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  • Alexandrea Ridden

What if you like being a jack-of-all-trades?

When many of us started our careers, we tried out wearing a multitude of hats. You’re discovering what you like, what you loathe and what you excel at.

For many of us in STEM careers, there comes a point when you’re faced with a choice; become a technical specialist or become a manager. Do you have natural affinity with technical problem solving or a flair for business development? What if you find that you don’t want to pick one or the other?

“Master of none?”

Around the time I was considering setting up my own business, I was reflecting on the idea of being a “Jack of all trades”.

Culturally, there’s a lot of stigma in being active across multiple fields, and if the adage is to be believed, you’re only ever bound to become a “master of none” for your troubles.

It’s true that many people find their flow and develop into specialists, but there’s a group of us who need a variety of roles and responsibilities in order to thrive and excel.

I am energised by the nuances of business development and consultation. Equally, I’m completely at home sinking my teeth into a machine learning problem and building a technically watertight and elegant solution.

I wanted to create an environment where I could be both technician and entrepreneur, because why would I choose one or the other when I feel most at home doing both?

Picking Both Roads

This conundrum isn’t unique to the tech industry; in fact, it’s one many of us encounter before we’re even thinking about earning our first paycheck.

We’re asked to make these kinds of decisions as far back as school, where you’re encouraged to define yourself by a love of arts or a love of sciences.

I felt this sense of conflict during A-levels, where I studied Maths and Biology alongside English Literature, Film and History, and again at university when I ended up studying Economics and Mathematics. I felt that it might be better to pick one or the other, but I knew that I couldn’t let them both go.

I found myself being envious of people who showed a clear preference for one or the other, it was as if they had a clarity of mind I don’t possess.

If you don’t decide, can you ever be truly masterful in your work?

For me, choosing to focus exclusively on technical machine learning over managing and delivering projects, or vice versa would lead to inevitable feelings of regret.

And as many people in tech can attest, choosing a side can feel like an irrevocable decision. Step outside the industry for even a few years and technologies change, methods evolve, and it can be incredibly difficult to re-enter a technical field at the same level.

I’ve had countless conversations with my co-workers discussing whether we want to commit to becoming a technical specialist or go down the management route. We try to figure out when the metaphorical career “deadline” for that choice is, pondering questions like: which one will offer more opportunity? Which one am I going to be content doing? What will my job title be?

I’ve had an equal number of conversations with colleagues who chose a managerial route and miss writing coding or doing lab work.

Asking for permission

For me, the question of how I could maintain this balance became: “How can I be allowed to do both?” The answer was clear and immediate. If I run my own business, I can.

Although I have enjoyed many aspects of working for large corporations, I have found myself feeling that I had to wait my turn or wait for permission to progress or take on certain roles.

When you run your own business you don’t have to ask for permission, your only litmus test for success is whether you excel in those areas or not; if you don’t, the simple fact is that the business will fail.

The best of both worlds

Many successful tech entrepreneurs have been technically successful and set up a business. Knowing that I don’t have to “pick a side” was a huge motivating factor in setting up my business, but it certainly isn’t the only one. From wanting to be an active participant in the ‘tech revolution’, to deciding which problems to try and solve next, there’s a lot of reasons to be excited about the coming year.

But opting out of the tech industry binary? I’m more inspired than ever to continue building brilliant machine-learning models, whilst also developing a brand identity and engaging with businesses about how we can create valuable solutions for them.

I am not naïve about the potential downsides of doing both, but for me it felt like the optimal solution. How have you dealt with this career crossroad? Did you decide to commit to one or are you balancing both?

Author: Alex Ridden - Jack of all Trades

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