Creepy Game of Life

Every undergraduate in a science degree program has to develop some variant of Game of Life – in a programming 101 course. These – not very intelligent – life-forms on a checkerboard evolve by following very simple rules – ‘cell’ live or die, depending on its number of neighbors. The pattern is determined by the initial configuration on the board, so this is a deterministic universe. But this is not going to be a post on determinism or chaos.

Game of Life (Wikimedia)

As Wikipedia says, Game of Life has intrigued computer scientists, physicists, biologists, biochemists, economists, mathematicians, philosophers, generative scientists – so I hope I am addressing all my regular readers – if you are not sure about your tag, consider yourself a generative scientist.

Of course this is a follow-up to our meandering cross-blog thread(s) on education and gamification:
David E. Storey’s initial postEpic discussion on Dan Mullin’s blogMy random rantsDan’s update on ludic fallacy. Parallel universes: Maurice’s series of posts on distant education and Michelle on education and credentials / belonging versus fitting in.

We have discussed the impact of game-like motivation in education and the corporate world – my favorite example is using your Klout score in grading (or in screening job applications). Dan has argued – based on Taleb’s The Black Swan that

“…teaching students that education, corporate culture, and life in general is a big game to be played by a certain set of rules, may impart precisely the wrong lesson. The fact of the matter is that there are few predictable rules, and believing otherwise will make one more vulnerable to the black swan phenomenon.”

I have wholeheartedly agreed with his hypothesis that gamification makes people concentrate on hacking the system. Corporate systems focusing on meeting the numbers can result in the development of a parallel universe: In this world employees are obsessed with (or are forced to) making some traffic light icons in their score cards go green – applying whatever arcane magic. Ironically, this game could be given priority over serving real customers right now even if the score card in theory measures customer-orientation.

This quote from the article on Klout-based grading (in a Social Media for Reporters class) adds a new perspective:

“How is that possibly fair to students who are struggling to raise this arbitrary number that’s contrived inside a black box? It’s fair because it transforms the class from a workshop on button-pushing to an exercise in hypothesis testing, strategy and critical thinking. Students — who often approach grades with calculating economy of effort — don’t know what they have to do to boost their Klout scores, so they are forced to design simple experiments, isolate variables, and generalize their findings.”

So debugging and hacking is the goal, and it is not assumed that the underlying rules are based on simple probabilities. It is probably like grading in a hands-on lab IT security hacker class. As much as I – as a ‘hacker’ –  sympathize with this, I still feel uncomfortable – and I am not primarily concerned about grades; this is just a nice illustration.

David has introduced the archetypes of the Happy American Entrepreneur versus the Euro-Humanist, and I said I take the label Euro-Humanist as a badge of honor. I was reading Blaise Pascal at an age other teens were out to party – so I can’t deny my gloomy roots.

On the other hand I am a happy entrepreneur, at least since I ripped out my Borg implants.

Pondering about this apparent contradiction I came to the conclusion that this duality or tension I feel running through societies is not between happy gamers and gloomy deniers, but between genuine human beings and the systems they are components of. Humans turn to cellular automata. Some social systems have particular powers over individuals – we have discussed the Cult of Academia and the Cult of Corporate often – and systems can show emergent properties even if they are built on simple rules – such as the Game of Life.

I stick with the social media example even if it sounds trivial: The discrete nature of standardized (gamified) interaction on social media makes us act more bot-like:

I argue that what’s happening in Facebook and Twitter is the social production of patterns of discrete states of mind. That is, when we Tweet, fill in a profile, Like something, or comment, we’re contributing to aggregated datasets.

These limitations, coupled with the aggregated actions of millions of social media users, create a highly useful discrete-state machine: a machine I call the “social media confessional machine.”

So I conjecture that the introduction of gamified elements into ‘performance assessments’ is self-consistent with an evolutionary development of our digital society. Which does not mean that I like it.

