Crossroads The ACM Magazine for Students

Sign In

Association for Computing Machinery

Magazine: Features
Stories from an autodidact

Stories from an autodidact

By ,

Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Computing profession

back to top 

The Roman philosopher Seneca said, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." I'm definitely a lucky person. Sometimes, it's good luck. Other times, it's bad. But the simple recognition that luck is a driving force in life has something of a grounding effect. Because luck isn't always straightforward. Some bad luck can open doors that you never would have considered if things had worked out well. Some good luck can lead you to the edge of the glass cliff. In order to make the most of any luck, good or bad, you need to be well prepared and ready to spot all the opportunities available.

But how does one prepare for the unknown? How do you learn to see the options? Rarely do opportunities come conveniently labeled, and skills for success don't always advertise themselves as worth the investment. On top of all that, the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. An investment in what you need to know now may be invalidated next week or next year.

The real skill you should invest in is knowing how to learn—continuously. It's the ability to discriminate on what information is suspect, what you can build on, and what is good enough for right now. It's the ability to constantly question what you think you know, assimilate new information, and make the next best approximation for what you need to do to succeed. It's the tenacity to keep going when the lessons are difficult.

I am not the person who learns the fastest, or most completely, or most elegantly. I am a person who learns continuously, and I believe this is what has helped me to make the most of luck as it comes. Here are a few lessons of luck and learning from my journey so far.

back to top  From Hot Tubs to Zombies

Lesson one: It's time to step outside your comfort zone.

Way back in the heady days of the first dotcom boom in the late 1990s, I was at a party. The hostess knew I enjoyed making puzzles, and so she attempted to introduce me to a fellow puzzle maker. Unfortunately, this guy was in the hot tub at that very moment, and I detest being hot. A hot tub is a place I actively avoid. But my friend was kind and encouraged me with a bowl of ice, insisting that I sit on the edge of the hot tub and use the ice to stay cool. Armed with my soon-to-be bowl of water, I introduced myself to my compatriot in puzzling. This conversation proved pivotal, leading me to join a group of puzzle makers that I ended up working with for more than a decade, including this guy from the hot tub. That sounds like a nice ending, right? Except the story goes on.

Upon graduating from business school in the mid-2000s, I wanted to start a company. I quickly discovered that my idea was not financially viable, and therefore I needed to find a job to pay off my school debt. I was working on a game with the puzzle maker group, and I was on "puzzle fixing" duty. I was stuck, and so, one of the team members directed me to a website where I could find some puzzle mechanics. I managed to fix the puzzle, and I was inspired to explore this puzzle mechanics company a bit more. It turned out the company was hiring, and they were backed by a reputable venture capitalist. I decided to apply just to see what would happen. I ended up working there for less than a year. Several of my co-workers and I decided to start a new company together. We called it Six to Start, and we went on to build award-winning games.

Six to Start built games for other people for years, but our ultimate goal was to build our own proprietary game. We had some promising ideas for a game that involved exercise, but we needed some immediate capital to flesh out the design. That's when I got a call from one of my puzzle-making contacts, who asked me if we could build a game within four weeks to support his company's marketing launch. This was exactly what we needed. We named our price, pulled together a team, and built a game that delighted the client. In return, we had the funding required to develop our very own game. Less than a year later, we launched "Zombies, Run!" This game has gone on to be the lifeblood of the company, downloaded millions of times, and has changed the lives of countless players to start exercising regularly.

While many things had to converge for all of this to happen, the reality is I never would have connected to the puzzle community if I had not set aside my minor distaste for hot water. Pushing your limits doesn't always mean jumping out of planes or giving speeches to thousands of people; it may simply mean eating at a restaurant that your friends like or trying an activity once just to test it out. Look for small things you can do to expand your horizons, and take a friend with you to share the experience.

While I still don't love hot tubs, that small step with the ice bowl at the party has "broken the ice" on my aversion to voluntarily subjecting myself to hot temperatures. I moved to Norway five years ago, and sweating in the sauna is an important aspect of socializing. Enduring the sauna part has opened the door to a new experience—jumping in the freezing plunge pool. The reward of the chilly end in the sea makes up for the not-so-pleasant hot part. The conversations and experiences that I've had in those saunas have resulted in new doors opening. Who knows where those will lead?

back to top  Opportunity From Disaster

Lesson two: Exploit the transferability of your skill set.

I've also had my share of bad luck. I was once in a bad car accident in the late 1990s. I spent years in rehabilitation afterwards, and I was the recipient of a variety of drugs to manage my pain. Prior to the accident, I had been trying to build a life in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the software world. But due to escalating medical costs, I was headed toward bankruptcy. That's when I found a job that would train me for five months in the U.S., and then relocate me permanently to the U.K.

This is one of the exceptional benefits of working in software—you have immense flexibility when it comes to finding places to work. I consider myself unbelievably lucky to work in an industry that allows me the freedom to move to a place where I could escape crushing medical debt, pay it all back, and not incur more while I continued to be treated.

My move to the U.K. in the early 2000s opened up the world to me and helped me understand the transfer-ability of my skills. Broken computer systems needed fixing everywhere, and the ability to reason your way through system failures and get them running again was a valuable skill set in any language. But first, the English language was a barrier I had to overcome.

Some bad luck can open doors that you never would have considered if things had worked out well. Some good luck can lead you to the edge of the glass cliff.

During my first year working in the U.K., I traveled to the far-flung corners of Wales and Scotland. And on many occasions, I faced a fellow native English speaker who I simply could not understand. That's when I learned a new trick. Whatever it was they approached me with, I would respond with, "That sounds serious. Can you send me an email?" I have no idea how many friendly Scots were just greeting me and were met with my tech support answer.

