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What Is a Wildcard Person? (wildcardpeople.com)
261 points by peter_d_sherman 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 267 comments

17 years ago, there was a popular essay about this sort of person, and the label at the time was "Free Electron": https://randsinrepose.com/archives/free-electron/

Before that, they were known as "generalists", autodidacts, polymaths, etc.

The thing is that pretty much any clever person that's easily invested in novel things can become one of these people, so this label isn't reserved for people who are generalists, it is reserved for people who are not specialists.

If you care about things like income and career progression, do not let yourself become one of these people. They aren't valued, and it doesn't take a lot of staring at job postings or talking to hiring managers to figure out why.

Well-run organizations -- that is, organizations that can afford to pay good money for talent -- have clearly defined roles for people, and need only a few generalists to handle the nitty-gritties of cross-department communications and management.

The organizations that most need generalists are the ones that are constantly struggling to get their crap working right, so they need people who can do a little bit of everything, and as a consequence, they also can't afford to pay such people a lot of money.

It is much easier for a specialist to argue their value than a generalist. I believe there was a frontpage "Ask HN" about this today, probably why this article was posted now.

If however you can decouple happiness and satisfaction from income, and chasing novelties makes you happy, then by all means, keep doing what you love.

You'll just never make the same kind of money as the person that knows Kubernetes backwards and forwards and not much else.

Yes, the idea and the debate is as old as history. I prefer the quote from Heinlein, "Specialization is for insects." Because actually, if you look at well run organizations, everybody needs to be a generalist to some degree. You don't just work in a silo and ignore every other aspect of what your organization does, otherwise you produce deficient solutions that your colleagues in their own siloes need to work around. Eventually the only people that can thrive in such an organization are the generalists because everything fits together so poorly only the people willing to tackle novel things can solve any problem. People talk about force multipliers because you need to be generally aware of what a lot of different people are doing and help them align to be as productive as possible.

> A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

He was a bit pro-military for my tastes, but I hope you get the idea. You'll make more money stepping up than drilling down. Of course, context and opportunity matters a lot. Success isn't dictated (possibly barely affected, given the debate) by this single dimension.

It's an evocative quote, but it's also nonsense. The selection of skills is a bit scattershot, but let's look at some examples: "butchering a hog" takes a year to learn, well, butchery to a professional standard, because someone who can butcher hogs but not cows sounds awfully 'specialised', some places even say that a butchery apprenticeship takes 24 months. (And I personally wouldn't trust an unqualified butcher to process meat I'd be eating.) Building a wall is easier, you can get a bricklaying certification in 8 weeks. Learning to "Fight efficiently" and "take orders" takes US army recruits 22 weeks (and we can throw another 12 weeks of officer training for giving orders and generously allowing this to count as 'planning an invasion'). Computer programming, sonnet-writing, account balancing, cooking and solving equations are actually part of general education, so let's ignore those. Basic first aid only takes a few days, and pitching manure can be learnt in under an hour. But then we get to "design a building" and "conn a ship" (not a boat, a ship). Conning a ship is a bachelor's level qualification in of itself, and designing entire buildings is a job for a chartered engineer, which requires years of experience and another bachelor's degree, so we're taking probably ten years of full-time training for those two alone. And I would not want to be on a ship piloted by someone who'd been on a 3-day course or live in a tower block designed by someone who'd read a couple of Wikipedia articles. Then we'll throw in a 4-year degree in whatever they're actually doing, and you're looking at a society whose adults don't start entering the workforce until their mid-thirties, and a newbie doctor or research scientist or some other field which requires postgraduate qualifications is probably in their early forties. This isn't even remotely viable as a way to run a society. And it's also implied that that list isn't even exhaustive, so the real numbers are even worse if there's some other complex safety-critical thing that Heinlein also felt should be on the list, like 'fly an airliner' or 'manage a chemical plant'.

Maybe with sci-fi anti-aging techniques that mean people can still be expected to be healthy and productive in their nineties, but in the real world, Heinlein's generalist utopia is pure fantasy.

I think they're talking about butchering a hog at the skill level of a person who grew up near people who owned hogs, ie, definitely a "I did this with somebody at a barbecue a few times" and not "24 months of training".

Giving and taking orders likewise doesn't remotely require army training, it just requires growing up around human beings and being part of anything -- theater, bands, church groups, service groups, clubs.

Fight efficiently means, I believe, fistfight, aka, take some boxing lessons and you can check that one off.

I think you've really misunderstood the quote. Or maybe I have.

Well, Lazarus Long was supposedly over 2000 years old, so he had the time to learn.


I notice you ignored all the actually difficult items on the list there. You know, the ones where the Dunning-Kruger brigade are a liability and mistakes mean people die.

I didn't ignore all the difficult ones. But fine. Bricklaying is a few days to learn on the job, tops. Conning a ship almost certainly means captaining a boat which takes some experience for sure, probably a few months. Basic first aid, including setting a bone, is a week long course. Etc.

I can't imagine why you went to the trouble of trying to make them all sound like complicated many-year projects, but it's a ridiculous take and I doubt anyone else will read it that way.

Are you seriously suggesting that Robert A. Heinlein, former naval officer, wouldn't care about the distinction between a ship and a boat?

And you still ignored the two most difficult ones.

If you want anyone to address the meat of your question simply state what you believe to be the two hardest tasks instead of being vague and making people guess. The conversation would be better for it.

I think he knows the difference, but surely meant the life skill of captaining something rather than the literal many-years-to-acquire technical skill of doing so, because the former makes sense and the latter doesn't.

Which two? Designing a building I see I skipped. That seems pretty attainable, he obviously didn't mean 'be a trained architect and building engineer' like you interpreted it. People in charge of organizations sometimes have to design buildings (probably much moreso in the past though). So like, 'kitchen goes here' etc level stuff.

I'm not saying I agree with the whole quote. I just don't see the point of misinterpreting it so aggressively.

He specifically said ‘conn a ship’. Conning is the specific highly technical act of directing the ship while in motion. Navy types are known to be sticklers for precise use of naval terms, so we have no reason to assume it doesn’t mean exactly what it says.

The task you are describing is not design; it’s specification or briefing at best. Heinlein was also an aeronautical engineer. Engineering is are also a profession where imprecise language costs lives.

The hardest one was “plan an invasion”, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me that a former naval officer and author of some of the most famous pieces of military science fiction didn’t really mean “plan an invasion” when he said it, or that despite modern history being full of poorly-planned invasions (and there’s one going on right now), actually it’s something you can learn on a three day course.

I think his intention was a spaceship/starship. He was a science fiction writer, after all, and most of the Lazarus Long stories take place elsewhere in the Galaxy. A starship can be more or less complicated than a maritime vessel, depending on the onboard computer. Maybe as simple as saying “take me to a nice planet to relax”.

Oh, I totally missed that one.

Yeah, sounds like "conn a ship" and "plan an invasion" are actually him just being weirdly militaristic. I guess he thinks everyone should have some career in the military for a while

No matter. My complain was that for some reason you were making the other ones sound like they take a long time to learn, which is obviously absurd.

The point of the quote is not that those specifically called-out skills are more valuable to know than other skills. The author could have picked 21 entirely different skills to list, and the point is exactly the same. He's also not saying people should have PhD-level knowledge or master-level training in every skill they know--quite the opposite.

My take is that Heinlein was trying to write literature, not documentation. So a colorful exaggeration makes sense.

People, including the poster I was replying to aren’t generally writing literature when they quote it though, and they like quoting that a lot.

How about you actually try to learn butchering a hog and stop complaining how hard it is? It took me about two hogs and a good teacher to get it sufficiently right, and I was a ten-year old kid back then. Claiming that simple things like that take years to learn is writing rich literature. Earning a living doing skill X takes a lot longer, but learning those skills is not a big trouble. If you've had an active rural childhood with good parents most of those skills are "completed" very early.

Writing a good poem and planning an invasion takes some maturity, but those should be interpreted similarly. Learn about basic logistics and doing projects and then you can plan an invasion. Making things more complicated than they are is just another way to do nothing at all. Learning takes some time and effort, if it's too much for you I understand, but don't discourage others with your weak excuses while thinking that you must become a specialist in every field to become a generalist.

You missed the forest for the trees:

> He was a bit pro-military for my tastes, but I hope you get the idea.

I was trying to emphasize the point being made to you: the particular skills listed aren't relevant to the point of the need for general skills (the idea I hoped you would get) but instead relevant to all the people around the protagonist in the novel (which has a military slant due to the author). I'm quoting literature to show evidence that the debate is old, that was the entire point of my post; what am I supposed to quote except something that someone wrote? People like quoting literature for reasons like that: evidence that an idea is general, old and timeless, that our ancestors were grappling with the same ideas, that it isn't settled and probably never will be.