  • Our digital social interactions become more bot-like and thus easier to predict, measure and aggregate.
  • Our real world becomes the digital world becomes a simplified Game of Life.
  • Hacking the system and understanding its rules becomes the key competence – of students and young professionals.

In Daniel Suarez’s high-tech thrillers (Thanks postmoderndonkey, for the pointer) the real world is transformed and infiltrated by distributed AI. In the beginning the reader is lured into believing this is your typical hack-cybersecurity-thriller. However, the seemingly evil system actually hacks and transforms people. Members of the cult-like social network Darknet use sort of Google glasses on steroids that allow them to overlay virtual dimensions to reality. People get used to judge others on their votes and reputation. The interesting twist in the narrative is related to the blurring distinction  between the good and the evil forces. But it is not a purely philosophical novel: If you don’t enjoy Bruce Willis’ action movies or like to read in detail about a hedge fund manager chipped into pieces by unmanned motor cycles equipped with rotating blades – don’t read it. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

My theory is very simple and it is easy to puncture – I will do that myself.

I have started reading The Black Swan – thanks, Dan – and I will for sure get back to that book in several blog posts. It has hardly ever occurred to me that I wholeheartedly agreed with virtually any single statement in a book. Taleb is able to combine scholarly wisdom, Umberto-Eco-like knowledge of history (no wonder Taleb praises Eco in the first chapter), and slinging the corporate lingo in a virtuosic way while defying the logic of the ‘expert suits’.

Sorry, I digress. Taleb’s main hypothesis is that the history of humankind as well as our personal lives are strongly – if not solely – determined by the highly improbable and unpredictable. Our problem is not so much this uncertainly as the extent we deny it. No-nonsense experts in industrial control systems fully agree with his assessment, applied to so-called risk management methodologies – actually it was this book that pointed me to The Black Swan first.

In 2010 the business world as we know came to a halt in Europe when experts and politicians mitigated the risks of impact of Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic ash cloud on airplane engines. The decisions taken by politicians were based on a computer simulation of the travelling cloud only. We live in a world that aims for perfect safety and security, under the illusion we can hedge all risks and make the probabilities associated with them exactly zero. Anybody who has ever worked under the surveillance, sorry: guidance, of total corporate quality management control [more buzz words] systems knows what I mean.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökul

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull on March 27, 2010 (Wikimedia)

At the heart of gamification is our uneasiness with taking decisions on our on, highly subjective but bold, instead of relaying them to machinery. Better run the job application through the AI-style resumé checker than being accused of bias. Merge this with the superficial fun and the kick a game gives its players and you have a so-called win-win situation.

In a paradoxical way I predict that something unexpected will happen when the real world starts resembling the gamified overlay – and render my petty theory obsolete.

Probably a Cult of Resistance against Pervasive Technology and everyday gamification will arise. I have spotted a trend of people leaving Facebook or abandoning anything internet-y altogether. Or maybe technology itself will finally exhibit emergent characteristics of consciousness – but I think this is too clichéd and too much wished for counting as a Black Swan.

But if too many people like me start mocking gamification – probably the unexpected thing to happen is that the transformation will happen still, in exactly the way I have described it.

I am fully aware of remaining contradictions and unresolved points, but as Nassim Taleb I state that I prefer the opinionated essay, a personal narrative including inconsistencies, over scientific perfection (says me, the ‘scientist’).

Do I Have an Opinion on Education at Large and on MOOCs in Particular?

Something education-related seems to have hit the blogosphere – many blogs I follow cover online-courses, teaching and education yesterday.

My feelings are mixed. As usual, this is reflected by the comments I leave on other people’s blogs.

Important note: Though this was intended as a balanced review. But it ended up as one of my usual posts attributed to this genre I have no name for. I could invalidate most of my own arguments – however, I don’t want this post to become even lengthier.

WP Space Ship Control Panel

Alien alert. If you are not prepared for that, don’t continue reading.

