A lot of people on the net have probably heard of “triangles” like these:

  • Fast, cheap, reliable…pick two.
  • Beauty * brains * availability = a constant

Pursuant to a conversation with Bram Cohen, who probably doesn’t realize that I think he’s a great guy, I thought of another one:

  • Work on cutting-edge stuff.
  • Set your own terms and deadlines.
  • Draw a nice steady paycheck.

As always, there’s a tradeoff involved. For example, I draw a very nice paycheck and I work on stuff that’s pretty close to the cutting edge, but in return I have ceded a lot of control over a lot of stuff like how my ideas are used. A lot of academic folks are even more aggressively on the cutting edge and have a little bit more “freedom of exploration” but have given up something in the paycheck department. Open-source heroes tend to do really well in the terms-and-deadlines department but also do poorly in the paycheck department and often aren’t nearly as close to the cutting edge as they think. These are all valid choices. The point, which I tried to make recently but which had not fully congealed in my mind yet, is that for most of us some sort of tradeoff is necessary. Sure, the triangle model breaks down in some exceptional cases; Linus Torvalds, for example, seems to do pretty well by all three criteria. However, such “dream jobs” are extremely rare, and they’re not exactly handed out like door prizes. Usually, they’re the result of both hard work and good luck, having established the right reputation with the right people under the right circumstances. Usually that reputation is a combination of a proven track record for turning wacky ideas into reality, plus some reasonable degree of business understanding, plus not being a total nut job. The right people might be a CEO, a lab director, or a VC. The right circumstances would include a market for your particular idea, at the time it’s likely to be complete. (That last part is often missed; I’ve seen many great ideas fail because they were reached tangible form too late, and almost as many because they were too early.) If you bring all of these things together, maybe you can get a dream job, but the other 999,999 out of a million people will have to decide where in the triangle they’re most comfortable being.