That's absurd. You can learn how to butcher a hog in an afternoon (I'm not including curing ham or bacon in this statement).

> If you care about things like income and career progression, do not let yourself become one of these people. They aren't valued, and it doesn't take a lot of staring at job postings or talking to hiring managers to figure out why.

I have the opposite experience. Being a generalist allowed me to "climb" fast at my current company as I am able to lead projects holistically and coordinate cross-functional teams.

I have no shortage of attractive offers, but more importantly I like to work this way. I can't imagine limiting myself to just one narrow area and ignore the big picture and so far it looks like I do not need to.

As for job descriptions: I would love to hire more of these people but it is difficult to put a job description through the system that would not be confusing. Thus, even I have written job descriptions for one specialisation that should be dominant, but in the fine print I make it clear that I am searching for someone with broader scope and will to basically "do what is needed".

PS: Thinking about it more... do you think industry legends like Jeff Dean or John Carmack fit more into the generalist archetype or are they narrow specialists?

> industry legends like Jeff Dean or John Carmack

Those are very bad examples that prove the gp's point. Sure, flexible and multitalented people are a huge asset IF they get their big break, if they get involved in a startup at the right time in the right industry, if they are lucky to not get crushed by abusive players etc. etc.

But the chances of success are very slim, you likely won't be John Carmack. For every Carmack there are thousands of failed game developers who never got their break. Starting a tech company in 2022 is very different from 1992 even if you get to Carmack's skill level. Meanwhile, holding a job is something that always works and being a specialist in a high demand area is strongly correlated with financial returns.

I write this as somewhat of a "renaissance man" interested in everything from engineering to coding, to economics, to political science, to philosophy - and even holding advanced degrees in these topics. Sure, I can make my paycheck in tech, but without a managerial track record and access to the upper echelons of capital and corporate power I won't be recognized as a critical asset for an organization nor will make "Kubernetes expert" money.

Luck is always an essential ingredient in success. Can you point to any counterexamples: i.e. an industry legend who is a specialist?

The point was that you don't need any luck to become an extremely well paid and well regarded specialist, just dedication and time.

If your objective is to become a legend, then by all means avoid specialization, and be prepared to fail with a probability of 99.9%, there can only be so many legends.

I think at some level specialists need to become generalists, or they will get stuck.

For a junior backend engineer, it might be okay to not know much about UX design, front end development, database administration, etc.

But at a certain level, you need to know about all the fields outside of your specialization as well. You need to understand why you are doing what you are doing, or you'll end up doing a bad job at it.

Re John Carmack. Seeing his journal, strongly a generalist that adapt.

I mean look at how they ran Armadillo. It was just a bunch of random problem solving constantly.

Hm. I don’t know.

As a “generalist” myself, I find it sometimes hard to find a new job (as it’s hard to describe what exactly you did), but once I land a new job, I somehow become a person that just can’t be fired, and bring a lot of value to the team.

However, what I CAN recommend for such people and what did help me is to move more into management. If you are a jack of all trades, you can also quite easily tell what will take what time, and how much are people bullshitting you. And learn some JIRA/scrum shibboleths on the way, and you become quite a good manager.

I can't second this enough. After 20 years as an excellent generalist I was getting bored as an IC. I struggled with finding interesting roles until I moved into management. All those good enough skills in a lot of areas, and the ability to connect things and people, really helps you shine. Plus, you get to fix all kinds of new problems.

> 17 years ago, there was a popular essay about this sort of person, and the label at the time was "Free Electron": https://randsinrepose.com/archives/free-electron/

Also: https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2007/06/05/smart-and-gets-thi... http://steve-yegge.blogspot.com/2008/06/done-and-gets-things... and pop psych tests like MBTI

This kind of essay is good for the author, because writing an essay about "what if there were special people who were awesome and really cool?" attracts readers who think it's about them. Doubt it has much other merit though.

Personally, I try to develop the opposite talent where you don't produce anything. Otherwise they ask you to maintain it!

It works just fine for me. Even the best operations wants to stay competitive, and I have yet to meet a CEO with less ambitions than the org can handle. That is where we Wildcards thrive.

I build the departments we don’t have, make the prototypes the developers says are impossible (or unattractive technically), prove the business models that yikes the existing sales organizations as they are misaligned with common practice and so on.

That said, you must be sellable as a Generalist/Consultant/Fixer. Most people who try to go the Generalist route fails as well. And what the article fails to mention, is the hidden set of skills you need in addition to be valued in this odd position.

I've found my self in this position as well.

So far I've managed to identify a few key points which has served me well so far.

- Being able to produce results even when there is a lot of unknowns.

- Fairly good communication skills across several departments. People usually listens to what you say.

- Being known as goto kind of person. If it's about getting the gist about something or direct help of implementing any kind of service/api.

And lastly the main point of being Sellable: Being a generalist has put you into a lot of scenarios were others have no previous knowledge about. And thus making you easier to act as an early asset in assignments.

Interesting discussion. My solution has been to sell myself as a troubleshooter. So I usually see patterns and solutions that others do not and in such a case can bring something to table where people get stuck.

A troubleshooter sounds very specialist while it skills are in actuality quite generalist (on the whole)

I've sold my self as a troubleshooter before, but that only got me into positions were I was maintaining old tech. Especially things others had no idea how/why it did work.

I still find my self in these situations, but not as much like before since I stopped using troubleshooter. But your miles may vary :)

Yeah this comment thread is certainly enlightening in that regard. Maybe I should rethink my strategy! May I ask what you market yourself now?

I've kind of switched over to a more specialized direction, but I still do include all/some the general stuff as well.

Meaning: It's imperative you explain there is a focus on what you're specialized/interested in. And if they're still interested there is a lot of extra goodies you know as well. But only as long as it's part of the assignment/position you're interviewing for.

I know this answer is a bit vague, but I hope it was still to some good use for you.

Yes, thank you! This end of the year period is good to reflect on the coming year and make some changes (if necessary).

You are right in many senses. Modern organisations do value specialisation, and tend to perceive the organisation as a legible machine with specialist components. This tends to be particularly prevalent among HR, professional management, outside consultants and such.

That sense, I think it's a false perception. Organisations don't really run on specialisation. Generalists are what make the organisation run, with the mist important specialisation being specialisation in the company itself.

Realistically, very few of the supposed specialists really are specialists. There are, of course, a few roles where specialists reside. Roles that require deep or intricate knowledge, but these tend to be few.

IMO, many of the failings in modern organisations are related to this tension between theory or ideal and reality.

People are handed specialised roles, and then expect to be handed tasks that map to this speciality. Very often, the real problems don't fit this mold. This is where we get team where no one can do anythibg unless everyone is doing. everything. It's where we get busywork, because middle managers job becomes finding tasks that fit neatly into roles.

Is this simply an apriori argument? Do you have any evidence to back up your claim beyond your reasoning?

I don't find it very persuasive, and based on my own experiences being a generalist for the majority of my career, I can say it certainly doesn't apply to me. My compensation is >$500k a year and I've been a software engineer since 2010.

What search terms would you recommend a generalist plug in to indeed.com to maximize their chances of getting hired at a competitive salary?

Remember, they are a generalist, so specific languages, frameworks, and platforms don't count; they won't be more experienced in any of those than competing applicants, by their nature.

We generalists find work through our network of contacts. People we've worked with previously reach out to us when their current company needs a person like us. In 20+ years as a generalist, I've never been without work.

Exactly: if you're talking to people who already understand your value, then you don't have to pitch your value to them. Specialists also benefit from this, with the additional benefit that they can look for employment outside their network.

There are some survivorship biases responding in this thread, but the fact remains that employment opportunities favor specialists over generalists, all other things being equal.

How are you with the Layer 8 issues? I find in large organizations, that wildcards who can effectively relate and communicate, either directly or through an intermediary, with DRIs whose organizations they depend on, will succeed. The reason is that when a generalist/wildcard/"tiger team" is introduced to a mature organization that has specialized, the reason usually is that there is something not working as desired with the system as a whole, a system that significant investment has been placed into. and that takes as much human as technical finesse to unravel. If you're good at that, I can imagine you've done well. But effective communication is not a common trait among wildcards I've known. Most have been protected by excellent managers.

> Well-run organizations -- that is, organizations that can afford to pay good money for talent -- have clearly defined roles for people, and need only a few generalists to handle the nitty-gritties of cross-department communications and management.

> The organizations that most need generalists are the ones that are constantly struggling to get their crap working right, so they need people who can do a little bit of everything, and as a consequence, they also can't afford to pay such people a lot of money.

> It is much easier for a specialist to argue their value than a generalist.