I am a dinosaur. I finished my MSc in physics at a time when the concept  of a bachelor’s degree was unheard of in my country. I admit that I did not get even over the fact that reasonable technical degree programs have been cut into 3+2 years to comply with the so-called Bologna process.

I should have an opinion on education.

I have given lectures, labs and problem solving courses at the university in a former life – mainly on superconductivity and laser physics. I have designed vocational trainings for aspiring IT engineers as well as train-the-experts no-nonsense hardcore workshops on Public Key Infrastructure.

Most recently I had given an academic lecture on PKI for five years – including an “asynchronous online learning part”, and currently I am also a part-time student again myself in a (down-to-earth) renewable energies program.

In my online course – which was not massive – I have handed out virtual machine computer puzzles to students and required them to solve those within several months – supported by scheduled online discussions. Every year people badly need the looming deadline to get working two weeks before due date.

Corporate professionals who are students at the same time demand rules and deadlines to be imposed on them – in the same way as it happens in The Corporate Borg Sphere. I can relate – too much. As usual, I am also part of the target audience of this post.

Unless non-interactive lectures are MOOCs my own MOOC student experience is limited to a programming course – company internal, but rather massive though – I took before MOOC was an acronym. So I am not qualified to write this post; I just cannot resist.

Ironically the field of expertise I had been most “renowned” so far was one I had zero formal education in. I learned from the IT hacker community to judge people only on skills they demonstrate right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with degrees or  – worse – certificates issued by market leading technology providers, based on multiple choice tests. One of the main decoders of Stuxnet, the worm that aimed at damaging the nuclear facilities in Iran, is a psychologist by education.

I dare say that real hackers are 100% self-educated – no matter if they put some formal education on top of that later. The latter is a hidden mega-trend in my opinion: More often than not I saw experienced professionals going for a degree – in a program they knew more about than the teachers – just because they wanted that piece of paper giving proof of what they already knew.

I see strange contradicting trends in education and I don’t think that Massive Open Online Courses are a disruptive new way of education per se.

They are a symptom of changes in educational systems or society at large – of which I am not sure if I like them all.

As I said I am still baffled by the Bologna standardization process and associated splitting up of study programs. It is like neat little boxes that can be attached to each other in a compatible way – called “modularization”.
The upside: Cross-country recognition has been facilitated finally and you are more flexible to craft your own degree program.
The downside(s): The bar has been lowered in order to provide more cross-discipline / cross-programme permeability. The latter is a noble goal of course, in order to solve the complicated interdisciplinary blah blah issues that an interconnected global blah blah society faces.

I have the perfect backup material for all readers who prefer to hear opinionated rants rather by somebody with substantial experience in education – unfortunately it is in German. Austrian philosophy professor Konrad Paul Liessmann has written a book called Theorie der Unbildung – Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft which roughly translates to Theory of Non-Education – Misapprehensions of the Knowledge Society. Actually Unbildung is illiterateness, but it is meant in a sarcastic sense – so I believe non-education is a better term.

Liessmann calls it a polemic himself. He rants in a most entertaining way – appealing to anybody who appreciates Dilbert cartoon humor – on:

  • Sociology dropouts turned management consultants who give seasoned university professors patronizing advice on didactic concepts.
  • Management consulting mantras flooding academia, backed by their infamous management and controlling software and the involved gamification … sorry… enforcement of metrics, benchmarks and other silly rules.
  • The mantra of playful learning based on interactive media. Unfortunately you won’t be able to get rid of the need of the efforts of thinking hard. I am at a loss for translating his brilliant and subtle sarcasm in the way he oppose the naive mantra of anything being fun and play opposed to plain hard work.
  • Standardized, quality controlled exams that fosters Teach to the Test mentality. In my most recent encounters as a student and a teacher I have been stunned by new levels of optimization of the credentials collecting process – illustrated by collective group work on the pre-defined catalogue of potential examination questions, or asking The Most Important Question in the first lecture which is How many XY do I need to submit (present, solve…) in order to [paraphrasing] barely scrape by with PASSED [/paraphrasing].

