Picture if you will, a conference room on Microsoft campus, circa 2006.
A designer sits in a team meeting, discussing a project with the PM and the Dev. After listening to the dev say things like “it can’t be done that way” and “that’s not possible” for nearly 20 minutes, the designer asks “Why not?” “Help me understand your reasoning.”
The dev floods the room with technical jargon in support of his position, and at one point, adds “y’know, you’re a good designer, but you couldn’t completely understand the real technical issues here”.
To which the designer replied, “I may not totally understand it, but I know enough dev-speak to know when someone’s bullshitting me.” The developer snarkily responded with “what are you, some sorta HYBRID?”
Suffice it to say, that meeting didn’t end well.
The dev and I are still friends, though.
But that was the first time I recall someone ever calling me a hybrid — to my face anyway. I’d heard the term batted around in management meetings before but it didn’t generate a visceral response in me until that day, when it was essentially hurled at me as an insult. As an effort to label me as “other”.
It stuck with me.
WE ARE NOT HYBRIDS
So what, you may ask, is my real beef with this term? It’s not that I’m still pissed off about that comment — if I was, this’d be a really short article. I believe I’ve come up with a better term.
Over the past 6 years, I’ve encountered this term more and more frequently, mostly due to changes in hiring practices during the slow economy.
Companies began to seek out designers and devs with ever-broader skillsets (at least on paper), hoping to get more bang for their hiring buck. It became a supply-demand spiral, with more people calling themselves hybrids to appeal to companies looking for hybrids.
And while it seemingly started in our industry to describe someone with skills in both design and dev, I’ve seen it spread beyond to editorial, marketing, engineering and even — yes — culinary arts.
Now, I’m not sure what the last person meant by referring to himself as a hybrid chemist-baker, but I hope it’s not this:
WE ARE NOT UNICORNS
In an effort to conform to whatever new molds company managers craft, we in the world of design and dev have gone to great lengths to present ourselves as “the ideal candidate”, which only furthers the fantasy that such a thing exists. When I was at Filter, we called this “The Unicorn Syndrome”.
The use, overuse, and misuse of the “hybrid” moniker has also led to the rise of the “Frankentitle”.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d never want any of these on a business card or resume. And as someone responsible for hiring decisions, what this says to me is “I’ll be whatever you want” — which doesn’t exude the level of confidence I’m looking for.
WE ARE NOT A SANDWICH
In my opinion, branding ourselves “hybrid-anything” does a disservice to our true representation, because it inherently implies a 50/50 split between only two elements — something none of us really are.
And if you identify as a hybrid, I would ask you to think — really think — about your abilities, and I suspect you will come out leaning one way or another.
It’s not like splitting a sandwich — we’re more complex than that. And even if you did try to split yourself like a sandwich — which would be weird — one half of you would still be better at some things than others.
Furthermore, if we imply that there are more than two elements to our “hybrid makeup”, it can come across as inauthentic. I’ve actually seen this on a resume:
DESIGNER / CODE-MONKEY / BLOGGER / MARKETER / SEO-GOD
As the term hybrid is traditionally used to describe the combination of two elements, it often reduces our perceived level of expertise to effectively half (or less) of those who are solely dedicated to one discipline or another. “Purists” on either side of the hybrid equation often perceive hybrids as “lesser” or “not as qualified”.
Imagine what “splitting yourself” five ways does to people’s perceptions.
The term hybrid is ambiguous, as it blurs the lines of distinction between individuals. It doesn’t effectively capture the nuances of your skillset, given the myriad of sub-disciplines we have available to us.
This can be misleading for project managers and team leads who need to have a comprehensive understanding of the skill-mix they’re putting against any problem-space.
So what’s the alternative…?
Why multilingual? Well, besides the fact that it’s a fun word to say…
MULTI- because it refers to the many facets of our expertise. Those facets which make each and every one of us unique. The open-endedness of the term multi allows us each to define what that means for us as individuals.
-LINGUAL because it refers to the core of how we express those layers to the world — it’s the LANGUAGE we comprehend and use to absorb information and relay knowledge. We are, by nature, a species of storytellers, and the languages we learn help us tell more meaningful stories to a wider variety of people.
In his book, Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan said that “the culture of any tribe [within an organization] is primarily defined by the shared language it uses”. Now, while he was referring to the various tribal stages within an org, what clicked with me about this was how it could also explain why some are more effective across disciplines than others — they speak the language.
So I began to realize that for professional disciplines, like tribal cultures, language comprehension is the key to how we thrive.
JE VOUS COMPRENDS
So why focus on language instead of skill?
If we look at each discipline as its own “tribe”, with different cultural values and a different language we can see where referring to oneself as hybrid starts to break down.
If I’m American, and I learn a little French, does that automatically make me 50% French? No. Even if I learn so much French that I become fluent, it still would not make me 50% French according to most French-natives.
What it does mean is that I have shown such an affinity for the French “tribe”, that I’ve invested time and effort to learn to express myself as eloquently as possible in their language. By expressing my affinity for another culture through my grasp of their language, it allows for a much more meaningful expression of my relationship with — and respect for — that cultural, or disciplinary, tribe. It also empowers me to evangelize my own skills in a language that resonates with that tribe.
