Python might not be the best language for everything, but it’s almost certainly the second-best language for anything. - Peter Wang, PyData SV 20141
Ornithorhynchus anatinus, better known as the platypus, has a strong claim to the title of oddest bit of charismatic megafauna on the planet. House-cat sized, looking rather like a beaver with a duckbill grafted on, they also have the distinction of being an egg-laying mammal with venomous claws. Odd ducks2 though they are, they are a successful species with major style points.
Platypodes3 also exist in the business world. They are those people with odd backgrounds, either professionally or educationally (or both), that don’t fit neatly into any particular categorization. In particular, platypodes have a STEM background (though are not necessarily CS majors) but major experience in non-engineering roles.4 Looked at positively, platypodes can contribute in a variety of roles, often crossing the boundaries between sales, marketing, engineering, design, and/or Management. In a culture of lean startups and lean enterprises that emphasize cross-functional teams they are cross-functional individuals. They’re perfect for starting new departments or doing things that just don’t fit elsewhere.
Platypodes, though, are rarely recognized for these positives. Instead, the typical hiring process will weed them out: they went to school too long; they aren’t focused enough; they aren’t enough of a specialist in anything; they have one of those graduate degrees incompatible with startup-life; they’re going to move onto something else in six months; and how do you expect me to build an org from a bunch of generalists?
Before addressing these points individually, an example from sports is warranted. Basketball, like business, is played under a very fluid environment. Offense and defense are played by the same players, and positions (“job titles”) are merely labels - there are no position-specific rules. Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors is a (perfect) prototypical platypode. He’s a tweener - his body type and game style fall between normal positions - and the NBA isn’t kind to tweeners.
Except, at the time of writing, Golden State has started the season 18-0, and Greene is almost certainly the second most valuable player on the team. On this team, Greene’s flexibility is an incredible asset. It allows the Warriors (a “cross-functional team”) - to experiment with different team composition, since Greene can play any role. In addition, his hustle and willingness to handle any task needed to make the team successful have, in fact, made the team successful.5
Unfounded Platypode Stereotypes
Unfocused (or, “Are you going to divinity school next?”)
Diversity of interests is not necessarily unfocused. It’s merely a diversity of interest. Instead of trashing the resume, why not meet the platypode for coffee and ask why they’re interested in your company and role?
Incidentally, platypodes who’ve gotten their bill via degree collection will generally get yet more bills monthly for their pile of outstanding student loans, which will make divinity school impossible for them at this time. Their secret desire for yet another graduate degree may make them your best hire, as they slave away in unicorn-creation in the hopes of a big IPO and retiring to grad school.
Not Enough of a Specialist
Your startup needs specialists. It needs really good software engineers with deep domain expertise.6 But specialists are not the only thing your startup needs. Two years ago, you wanted Rails and jQuery talent. A year ago you decided on node and Angular. This year is Go and React. Tech changes. You expect people to know how to change with it. Your business changes. The product, customer segment, sales channels — all of them are in flux. You’re presumably not firing a large part of your company with every strategy change, so why are you bent on only hiring narrow specialists? If it helps, think of platypodes as specialists in change management.
This objection is the motivation for the Python quote at the beginning. Python has been called a glue language, an improved Perl, too slow, not good for concurrency, never the best choice, etc., etc. It’s also extremely successful. A large part of that success is that it’s good enough for most things. In business, as in software, YAGNI (You Ain’t Going to Need It) is often true. The flexibility of quickly prototyping a solution to test is valuable, because the statistics say you’re likely to kiss a bunch of frogs. There’s no objection, in languages or with people, to have exploration and scale belong to different domains.
This may be my favorite. The argument generally goes “don’t hire MBAs (or JDs, or MDs, or …) because they have the wrong mindset for a startup.” And those people definitely exist. Recall, though, that platypodes were defined as having a STEM background of some sort. If your platypode also has a degree from the brainwashed-don’t-hire-list, they had to perform a substantial mental context switch to do it. What you’ll probably find is they can perform that context switch at will to look at a problem from different angles. Frankly, you should never hire anyone, in any role, whose thinking is a clone of their last obtained degree. Why not give the platypode an example problem and ask them to talk about their problem solving approach to it, and judge for yourself?
Going to Leave
This isn’t any more likely than any other position you’re hiring. In fact, it’s probably a much less likely event than for software engineers, just because of sheer career mobility. Platypodes like diverse challenges. You can hop jobs every six months and always have the same challenge, or stay with a company for years are always experience something different.
Bonus: I Can’t Build an Org from Platypodes
This is a strawman. I would never suggest building an org full of platypodes. My argument is merely that you need at least one in your organization.
A Closing Thought on Platypodes (or, I Couldn’t Bury the Lead Any Further)
Many of the objections above are used to toss resumes in the trash without talking to a person. This is suboptimal. Some companies and hiring managers do take the time to talk to those keepers of eclectic resumes. It allows them to find talent other companies miss.7 This creates a competitive advantage for that company. And aren’t competitive advantages the things that unicorns are made of?
Arguably not a pun, but still very intentional. ↩
I owe a debt of gratitude to my former colleague Tyler Reid for pointing out the proper plural of platypus was not platypii, but rather platypode. Tyler was also the biggest supporter of our unofficial renaming of our odd little tech consulting group to The Platypus Works. ↩
STEM, along with engineering, has become in SF/SV a synonym for software engineer, and hiring invariably requires whiteboarding an algorithm or data structure problem. It’s worth noting there are many physics, mathematics, and EE majors, among others, who can implement a robust, performant program even if they can’t tell you whether the algorithm is O(nlog(n)) or O(n^1.8). ↩
Anecdotally, my recollection is that every successful NBA team in the last twenty or thirty years has had a platypode. There was Pippen on the Bulls, Garnett on the Celtics, Fisher on the Lakers, Prince on the Pistons. And Magic Johnson, one of the ten best players ever in the NBA, moved from point-guard to center in the NBA finals as a rookie, leaving him and Oscar Robertson to fight over the NBA’s Greatest Platypode Ever honors. ↩
If you would like to read that as “hiring full-stack engineers instead of specializing further could be suboptimal” I would not object. ↩
Incidentally, real platypodes can detect prey in water by the electrical field their muscle contractions create. Where are the receptors? In that funny looking bill. You don’t always know the utility someone’s quirkiness can bring. ↩