This is my summary of the most conflicting trends I conclude from my anecdotal experiences:

1) Free information for a networked society:

Endless valuable information is available for eager learners – if you know how to google and how to tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff: Scientific publications, lecture notes and text books. I am not sure if we need all that re-packaged and sold as “courses”.

An economist might reply: If there is a market(*) for that – why not? And don’t that material exist only because of the universities’ outreach progams – initiated by management consultants who were criticized by professors?

Do we need coaches who help us to navigate through the vast universe of knowledge? (Not a rhetorical question).

2) Gamification and edu-/info-tainment garnished with corporate-style deadlines for a society built on the mantra of the ever reducing attention span:
We as a learning society seem to need: infographics, videos, blended learning, Facebook-like discussion groups. As odd as it seems we – the free people of earth – rely on triggers, pop-up messages and arcane rules designed by others more than ever. And in contrast to cyberpunk stories – we are aware of it and we like. (“We” does not exclude “me”.)

I am intrigued by this ambiguity – as I feel free information on the net and corporate strangeness / gamification have common roots. These roots seem to be tied to technology.

Falla Tetris

Computer games go real live.

Nicholas Carr who analyzed our relationship with reading in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: We have gained the ability to skim, scroll and evaluate content fast, but we lose the ability to read linear, long-winded text. Research has shown that students allowed to click on videos and other material related to a specific article remembered less than students who had to focus on the text only.

As I said, I am subject to those as well. I have turned from a voraciously reading teenager – capable of immersing in long-winded wooden existential philosophical prose – to a constantly distracted channel hopper.

I have been conditioned by multi-tasking to the extreme, always in firefighting mode, with several pop-up windows of the corporate equivalent of social media fighting for a small time-slots of undivided attention. I have learned to learn on-the-fly and on-the-job for years until I decided I wanted to reconnect with the old silent learning experience.

Thus I started re-reading and re-learning physics nearly 10 years ago – for the pure enjoyment of escaping multi-tasking hell. It was fun but it was hard at the same time. It took me to overcome an activation barrier to get “into” the linear, gradual absorption of knowledge again.

I am a strong advocate of learning alone – the very old-school concept of the problem-solving strategy attributed to Richard Feynman (by Murray Gell-Mann): Write down the problem – think hard – write down the solution. I would like to add: Bang your lonely head against the wall in despair until your brain grows some new synaptic connections. I could never get the concept of “learning in a group”. Probably I have now finally revealed that I am a sociophobe introvert, but anyway: This should make me a MOOC advocate, shouldn’t it?

I have watched a lot of physics lectures online, I enjoyed in particular David Tong’s QFT lectures – awesome blackboard & chalk style, no Powerpoint. But I enjoyed it because there were lecture notes as well. After watching some videos I started reading the notes in advance. I had always felt the most awesome physics video lectures were those that gave me a fresh perspective on something I had learned the old school way before – by solving lots of mind-numbing problems.

If this (non-interactive) lecture counts as a MOOC – I am a big fan. However, I am a dinosaur travelled to the future – I am not the one to judge on how well a MOOC-only learning environment would act on a digital native’s brain.

On writing this post I was struggling with my desire to let all those weird thoughts running wild – associations between cyber economy and cyber learning, probably triggered by postmoderndonkey’s recent book recommendation that made me click Shop in Kindle Store immediately. I failed to establish any balanced angle.

In summary I feel uncomfortable about turning the process of learning into something that is built on instant gratification, game-style motivation resembling the tools we are tortured with the corporate world, social-media-style interactions, packaging and standardization of microscopic units of knowledge, and gradually replacing linear text by visual aids.

