated. All they had to do was come to grips with that and live their lives. “The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Ah well, consider this a nearly-cyborg-free blog.