Pigeonholing

Pigeonholing

Ducking Pigeonholing

This was originally posted in 2008, therefore many personal references mentioned here are dated; however, this topic has been on my mind a great deal recently, and so I am reposting on a cold wintry Arkansas morning. I do hope that you’ll find at least a few good take-aways from my thoughts of seven years ago (!!!). – Ed.

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. (2015 Ed – and has found it as a leading VC).

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 (subject matter expert) 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
  • Have been the President of a Software Consultancy for the past dozen years (circa 2008)
  • 2015 Ed – Served as the CIO of a leading Liberal Arts College

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 to describe myself, the really good stuff is probably outside the time limit allowed.

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