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☞ Outlier Roles in Venture Capital (and other Organizations)
On Generalists and Organizational Edge Cases
Andreessen Horowitz recently announced that it is creating a new crypto research lab: a16z crypto research. With some parallels to Paradigm’s research team, the messaging of a16z is that they are aiming to build an industrial research lab in the style of DeepMind, or even Bell Labs. This is obviously of interest to me because I have been closely following the construction of new research institutions and modalities (check out the Overedge Catalog!). But it’s also intriguing for another reason: these are outlier roles in venture capital.
As someone who has been in the role of Scientist in Residence for a venture capital firm, I’m no stranger to outlier roles in venture. In fact, there are others involved in research to varying degrees in venture, a space that Lawrence Lundy-Bryan—research partner at Lunar Ventures—has examined in detail. But even beyond research, there are a number of such more “exceptional” types of roles in the venture world.
For about a year now, I’ve been tracking such roles that currently exist or once existed, and have come across a pretty broad set of titles: design partner, data scientist in residence, chief scientist, writer in residence, philosopher in residence, and even expert in residence! I love this diversity. (And Dear Reader, if you know of an interesting role in venture, or have one yourself, please let me know about it!)
Do these roles always match what they say on the tin? Not always. Some jobs are more delimited than their title might imply, or the role might be a bit different than what you might expect (if you’re interested in my own, I provide a flavor of what my specific scientist in residence role entails in this interview, and Lundy-Bryan’s essay also discusses my scientist in residence role).
So what does all this mean? Admittedly, this sounds like a lot of inside baseball and something only people in the venture capital world would be interested in (or maybe even just me, because I have one of these roles). But I think these roles point to something a bit broader: the need for more generalist, or at least outlier, roles in organizations.
In many organizations, we can become bogged down by the short-term and the actions with instrumental value: what does this task require and what will it get us? Or each employee simply becomes so busy or specialized that they do not have the bandwidth to explore more broadly at an individual level. In the face of this, organizations can become overly narrow, unable to look at the broader landscape of ideas or simply engage in a sense of play. Therefore, there is a need for organizations to create a space for more undirectedness, which involves thinking along longer time horizons and creating room for randomness and optionality. We must have the possibility of following our curiosity and what seems interesting, even when it might be different from the core functions of the organization (see the book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned for an exploration of this kind of position, as well Gordon Brander’s examination of its themes).
These positions require a more generalist perspective, as well an organization that is willing to embrace an outlier as a legitimate role. I am certain other organizational types outside venture recognize this as well, but we certainly need more of these no matter the type of institution.
Any institution that thrives on curiosity and exploration must embrace the role of the edge case.
From Alan Jacobs, this is so profound and beautiful:
I don’t expect that anyone will be reading my stuff after I die — I expect that I’ll be wholly forgotten before I die, if I live to a good age — but I almost never think about that. At the end of Middlemarch George Eliot says of Dorothea that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that captures better than I can my convictions on this point. Diffusive is the key word: an influence that subtly spreads, perhaps without anyone noticing. I find that model of influence more encouraging and comforting than any hopes for fame could ever be.
A few links worth checking out:
Pathways and Relationships: Douglas Adams wrote an article about HyperCard for MacUser magazine in 1987! Here’s one highlight from the article (and here’s my own take on HyperCard from a few years ago).
Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson: This book is about the history of a group in the 1950’s and 1960’s that studied the feasibility of a spaceship propelled by detonating nuclear bombs.
Introduction to Deep Learning: A short MIT course. The lectures are great.
Mathematica: An interactive museum exhibit that teaches fundamental ideas from mathematics (random walks, conic sections, and more!), it was first developed in the 1960’s by the Eames Office and was one of the first modern museum exhibits (I recently visited the Mathematica exhibit at The Henry Ford).
Efficient evolution of human antibodies from general protein language models and sequence information alone: ‘Contrary to prevailing notions of evolution as difficult and resource-intensive, our results suggest that when constrained to a narrow manifold of evolutionary plausibility, evolution can become much easier, which we refer to as the “efficient manifold hypothesis.”’
Until next time.