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Why It’s Important For a Tech Innovator to Have a Wide Variety of Interests


Part 10: Why It’s Important For a Tech Innovator to Have a Wide Variety of Interests

In our increasingly specialized society, a person with a wide range of interests is often marginalized as a “jack of all trades.” We have this collective idea that to be a world-class tech innovator, one must be so obsessed with tech that everything else just falls to the wayside. We imagine that to become a high-level coder, one must neglect the rest of her interests, throw away her model airplanes, soccer balls and amateur botany kits, put on a pair of taped-up glasses, and stare at a computer, all day, every day. The truth is, while an obsessive coder may develop world-class technical skills, a programmer with a wider variety of interests is far more likely to create useful, real-world innovations that give rise to successful companies and world-changing technologies.

Imagine a landscape painter who locks himself in a room and does nothing but paint all day, every day. He may become intimately acquainted with his tools and techniques, but without going out and being awed by beautiful landscapes on a regular basis, his paintings will be less than inspired. A musician who does nothing but practice playing the guitar all day may develop incredible technical skill, but without the triumph, love, beauty and heartache that come with human interactions, she won’t have much emotional depth with which to imbue her music. As technically proficient as these artists may be, their art will always be soulless, dead, and unrelatable if they neglect to draw inspiration from other parts of life. The same is true for a computer programmer. Practicing coding all day may give you great technical skills, but without having a wide variety of interests in the “normal world,” you won’t be able to see all the ways you can use code as a tool to solve real-world problems, in areas outside of your little technosphere. As Victor Moreno (our head instructor who designed the Web Development curriculum here at FVI) notes: “If all I read were [programming] books, I’d be like a line cook of programming, just executing recipes. Being a good programmer or technical guy requires creativity.” Just like for the painter and the guitarist, creativity for the coder requires taking a step back from her practice, and having real human experiences in the outside world.

“Every single strong tech guy I’ve met is excellent at at least one other thing. Many of them are awesome musicians, actually. And I for one would never have gotten good at computer science if it weren’t for my weightlifting journey.” — Victor Moreno

Having a variety of interests is helpful for anyone who aspires to be a tech innovator, because those interests are the fertile ground from which ideas for innovations spring. A programmer who also happens to be a volunteer at a hospital, for example, may come up with a world-changing app to help make waiting-room triage more efficient, thereby saving time, money, and maybe even peoples’ lives. A coder who also happens to be a meditation instructor can create an app that helps anyone with an iPhone experience the transformative power of meditation. A tech entrepreneur who also happens to enjoy mountain-biking on the weekends may come up with the next great wearable technology that transforms the world of sports as we know it. A coder who spends all her time coding, on the other hand, is missing out on all of these innovation ideas by limiting the scope of her experience to the contents of an Object-Oriented Programming book or the quirks of a fancy new JavaScript library.

Moreno may have said it best when he wrote:

“You don’t create breakthrough technologies just by reading programming books. Good technical innovation is exactly the same as all other innovation; it results from a clash of ideas. Having diversity in your background greatly increases the likelihood of that happening. That’s why biologists over hundreds of years didn’t come up with the theory of evolution, and that’s why all the greatest minds of the past were polymaths (Newton, Da Vinci, Galileo, etc).”

So if you want to be the next great tech innovator, make sure to keep up with your non-technical interests.

To read more about the relationship between varied interests and innovation, check out this article on Chance, Creativity, and Idiosyncratic Traits. And, of course, come back next week for the next installment in our series, “How To Launch a Tech Startup in 2016.