Yes, but... when these organizations need to staff a small weird project or straighten out a mess, they often hire a consultant. Consultants get paid a lot of money and their work changes frequently. This is a great place to be if you're a "wildcard". You can work for yourself (high risk, high ceilings on pay, lots of sales time) or a consultancy (low risk to you, modest employer risk, lower ceilings on your pay, little sales time).

If you have to market yourself as a "wildcard", remember that just like you never want to be a "programmer who can do X", you want to be an "X who can program", so it goes with being a generalist. No one really wants to hire someone who doesn't have some specific talent. So you're a "generalist X", not just a "generalist". (Probably, hopefully, you do have some area or other of more-detailed knowledge!)

Sure, but who gets the business to that well oiled machine kind of state? When you’re starting off, I think having someone fitting the description of this article can be pretty valuable even if the end result doesn’t really require it

For example Google hires mostly generalists and lots of people who care about income and career progression work there.

Google does not. It hires a lot of specialists and fungible people.

From my personal observations, Google indeed hires a lot of generalists.

Source: been an SWE in a hardware org for the past year there, and my team is a mix of about 1-2 people with plenty of previous hardware experience and focus, with the rest being generalists without much previous related experience (including me) who can pick things up and resolve them quickly, whatever they are. Observed quite a similar pattern on other teams in the org as well, with the only exception (to a degree) being a few research teams filled with PhDs.

Specialist and fungible are contradictory. It's true that they don't hire specialists - but there are only 7-8 different software profiles they look for.

1. ML 2. Systems 3. Product 4. Data engineer 5. SRE ....

Are you implying most companies have 37 profiles? Even this article was giving multiple examples or a little Web shop that probably has less profiles than 7.

Obviously no.

What I meant is that they don't specifically try to hire nodejs/computer vision/graphics/kubernetes specialists etc.

Lots of startups and mid level companies are looking to hire specialists in computer vision, nlp, scala expertise etc.

So startups can have 4-5 highly specialized profiles.

Or they run their own business.

I disagree, with caveats. There's the idea of a "T-shaped person": A little bit of knowledge in a lot of things, with deep knowledge in one area. This is what organisations tend to hire for.

The wildcard person eventually develops into a shape more akin to the differencing mark seen in heraldry for first-born sons. Much broader and deeper general knowledge, and several areas of very deep knowledge.

As one of these people, I can stand by the fact that, yes, you will be sought out by organisations which are struggling with serious challenges, but that does not mean that they can't pay good money. They can frequently pay very good rates, if you're working as a consultant, because you'll be paid for out of CapEx.

You are getting into a metaphor I saw here on HN some years back: "The Paint Drip" model of skilling.

The more you paint over a spot, the more it drips as paint accumulates. The things you spend the most time on, have the longest drips. Some may be in a T-shape, but as you say, there may be many longish drips in a person's skillset.

For the first 10 years of my career, I was more T-shaped. But also pretty good at jumping in and figuring things out.

I'm now a lot more "generalist" - I just tell people, "Try me; who knows what I'll know or be able to figure out". I still have some of those really long drips in my paint drip chart, a few really really long, but the nature of tech means that at some point, some tech you learned really well is dead and you'll never need to use it again. Such is life!

>"Try me; who knows what I'll know or be able to figure out". This mindset is usually highly toxic in workplace. At minimum it's a nice way to get yourself branded the official a-hole smartypants of the company.

Nah. I am definitely not that guy.

Toxic, perhaps for me. In that if I see something not getting done and I cannot get anyone to do something about it, I will try and handle it. I learn a lot along the way, but at times have too heavy a workload as a result.

A big part of this is that specialist can be fake, often are, and nobody can tell. They just need to know slightly more about kubernetes or whatever specialty it is, than other people around them. I often come across “experts” that aren’t really experts in anything besides self-branding. Our university system is built on this. It’s also the reason why we haven’t made much progress in the last 50 years or so. Everybody is just enough of a specialist to demand a wage, not more. What’s the saying, “they promised flying cars, but gave us Facebook.”

> You'll just never make the same kind of money as the person that knows Kubernetes backwards and forwards and not much else.

is there a statistics on this?

I laughed when I read this because being a kubernetes expert implicitly means having lots of experience on a wide array of subjects. Cloud services, networking, containers, etc. DevOps is literally one of the most generalist jobs out there.

A better example of a (typically) highly specialized job title might X Developer (where X is any programming language).

I'd be interested in seeing if other wildcard types actually care about this? Beyond living well of course, need cash for that.

My drive is dopamine, not money. As long as I'm fed and not in debt I couldn't give a rat's tail how much I'm earning. I'd take a hefty pay cut to jump on a "hell yes" project.

I think a lot of technical people care more than a rat’s tail what they earn. But I agree, it seems like a of HNers say they aren’t interested in any more money than to just barely physically survive. I mean, they say that, I don’t know. I haven’t many of these types in person. It is amusing, though.

I've seen those types in person, and it is indeed amusing, but they exist. Typically, they fall in one of the two categories.

1. Recent college grad or someone who hasn't worked at a company where there is significant pay involved yet. They tend to abandon their take on this, as soon as they get their first well-paying job. At least until they potentially become a part of group [2] I describe below, but that's not necessarily always the case.

2. Those who have been in the industry for a long time and amassed a savings nest/net worth large enough, they can afford not to work for quite a long time without taking any noticeable hit to their finances at all.

For HN specifically, my guess is that we have quite a solid mix of both, with the latter probably being better represented here due to the average age and experience.

Disclaimer: all of this is pure speculation and just my personal take.

> I'd take a hefty pay cut to jump on a "hell yes" project.

Very easy to say. Let's get back to it when you have actually taken a hefty pay cut.

In November I quit my full time job to go freelance while building my own business because I got bored of the Groundhog Day I was living in (7 year itch?).

So far it's the biggest pay cut I've taken, although admittedly it is looking like it'll stabilise to more than I was on FT over the next couple months. Does that count? Am I allowed to get back to it? Haha

Figured now's the best time to try. No dependents and worst case I crash and burn and move back in with mum for a bit :)

I don't think taking a risk with a expected pay off qualifies as "taking a big pay cut so I can work on interesting stuff".

Fair enough.

Get this — if you’re a generalist, you can actually decide to become a specialist in one area for the sake of money and career advancement, the same way you’d pick up any other piece of knowledge to solve a novel problem.

I would love to just be able to "not let myself become one of these people". Unfortunately I can't change how my brain reacts to stimuli (and I've tried).

The generalist’s solution to income is to have multiple jobs. If done correctly, the sum of those, even if individually lower paying, jobs should exceed a specialist role.

>Henry Ford had ordered a dynamo for one of his plants. The dynamo didn’t work, and not even the manufacturers could figure out why. A Ford employee told his boss that von Neumann was “the smartest man in America,” so Ford called von Neumann and asked him to come out and take a look at the dynamo.

>Von Neumann came, looked at the schematics, walked around the dynamo, then took out a pencil. He marked a line on the outside casing and said, “If you’ll go in and cut the coil here, the dynamo will work fine.”

>They cut the coil, and the dynamo did work fine. Ford then told von Neumann to send him a bill for the work. Von Neumann sent Ford a bill for $5,000. Ford was astounded — $5,000 was a lot in the 1940s — and asked von Neumann for an itemised account. Here’s what he submitted:

>Drawing a line with the pencil: $1

>Knowing where to draw the line with the pencil: $4,999

>Ford paid the bill.

From: https://superintelligence.fandom.com/wiki/John_von_Neumann_(...

Skimming that page:

> Von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my 3-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us.

And that 3 year old son went on to become one of the greatest scientists of this generation, Astro Teller, or also known as the director of Google X.

I love von Neumann stories. This one feels made up, though. Obviously this is a variation on a theme ("how much is experience worth?") and I doubt von Neumann would basically reenact that joke. But maybe he did.

Is this true? I've heard this story/anecdote before, more generally and not ascribed to any particular person, and to a general big company, not Ford specifically. (Just a general "know where to draw the chalk X" kind of thing.)

A search gives me only what I see as lowish reputation sources, like the fandom wiki you linked.

Nah, it goes back to 1908, possibly older:


By a long shot, it could have also originated from James McNeill Whistler, a painter.

> He did not ask 200 guineas for two days’ work; he asked it for the knowledge he had gained in the work of a lifetime.


It was Steinmetz.

> A genius in both mathematics and electronics, he did work that earned him the nicknames "Forger of Thunderbolts"[4] and "The Wizard of Schenectady".[5] Steinmetz's equation,[b][6] Steinmetz solids, Steinmetz curves, and Steinmetz equivalent circuit[7] are all named after him, as are numerous honors and scholarships, including the IEEE Charles Proteus Steinmetz Award, one of the highest technical recognitions given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers professional society.


New story to me, at a guess he understood that the design had created a shorted turn so a cut in the casing would solve it.