However, my scope was not limited to the U.K.; I was expected to serve clients across Europe. With this exposure to a wide variety of languages, I had something of an aha moment, realizing just how much culture is packed into language.

I recall being in a meeting that was conducted in both French and English. After the meeting, one of my English colleagues told me that he had no idea about my "other personality." I looked at him quizzically, and he said that when I spoke French, I completely changed my body language and mannerisms. It was like someone else was sitting at the table. I had no idea. From that point on, I put a more conscious effort into understanding underlying assumptions in our work. I soon realized it wasn't just language; many misunderstandings were based in culture. While I had been jokingly called a translator in Silicon Valley for being able to explain client problems to my fellow engineers, I now found myself in a much more concrete position of translating underlying cultural constraints to my technical colleagues back in the U.S.

Even with translation apps readily available, learning to speak more languages provides a window into another culture and a different way of thinking. Even a small amount of knowledge can prove useful. My failed attempt to learn Japanese gave me just enough knowledge to help me solve several difficult search algorithm issues for a Japanese client. My inability to wrap my head around German set the foundation on which I built a decent command of Norwegian, enabling me to serve on the boards of two Norwegian companies. Language was always a fun side project for me, but suddenly it had become a very real component of my success.

The benefits of basic troubleshooting and language skills may not be that surprising, but many other things you cultivate in various environments are more transferable than you might think. For example, raising kids makes some people more patient. Owning pets helps others understand how to manage unpredictable chaos. Arranging vacations to unfamiliar locations taps into your ability to plan in the face of uncertainty. These are all skills that, along with your technical capabilities, enhance your value.

back to top  Highest Return on Investment?

Lesson three: Invest in your social relationships.

In university, I studied chemical engineering and graduated in the late 1990s. I was not an exceptional academic, but despite this, I wanted to go to graduate school. My plan was to work for a few years and then return to a graduate program. I sought advice from the graduate students at my university, asking them what I should do while in the real world. I was shocked that every single one of them said I should learn how to program. I was confused. I wanted to learn how to get bacteria to produce drugs, or how to engineer growing human skin at scale. How was programming going to help me do that? But the graduate students were adamant. If I was going to have the slightest hope of getting in, I had to learn how to program. They said to head to Silicon Valley, and someone there would hire and teach me.

Luck reared its head once again. A university friend of mine studied in Silicon Valley, and we agreed to meet up. I met him on his school campus, and he asked if I had my resume with me. He told me there happened to be a startup job fair on campus that very day, and they didn't care what kind of engineer you were. We rushed to the computer lab to print a stack of resumes to hand out. It was at this fair that I landed my first job, a job in which my employer happily taught me to code in their proprietary language. The computer and software world was so much fun, I skipped the chemical engineering graduate school plans and never looked back.

One of the exceptional benefits of working in software—you have immense flexibility when it comes to finding places to work.

At one point during my first job, the VP in our department pulled me aside to share some career wisdom. He said throughout your career, be a collector of people—people who you want to work with again. In the world of startup companies, the only real stability comes from the social relationships you make. He advised me that wherever I worked, I should pick out the people I would want to work with again, and try to stay in touch with them. This advice has served me well, enabling a steady stream of opportunities whenever I have wanted to make a career switch.

This advice certainly played a role in getting that first position in the U.K., as a former colleague had advocated on my behalf. When I arrived in the U.K., another colleague shared some advice about how to keep my friendships back in the U.S. alive. He told me to always stay over with friends when I went back to the U.S. for work trips. By staying with friends instead of at hotels, I built up deeper relationships, and my friends reciprocated by visiting me wherever I lived—even in Norway, even in winter. As I built up friendships and people dispersed across the world, we actively made plans to keep in touch, planning vacations, and tacking on a day or two to a business trip just to spend time together. Thanks to this investment, I have an active social support group that spans the globe.

The importance of these friendships became crystal clear in 2020. As the pandemic circled the globe, informal networks gave me a better perspective on what was happening in the world than what I could glean from the nightly news. Video calls made up my entire exhausting workday but now they also served as a large part of my social life as I played games, sang at birthday parties, danced at anniversaries, and ate Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I am very aware of how lucky I am to have such an extensive support network.

back to top  Final Words…

Your career will not be straightforward, and it will be filled with moments of good luck and bad. Given the number of changes we expect to face as a society, the road ahead will be filled with twists and turns. Your attitude will make all the difference in whether it becomes a nightmare or a fantastical adventure. By maintaining activities and social networks to keep you sane, you can then have better protection when bad luck hits.

For the next wave of women in technology, I wish a world of fairer compensation, ready acceptance of your experience and talents, and access to all possible opportunities. As you move through your careers, realize that you can then be the person creating luck and opportunities for others who come after you.

According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2020, your training has given you half of the most valuable skills for 2025—from complex problem solving to systems analysis. However, the skills that will keep you evergreen, regardless of the changes to come, are the abilities to learn, adapt, and be resilient. Prepare for the luck that comes your way and use it to your advantage. You never know when opportunity will strike.

back to top  Author

Lisa Long wanders. She wandered from cofounding Six to Start, a games company that makes people run away from zombies, to working as a VP at Telenor, the world's seventh-largest telco, and then back to starting a product advisory company, BeforeYouCode. She wanders among topics ranging from neuroscience to baking to the changeover in the power grid from fossil fuels to renewable energy. She wandered from enterprise software engineering for Silicon Valley startups to business school at INSEAD in France & Singapore to serving as a product thought leader and mentor for accelerator programs like Seedcamp, Cartier Women's Initiative, Mass Challenge, and SmartInnovation Pangstart. She hopes more people will be encouraged to wander.

back to top 

© 2021 Copyright held by Owner(s)/Author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1528-4972/21/03 $15.00

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.


There are no comments at this time.


To comment you must create or log in with your ACM account.