Thursday, August 6, 2015

Marketing, Mojo and Career Longevity


An esteemed colleague discussed in an email how, after years of having excellent positions at important companies, that he could no longer seem to get a job, that the “mojo” had gone away. I also experienced something similar, may still be experiencing it, and so I want to discuss my impressions of this phenomenon which is so frustrating and confusing. Although I believe some of this may also apply to my friend, that would be for him to say, this is all from my point of view and based on my experience and impressions.

The argument goes like this. In an earlier and more naive period, some of us who were pioneers in that field were able to achieve results that got us some notoriety and the perception that we were near the top of our field, which we may very well have been in one way or another. This notoriety was communicated to the field through the normal course of attending certain conferences, particularly SIGGRAPH, word of mouth and industry magazines.  Just being asked to participate in a conference was a form of this, and a self fulling prophesy. 

While we thought we were building up long-term credibility, improved by working on fundamental concepts and inventions at an earlier time, it turns out that we were not. Because in America, long-term credibility is only in the eyes of the beholder, and most people of the world do not behold it. What we were benefiting from at the time was a. the benefit of fashion, we were very fashionable, and b. short term credibility as being near the forefront of the field, a field that was very trendy but not with many practical applications.

Because of this trendiness and because practical applications slowly started appearing, there was a massive influx of new people. The new people not only did not know the history, but could not care less. Those who were responsible for awarding projects or hiring people for a while were members of the class of people who were early in the field, but as time passed there were less and less of them and more of the newcomers. Not only were the newer people unaware of the achievements, they classified them as ancient history and not relevant to the modern world. There was no presumption that someone who had done good work in the past would do good work in the future. And there was the belief that things had changed so radically that whatever skills were necessary to do good work today would not be present in those who did good work then.

Furthermore, there is the belief among many people that they do not want experienced and acclaimed people among them, that this will cause competition and quite possibly take away from their glory. And it might, it might take away from their glory since most often people are vainglorious and demand all the glory. I have seen this concern and its results literally hundreds of times.

Finally, for a variety of reasons, our more experienced player may not be in a position to do new work as that would be defined by the field. But our player has a tremendous need to demonstrate new work, as it is only through that new work (generally speaking) that he or she can renew the mandate that has allowed them to achieve what they have so far achieved. Without this renewal, any past accomplishment becomes less and less relevant. But our experienced player may not be able to do new work because of circumstances beyond his or her control, health issues, or not being hired out of envy, or any of a number of reasons. If a consultant, they may not be in a position to get credit for their work, because it is the life of the consultant that, in general, you can not get that credit without upsetting your client.

And here is the key point: in the earlier period our player had benefited from marketing that happened more or less accidentally, by doing good work at the right time or place. The marketing happened for them and on their behalf but not because of any particular actions that they took.  And our player may not in actual fact be necessarily talented at marketing, or even have the slightest interest in it. They were interested in doing good work (which does sound pathetically naive and middle class, does it not?). Marketing is a different thing. A different skill. A field that requires both talent and hard work like any other field. And so our player, who was the beneficiary of marketing that he had not done, gets less and less benefit from past marketing as time goes by and yet new marketing is not forthcoming because he is not providing it, and circumstances do not allow it to happen as it did before, without his input.

The result is that our player goes further out of fashion. And since for the most part people were responding to fashion and not to anything else, certainly not merit or brilliance, something they would be quite unqualified to judge and could care less about, then our player becomes less and less employable and we have the classic downward spiral.

There are several other issues that are contributory to this, self-marketing is not the only factor.  Fashion also applies to technology and for one reason or another our player may be associated with a specific technology, like motion capture or lisp, even if they are incidental.  This is about perception as well as reality. Other companies may perceive that the technology that the player uses or used to use as being old-fashioned, whether or not there is any technical basis for their belief is irrelevant.  This is another reason why the field of computer animation, with its wild turnover in companies, can result in unemployment for those who used those technologies at those companies.  Fashion applies to everything and new companies have different fashions in technology that they use.

The conclusion that I want to leave you with is that long term employability and presence near the top of a field requires not only talent and accomplishment, but marketing and the ability to present oneself as current. Marketing may in fact be more important than talent and accomplishment, but of course it is preferable if all elements are present. Without marketing, for whatever reason, one will go out of fashion and have to face the consequences that result.

There are many nuances here that should be mentioned and I will mention a few.  There are many ways to achieve marketing and many reasons why this may apply more to some people than to others. And none of this may be fair or just. Someone who merely has a job at a well-known company may have all the marketing that they need. Those who are unemployed or freelance generally do not have that benefit. Or if one is not seen as worthy to be included in an effort to create a new standard for some technology, those who are included get a certain level of marketing and those who are excluded do not.  This list of nuances and exceptions goes on and on.  

Again the nuances aside, the thought I want to leave you with is that marketing is important and it is an area that can not be ignored for the long run without dire consequences. As evidence I propose that when you see people near the top of their field for a long time, inevitably it turns out that they are talented at self promotion, sometimes very talented.

Many people come to mind who have this skill, but discretion prevents me from mentioning them here.

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