But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with:

(*) The market might be dysfunctional. For well-paid professionals the pay for teaching courses in a moonlighting fashion payment does not matter – you would do it for free because pay is low anyway compared to your usual rates (I speak from experience, and this holds for online and traditional courses). So you might lose money already by having to postpone more lucrative assignments because of teaching –  you do it due to idealism and/or ego.

Quote from this post: In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work.

On Social Media and Networking (Should Have Been a Serious Post, Turned out Otherwise)

It has been nearly a month since my satirical post on LinkedIn and bot-like HR professionals has stirred interesting discussions and unexpected reblogs. I have promised to come up with related posts regularly.

To all my new followers who were probably attracted by the Liebster-award-related nonsense: Compared to those posts this one is unfortunately a rather serious one. Compared to default social media expertise show-off it is nonsense, though.

Every opinion piece is based on the author’s secret assumptions about what makes this universe move in spacetime. For full disclosure I lay mine before you upfront:

Thinking about the blurred area where the corporate world and a subversive online universe meet I am reminded of The Cluetrain Manifesto, so this is my personal

Networking Manifesto.

Regular readers might have guessed at the following axioms:

  1. Sense of humor is the definitive  criterion that determines how well you will get along with other human beings. This also holds for future coworkers or employers.
  2. The harder corporations try to morph into social beings as per their PR stories, the weirder they appear when viewed from the inside. Corporate culture is very subtle.
  3. The tension between 1 and 2 catalyzes sparkling works in art (mainly comics and satire) as well as peculiar networking opportunities.

I did zero research for this post and I will not add outbound links – other than my own – this is ‘vanity linking’. If you are really interested in if and how I am following my own advice about social media you can stalk me on the pages and profiles listed at my Gravatar profile or my personal website.

In addition, I have no idea about a plot or structure for this post so I call this

The Top 10 +/- 5 Things I Learned from Networking on Social Media

1) Titles and taglines do matter:

If I would be a real social media expert I would have made the header of this post similar to your typical

Top Ten Self-Evident Things Anybody In His Right Mind Who Knows How to Use Google Can Come up with him/Herself Immediately

are shared like crazy on Twitter.

As a serious aside, I feel that titles of posts are important as many of my search terms are based on titles. Since I need those for Search Term Poetry, I cannot help but pick strange ones.

The same goes for your professional tagline, but it is walking a tightrope: If you want to make a change in your career you could add your aspirations to the title. E.g. if I am a historian for building intergalaxy cargo ships but I want to switch to doing strategy consulting for the cargo companies at Alpha Centauri, you might change your tagline to historian and consultant in intergalaxy shipping.

2) The mere existence of profiles does matter.

I believe we (the earth’ population) are changing our average attitude from

The internet – what a strange virtual place… and you really have a page about yourself?

to

Why in hell don’t you have an XY profile? You also have a telephone!

This is not a post on why and if this is something to be worried about, so I skip my postmodern commentary on culture. But I catch myself on being bewildered why I can’t find people on popular networks.

I don’t expect them to be active, have a lot of friends / followers (see 3) or providing a lof of details, but I wonder what’s the obstacle that would keep somebody from adding basic CV data on LinkedIn. I don’t claim my expectancy is rational.

What matters most to me as a reader is the temporal completeness as we time-travel experts say, that is
For all items it holds that [Year of finishing this = Year of starting something else]

3) There is no agreement on the importance of different networks, which ones to pick, and what it means to be a friend, contact, follower or connection.

There is a slight contradiction with 2) and I know it. But we cannot sort that out. I have received tons of invites to obscure networks I never heard of before. Other may feel the same about Google+.

I had endless discussions with people who wanted to add me on the first professional network I was a member of, actually the first network I ever signed up to in 2004 – XING, the German LinkedIn, so to say.

I have gone to great lengths in explaining that I will only accept contact requests from people I know in person or with whom I had substantial conversations online before. Others do consider these networks an option to find new contacts. I have over 600 contacts on XING despite my rigorous policies, simply for the fact I had added contacts over the years, in parallel to archiving business cards. But this large number of contacts make me appear as one of those contact collectors.

