Episode 21: Polymaths and Tech with Ben Vandgrift, Dir of Engineering at Skiplist

Today's Guest: Ben Vandgrift, Director of Engineering at Skiplist

Hosts: Fahad Shoukat and Andrew Wolfe

Today's Guest: Ben Vandgrift, Director of Engineering at Skiplist

Ben is a technologist, problem solver, coffee aficionado, and is always looking for his next adventure. Historically, he’s been a chief executive, director, team lead, software architect, designer, developer, and more recently, author. Ben just joined the Skiplist team as the Director of Engineering and we lucky to have someone like him on our team. You might also recognize Ben from his Tedx Talk, “Paths to Polymath” that he gave few years ago.

Show Notes

Introduction: Ben Vandgrift (1:05)

· Ben has worked in the computer science field for the past 20 years.

What is a polymath? (1.48)

Polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much";[1] Latin: homo universalis, "universal man")[2] is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

· A polymath is a person of encyclopedic learning. An expert in many different subjects, or a “Renaissance person.” Polymaths go deep in many different areas across the board.

· A specialist goes deep in one spot. A specialist goes deep in one spot. A generalist is a jack of all trades a master of none. A polymath is a jack of all trades, a master of many.

· The history of industry makes it difficult for people to become polymaths.

How do you become a Polymath? (3.07)

· It’s a lot of work. It’s having a passionate curiosity about the world. It’s never being satisfied with not knowing things. You dedicate yourself to a topic and follow it all the way down. You give up your free time to learning a particular topic and then you don’t stop.

Is it better to be broad or specific? A Lebron or a Michael Jordan? (4.43)

· If you are going broad, are you actually being effective? Can you provide value going across multiple subjects? Yes, you can be both. Once you understand the complexities involved in a subject, you can.

· The only limiting factor is time. When you take on more work and more challenges, you have to have help from other people.

· It’s the person with multi-disciplinary experience that holds the team together. You can translate between the specialists.

How did you get interested in this area? (8.23)

· Growing up on a farm, you have to know how to do everything - fix the tractor, balance the books, know what plants you can and can’t grow, what kind of soil you need, etc. You become fluent in very practical applications.

· Picking a specialty in college is difficult when you’re used to doing everything.

Why is understanding polymaths important? (9.28)

· Polymaths see the world differently. They make connections that are otherwise ignored, and they have the advantage of a unique perspective. You can gain a lot of advantages by figuring out how to learn. You don’t get multidisciplinary expertise, without first learning how to learn.

· You need someone on your team who is able to solve problems that cross multiple disciplines.

Because of the internet, we are in a renaissance of learning.

Do you think people will have to become autodidacts to be able to exist in the world? Do you agree that people become polymaths just luck or coincidence, learning many topics to really understand just one? (11.19)

· For most topics, you can compartmentalize in a single line of learning. You can become a senior level java script programmer without understanding core levels of computer science. You can be considered an expert without understanding all of the basic concepts.

· The world doesn’t motivate us toward multi-disciplinary education. Learning today is incredibly shallow. Most people are willing to read a blog post, but it takes commitment to go through a multiplayer learning experience. Its possible in today’s education structure, but it doesn’t decrease the need for a will to commit the time and effort to expertise as opposed to a passing understanding.

Polymaths typically have a photographic memory.

They have a leg up because of the way they’re wired. If you don’t have that level of memory, can you become a polymath? (13.17)

· Yes! Not all polymaths have a photographic memory. The classic example of a polymath was Leonardo DaVinci. He wrote everything down.

· When you’re learning something, you, through various means push your understanding down into your subconscious so it becomes instinct. When you look at a problem, you don’t always know where the answer comes from.

· The answer is to make learning intentional. The goal of the intention is to make it instinctual. Training yourself to think in a particular way, use a certain set of criteria, or to be able to recall certain formula with the goal of that knowledge becoming instucintual.

Generalist vs Specialist. Does becoming a polymath payoff? (16.00)

· A generalist is not the same as a polymath. In our field, a generalist makes more money than a specialist. A generalist in software knows UX design, front end and back end, design databases, etc. That’s a lot to know at an expert level, but that’s just one field, technology. If they can also perform surgery, design a circuit board or repair a car, then he/she is a polymath.

· When you step outside of a field of study, the title polymath comes out.

