For polymaths, career paths may look more like tendrils4 min read

Image by : Andrew Magill. Modified by CC BY 4.0

“So, Magnus, when did you decide you want to focus your career on being a DevOps Coaching Manager?”

I haven’t been asked this exact question yet, but I get something like it every time I go through a job interview process. The interviewer seems to be feeling around for some pediatric-rooted need in my bones to fill the particular role that I’m interviewing for. Since I’m a DevOps Coaching Manager today, I imagine that’s the question I’ll get asked in some upcoming tomorrow.

But my career has never really played out like that. I’m a polymath, which in plain English means I know stuff about thingsLots of different things. I suppose some people would say I’ve got comb-shaped skills, but they go off in all kinds of crazy directions.

For example, I’ve worked in fields ranging from photographer to writer, editor, copy editor, night club bouncer, tire specialist (that’s a thing), to being a member of a Visual FX crew for a Hollywood film (which went straight to video, but still…). I had my New Jersey fishing boat captain’s license before I was old enough to drive a car in my home state of Pennsylvania. My hobbies have hobbies, and my career path has sort of followed a twisting, branching path to reflect that.

Living outside of the box (or inside of many boxes) makes it a lot easier to think outside of the proverbial box. Sometimes I approach engineering leadership problems with the same mindset that I’d approach an art project, or how I might contend with a 6’6″ 275 pound linebacker who had a few too many drinks in my bar (read: carefully).

I’d worked in computers in some fashion or another for years before taking on my first full time gig, which was initially supposed to be about testing video games, but that same day my role became more about testing enterprise operating systems. The wind changed direction, and so did I. I spent a lot of time as a systems administrator, sometimes as a manager. After having some great leadership mentors enter my life, I entered a leadership role with real intent and found that I enjoyed the challenges far more than I ever enjoyed engineering.

But being limited to just one role was never enough. I’d work by day at IBM as an engineer while keeping the peace at a downtown Raleigh night club as a bouncer at night. The money didn’t matter, but the life experience I gained there was fantastic. I still think I’m a better manager today because of some of the skills I learned as a bouncer (which is a lot more about things like making quick risk assessments, negotiating good outcomes from a position of having less power or influence than the other person, and talking people down from doing something they might regret).

Some fork in the road took me toward managing a Continuous Delivery team, and then another fork took me to DevOps Coaching. Now I’d kind of informally done a good bit of DevOps and Agile coaching before this, but really this is another new role for me.

And next year, maybe it’ll be something else. Travel writer? As if the world needs any more of those. But I won’t rule it out.

So when did I decide I wanted to be a DevOps coaching manager? Honestly, I never did. My organization had a need, and I didn’t flinch when my leaders looked at me to take it on. But as a polymath, I like to half-kid that I never did decide what I want to be when I grow up, and I hope that I never do.

Polymaths are a different sort of beast. We don’t take on roles because they are easy, but because they are not easy. It’s the new experience, the greater challenge to rise to, that lets us be explorers within ourselves. To find my own borders (and then expand them) is far more compelling than never leaving the house that I grew up in.

Of course, I can only speak for myself. Other polymaths have taken their own paths, have their own values. Maybe some will tell you a bit of their stories here in the comments.