February 2016 update:
Although this post is still accurate as a general introduction, here are links to the last few annual updates on the state of my life:
- 2016 Year in Review, the Year of Rebuilding
- 2015 Year in Review, the Year of Pushing the Limits
- 2014 Year in Review, the Year of More
- 2013 Year in Review, the Year of Yes
August 2008 update:
I just realized I don’t have an “About Me” page on this blog. You can get a sense of who I am from reading the various posts and browsing the archives, but I figured it might be handy to have an introduction post. This is partially inspired by skimming through Derek Powazek’s book Design for Community, which emphasized the importance of making the people behind the site real. So…
I’m Eric Nehrlich. I call myself an unrepentant generalist.
What does that mean? It means I specialize in nothing. Or everything.
My being a generalist is partially aptitude (I learn fast so I can pick up new ideas quickly, and I have enough mental models that adding more is easy), partially limitations (I don’t have the focus necessary to dive deep into a subject for five years, as I found when I tried to be a grad student), and partially interest (I like talking about everything). The phrase “Unrepentant Generalist” is a reminder to myself to glory in rejecting specialization, and to explore where this generalist path leads. I use this blog to help trace that path, recording my thoughts on everything from cognition to community to conversation to design to management to media to philosophy to politics to stories.
I didn’t mean to be a generalist; in fact, I had planned to be a specialist. When I was a kid, I decided I was going to be a particle physicist because I was a big nerd and wanted to be Richard Feynman when I grew up. I did a high school science fair project at Fermilab, went to MIT where I worked on the Superconducting Super Collider over the summers, did an internship at CERN, and went to grad school at Stanford in 1995 to work on the Stanford Linear Accelerator. But instead of studying physics all the time like my compatriots, I was singing in the chorus, playing volleyball, going to various talks, running the alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer FAQ, etc.
So I left Stanford to try a different specialization in 1998. I had always liked computers even after taking several CS courses at MIT, and friends and advisors often wondered why I chose physics over computers when I had a knack for getting computers to do what I wanted. Since physics hadn’t worked out, I went to work for a friend as a software consultant. Working with a variety of companies taught me about software, but taught me even more about people. I learned that the best technical solution was not always chosen, and that clients rarely asked for what they wanted, so I started to see the limits of being a specialist.
After a couple years of software consulting, I joined Signature BioScience, a highly interdisciplinary startup developing new instrumentation for drug discovery. Working there gave me a unique insight into the dynamics of an organization, as the software I developed had to reflect the interests of everybody from engineers to testers to biologists to physicists to managers. I eventually grew into a “union foreman” role, representing the interests of employees to the management team, as I worked with all factions of the company and understood their issues. And I began to see my value to Signature was not my specialized software expertise – it was my ability as a generalist to meld different viewpoints into a coherent synthesis that happened to be expressed in software.
Signature BioScience unfortunately went bankrupt in 2003 due to some poor decisions by the management team. The failure of Signature as a company showed me how even a great technical team’s efforts could be wasted by key management decisions. I realized that the value I could bring to an organization by improving its management would easily dwarf any technological contributions I could make, given the multiplier effect of management decisions on the rest of the organization. And my skills as a generalist were well-suited to management, as managers have to balance the interests of their group with those of the larger business, so it requires the ability to see from multiple perspectives.
With this in mind, I moved to New York in 2006 to join a Software Management Training Program at Fog Creek Software, and concurrently completed a M.S. in Technology Management at Columbia University, a degree that is similar to an MBA but with a focus on using technology strategically to serve the business.
Upon completing the program in May 2008, I decided to move back to California to work for Google in Mountain View. I will be an analyst on a sales finance team that develops revenue forecasting models to help Google executives make decisions. I was drawn to the position because I get to use both my quantitative skills in building the models and my generalist skills in that the models are built on understanding everything from the technical product decisions being made, to sales and marketing strategies, to what customers and competitors are doing, to the larger economic and business environment.
If that didn’t satisfy your curiosity, here are some links to other versions of me:
- The corporate version
- A more informal version, which mostly cannibalizes content from here, but where I occasionally post memes and less serious thoughts that I don’t feel like blogging.
- Bloglines subscriptions
- A list of the blogs I follow, although I’ve set up LiveJournal to follow most of the personal blogs.
- Interesting links I want to share but don’t want to write up into a full post. Also, a way to generate new content for my sidebar when I don’t update my blog.
- Occasional brief thoughts about my life.
- I wanted to hang out with the cool kids on Facebook, but all the content there is pulled from LiveJournal and Twitter.
- My ancient web page, first started in 1994
- Completely out of date since being superceded by this blog.
Now it’s your turn. I’d love to be introduced to any or all of my readers. Feel free to do so in the comments, or send me an email if you’re too shy. Say who you are, why you read this blog, and anything else you want to share.