On the other hand, I entered Facebook by the end of 2012, and still I look like a networking loser with my less than 200 friends. Facebook will even block your account if you add too many friends in a short time. This is done by software in a Kafkaesque way, so there is no point complaining. This is another reason to follow my advice 2) and start out populating your list of contacts via organic growth early.

There will never be agreement with most of your contacts and friends on what a contact actually is. I believe this is the reason for the asymmetric relationships Twitter and Google+ had introduced: You can follow back, but you do not need to confirm a contact. Facebook has adopted this thinking by adding the subscriber option – now called followers, too.

I have given up and I do not take all that befriending and contacting too serious – so please go ahead and add me on all my networks if you like.

4) The internet is a public place.

This is stating the obvious. From day 1 of my existence as a web avatar – publishing my first embarrassing FrontPage generated site in 1997 – I have written every single post with a public audience in mind – even in so-called closed groups. Today I publish all my Facebook and Google+ stuff to ‘Public’.

I do not see the point of closed groups: not so much because of the risk of changing security settings in the future, triggered by a new group owner, new privacy policies, new security bugs, or careless friends publishing your friends-only stuff to the public. But I do not want waste a second on considering confidentiality issues when writing and aligning my style of writing with a specific audience. After all this should be fun, creative and weird (see 5).

I noticed – to my own surprise – that I started dreading any sort of private messages. If you want to tell me how great my postings are – please for heaven’s sake don’t send me a private Facebook message or an e-mail, but comment on them. I don’t even want to be tempted to add something ‘confidential’ in the reply and I don’t want to miss a chance to make my clever, witty reply available to the public. Zuckerberg said something about the end of privacy, and this is my interpretation of that.

As a consequence I have written about so-called personal stuff in open discussion groups and on my websites a few years ago. I have written about my lingering on the edge of burnout and have been applauded for my honesty. Today I feel my posts are not that personal even though I did not change my style. I am not into photography, so I hardly add any photos depicting something related to my private sphere. I don’t upload a photo of myself (a selfie) in a funny setting every day to Facebook. But just as my definition of ‘friend’ has changed, this might change as well.

5) The internet is a weird place, fortunately!

I was tempted to add the following to my networking manifesto:

Human beings connect with human beings, not with ‘businesses’. Members of the collective want you to remove their Borg implants.

I hope you get the picture without requiring me to go into a scholarly dissection of that great metaphor.

I mentioned the burnout confessions deliberately in 4) as they confirmed a secret theory of mine: If you present yourself as a human being, even within a so-called competitive environment, you motivate others to do the same. You lower the bar – it has the opposite effect of writing business-related e-mails at 2:00 AM that makes everybody else reply Do you ever sleep?

You might say this is off-topic and not strictly rooted in anything online – as most of these confessions happened offline actually.

I disagree as I believe that  the internet is a trigger and a catalyzer that has transformed our ways of thinking about public and private sphere. Today you often read you should take care of your online reputation and not publish your ‘drunk at a party pictures’ to Facebook. I don’t object to that, but I believe the solution is rather not to get drunk at parties.

20 years from now all people in charge of hiring others will belong to the generation whose lives have been documented online from day 1 – due to their baby-photo-Facebooking parents. Generation Y+ did not even have a chance to opt-out. I feel that they would rather consider somebody suspicious whose online utterances are all professional and sleek looking.

Since this is speculation, I add a link to a great article on Wired about the generation born 1993: “…She is casual about what some might consider the risks of oversharing. In the future, she says, it won’t matter if you did post a picture of yourself covered in chocolate, because “the people who care will all retire and the world will be run by my generation, which doesn’t give a shit…”

I owe the link and the pointer to this quote to my Google+ friends … which is the perfect bridge to a caveat that needs to be mentioned: Even if the internet is a weird place there is one important rule: Give fair credit! To other authors but also to other sharers and finders.