The principle of the story is however exactly the same as one I've heard before about Picasso:-

Picasso is quietly having lunch at a cafe when this loud woman says "Hey, aren't you Pablo Picasso?". He replies, quietly, "Yes, Madam, I am".

Her: "Wow! Hey, will you do a little sketch on this napkin for me?".

Picasso demurs, but she's really insistent. She says "It's only take you a moment, and I'll pay whatever you think it's worth".

So Picasso whips off a quick pencil sketch, 10 seconds, hands it to her. "Here you are, Madam. That'll be $10,000 please".

Her: "$10,000?! It only took you a moment!"

Picasso: "Au contraire Madam, that took me my whole life."

Wow. I just told this joke to my girlfriend literally this morning since we were talking about billable time (she's a consultant).

Only in the version I know it was a plumber in New York who was called to a fancy restaurant to fix a problem with the water which had stopped in the middle of dinner. The plumber takes out a small hammer, taps a random pipe and all the water starts flowing again.

$1001 bill. $1 for tapping the pipe. $1000 for knowing where to tap it.

I was surprised she hadn't heard it before as it's a classic, especially for anyone who bills for their time.

Synchronicity powers the universe

I think that's all of us, really.

I'm reminded of Heinlein's quote "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Haven't read something so true for long time. We're so much into "fake specialization" that we don't recognise it anymore. Learn making Musik, talk to people, draw something, use your body! One doesn't need to be an expert yet can use what he/she got!

Easier said than done.

For example, that's what Elon Musk believes he is.

He has enormous amounts of money to back his ideas, and then you have seen the results, mostly is just manipulation and other people actually do the things.

The number one critique I’ve heard of Elon Musk is that he “doesn’t actually do the things himself”. Yeah, that’s what a business is. That’s what a salary is for. To pay you to do things for other people. He’s good at getting the smartest people to work harder than they’ve ever worked before by presenting them with interesting problems.

he could sure improve on his fashion. all billionaires can

bit biased towards waging war or being a soldier.

Heinlein was an American naval officer just after WWI and right before WWII. At that time it wasn't called "bias" it was simply "being American".

That quote was written in a very different world.

is it still being american?

Depends who you ask, but the percentage of people who would answer "no" is significantly higher than it was 50 years ago.

I don't have any data, but my guess is it's approaching 50%. A lot of Americans are pretty pissed about our military for a variety of reasons.

Maybe I'm confusing is and ought, but I don't think Americans are pissed with the military per se, or if so, the anger is maybe misplaced. Ideally, and mostly true in practice, the US military is a neutral tool of the State. I for one am truly thankful that the US military has a culture of staying out of politics. Historically, states decline into authoritarianism and ruin once the military starts running things.

Unlike, for instance, the 3-letter agencies, who do actively engage in political maneuvering. These organizations, ostensibly comprised of patriots, should really look at history and introspect.

This is me, this is how I generate value as a full-blown ADHD case. I wonder if there’s a correlation? To add credibility in a corporate setting I have somehow achieved a fearsome combination of Physics PhD, MBA and 25 years of wildcard software development / entrepreneurship. That, combined, legitimizes why I’m allowed to be the wildcard. How have you others managed to be this deep generalist in a specialist’s world?

This entire article was born from conversations I was having when doing research for my book on ADHD (https://adhdpro.xyz/), so it’s a pretty strong correlation I would say :)

Thanks for the book. I managed to "read" it whole in about an hour. And basically, yes I do have ADHD as you described half of my life even the "smart girls" example did hit me as I did had similar smart girls back in the day in my classes. Also I did already try most of that stuff in the book, but I don't want to try let's say shrooms and I already quit somking tobbacco 3 years ago after 10+ years smoking. So I guess right now all I need is to be diagnosed and get some meds which I already had a schedule for the next week done like two days ago and your book only solidifies me in that move. Only thing I'm scared of is that the doc wont take me serious and will try to avoid prescribin the meds. Or will try to extend the whole process for another 2-3 months before prescribing anything as its not that easy to get ADHD meds from where I'm from due to their bad "rep".

But yea thanks for your book I am 100% sure I have ADHD and I was sure of it for at least the last few years but it is really difficult to find a good professional to get the help you really need.

Thanks for buying my book! I think you’ll do just fine with your doctor. If you want to chat about that, please send me an email :)

"A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one." I'll check the book out.

Thanks for the link! I just bought your book :)

This was my immediate thought also - as I embrace my ADHD as success, not failure. After 10 years of web design/dev work I found myself spending more time in SQL than design and left to study classical animation. At 20 years I have managed to cobble together a useful, successful, maybe even desirable wildcard career in edu kids media, collecting accolades along the way that I couldn't care less about.

I like to think of my ADHD as the superpower of subconscious thought. When I wrangle the focus, things percolate quickly and I will create very interesting work at an incredibly high production value. This happens both alone and with a team and I believe it to be related to a wide and varied skillset--master of none.

Success happens so frequently that I have been able to learn some conditions to gain focus so results are fairly repeatable. My work gets a lot of eyeballs, folks see this value and will put me on new projects or simply come to me for validation of their ideas.

Still, I'm not the easiest person for neuro-typicals to work around, and after 20 years that is unlikely to change much. I keep my job because I'm always needed - I can always do the thing that needs to be done, or help a team to deliver. It helps that I'm also kind, and fun to be around. But, as projects mature I am eventually phased out for a larger team of stable redundancy and I have to cope with losing the thing that I built and love.

My joy comes with learning something very new and very challenging, casting light on the unknown by diving head-first before others think. My career is successful because I am skilled and able to take on the risks that others are afraid to spend the time or resources on. I am somehow already prepared, interested, and on staff.

I relate to this with my ADHD as well. I work for a certain cloud provider, and made my name by ambulance chasing both on my team and company-wide for interesting problems. Turned debugging complex networking/systems/security/etc. issues, regardless of my day to day role, into my “specialization”. My actual role is still as a software engineer on a team in the networking domain, so it works nicely. Over the years has been a challenge to balance ad-hoc engagements with work/life balance, but last couple years I’ve figured it out nicely.

Remember also that "ADHD" is more complicated than a binary off-or-on thing. I've never been diagnosed with ADHD and doubt I would be if specifically evaluated for it, but I have another diagnosis that comes with "ADHD-lite" behavior as part of its usual phenotype. It originates from a different place (as far as anyone knows) but it sure looks pretty similar.

So what I'm saying is, you should think of "ADHD" as a lens through which you can choose to view yourself and your brain. Some things might fit or describe you well, other things will not, regardless of "diagnosis" or lack thereof. And that's normal. Make use of the conclusions and techniques that work for you and make your life and the lives of those around you better, and forget about the others. That's all anyone can hope to do.

(You'll need a diagnosis should you want meds, though.)

Definitely agree, and to clarify I do have a diagnosis (and take medication). I don’t view it as a condition per-se, just part of who I am, as well as something that makes life interesting.

> Furthermore, Wildcards thrive with new tasks and suffer from repetitive ones. They also have a hard time staying outwardly organized

I got to this line before realising they might just be renaming ADHD.

Hell I'll take it though, "Wildcard" added to the resume. Bring me an interesting business model, pay me enough to cover my bills. What do you need doing?

If I don't know how to now, I will next week.

I've been studying English, Political Scienes, Computational Lingustics, Cognitive Science and Engineering Psychology, then worked as a developer in various startups and am now a Product Manager (a common job title for 'wildcard' people, according to the article).

I've switched jobs on average every 2 years and am still trying to find the one position that can really fill my needs. The closest I got was as a technical Product Owner in a multi-team development effort where I managed to stay on for four years.

I'm also visiting a therapist in two weeks to find out if I have ADHD or not.

I feel this article describes my profile about 90% accurately.

This is also me to the dot. I am also trailing ADHD pills to mitigate the bad organizatio part. I am 33, and i am looking forward in my agenda planning for a week or 2. Before this would be 2 hours.

I also feel that the wildcard person is like this because of some specific characteristics, like to never want to quitte before working etc, which comes with huge downsides, couple relationships on my end.

My saying is that I can fix anything if you give me enough time.

To all the wildcards, shield yourself from abuse by your employer.

I join companies early on and do 5 different jobs and get paid for 1, then burn out

Me too, yet it changed with my diagnosis and COVID lockdown. I had a really open and frank discussion with my current employer, about who I am, what I can help with, but also the darker sides and how I’m not a magical creator and operator in one. They seem to accept that. That again gives me freedom to define the point I can exit my i initiatives, and have others take over. After 40 cycles around Sol, I know when burnout hits, and call the exit just before that. The second thing is making it clear that I need downtime. That is not a leave, but usually spent wandering the company, diagnosing and ideating. Then, when recharged I propose new initiatives and on it goes. This way of working has reignited my entrepreneurial side, to the extent that I’m starting a venture studio with the majority owner of the company, to make that process unbounded from the main company.

