A background made of many backgrounds

In a conversation the other day, a friend made the point that they, like me, had an unusual enough profile that often clients or HR departments don’t know what to make of them. Not unless someone at the C-level brings them in, that is. I can relate to both sides of that equation. If I was someone in a more structured career environment, say an HR department, I’d probably also look at my CV and scratch my head a little. But unusual doesn’t equal bad, it also makes for a broad and fairly unique combination of skills and experiences. The important thing is to match the right background and skill set with the right role or mandate.

Over the years, I’ve had a pretty broad mix of roles and interests. A large part of this wild mix, I attribute simply to the time and place I happened to be born into: Born in 1980 in South Germany, I grew up before digital tech really took off, but had early access to a computer (note: not the web yet, not by a long shot). When the dot com boom raged in the late 1990s, I was old enough to watch it with keen interest but too young and too remote to participate. After school, I went to work for a year at a publisher in their newly-founded online department (4 people total), manually fixing HTML tables for content to be put first on CDs, then the web. Then off to university, where I studied communication science and political science. Unlike most of my professors, I wanted to look at everything through the eyes of “what happens if all this but with the internet?”

So I stumbled into work doing a mix of online journalism, campaigning, consulting in the years between the dot com boom & bust cycle just before and the upcoming web 2.0 / social media boom cycle (and global recession) that would come a little later. I got to enter this scene when there was not much money to be made, which was for the better: It was a heady, crazy innovative and energetic time.

Anyway, most of success is timing and access, largely outside of one’s own control. I was privileged and got lucky.

What’s worth noting, though, is how this was a time where the roles weren’t as specialized as they are today: This was all reasonably fresh and we got to figure it out along the way, which is my favorite mode of operation anyway. It also meant that I got to try my hand at a pretty wide range of roles. A friend calls the skill to quickly shift into a new role and skillset neo-generalist, and I like that expression a lot.

Among other things, I have (in no particular order)…

  • led a small non-profit NGO, and a philanthropic fund
  • co-founded, ran and/or directed a handful of conferences
  • co-founded an agency, and a magazine
  • ran a kickstarter to set up small batches production of sustainable travel-friendly pants
  • in the first years of my career, I worked as an online journalist, analyst, and did some web design; did online election campaigning; and interned at an embassy’s communications department, a newspaper, and a publisher
  • put together a few exhibitions
  • developed a consumer trustmark for connected products
  • taught a couple of semesters as a visiting lecturer
  • co-hosted a podcast
  • wrote or co-wrote a whole bunch of stuff, from blog posts to title stories to a few short non-fiction books
  • got fellowships at a few organizations

All along the way, as my main gig, I’ve been working as an independent advisor at the intersection of public interest, tech, policy and (later, increasingly) philanthropy.

Most of these things were interest-led: I wanted to learn more about something and found partners to explore these questions in more detail. The formats followed from there. What’s most interesting about smart cities? Let’s host a conference. How does production and distribution of physical products work? Let’s design and produce a few hundred trousers and find out. Sometimes it was about my partners first and the interest second: If they’re interested in a thing, they probably know something I don’t, right? So let’s do it. The “co-” part of co-founding has always been especially important to me.

This probably doesn’t work for everyone. For me, it’s been just about the perfect way. As long as I don’t need to put it into a structured CV, that is. But that seems a small price to pay.

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