Technical/creative hybrids lost in the void: I see you.

Published June 18, 2022

Introduction: the dilemma of the "hybrid" employee

After living in the Big Tech bubble since 2006 I've arrived at a few conclusions:

  • If your creativity is world-class you'll likely climb the ranks of Designer.
  • If your technical ability is world-class you'll likely climb the ranks of Developer.
  • If you have solid technical and creative skills, but neither is strong enough to qualify as world-class, you'll likely be stranded in the void in between.

If the last one applies to you, you should know that I see you, I know it's a lonely place to be, and it's not your fault. With large companies you'll find roles on either extreme of the technical/creative spectrum but rarely anything in between. And that's not really their fault either. The bigger the company, the more it must protect itself with rigidly defined criteria for all sorts of reasons, some practical and some bureaucratic.

None of this changes the fact that "hybrid" employees wind up in No Man's Land, because fully committing to either side will most likely lead to a lack of fulfillment. I haven't seen this dilemma discussed much in professional circles, so I'll recount my personal experience in an effort to shine a bit of light on the topic.

When the pendulum swings from creative to technical

In my high school senior year I was voted Most Creative. That same year I won an Outstanding News Anchor award at an arts magnet school. I was Lead and Commentary Editor for the high school and collegiate newspaper respectively, and I loved the opportunity to connect with audiences through creative storytelling. I was on a roll and I wasn't even 20 years old.

But I knew I couldn't devote my life to journalism. Fortunately I'd been obsessed with computers since childhood, progressing through the TRS-80 and Commodore 64 and so on. I leveraged this interest to forge a new path as a technical analyst in 1996, then molded myself into a software developer over the next ten years. When I somehow landed a contract at Microsoft in 2006 it was my debut in the Big Leagues.

Since then I've worked with some of the smartest people on the planet. At times I exhausted myself trying to keep pace with technical juggernauts all around me, coding all day just to develop my own side projects at night. And though I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything, I felt something important slipping away: my love for creative storytelling.

... and when the pendulum swings the other way

One of those side projects was building my own "point-and-click" adventure platform, something which allowed me to blend tech with creativity and release an Android game. But the creative itch wasn't fully scratched so I delved into an entirely different world: video production.

My first experiment was a Game of Thrones intro parody for colleagues on Yammer, followed by other tributes to Microsoft like Curmudgeon Ain't Easy and A Weary World. When I joined a Hackathon team in 2020 I didn't know anything about hardware or Arduino, but a sizzle reel was my contribution. None of these things were directly related to my actual job; I did them because I needed to resurrect my creative spirit.

And so you might ask, "What's the problem? Sounds like you're getting your fill of both technical and creative stuff."

The answer: when it comes to a career, which consumes the majority of our time and energy, we shouldn't have to forfeit a big chunk of our potential just to fit a certain mold. We shouldn't have to exhaust ourselves trying to master an extreme when we know we're built for something in between.

The hybrids are out there. How do we get them home?

Let's start by summarizing the traditional method of job searching: we submit a set of keywords and get alerts when they're matched against cookie-cutter job postings. Employer and employee then proceed to sell each other on a carefully tailored slice of reality, then hope everyone ends up satisfied with the full reality a few months later.

How do we improve on this? Well, one possible strategy is to borrow the playbook from online dating sites. Yes, you read that correctly.

The professional world's eyes are tuned for black and white, rarely equipped for shades of gray. But head to some popular dating sites and you'll notice a key difference. You're not limited to matching of keywords, you're presented with tons of topics and traits and invited to express how much (or how little) each one means to you.

People lean on these algorithms to help shape their romantic future — after all, I met my wife through online dating. Why would this approach be any less viable in shaping our professional future? If everyone were able to describe their ideal career to such an exhaustive extent, I'm betting it'd reduce churn for all parties involved. And who knows? The hybrids might finally find their elusive home after all.