6) Finally I need to mention metrics.

I have a very special relationship with ‘meeting the numbers’ as readers of my articles about the corporate sphere do know. So I was delighted to have been invited to Klout. If you believe blog award nominations are like silly chain letters, consider this:

You earn scores based on your interactions and engagement on social media – that is: likes, followers, reshares, posts on your Facebook page … Unfortunately WordPress.com has not been factored in yet. Currently my score based on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and the Klout network itself is 57 which is of course above average.

This is called gamification. I won’t reiterate my usual lame jokes on AI software and failing the Turing test.

But there might be more it than providing a game for procrastinating office workers: This is the future of grading in education – and judging job applicants maybe:
Bizarre Trend: Journalism Professors Using Klout Scores As Part Of Students’ Grades

I had already run some experiments on how to increase the score by heavy tweeting – I am open to more experiments and I would appreciate if you add me as your influencer on Klout.

Klout’s mission is to empower every person by unlocking their influence.

For centuries, influence had been in the hands of a few. Social media has allowed anyone to drive action to those around them, democratizing influence.

— Quote from the Klout website: What is Klout?

Borg dockingstation

Borg Dockingstation (Wikimedia). Sorry, I know I am coasting on those clichés way too often.

So what are your thoughts – Generation Xers, Yers and Zers? (Borgs and other aliens may comment as well)

Edit – further reading: In a Twitter conversation related to this post this blog has been recommended to me – and I want to recommend it to all of you: thedigitalattitude.com. In contrast to my blog this one is really focussed on social media and how to present yourself and your skills online. 

 

Professional Online Persona or: What Are Your Skills?

My previous post has triggered intriguing discussions – about writing, identity and what I called an ‘online persona’. As far as I remember I borrowed this term from David Weinberger’s book Small Pieces Loosely Joined – sublime reflections on the way the web has impacted culture and communication.

I have asked myself sometimes: How should I describe and portray myself on so-called professional social networks given the fact I have tried to re-invent myself but / and / or fo not want to raise any false expectations or come across as Dr. Know It All Jack of All Trades Master of None Interested in Too Many Irrelevant Things.

Websites and profiles are not so much my home on the internet, but tools that supports the ongoing experiment of uncovering my unique voice. Yet professional social networks as LinkedIn are rather intended to provide an online CV or a skill matrix.

This article is a comprehensive review of the  Linkedin skills feature. In particular I like this quote: I too have been receiving endorsements from people I’m out of touch with, who are endorsing me for skills I didn’t even know I had’, like “food writing” and “celebrity” (whatever that means).

The list of my skills on my LinkedIn profile and its evolution is a great experiment in social dynamics (…plus game theory, plus artificial intelligence software testing…) although the skills not correctly attributed to myself were not as intriguing. I have experienced the following effects:

LinkedIn tries to extract – generic – skills from your profile that neither you or your contacts have yet added to your profile and asks your connections to confirm them. So the set of skills is impacted by LinkedIn’s bias.

I developed tools related to managing digital certificates – these are cryptography-based digital counterparts of national IDs – and the related management systems, Public Key Infrastructures. My main role in a project was PKI Consultant, and I never tried to sell myself as a developer. So the exact term should rather be Programming for PKI. But nobody uses that specific terms in his/her profiles so I did not object to add programming. Yet such generic terms can raise false expectations (which was actually the trigger to write this blog post).

Endorsements could make it harder or easier to change your focus and specialty due to the amplification fostered by LinkedIn.

You add skills to your profile or LinkedIn guesses at your skills and suggests them to others. Thus some connections will endorse you, and other members of the same community will notice as per the LinkedIn activity stream and endorse you as well. This might put emphasis on certain skills that you do not leverage that much on a daily basis or you do not want to use in the long run. On the other hand your network might endorse you for a very ‘old’ or ‘new’ skill and the self-enforcement of endorsements could help with changing fields of expertise.

