17 Oct 2010

Reluctant Self-Promotion

A lot of what we do at SpeakerText now that we’ve launched a viable product is to meet with people. We are regularly face-to-face or on the phone with potential investors, potential partners, potential customers, and potential future hires.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to sum up my background and experience to these people in a few sentences. My standard intro used to be something like:

“Hi, I’m Tyler. I just graduated from the University of Rochester (in Rochester, NY) with a degree in Electrical and Computer engineering and a minor in Computer Science. I’m originally from Vermont, and I like to run, hike, and code. I met my co-founder Matt Mireles at a job fair at Columbia University last fall, started freelancing for SpeakerText soon after, and joined on as a co-founder when I graduated this past May.” Sometimes I add: “I had actually never done any web development before I joined SpeakerText, but I picked it up pretty quickly”

My co-founders do not think this makes me sound intelligent. Even worse, they think it reflects badly on our company. They argue that 1) Rochester is not a great brand, 2) Having only a minor in Computer Science does not inspire confidence in my programming skills, and 3) Saying that SpeakerText is my first foray into web development makes me sound like a no-talent n00b.

They’d rather I introduce myself with something like:

“Hi, I’m Tyler. I’ve been coding in one language or another since 4th grade. My first job was as a Python programmer for IBM while I was still in high school. I was accepted to Harvard, but turned it down in order to attend the University of Rochester on a full-tuition scholarship. During college, I studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I completed two other internships at IBM and also did computer vision work for Lockheed Martin. I met Matt about a year ago, helped launch the first version of SpeakerText last January, and have been with SpeakerText full-time since I graduated in May.”

(As an aside, there are certain parts of the above paragraph I’d never say, such as the part about Harvard. Besides the fact that it sounds extremely self-serving, I don’t believe, five years later, that it is relevant or has any bearing on who I am today. But out here in the Valley, where the highest cachet comes from having dropped out of Harvard or MIT or Stanford at the age of 20, it probably makes people sit up and pay attention.)

Both introductions are true, and both describe me accurately. The first one showcases who I am; the second reads like a summary of my resume. The first is subtle, the second like hitting someone over the head with a metal pipe. I’d prefer to show off SpeakerText and let that serve as proof of our engineering skills.

But pedigree and past accomplishments are important. I know this because I look for them myself in the people I meet. I want to know about where they went to school and what kinds of things they worked on before their current gig.

So, why can’t I say these things about myself? I think there are two simple reasons.

1) I’ve never really had to self-promote. I got my first job because I had shown some promise in high school, but also because my dad worked in the department and was able to introduce me to his manager, and because I was cheap enough that they could afford to take a chance on me. I did so well at that job that my name spread throughout the site without me having to do anything. During subsequent summers, managers started emailing me to offer me their positions.

Also, most of the people I’ve met over the past few years have been peers. It’s fairly obvious that if you want to make a good friend, you won’t blab about yourself and your accomplishments until you know the person quite well.

2) There’s a difference between associating yourself with an impressive name, and doing cool stuff. So what if I worked at IBM? If all I did was sit around, it wouldn’t be very impressive. I’d rather tell people about the real-time wafer mapping system I helped build, or how much time our Python automation system saved engineers for each chip design processed. It sounds impressive that I did “computer vision work at Lockheed Martin,” but not as much when I explain that it was a tedious job that I grew to hate. The actual day-to-day tasks were repetetive and I did much less coding than I expected.

Taking this into account, I think my perfect introduction would read as such:

“Hi, I’m Tyler. I’ve loved computers from an early age and I’ve been coding in one form or another since the 4th grade. I’ve held a number of internships at IBM, where I helped develop an automation system written in Python, and a real-time wafer data mapping program written in Java and Python. During my senior year at the University of Rochester, I wrote a few thousand lines of C code for a personal A/C power meter that I built with three classmates. I’ve been working with Matt on SpeakerText for over a year, and I’m pretty proud of our latest version, which was built from scratch in three months by three developers.”

I think that gets across all the pertinent information without sounding obnoxious. I’ll probably give a less detailed version when we meet with people, but I’ll certainly try it out and tweak it as we continue to meet with people.