I was that guy for some 5-6 years in earlier years of my career. It doesn't pay well. Job security is non-existent. You won't get visa sponsorships. Your only way out is to build your own startup/product.

It is too far out of the regular career spectrum, and you face even open criticism in interviews for this sometimes.

So, I stopped. I am an expert Frontend Engineer now. I get senior roles without even a proper interview. I pass all interviews like it is small talk. My job security is much better.

Downside? I cannot make a full-fledged side project anymore. I just realized this recently when I started building one and realized how much I had to re-learn again.

> I am an expert Frontend Engineer now

I wonder how much you know more than a Fullstack Engineer?

I ask because I am a generalist "fullstack" and want to know what kind of things an "expert" should know in the frontend that would make them unable to do fullstack personal projects

From my POV, unless you are working on very new tech like WebGl, Wasm, etc, everything else frontend is pretty much resolved. Would "expert" mean the breadth of knowledge on frontend frameworks? Writing JS compilers? Ajax?

I'm also interested in this, but I'm more interested in what you need to say and do to convince other people you're an expert.

> everything else frontend is pretty much resolved

Has it? The technologies will change again. Pretty soon, if I have to guess. What's valuable here are the concepts that are universally applicable and have been since it was called client programming in the 70s: state management, rendering, API integrations, architecture.

> to be an expert

You should be able to offer solutions to problems impromptu. You should be dependeable in a wider-group meeting involving business or other competencies to represent what does the frontend say about it.

This means having knowledge and experience to offer solutions without googling.

Beyond that, you also need to be on top of the latest (not the newest) standards to follow. You need to stay up-to-date and filter through the waterfall of sh*t trends in the industry, to know what's actually relevant.

While doing all of that, you need to maintain your past/fundamental knowledge...nitty gritty details, to help your colleagues.

You need to do all of this while (most likely) being representative spokesperson/front for a frontend project at your day job.

I interviewed Full Stack Engineers many times. They usually cannot finish a coding challenge that is entirely frontend. The same challenge for me, it is all about how fast I can type. I can narrate the code and architecture I am writing as I code it

As with everything in life, full stack is a spectrum between backend and frontend leaning extremes. So, my point above is definitely a generalisation.

You might be super-sharp, a unicorn, or a frontend-leaning fullstack developer. It may not apply to you.

Taking this into consideration, there are worse examples of fullstackers too. Ones that don't know of spread operator, or can't type an object without googling first. that is around-or-below a junior-level competence in frontend.

Then there are those in the middle, who won't be up-to-date on how to use hooks, contexts, or be out-of-touch with concept of reducers or state management...but will work at the competence level of a mid-level frontender.

That's basically talking about me. On my job they call me Mr. Wolf and I love it. The description is quite accurate, main difference being that the article focuses mainly on semi-marketing tasks instead I tend to be assigned higher level issues (I mainly deal with emergencies raised by our CEOs). It was nice to read it, I feel less lonely now.

To make you feel even less lonely, you are not the only one that was called Mr Wolf :)

Cool nick, does it refer to a character or the animal itself?

character from Pulp Fiction. The "problem solver"


> Furthermore, Wildcards thrive with new tasks and suffer from repetitive ones. They also have a hard time staying outwardly organized.

That’s an ADHD signature. I’d say huge chunk of article describes “managed” ADHD.

I have an argument against having a chaotic wildcard m. It had been imprinted into me that (from management perspective) consistency of result is more important than its brilliance. I.e. it’s better to have consistent low performer than performer who produced great results from time to time.

In general, I think it is true, but experience in IT shows that low performers can’t achieve breakthroughs, so at least few chaos bringers are a healthy choice.

Something I’ve seen repeatedly is that chaos bringers are expected to fit into the consistent results bin in a rigid process when it might be more effective to lock them in a room with a hard problem for a month.

I’d expect adhd peeps to work best in a rapidly shifting environment full of emergencies. Being locked in a room for a month with the same problem is not my idea of a fun time.

If the problem is super interesting and involves a bunch of learning and novel problem solving, it would be a pretty fun time for me. Perhaps just for two weeks though, a month might be too long.

As a wildcard person, one thing not mentioned is they need to be complemented by at least one type A, no-nonsense delivery manager who can block their say-yes-to-everything attitude, help them prioritize and focus, and ensure the "boring stuff" like test suites and status reports are flowing.

Together this tandem can do truly great things.

>they need to be complemented by at least one type A, no-nonsense delivery manager

And these managers need to report to them, not the other way around.

Truly great things either way, but an order of magnitude more accomplishments which is noticeable.

Kind of like a real rock star who is the one that hires the manager, even though the manager will be the one outlining and scheduling the grueling tasks for the performer, which the performer will adhere to as if the manager was his actual boss, except with none of the disadvantages.

Not entirely invalid, but still, god save me from yet another manager who thinks they are the real source of value.

This is a superb point. I’m going to add something like that to the article.

Yes! The problem with being a „can-do everything problem solver“ is that I get overloaded with tasks from all over the organization whenever has a question or wants to get something working quickly.

While helping everyone with whatever comes up seems nice, it's not the most valuable way to spend my time. At first, I was annoyed by the „everything goes through the product manager“ - mantra, but now I agree that having someone to filter and prioritize incoming tasks is crucial.

Think it points more to the false belief that the “Individual Contributor” path has to stop at the start of the “Manager” path when the reality is it can surpass it.

That takes a wildcard with self awareness AND humility. As a WC, historically, I have looked down upon such managers but in the last few years I have started to stare my weaknesses in the face and recognize that everyone has a role and that getting cogs to align makes magic.

This is partially true - but with the caveat that said manager needs to have a clear understanding of what to say yes to, what to say no to, and also to have realistic expectations of what a wildcard can and can't do in terms of skillset.

This was me at my last job - within 3 weeks of being hired I was basically touching nearly all aspects of the organization - I was in sales meetings, talking with the developers and product designers, helping out customer service, etc. I didn't feel super productive but felt great knowing that I could help out anyone in a pinch across a wide spectrum, and also that people seemed to come to me to help solve their problem because if I wasn't the person to solve the issue, I knew the exact person who was, and I was in good standing with whoever that person was and could get things solved quickly (or responsibility passed to someone who could actually do what was necessary). The death knell came when a new HR person came in, and a new layer of management (another new employee - a former banker) was put in over me who insisted that I change teams and only work as a spreadsheet jockey and doing deep, repetitive M&A finance stuff (and having zero interactions with other teams) despite me having little experience in finance outside of managing my own portfolio and helping my previous company understand our market from a product and financial prespective. I tried my best but was completely out of my depth and when he fired me, he said it was my own fault for not having a banker's skillset. He kept blocking me from stuff I was better at doing where I could actually produce value for the organization.

Thing is - I was hired as a product manager and never actually given a product to manage or work on.

6 months of my career, destroyed. TLDR - a wildcard needs to be accompanied by someone who knows what the wildcard can, and can't do; and also who knows that tying a wildcard down to a boring project they aren't suited for is a bad use of the organization's time and capital.

Something about this feels "horoscopy". Meaning most people who read this will think "that's me!". I wonder if that is the intent.

Is that accurate? If so there's way more wildcard types on HN than I've bumped into. I need to move to somewhere more wildcard heavy!

When this article says wildcard I think "that's me!" because I do anything from web dev (actual role) to sysadmin (preferred role) to IT security to GDPR compliance to billing clients to looking for new clients to project management to hiring to data admin to research and development (my 2nd last job qualified for a government grant for this one haha) to ..

I've not yet been asked to do something I couldn't at a minimum do a "yeah that will do for now cheers" job on. You might not want me setting up your Kubernetes production cluster (yet), but a prototype or test net? Come back in an hour boss.

The list goes on. I can also plan, direct, shoot, edit, promote videos and podcasts too but it's been a while.

I'm not saying match the skillset but does everyone saying "that's me" have a skillset that looks like someone just picked what to learn by rolling dice? That's what I'm picturing when I identify myself as the wildcard person described in the article.

The list you give is very much what I consider normal software developer job (only even a bit wildcard-y is the billing). Any competent developer should be able to write web stuff, maintain their machine and handle setting up and maintaining servers, they should know about common security problems in the kind of product they are developing and GDPR compliance is pretty much a TODO list of data management features.

It is not like you are developing software today and tomorrow working in the kitchen making cakes and yesterday you were laying some asphalt.

I could give anyone of in my team task to prototype Kubernetes cluster. It is just normal computer stuff, but with a new/different tool. It is still very much under the same scope as other skills they need to be able to do their job.

I'd thoroughly agree with you in honesty, devs should be able to do it all, slackers! If I had a quid for every time I've thought "Full stack, my arse." and had to take over from someone I wouldn't need to work anymore.

