Thursday, November 24, 2005

Living on the edge.

All my life I've mainly been good at being good at what the other people around me are not: I'm the math kid among literature dorks; the queen of the literati among science-y people; the nerd among jocks and the jock among nerds. Pretty much I've found my greatest success at the lines between categories rather than in the categories themselves. When you look at it, that's basically why I went into linguistics; unable to choose between math and language, I didn't.

I find myself thinking about this once again as I consider what it means to be a linguist in the software industry. Now it's really the case that there are few homogenous sets of people who work where I work -- in my group alone, I can think of colleagues with backgrounds in Germanic and history;people with formal training in computer science and people who are wholly self-taught; a one-time biochemist, a former hacker, native speakers of Chinese, Thai, Manchu, Arabic, and Kannada; and that's just in my group alone. One of the things that makes a company successful is its ability to draw on a richly talented group of people from a multiplicity of backgrounds, and I consider myself fortunate to work with what is generally a varied and talented group of people.

And yet.

Nothing makes the group feel more homogenous even despite all of the above than sitting back and thinking about the thing that everyone else has in common: They Are Not Me. This is superficially and uninterestingly true of all of us, but every once in a while something happens to make me notice it even more profoundly. There are groups of formal and computational linguists at Microsoft, but I (intentionally) don't work in those groups, even though I do work with those groups. Most of the time I like the fact that my day-to-day worklife is conducted mostly among people who think about problems in ways different than would occur to me. I like that I have the opportunity to really drive linguistic functionality in the area where I work, that I spend this time thinking in the space that's at the edge of research and product. And when I stop and think about it, about my tendency to work in edge spaces in general, it makes a lot of sense.

Product groups are both what I expected them to be and also not what I expected them to be.

Happy Thanksgiving. I've torpedoed Thanksgiving this year by making Chris put the turkey is way too early, since it's done now and we told people we're not really eating until around 4:30...


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