the emperor stayed at home,
and the war was lost
Eight-ish years ago, I was in my senior year of high school, going through the American college admissions process. Eventually, I got into most of my preferred destinations, including Stanford and MIT, which I would attend. In an Asian household that emphasized the importance of academics, this was a pretty ideal outcome, and I was pretty exuberant about my luck, but my mom lamented that the two Ivy league universities on my list, Harvard and Yale, had outright rejected me. "Raymond," she would say, "Very smart people go to MIT, but they all end up working for businessmen who graduate from the Ivies." I guess you can say it's a cruel, or pre-destined, twist that eight years later, I now find myself working at Yale for an advisor who got his PhD at Harvard. Life is funny (or stupid) like that.
I guess it's also appropriate that now in my 4th year of grad school, I'm more sure than ever that I absolutely do not want to be a professor and run my own lab. My parents, like most parents of 4th year grad students, frequently ask me what I'm going to do after I graduate (if/when that happens). It's almost now a replacement for "Hello" or "How are you doing." "Wouldn't it be nice," they'd ask, "if you ran your own lab or company?" There were days when I'd just sigh and answer "Yes, of course," and then shift the conversation to something else, but nowadays I'm not so sure about that stock response. Is it really all that great to be a CEO or PI? Or even a PM for that matter? Granted, I've never been any of those, but they seem increasingly less appealing with each passing year. Is it so bad that I would prefer to be another cog* in the machine instead of the man at the wheel?
I've always wanted to make something no one's made before. To snatch something out of the murky randomness of my imagination and bring it into reality just feels magical. Not magical like fairies or unicorns, but magical like perfectly searing a steak on the grill and pairing it with a nice German stout at just the right temperature (mmmmmmmm). Too bad engineering doesn't scale. Anything beyond your gimmicky gizmo on QVC requires teams of specialists just to get beyond the prototype stage. Even something of moderate complexity is probably beyond the capability of a single developer. Before you know it, if you're lucky, instead of managing design constraints, you're managing people, and then all bets are off.
It bothers me that eventually, the only way I can exceed my personal limitations is to vicariously advance my craft through others. Work your way up the ladder just to realize that now you have to learn how to fly (or fall with style)? At what point is your vision no longer your own? For me, there's nothing quite like the step-by-step process from nascent thought to doodles on scraps of paper to half-baked CAD to flimsy prototype. I don't care for the design for manufacturing, the design for assembly, the design for usability, or all those other best-practice paradigms that get their own books and followings. When it's just me, it's just the task at hand and the thing to be built. Nothing else. And I think that's just how I like it.
* (Not your standard cog. Maybe an active differential. Yeah, that.)