My "full stack" (tho I don't bill as that because I'm still pretty terrible at frontend from scratch) is from the hardware up. I built a server from components, configured everything (OS, web server, database), built a web app, installed GitLab and runner, CI/CD'd blue green deployments, etc in about 12 hours to see if I could once.

Oh aye I also built a rival to Twitch on a whim one time. I can't prove these things easily but I do still have the proof of concept nginx config knocking around from that one! https://gist.github.com/cohan/7f676d3f561be62d0550785c015f00...

I used Bunny.net's CDN for serving video and used their logging API to generate analytics (viewers watching, watch count, watch duration, bounce rate, etc). First media streamed through it successfully without leaking any auth keys and without any stuttering video was this, so epic when it worked! https://youtu.be/JozAmXo2bDE

Oddly enough I've made cakes (en-masse), haha. Crap at cooking (working on it) but I can follow a recipe like nobody's business! Stimulating enough in the moment but not a career choice for me. Just helping out a friend.

FWIW I was advising law firms and other big corps on their GDPR compliance until they got their DTO position set up. Not just making sure my own stuff was compliant (tho, that too).

There's also the boring stuff in there like being able to measure whatever the company wants to measure in Google Analytics, blah blah tag manager, A/B testing, this n that ad campaigns. Monitoring services (Zabbix) is something that's been useful to corps too. Sharding databases when they get too big. Backups. The less fun to brag about day to day stuff. Got a hat that needs a head in it? Chuck it here, I'll figure it out :)

Fair enough though, I'll ramp down the feeling special. I'll have to network more so I can find where these folks are working! I'd love to convince a couple of hat racks into joining me on a project some time, haha. One day. Marketing, frontend dev/des, and accounting are currently my main weak spots!

I'll have to hire my own manager so I can get more stuff done at some point too, hadn't considered that as an option (ala https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=34158789)

I think the actual intent is to puff their jobs page, which is... not in good shape.

This is basically describing a smart person. Many smart people don't act like this because they correctly realize doing so is harmful to their career until they are higher in the org chart.

Does anyone else think this reads like a horoscope? As in, it’s quite likely that this applies to most people reading it to some degree. Not many jobs (at least in my SWE space) are directly linear and require a variety of tasks.

That was my takeaway. Reading it feels like it describes me perfectly, which is often a dead giveaway for something being horoscope-like IME. I think it mostly describes the sort of people you find at early stage startups. Which isn’t everyone, for sure. I’ve often been described as a “fixer” - you get something working, you build an MVP, etc. then you move onto something else. I’d say that’s at least 1/3 of engineers at a standard startup. But, that’s just my experience!

I now literally have an emergency contract with a client. If their developer can’t do it, they call me.

On the other hand I recently got fired from a code monkey job for lack of sustained productivity.

Not much to go off of here but similar experience as someone with ADHD

Nice read. Kind of reminds me of T shaped people - https://jchyip.medium.com/why-t-shaped-people-e8706198e437

I'd also say that being a T shaped person is how I'd try to be „hirable“ as a generalist. Get really good at one thing that has a title (in my case: „Data Engineer“) but also have a broad range of skills.

Sometimes it sucks to be T-shaped. Imposter syndrome kicks in all of the time :)

Doesn't it get balanced by the occasional „Why do I have to show you how to do your job“? ;)

I've never been in such situation. Usually it is expected from me to do it all :)

Interesting. Never heard this term before.

I am definitely somewhere on this spectrum. If you find yourself in this bucket, try to add 1 more trick to your repertoire: Patience.

For me, this has proven to be a far more difficult lesson than anything in the actual computer system. Sitting quietly and waiting for others to deliberate something important, often across days and weeks, feels like torture to me. Especially, when the answer is so obvious in my own mind and the implications of bad decision making are severe.

People are irrational and unpredictable. Waiting for them to see things your way can sometimes take longer than expected. This is not something to be fixed. It is something to be tolerated. Unless you are running a one-man startup, this is unavoidable - Do you want to do the jobs of all your teammates?

If you cannot get your way on day 1, do NOT send that salty email right away. Type out a draft, send it to yourself, and then read it the next morning. Consider other perspectives as often as possible.

I'd say the most impactful wildcard is one who is also very good at salesmanship. If you can come up with crazy ideas and also convince everyone on the team they are amazing, you are going to be unstoppable. The #1 trick in my estimation is to turn one option into a few options. A carefully-crafted illusion of free will can make a huge difference.

Patience is a good advice. I'll also say, it's often important to let people in various functions add their input, even if you can operate all those functions yourself.

My super power is being able to understand many aspects of the business (engineering, product, marketing, sales, etc) and hold it in my head all at once. At least to a degree. But enough of a degree that I can make decisions just about instantly in my head that would require most people to have numerous meetings to bring the various stakeholders together to figure out all the related components.

It works really well and I can do things very quickly and effectively, but it does often bother people that they're not involved in the process because they're used to having their inputs asked for.

Usually what I is parallelize the process. I'll make a preliminary decision in my head, start executing it on, and then in the background, I'll also have conversations with the various stakeholders. Usually, nothing comes out of it, but they get to feel included, and sometimes they do provide valuable input, so it is beneficial too.

I tried hiring on these traits in the past, one challenge there is that almost everyone self-identifies as this kind of person (and it’s probably even true, to an extent.)

It’s hard in the end to evaluate effectiveness of T-shaped people across a wide spectrum of potential tasks, but I am curious if others have figured it out.

Everyone can self-identify as they like, the real ones in this case are easy to spot just asking them to tell you some stories of absurd problems they solved. They always have a boatload of war stories.

An issue I’ve found is that often these stories don’t tend to be believed. To the untrained ear, they sound like typical BS everyone throws around.

Tiny example: I joined a company and a nightly process was data import. The import was starting to take longer than 25 hours, threatening the “daily” aspect, and on the verge of causing logistical problems because of this.

The problem had been looming for months and has taken more time from multiple folks than anyone anticipated, impacting other projects’ timelines.

It wasn’t on my plate, but I overheard others talking about it. I took a look, and spent a couple days testing out ideas. I got a 25 hour process down to 30 minutes. Had to do it myself first to prove it, because just making suggestions to the “experienced” folks was dismissed with “that’s not how this works, you don’t understand”. After I got it to 30 minutes, the same folks “optimized” my process down to about 25 minutes, then didn’t overly acknowledge the approach I’d used to make this manageable again.

I’ve had pushback on this story like “well, there was probably something you’re leaving out. Everyone likes to think their contribution is the most important, but things are a team effort. We’re not all superheroes”.

If you ask for war stories, be prepared for dailywtf-level stuff sometimes.

> “well, there was probably something you’re leaving out. Everyone likes to think their contribution is the most important, but things are a team effort. We’re not all superheroes”.

That's how people that give no contributions whatsoever would reply, I think. The pattern "identify thing that takes too long, local expert says it's unfixable and you don't understand, you fix it in a few hours, local expert downplays" is VERY common, but until the one controlling the budget is aware of reality I'm ok with it. And in those cases you see the good people because they get excited and want to help improve more things.

Haha just leave off the part of the story where it humiliates someone else. Anyway you should take cash over credit any day. Credit can be taken in the most brazen ways by those with more political power in the org and all you can do about it is bloody some noses, not a great reputation builder. You must know that whether people admit it or not, they know who did the lions share and its an invisible card in your back pocket but to exercise it takes tact and stones. An alternative way to frame your story is that your solution was immediately validated by greybeards and effortlessly extended!! ;-)

I think you just left out the most important bit of the story... What exactly did you do in order to reduce it from 25 hours to 30 minutes?

Quick steps:

* Create new table on disk.

* Create temp table in RAM.

* Start chunked import.

* Import 50k rows in to temp table.

* Dump temp table to new table.

* Clear temp table.

* Import next 50k rows.

* Repeat.

* Drop old table, rename new table on disk to regular name

Each row being imported was updating indices. Just removing indexes, then importing, did speed it up, but not as dramatically. Importing most to RAM table, then chunking to the final table. That was a core key.

I'd indicated early on "let's try temp memory tables". It was dismissed ("we tried that" and also "what's that?"). So I did my own tests, and it was pretty dramatic.

Exactly. The real ones, with experience, can regale with numerous stories of their trials and tribulations. Critically, it won’t come across as boastful, because they’ll detail how they loved the challenge, the context, and the solution.


Might be easier to hire people who show technical strength at something, demonstrate picking up something else to some degree, and (most importantly, IMHO) are up to functioning as part of a team.

We need people motivated by helping the team achieve success, not only looking good on their individual metrics and deliverables. Everyone adaptively focused on the collective goal can be so much more easily and efficiently aligned with team success.

If someone seems to think like a team member, and apparently can pick up multiple things, at that point, I might just ask them what they think about the role I'm starting to imagine for them.

