Pigeonholing

Pigeonholing

Pigeonholing is, according to Wikipedia, a term used to describe processes that attempt to classify disparate entities into a small number of categories (usually, mutually exclusive ones).

It is almost always pejorative in the sense that the pigeonhole-ee – the person or object being pigeonholed – is relegated to a tightly restricted role or position. Most people would say that they hate being pigeonholed, because the act of pigeonholing by definition is to limit for ease of classification – at the expense of getting the entire picture.

The most recognizable form of pigeonholing is typecasting in the movies. Some actors have roles that are so tightly identified with them that they can never find acting work doing anything else; William Shatner as James T. Kirk, Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, and Bela Lugosi as Dracula
(note to readers: this phenomena is definitely not limited to vampire roles – Ed).

But pigeonholing is a danger that “high performers” in business are prone to as well. Dan Bricklin will forever be known as the Visicalc Guy, Mitch Kapor will always be the Lotus 1-2-3 guy, Ed Esber will always be known as the Ashton-Tate guy who was at the helm during the Dbase IV tanking. Even though all of these guys have been successful afterwards, they are cast into a certain world view because of a need to simplify the world by putting people into neat little compartments.

Some business people have definitely broken the pigeonholing cycle.

Had Steve Jobs fallen off the map following the failure of the NeXT, he more or less would have been pegged as simply being lucky with his first stint at Apple Computer. Instead, he has gone on to be one of the most successful second acts in personal computing history.

I would suggest that Marc Andreesen is looking for his pigeonhole-escaping second act, though he has had quite a few successes following his days at Netscape.

But even for the “little guy” pigeonholing is a constant danger to be guarded against.

For example, you do an outstanding job on a project, and all of a sudden you’re the SME on that particular project – forever. Unless it’s being project manager on a deep space probe or being Chairman of the Fed, or being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, this is probably not what you had in mind.

Stick around long enough, and one gathers quite a few skills and life experiences that don’t fit on a one page resume or condense down to a single 140 character tweet.

I would hate to think that my professional life can be condensed down to a five minute elevator pitch, or even shorter escalator pitch. Yet I recognize the need to help others get to know what I can do for them in as short a period of time as possible. The key question is – how to summarize the complexity and richness that you have to offer in the ADD business world that we exist in?

From my perspective, you have to have several answers at the ready, tailored to the audience at hand.

“I’m a developer.” “I’m a Marketer.” “I’m a Salesman.”

But beyond that, you have to figure out how to pull out those layers of complexity in your career that make up who you are today. It’s a tough nut to crack.

From my personal history, I have done the following:

  • Been the IT director at a startup transaction processing company in Transportation
  • Written multitasking kernels for point-of-sales systems
  • Written NetBUI networking stacks
  • Written SCSI controllers
  • Taught Advanced Microcomputer Concepts at the University Level
  • Been the Director of a Business Unit for a Software Company
  • Written Engineering Software for the Largest Private Banking WAN in North America
  • Written software responsible for engineering 100,000 VoIP phones
  • Written Social Networking applications such as LinkedIn Contacts and Cheap Gas!
  • Have been the President of a Software Consultancy for the past dozen years

Among all of these things, most people know me professionally for only a handful of these – usually, only one or two, tops. Yet they constitute the fabric of who I am as a professional.

My daily challenge developing business for my corporate brand, and increasingly my personal brand, is simplifying my pitch while losing as little detail as possible in the experiences that have made me what I am.

I’m still a work in progress.

Just realize that if you limit me to only five minutes, the really good stuff is outside the time limit.

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2 thoughts on “Pigeonholing

  1. It seems the big professional push is to make the person the “brand.” I think that’s a mistake. There are certain personal characteristics you want to know a person has if you buy into his/ her company but other than that the appeal of a person is much different than the appeal of knowing a product or service works and works to do something you want.

    I like Steve Jobs. I like Bill Gates. Now that’s he’s sharing his billions I probably like him more. I am very much an anti-Microsoft products person, however. For just one clear example.

    When you (generally “you”) push too hard to “brand” your business and your person you are pigeonholing yourself. When you are a media company and you just follow the pack, you are pigeonholing yourself – and we see how that’s turning out. I say this as a media-friendly critic.

    Temple
    PS (I had to write more than my original first point, which was that, snarkily when you perfect the art of writing notes to “non-readers” so they’ll get it, let me know. Yeah, I can be a sarcastic bastard. 😉

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  2. David, you make some really good points! I wholeheartedly agree that your message must be tailored to your market and one you should be able to clearly and succintly articulate. Like you I have a broad range of experiences but I have recently been paring them down to a finely tuned set of core competencies that I actively market. Like you I’m a work in process so in two years, there may be marketing a different set of competencies. 🙂

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