How would being a Polymath help someone become a better developer? (18.33)

· Knowing how to play music at a higher level, helps Andrew learn coding language. Music helped him learn programming languages quicker, helping him be a better programmer. Composition in the mind of a musician helps designing programs.

· As software developers we tend to fall into repeatable patterns of behavior. We want to solve new problems, but our toolset becomes habitual instead of inventive.

· What influences his development in the programs that Ben writes, he can looks at things outside of the field as inspiration to create inside the field. Nature and human anatomy are very inspiring when it comes to systems.

How important is it to be conscious of your learning styles? Are polymaths naturally doing this? (22.40)

· Da Vinci set out to become a polymath. He started as a painter and wanted to paint more accurately. He took sideways steps on purpose to get to the place where he really wanted to be. It took him decades.

· You must be driven by curiosity about the world, driven by a goal you want to achieve, or a bunch of problems that land in your lamp that you have to solve. A driver gets you from generalist to expert.

The polymathic organization (25.02)

· Skiplist has to become a polymath organization. We have clients in all different fields. How does an organization build up the memory to become a polymath organization?

· Again, DaVinci wrote everything down. That’s a good start! You don’t need an organization full of polymaths to have a polymathic organization. You just need a way to capture and regurgitate the information to be able to have it on hand. Incentivize your people to share everything that they’re learning on their different projects and building up a library.

· If you have a person who has deep expertise, then the organization has that expertise. As the projects proceed, more people gain that expertise as they work with them. The amount of time sharing the information with others, increases the company's expertise.

On the flipside, if you have a deep expert who isn’t working on projects aligned with their expertise, your company doesn’t gain their expertise when they’re gone.

Would organizations find it more rewarding if they promoted polymaths or polymathic organizations? (29.22)

· You can provide polymaths as something to build up to. Promoting polymaths is smart because those people are good at coordinating across subjects.

· On the flipside, there’s diminishing returns in investing in more polymaths, but having some and putting them in places where they can leverage their polymathic tendencies is very intelligent and responsible.

· To understand the amount of time it takes to master a discipline has to inform the question. If a developer wants to design IOT boards, that’s probably 18 months of study. To get that deep expertise, you have to spend that amount of time. A company has to think about where they want to be in 2-3 years, they have to thinking about the investment of the people and think about how long it will take for them to master those new skills.

What does this have to do with thoughtful software? (33.35)

· Thoughtful software is contextual. Without understanding the context, how can you build thoughtful software?

· The flexibility of the tool stack that you have to use recommends against being a specialist. Only knowing 1 or 2 things will make individuals less useful across the board. Its worthwhile to broaden out.

· On thoughtful software you have to get toward more polymathic version of things. You have to understand a lot of differing verticals and technologies. Being a polymathic organization is required for what we do. The technology and information needs to be both deep and broad.

How can we hack this? Being a polymath takes time. Can we take a “4 hour work week” hack to achieve this type of results? (35.40)

· No. In order to have deep understanding, you have to spend a lot of time on it. The narrower the subject, the easier and quicker it is. For any subject bigger than a breadbox, it takes time and experience to develop the kind of wisdom that will need to come into play. If not, then it’s like speed-dating different knowledge sets.

· It’s a natural part of being human to investigate and become experts in other areas. Our industry punishes those who try to get too much information. It’s hard for our modern employment apparatus to account for someone with a lot of skills within an organization.

Defense of the word Polymath (40.32)

· The key is deep expertise. Playing instruments, writing subjects, getting along well with people, managing the books, growing things from seeds, Having experience in a lot of different worlds doesn’t make you a polymath.

· Ben doesn’t consider himself a polymath, but an aspiring polymath. For most people who achieve the title, it’s not that they know a bunch of things, it’s that they know almost everything there is to know about a bunch of things. It’s why they’re in the history books. We don’t want to use this term lightly.

· People know Ben Franklin because of electricity. He didn’t start fiddling with electricity until his 40s. It’s never too late to start on your polymathic journey.






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Fahad Shoukat
Written by

Fahad Shoukat

Fahad has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA. He brings over 15+ years in Business Development, Strategy, Sales, Product, and Marketing in various industries such as software development and Internet of Things (IoT). His experiences have led him on an unwavering pursuit to meet thoughtful people and build thoughtful software.