In today's piece about the Jobs book I used a term I'm pretty sure I've never used before on Scripting News. That's pretty amazing, because I've been writing here since 1994, and you'd think I would, by now, have explored all the concepts I use in explaining stuff. But not this one.
1. College professor. You start out by getting a bunch of degrees. If you're like most people you go all the way through a PhD and maybe do some post-doctoral work before you get offered a position as a lecturer, or if you're very good, an assistant professor. Some people stay right there for their whole careers, get tenure, sabbaticals, then retirement. But if you want to get to the top, you have to become a professor. Then win some awards. And if you're a guy who aspires to administration, there are a lot of steps before you get to be President of a highly-regarded university. If, instead, you prefer to be a scholar, then you hope to get a big prize, like the Nobel or Pulitzer or whatever. There's a lot of weeding out, and lot of passing people by, and a lot of places where you can get pushed off the ladder. But if you have tenure, are a Nobel laureate, and at a good university, it's fair to say you have climbed the ladder to the top and can look down on everyone else in academia. (Assuming that's your thing.)
2. Reporter. You almost certainly have to get a college degree, probably from somewhere good. Then you have to start out working at a local paper or news station, get noticed. Get promoted, win an award, then get hired by the NY Times, the Washington Post or the Economist or become an on-air reporter on CNN. But you're still not at the top. You can figure the rest out. All this ladder-climbing makes me tired, just thinking about it.
Now if you were a commercial software developer, born in 1955, as I was, you came of age in the mid-late 70s, and you show up in Silicon Valley. How many steps before you hit the top? Cold call Steve Jobs. If he thinks you have talent, he hires you and you go to work on the Apple II. Or cold call Dan Fylstra and tell him you have a big problem licked, get invited for a meeting and two weeks later sign a deal. Boom. That's it. In 1979, you couldn't get any higher than either of those two positions. There were a few others. You could have met Seymour Rubenstein, Bill Gates, Gary Killdall, maybe Fred Gibbons. Mitch Kapor went down this path, as did the Visicalc guys and the guys who wrote dBASE and WordStar.
That's what I mean when I say we climbed shorter ladders. Some of those people had lots of education, some had none. Most didn't go to school in computer science because in the 70s the field was tiny and brand new.
Not climbing ladders had a downside. You could still fall off, and if you did, without any credentials, you might have a hard time picking yourself back up. I'm sure there are other tradeoffs. But that's the idea I was trying to express.