Application Polymath

I think I figured out how to improve the general negativity that “polymath” or “jack of all trades” has. But first, let me tell you a story.

I remember back when I was still working in a job, I had a job title. It started with “Systems Analyst”. Then at the end of 2 one-year contracts, I decided I’ll never get free of VB.NET if I don’t do something.

So I jumped ship to a startup, where I get to use C# and was supposed to practise extreme programming. I was excited, for I also had to learn something I’ve never used before: regular expressions. I joined the startup (after I went on that New Zealand trip for a well deserved rest) and had some job title that I can’t remember now and don’t think it matters. Let me ask you, can you differentiate the following job titles?

  • Systems Analyst
  • Systems Engineer
  • IT Analyst
  • IT Engineer
  • Applications Analyst
  • Software Analyst
  • Software Engineer
  • Systems Designer
  • Software Designer
  • Applications Designer (I just made this up. Don’t know if it’s real)

There are probably many more with meanings just as ambiguous. I don’t really know what those titles mean, and don’t know if there’s a difference. I was still writing specifications, designing software and systems and frameworks, writing code, liaising with users and fellow colleagues and supervisors and managers, attending meetings, taking conference calls, giving presentations, doing software/server maintenance, and solving users’ computer problems (whether it’s because of my software or other people’s software or just general computer problems).

Wait, I thought I was supposed to just write code. Yeah, everyone does pretty much the same thing despite their titles.

Where was I? Oh yes, the startup. Well, I got sacked after exactly 6 weeks. The first 3 weeks were still bearable. There were a few interns, so the workplace was more fun. 3 weeks later, the interns left, and I was stuck with the founder/CEO and the original programmer (there were only 2 of us coding when I started. There was another programmer hired, but one programmer story at a time…). Wait, there was the original programmer’s wife as well (don’t get me started…). I didn’t get to write a lot of C# code. I didn’t get to use that regular expressions skill that I studied and practised really hard (because the founder got another PhD intern to do the regular expressions) which was the backbone of how to parse patent text (part of the startup’s product).

What was my mistake? During the interview, I was asked by the founder what I saw myself as in 5 years (you know, a typical HR-ish question). I gave a typical answer, you know, leading a small team of programmers.

So the founder started me on doing all the administrative stuff. I handled the printer setup. I made sure the computers and other assets were properly recorded. I made sure the source code settings were done properly (ok, so maybe that was more related to software development).

And the other programmer was, shall we say, less tactful in how he talks to me. His English was (much) less than fluent (he’s Chinese). He used Microsoft Access as the backend database, and gave me a talking-down when I pointed out that the client might not have Access installed. The .NET Framework would already be a required installation, so the less we impose on the client, the better, right? The data retrieval functions and objects were inflexible (not all SQL statements need a where or group by clause). He called me a four-eyed toad (what are we, 6 years old? I was still wearing glasses then). He gargled water at his desk while coding (it’s not a big office. You could just about fit 2 cows into it. Maybe 3.).

I frequently lunched alone.

So a week before Christmas, the founder called me up for a private meeting. He could see that I was unhappy working with the other programmer. He also suggested perhaps I could be happier working at some place else.

“Am I being let go?” I asked.
He nodded. Somewhat awkwardly I might add. I don’t think he’s fired anyone before.

So for the rest of the week, I began documenting what work I did, and what was already done on the project. I cleaned out my computer (as in wiping traces of me, not wiping all the work) as I didn’t want anything about me left there in that miserable workplace, even if it’s just an Internet cookie.

On my last day, which is Christmas eve, I packed my stuff, ready to go. The founder had a Christmas party planned and stuff. He invited me.

I declined.

After that, I rested for a couple of weeks, and then joined a software house. The team I was assigned to, worked in the Singapore city area. The client was a Japanese company, had security precautions I had only seen in the movies (I needed to pass a fingerprint scanner to get to the washroom. Another story for another time…), and while happier than at the startup, was still longing for something more. I did discover Michael Buble, who’s an awesome singer.

I worked there till the end of my 4-month contract, and I decided to return to the first company I worked at. I was even willing to work with the “evil” boss that was part of the reason why I left. I was hired, and no, I worked at another team. Well, that lasted for 5 years, and that brings us to here and now.

I can tell you now, titles mean very little. It’s what you do and what you’ve done that’s more important.

Which brings us to the original point. How do we improve the general negativity of the term “polymath”? I believe a big part of the problem is that polymaths (and the various terms used) are seen to dabble, never quite committing to anything. Well, I can tell you that, even if a person isn’t dabbling, the person isn’t by definition committing to anything either.

So I believe a solution is that you, me, us, the polymaths, need to apply ourselves. We can’t just keep learning this and that trinket of knowledge and skill without applying it. It’s the “frivolity” of learning that’s the crux of the negativity.

A person learning one thing without applying himself is considered “being focussed”. He’s trying hard! He’s concentrating on just one thing! He hasn’t done anything useful with it, but it’s ok!

A person learning many things without applying himself is considered negatively. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. No information is useless, we just haven’t found a use for it yet.

Now in my previous company, the term “programmer” was deemed to be a low position. So if you had “programmer” anywhere in your title, you’re like dirt, just barely above the administrative staff and cleaning ladies/janitors. If you have a degree, you’re a “Systems Analyst”. If not, you’re an “Application Programmer”.

I say we should overturn that kind of stigma. We are going to be Application Polymaths. Because we’re multi-learners who apply ourselves.