(I'm thinking like an ideal-ish startup here, because other kinds of organizations in general usually seem too inefficient to bother worrying about whether some person can pick up new things as they're needed.)

> Might be easier to hire people who show technical strength at something

Yeah, hire for intelligence and curiosity. An intelligent and curious developer probably studied algorithms to a useful level, if you don't understand them well you either aren't smart or you lack the curiosity to look into new topics.

A generalist developers who isn't even at that level in their subjects isn't worth their salt, I'm not sure why anyone would want those. A person who mainly knows different frameworks like rewact, angular, spring, mongo, sql and rails isn't a generalist, they are just your average specialist web developer, hire them if you want to maintain web stuff but not for anything interesting.

I think your argument might be interpreted as encouraging Leetcode interviews, which I'd disagree with.

The algorithms they ask for in interviews are so low level that any programmer could learn them in a couple of months, that is generalist level and not specialist level. Not all developers who pass them are generalists, but the people who don't aren't generalist developers. They could be generalist problems solvers who dabbles a bit in programming, but they aren't generalist developers.

HN has been over the Leetcode interview discussion a thousand times, and it's more complicated than a sentence can argue, so we can agree to disagree on Leetcode interviews. :)

Most objections to leetcode are from specialist developers who argue they aren't specialists at algorithms.

I'd expect most generalist developers to know algorithms well. Why? Generalists steps up when specialists are outside of their speciality. Very few teams has specialist algorithm experts, so instead generalists has to step up and solve those problems. If you don't step up in those situations then you aren't a generalist developer, I'm sorry to say it. Most developers are specialists, like most people, including the people here.

I don’t know. I think this whole discussion is very vague if go by the example in the article, it sounds unlikely the developer described as the wildcard in the article would do very well on LeetCode.

A smart person who loves to learn and do new things and gets excited under pressure? Sounds like exactly the kind of person who would ace leetcode interviews to me, at least if they got a technical degree.

Such people hate to grind, so if they managed to get a technical degree they are smart and interested enough in the subject that they studied for fun or didn't need to study. So either they would gladly study for leetcode, or they would pass without studying it.

This assumes they have a degree though, if you take such a developer without a degree then I'd agree with you. But I wouldn't classify such a person as a generalist developer, they are a generalist who can code.

This is targeted at a would-be wildcard manager, but for those of you who identify this way, how do you describe this skillset? I’m a combination product manager, data engineer, strategy consultant, and UX/UI designer. While everyone I’ve ever worked with sees that I really am capable across those roles in time, it’s been challenging to convey the breadth of expertise to a hiring manager, without seeming quite arrogant (Mr. “I can do anything”).

Lmao exactly I had a job interview yesterday and I think the interviewer did took me as arrogant and did everything he could to shoot me down and even told me that I don't have "the thing" in me, which kinda drained me for the day but is funny to be in such a occurence where the last 3 years I got promoted each year and in my current company I got promoted after only 6 months from employment start. But yea it is difficult to exactly reply on what I do, while I basically do the job of 3-4 departments until things are sorted and fixed and currently in the day to day basis, so yea that hits home a lot.

> how do you describe this skillset?

Simply as: Software developer, worth his salt.

(The other side of this spectrum is likely called "code monkey", in case the base role is in software development).

I identify myself with the wildcard person. I would adjust my resume to lean more towards the hiring position. After hirin they get to know the swiss army knife.

My personal experience is being in product management. This is where you can really show your divergent thinking. It has the most variance and so many rubbish product managers!

You can describe yourself as open to help wherever you can, and then give diverse real examples.

Don’t you kind of have to be this person if you want to found a startup? To me this just describes a founder.

If you’re not a founder and you’re putting this kind of energy into your job, I hope you at least have substantial equity, because otherwise you’re being taken advantage of. Know your worth!

Also if you think this is you, it probably isn’t. There isn’t an “engineering” wildcard or a “marketing” wildcard, the whole point is that these people do everything.

Many people who I met while writing this article told me they don’t want the full blown responsibilities of being a founder. They just like doing lots of different things. But ultimately, you’re right.

>Imagine being involved in everything a company does.

Schipplock has a good imagination, realistic, too:

>As someone already commented, it‘s a recipe for a burn-out.

But doesn't burn out the real wildcard CEO material. For this person it's not wild to go beyond a recipe, it's common.

A lower-performing CEO who's only involved in less than everything a company does, limits the company to achieveing less than everything it could. These are the ones most threatened by a wildcard operator at any level, and that trepidation will trickle down until making contact with the threat in a neutralizing way. Poisoning the chain of command against comprehensive problem-solving all the way down.

I see what you are saying. I think that some people are good at trying everything when they are alone or the one in full control, and others are good at operating dynamically within a larger organization or a situation not of their choosing. So I think we need two terms and I think wildcard/free electron applies more to the person operating inside an organization or community.

Right. The wildcard/free electron I have observed and worked closely with the most has an almost physical allergic reaction to power and control. They throw themselves headfirst into fires and spit out solutions that work and endure, but are horrified of holding any official title beyond their nebulous, job descriptionless role. Receiving public credit also makes them recoil in horror — so long as 1) the CEO duly compensates them for their effort and time (this person has a ruthlessly mercenary personality…funnily enough) and 2) the solution they shipped works, they are happy.

But one thing that I think a lot of what the article missed, and perhaps what demarcates the good from the just okay wildcards, is that the one of the overall goals for any task is to find a good specialist/maintainer who will continue on and refine the min-viable into something sustainable long term. Those who care not to firefight, but to do the work of tending the garden while they go on to fight the next fire.

I feel like this is describing a class in an RPG. I’m not sure people fit into these boxes so well. I’m not sure I have seen many of these ruthless mercenaries in the wild.

Ah sorry should have made more clear — this was just about this one specific person.

I haven’t met many people like them either. I have also not met many ruthless corporate mercenaries. This particular person might be an edge case (they also retired at age 40…while living a pretty upscale lifestyle).

So it’s possible to be a wildcard and be wildly successful, contrary to the statements here. Just a helluva lot harder.

You could still work on diverse things, but do it within your normal work day. I don’t think being a jack of all trades necessitates overwork or being taken advantage of (though it certainly could, but so could a deep expert who doesn’t have a diverse skill set).

I don't think so, many people have a wide array of skills and interests, but none of them is business related.

Are they being taken advantage of? Sure, most people are being taken advantage of, that's the system we live in, it's called capitalism. But in rich countries that often still leaves enough to have a good life.

This is almost right.

This is exactly half of what’s required in a startup.

The other half is someone in operations who can do the organization of chaos output into a coherent system.

Top Gun (1986) already defined "wild card" people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyUc3u9cR2Q&t=2m4s

Rule-breakers, unpredictable, mess up, you don't know whether you'd want to go into battle with them.

Hopefully, you get a Hollywood ending, in which they turn out to be 10x performers who save the day.

Just remember: the article is a generalization. There are many in-betweens and people present much more variation in real life scenarios.

In IT specifically, there is a high level of cross-pollination between different areas. Anyone with enough years invested in the industry will have some degree or another of wildcardness to its toolbelt. Willingness to play the role or hire for it will also vary considerably.

Compared to other industries, IT is very young and it is still very much possible to be a specialist in more than one thing (just because many of these things haven't fully matured yet). That's considerably harder on areas with a broader legacy such as biology or physics.

Great article, reminds me of someone I know.

One quibble,

> If your Wildcard is a Product Manager, their team will ship feature-complete products on time, but without the neatly organized armada of JIRA tickets or burn-down charts you wished to see. The friction of keeping things organized is less stimulating than the instant feedback of just doing the work.

“Just doing the work” is the point. The fact that the work can be finished without JIRA tickets and burn down charts is because those things are stupid ways to manage product development, not because Wildcards get shit done.

The problem with JIRA in particular is that it encourages a focus on tasks rather than goals, and so the tasks become the goals.

To reference a recent post, such things are not the “blue light” of writing software. They have no value

I hadn't read that post, so I went and looked for it, and you are exactly right! I'm going to have to bookmark that one.


I ask myself is it a good thing or a bad thing.

Good thing: shit gets done

Bad thing: every other person I work with is not a wildcard and really works well under well designed, product management/software processes.

If I could invent anything, it would be a disassociative state where I could just download brain ideas (completed)

I think your experience is common (it certainly resonates with me) so I’m certainly not trying to contradict you when I say that I think there exist tools to help with the problem you mention - but JIRA is not one of them.

These days, I work on the basis that managing the backlog is actually the management problem that needs solving. With an appropriate tool (I like ProductBoard), I can group together related issues, put my notes on them, and assign them to another developer. That helps them keep the blue light on too.

