Applications: Ray Ozzie

For this week’s Applications class, Ray Ozzie, the former Chief Software Architect for Microsoft, spoke to us about his career and the operating environment in which he cut his software/startup teeth.  He also founded several of his own companies.  His last project was to try to turn the Microsoft supertanker into the direction of the cloud and social collaboration.  Most would say he was not successful, but it seemed like an impossible task.  He gave recognition to the Xbox team, which has been the standout for innovation at Microsoft.  Wired had a great article about him a while ago.

One of my classmates asked Ozzie about what he thought the next great opportunities would be for us, based on what he experienced during his rise through the software ranks and subsequent industry boom.  He answered that the opportunity has never been larger and more varied than right now, since costs are being reduced so much and there’s so many areas to work in.  In other words, we have no excuses not to be able to find something compelling to work on.

This brings back a recurring frustration that runs through my mind.  I’ve been switching careers and trying to learn new things and have read about a lot.  It’s awesome just seeing how many amazing people there are out there who have spent years honing their crafts and pushing the adjacent possible out further and further, becoming experts.  What that has left me with, though, has been the equivalent of analysis paralysis.  I have no skills or talent at any of the things I’m interested in.  I realize that much of it requires just working in one specific area for a very, very long time to gain expertise.  But another part is raw talent.

The former, I’ve almost always quit things just before they were about to get interesting — for instance, I left the Army before becoming Staff Sergeant promotable, which would have led to a pretty cushy but hardcore career.

As for the latter, talent, some people are just naturals at something, or maybe multiple things.  While even the most talented need to work hard to succeed, I do think that when one is filled with talent and ability, it makes everything else so easy.  Of course the person wants to continue to train and improve — they’re getting positive reinforcement all the time.

There are others of us, I have come to understand, that do have the desire and curiosity to try new things, and to not be afraid of failing, but never break through the initial barrier.  Or even the intermediate barrier. This is how I think of myself.

It’s a source of great frustration to not be good at one particular thing, but I can’t really see that there’s any one thing (yet) that I want to devote all my time to.  In fact I enjoy searching for things and putting them together, particularly thinking about the people involved and what it took for them to get there.  Is it possible that instead of being good at building something, or producing art, or having a tangible skill, that my talent lies somewhere else altogether?  I haven’t found it yet, I don’t think.

Ozzie suggested that one should always try something risky, where something’s at stake, and to get out of oneself in order to learn from other ways of thinking.  I’m hoping that that is what I am doing.  I am a newbie when it comes to shared coding environments for my new software job, and I’m learning the basics of Arduino.  I just watched a presentation of the madmapper software, an Ableton-like live mixing and drawing interface for producing visualizations and light shows for large spaces and screens.  My mind is being continually blown right now.  It’s overwhelming, as school should be.  But where within all this is my talent?  Will I only find what I’m supposed to do by grinding away at something, failing constantly, until it just happens, until I outlast others?  Or have I just not found access yet to the kinds of areas that I would really do well in, like team dynamics and training?  Will I ever have a good post game in basketball, suitable to my size?  Will I ever be able to surf or, even worse, snowboard without wiping out horribly?  Should what I’m “good” at just come easily at first?  Will it always be an internal struggle?

The first day for one of my classes, our professor asked us what the last thing was that we taught ourselves.  This was a hard question for me, and it kind of saddened me.  When WAS the last time I taught myself something?  Some people teach themselves to play the guitar, or to do a trick.  I’m afraid the best answer I could come up with was develop a left hand in basketball.  I would like to say I taught myself something useful.  I’m going to try to learn morse code now, though, using this trainer software.

So this is all weighing heavily on me.  I’m in pursuit of a better life, of a more interesting life, for me and for my eventual family. I’ve come to accept that my path has become my own and no one else can really help me, as much as I’d love to have a mentor.  It’s a loner path and it’s hard to find people to relate to.  Which is exacerbated when I spend time with friends (whom I love) but end up trying to relate to their experiences, instead of receiving it in kind.  The best I can say for myself is that I don’t give up, but it’s long been frustrating to me to see other people wonder why things can be so difficult/windy for me.  It frustrates me that I’ve long felt like an observer in life, watching other people hone their talents and express themselves — successfully.  Part of me wonders if instead of being an observer, I need to be more of a leader (with my background skills), and to make more of an impact on the world around me.  How do I stop feeling like an interloper and more like the formidable presence often associated with me?  Part of me wonders whether I should just pick one thing and get really good at it.

I realize I don’t have much to complain about — I’m getting what I want and I’ve been given a ton of opportunities.  But it’s getting to the point where, with all this investment into my future, there’s going to have to be some payoff eventually, to pay back all those who have helped me get this far, to make everyone else’s efforts and presences in my life worth their time.