But I strongly believe your most important skills cannot be represented in a ‘profile’ anyway. I dare say I did make some projects a success by using skills that have never been part of any skill matrix. These skills are attributed to you in private 1:1 feedback only.

Today’s hiring processes are often based on pre-screening applications for key words and three-letter acronyms. In discussion group I recently read: I hope the selection is not done by machines. Unfortunately, it nearly is. You might replace machine by HR people following some checklist.

Based on my experience I think there is a hierarchy of skills. I am aware of the vagueness in terminology I am going to introduce here.

  • Technical skills are a must. Replace ‘technical’ with whatever specific skills your education or experience has provided you with.
  • Top technical ‘guru’ skills – ideally communicated by an endorser, not by yourself – are the reasons customers might favor you over other applicants.
  • But social skills are the reasons they remember you. Probably these should be called general skills, including e.g.: perseverance to meet deadlines, writing flawless and precise e-mails, acting as an abritrator between people hostile to each other.
    Also Verbal / quant skills – as depicted in diagram in my recent reblog of Dan Mullin’s post Philosophy Degrees Are Undervalued all belong to the general skills category in my point of view.

Employers or clients will admire you for general skills after they have worked with you, but I am sceptical if such skills can be communicated in a way that helps in passing the barrier set up by the HR bots.

HR experts do not want to know that you have a proven track record on working with very different techniques in measuring physical properties of advanced materials and related data analysis – although you rightly believe that your most valuable skill is your ability to learn about new technologies quickly – based on your experience with related technologies. (Insert clichéd but true statement about the fast pace of evolving technologies.)

They rather want to see that you are capable of working with the Improbable Hyperspace Microscope analyzing samples of the recently detected rare earth metal Zaphodium, and analysing data using Most Buggy Scientific Software Tool, Version 42.42. You need to have more than 4.2 years of experience – it might not be sufficient to have worked with version 42.41 even if you have 4.3 experience with that one.

I am not making this stuff up, expect for the product names. You might be asked for 4.2 years of experience with a product that has been available on the market for 2.4 years only.

I had been lucky so far in circumventing such selection processes because I knew the person or department who was really looking for resources. In Austria, we have a strong tradition in bypassing processes in an informal – probably non-compliant – way. (But international corporations gradually  manage to add our distinctiveness to the collective.)

As this should not be your typical nerds ranting about clueless managers post, I try to distill some advice from my experience:

Some communities or industry sectors are more open to reasonable assessments of skills. For example, I learned from the IT security ‘hacker’ community to value skills demonstrated right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with certificates or degrees.

Squeeze your ‘technical’ skills into very few key words, even if that hurts the generalist in you. I believe you need to be super specific:  PKI worked better than IT Security, Heat Pumps works better than Renewable Energy. It is like picking a tag line for a blog.

Don’t follow any advice, including guidelines about well-crafted social media profiles. My alter ego, the Subversive Element started writing the bloggy weird website subversiv.at at night when I was a serious IT consultant by day. I did not promote the site at all. Yet in a kick-off meeting in a new project a new colleague greeted me enthusiastically like that in front of all the other suits:

You are the Subversive Element, aren’t you? 🙂

Weird – or generally: unusual, outstanding – features in your profile constitute a filter – you filter potential clients by sense of humor for better or for worse.

Don’t speak about yourself in your professional profile in third person – in ‘speaker bio style’, such as: Elkement is a seasoned expert in hunting aliens, well-versed in intergalactic diplomacy with a proven track-record of efficiently destroyed foreign planets. 

Don’t panic.

Adam Pope Zaphod Beeblebrox

Zaphod Beeblebrox in an Amateur Production of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (Wikimedia) – in case you are looking for a weird avatar. Don’t be too original – allow for some cliché to strike a chord with others.

Don’t write walls of text.