Most so-called product management tools seem to think that a bunch of cards on a kanban board is all we need. But if the problem was that easy, nobody would have a problem.

I am the management

Judge Dredd vibes, made me chuckle. Kinda like when you are in the flow :

I am the software

I find myself in this description since forever, but I still can't figure out how to really take advantage of it: it's not always possible to behave like this in your daily job and in your personal life you typically spend a lot of mental energy to understand what to do instead of doing. I fear to end up with a lot of skills and potential unused.

It also reminds me of the Scanner people introduced by Barbara Sher in her book https://www.amazon.com/Refuse-Choose-Interests-Passions-Hobb...

still can't figure out how to really take advantage of it

Demonstrate that you can build and ship entire products from scratch.

Get a bunch of them out in the wild and make sure everybody knows that you built every piece. Shipping things is a vanishingly rare thing these days, so it's valuable.

There are companies full of amazing engineers who are all sitting around blocked waiting for backend to give them the API endpoint or the designers to finish tweaking the button. Meet the person running that company and he will hire you to start this afternoon building the thing they actually want built, but can't because these clowns can't ship the last thing.

>I fear to end up with a lot of skills and potential unused.

The sooner you can achieve a lot of different unused skills & potentials, the better you can end up with fewer of them in disuse.

It you’re one of these people take a break! You’re gonna burn out. You’re going to do more valuable work if you don’t. Sincerely, very tired person who recognizes myself in the article.

Recovering burnt out wildcard here. It’s the walking the thin line between doom and success (I use that term loosely)

Wildcard burnout will be the next article

  > Hire a Wildcard to Get Sh*t Done
That is the title on their frontpage. Probably made by a Mädchen für alles (literally, "girl for everything").

I don‘t think you want to be the Passepartout of a corporation. It‘s rewarding at first, but the longer you try to fulfill that role, the more you will be exhausted. Imagine being involved in everything a company does. As someone already commented, it‘s a recipe for a burn-out.

Most folks are familiar with the saying: "A jack of all trades is a master of none".

They might not be familiar with the complete saying:

"A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one."

Brethren, this is I.

In a $bigcorp this is a problem because a lot of people don't want problems solved. Instead of being glad a problem is solves they will get pissed you stepped on their toes. Something that takes maybe 30min for me to do, some person/team expects me to wait weeks, months or years for them to do it. Problem is, I am not in IT-proper,devops or SWE. I work in security so "problems" are stuff that can land us on a news headline so I do piss people off and fix stuff.

Interviews are also hard. They try to put me in some bucket and it is difficult. If I mention something I had to do to get something done, suddenly they think that's all I should do.

I am on my second job right now(in a row) where they had to create a new job title for me. But in the last few years, the infosec world has adapted a bit and now there are titles for people like me. "The guy that gets a lot of access and does whatever to catch/stop/respond to intruders".

It is also the hardest for people of this personality to appear to be teamworkers. If I collaborate with someone (let's say an incident response task) and I am done with my tasks and they're taking their time, I have to take over their task and finish it. In a bigcorp this is a problem because everyone wants credits and visibility. So for the actual team members I look good but for managers not so much. They see me as a liability unless I am careful and solve problems quietly and let others take credit when possible. But the person whose task I took over or mistake I fixed gets angry, doesn't matter how nicely I do things.

This was so not a problem in a startup culture (unless you create work for others).

Edit/Unrelated: my account is restricted because apparently I post "low value" content (still not sure if that is a code word or what it means), can you tell if and why the above comment is "low value"?

Also, the other side, "Why hire a Wildcard?" https://wildcardpeople.com/why-hire-a-wildcard

You will like this one.

Ken Coleman[1] mentioned the term “Intelligent Override” at a Podcast[2] about Mentors and Leadership with Ben Horowitz on Sep 28, 2022 (looks like a re-run).

The idea of someone going beyond the norms, systems and processes, rules and regulations to make things work better. Look out for People who can do “Intelligent Override.” Most companies don’t have many people like that. People who can go through the side door to get things done the right way - to get a customer, to solve a problem.

A brilliant intellect can anticipate which turns lead to treasure and which lead to certain death. Most people are just running to the entrance of (say); the “new investment that promises more than the market” maze, or the “crypto money” maze, without any sense for the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the innovations that are likely to move walls and change assumptions.

1. https://www.linkedin.com/in/ken-coleman-1464922/ (I think)

2. https://a16z.com/2018/07/12/mentors-mentees/

> The idea of someone going beyond the norms, systems and processes, rules and regulations to make things work better.

An INTJ personality.

> Most companies don’t have many people like that.

INTJs are very seldom. ~2% of the general population.

But whether INTJs map well to what was described as "wildcard" I'm not sure. It was more of a ISTP or ESTP type, I guess.


I'd say INFJ would fit the wildcard description more than INTJ. But that's just my own small-sampled observation and me reading a bit about these personality stereotypes.

INFJ doesn't match with the described "wildcard" in any way, as I see it. (And regarding INTJs it's only the "T").

> Introverted: INFJs are energized by time alone

Matching a "wildcard"? Rather no.

To have many hats you need to be flexible and open with people. Otherwise this won't work out.

Introverts don't like "jumping ship". The "wildcard" on the other hand is good at exactly this, and likes it actually.

> iNtuitive: INFJs focus on ideas and concepts rather than facts and details

Matching a "wildcard"? Quite a strong no.

To "get shit done" you need to focus on the practical side of things, facts and details, not the concepts behind them. Also you need a strong "good enough" attitude, something which someone who is concerned with the big picture and the abstract / theoretical ideas behind that is usually not good at. Philosophizing about shit doesn't get shit done.

> Feeling: INFJs make decisions based on feelings and values

Matching a "wildcard"? Also quite strong no.

To get shit done, and be at the same time good in many practical things, you need "thinking" rather than "feeling".

Values and feelings (especially of others!) don't mater much when you need to execute an urgent task quickly. It's more like "shot first, ask questions later". Someone who is concerned about the feelings of others would have a hard time to do that.

> Judging: INFJs prefer to be planned and organized rather than spontaneous and flexible

Matching a "wildcard"? Also quite sure not.

The described "wildcard" likes to jump in head first. That's the opposite of "planed and organized".

The article even mentions explicitly that "wildcards" are not well organized usually without the help of others.

See further:


(And compare there with the previously proposed personality types.)

Well, my sample size is small (INFJ: me and a CTO at a different company, INTJ: two colleagues) and my MBTI knowledge based mainly on https://www.16personalities.com. I'd still say it can fit quite well because:

- Introversion: useful for working on the kind of technical tasks outlined in the article instead of preferring to work with other people (apart from the customer success example).

- iNtuitive: coming up with out of the box, ad-hoc ideas to solve whatever new challenge is there.

> When there’s a need for innovation or a different perspective, people with Intuitive personality types can usually step up and provide a new direction. Practicality can sometimes be overrated, especially when a situation calls for serious change and “coloring outside the lines.” [1]

- Feeling: Yeah here I agree that „Thinking” types would suit better according the core theory. But when put in contrast to INTJ, I think that's the dimension which can cause someone to become a wildcard in the first place instead of a specialist: wanting to help everyone else in the company rather than focusing on more clearly confined problems for a long time.

> morale killers for these personalities may include strict rules, formal structures, and routine tasks. They may find it especially dispiriting when they’re asked to redo their work, particularly if it’s for a reason that just doesn’t seem valid to them. [...] At times, efficiency may be less of a priority for Advocates than collaborating with and helping colleagues who need a boost. [2]

- Jugding: I agree that „Prospecting” suits better according to the theory.

So overall, INTP seems to be better suited by theory. But in practice, INFJs are also drawn to the wildcard role and can get quite good at it.

[Edit]: Re-reading the article, especially the „wildcards in summary“ part is a very close match with „infjs at work“ (unknown challenges over routines, importance of impact, creative and independent problem solvers)

[1] https://www.16personalities.com/articles/energy-intuitive-vs...

[2] https://www.16personalities.com/infjs-at-work

I have struggled with this myself for a long time. I feel gratefull for having stumbled upon this article.

What i just want to share here is this quote which I heard a couple of years ago and will never forget.

Did you know the saying "Jack of all trades, master of none"? Apparently this quote is only half of the full quote, which is.

"A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but better then a master of one"

-- I also think that a lot of people have a misconception about this kind of person. It is not someone with a big skillset but likely someone with ADHD, this trait, for me comes with HUGE downsides, as in, my biggest wish is to start a startup, but this trait is preventing me to finish almost anything. I have a huge backlog of unfinished side projects, i work on them day/night until I know i got it (meaning i have figured it out, it works, it is possible), and then I lose my interest and start exploring new ideas and testing if these are feasible.

I am currently trailing ADHD pills to litterly NOT be this person. And it feels amazing to look forward in planning, be prepared and structured.

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