Thus, without a solid understanding of the languages used by different disciplinary tribes, meaningful interactions are impossible.
In the 1999 film, The 13th Warrior, Antonio Banderas plays an emissary banished from his Arab homeland to the land of Norse Vikings. At first, he’s not a fan of what he observes of their culture — and the Vikings consider him “lesser” based on their own limited understanding of his tribe — but over time he learns their language by listening to their tribal stories. As his grasp of their language improves, so does his understanding of and affinity for their tribe.
Is this the greatest movie in the history of cinema? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But I love this movie because it’s the best example I know of in film that represents the “comprehension to advocacy” journey that language can empower.
This is where the term multilingual begins to distinguish itself from the traditional use of the term hybrid — by allowing for degrees of capability with different languages.
In his 2002 publication “Achieving Fluent Mastery”, Dr. Carl Binder identified the levels of performance as they related to language comprehension.
By applying this model to the disciplinary languages we speak, it offers a much greater degree of precision in how we represent ourselves. Saying “I’m familiar with dev-speak” sets a very different expectation than saying “I’m fluent in dev-speak”. And both of these approaches are inherently more accurate than merely saying “I’m a designer/dev hybrid”.
EMBRACE THE TRIBE
So at what point does my mastery of a language reward me with acceptance into the tribe?
Well… that depends.
For years, my wife and I have had a friendly debate about whether I’m a Seattleite or not. She was born and raised here — I was not. I’m originally from the East coast.
I reasoned that since I chose to stay here for more than 10 years I’ve earned my “Seattleite” pin — which always got a chuckle out of her. However, she now concedes that I’ve earned “Seattleite” status, since I’ve spent over half my life here.
But even still, I retain many of my East coast language characteristics, as you can probably tell from the title of this article, and I still identify myself for the most part as “an East-coaster”.
Now, thinking back for a moment to the definition of “hybrid”…
Does my mastery of Seattle’s language and understanding of their culture make me half this guy and half this guy?
No. That’d be cool, though.
It makes me a multilingual East-coaster fluent in the ways of the Seattle tribe, and able to blend in culturally (for the most part) — someone who has such a deep love for this city that I’ve chosen to stay and integrate.
Now, you may wonder: can my affinity for a discipline and my mastery of their language help me obtain “native-status”? Well… that also depends. It’s different for every tribe and every individual.
Over time I may become so enamored with the French language and culture that I decide to move to Paris and fully integrate myself with that culture (and wouldn’t that be nice?) — does that necessarily make me French? Likely no. But according to my wife, I can now refer to myself as a “Seattle native”, should I choose to.
The wonderful thing about disciplinary tribes is that the rules for “acceptance and integration” — and for some tribes “native-status” — are often much less stringent than they are for cultural or geographic ones.
Over time I may become so enamored with the Dev language and culture that I decide to leave my tribe and join theirs.
A colleague of mine did just that. He started his career as a designer, but the more he experienced the dev culture the more it resonated with him. So much so, that he mastered their language to such a degree of fluency that he is now recognized as a dev-native, and is also an “expert interpreter” between the design and dev tribes. His disciplinary core has shifted from design to dev but he still retains his understanding of the language he started with, and continues to practice it today.
Since it’s not limited to traditionally two elements, the multlingual approach provides a more refined way to express your true skill-mix — you can be multilingual in a wide variety of disciplinary languages, and at various degrees, showing how your comprehension of other disciplines enhances your disciplinary core. And unlike the term hybrid, it allows you to more accurately define and evangelize your disciplinary core.
CAPABILITY AND RESPECT
OK, so I’ve used the term “disciplinary core” term a few times above. What exactly do I mean by this?
We all started our careers somewhere, and as we progress, that often remains at the core of our skill-mix, not always, but often. Regardless of what we believe our skill-mix to be — and how we portion it in our own minds — we know that others’ beliefs have a very strong influence on what is perceived as the truth.
And this is a big part of why I’m not a fan of the term hybrid.
Because of the inherent understanding of the word hybrid, it ia often perceived that a person’s skill-mix is not only “half” of that person, but also “half” of someone else whose disciplinary core is singular.
Is that necessarily true? No. But that perception can often be hard to avoid, and even harder to correct.
But what if, instead, our skills in other disciplines — our understanding of other tribes’ languages — were represented as extensions — not divisions — of our core? So then, even if our core shifts, we still retain that language, that knowledge.
It empowers us to have more meaningful conversations about our own skill-mix, and create more meaningful connections with other tribes. Language serves as a gateway to both capability and mutual respect, which empowers the multilingual approach to act as a bridge between tribes.
I truly believe that this approach provides a more flexible, accurate, and refined way for each of us to express our unique value to the industry.
THIS IS FOR YOU
I’m pretty jazzed about this. But I’m one voice with one opinion, and I have just begun to explore this concept. I want to hear how it resonates with you, because this is for you. I’d love for this to be the start of a larger conversation, so that’s where you can help.
Keep talking about what you’ve read here today — with me and with each other. Bring this concept back to your tribes and share it with them. Spread the word so we can genuinely see if this makes sense for us. Let’s dig into this and see where we can take it.