Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Unicorn Jobs

Many creative technically-minded people want a dream “unicorn job” where they can get paid to spend most of their time hacking on their own projects. Bad news: Unicorn jobs don't exist, at least not for long. Good news: There are ways to approximate them if you're willing to work hard enough. This article provides some ideas on how to find near-unicorn jobs.

In the past year, I've talked with dozens of creative technical people – mostly computer scientists – who are looking for a dream “unicorn job” where they can get paid to spend the majority of their work days on their own personal projects. I've also spent quite a bit of time looking for my own unicorn job as I was finishing up my Ph.D.

My conclusion thus far is that these mythical jobs simply don't exist ... at least not for long. This article provides some ideas on how to approximate such an ideal work setup, though.

Personal Unicorns

So far I've managed to hold down two unicorn jobs for about three months each:

  • During Summer 2011, I interned at Google to work on CDE, my own open-source project with about 10,000 users. I got this lucky gig by giving a Google Tech Talk on CDE earlier that year. Serendipitously a technical manager attended my talk and loved the project enough to offer me an internship on the spot. While all the other interns were grinding away on their boss's projects, I had full freedom to hack on CDE all summer.

  • From July to October 2012, I was a full-time employee at Google spending most of my time working on Online Python Tutor, another open-source project of mine, which had around 100,000 users at the time. Again, I got this lucky gig because a very influential person at Google vouched for me and offered to sponsor this project for the near term.

Since the first gig was an internship, I knew it was a limited time offer. And I didn't know how long the second one would last, so I rode it out as long as I could. After few months, though, the political tides within my division at Google shifted, and I suddenly lost the freedom to work primarily on my own project. My unicorn job morphed into a regular software engineering job (albeit one with great pay and benefits).

When I realized that my unicorn job was gone, I still remained at Google for a few more months but started looking for a new job right away. I concluded that the closest approximation for me was to get a job as a tenure-track assistant professor at a research-focused university, so that's the path I'm on right now. It's not a unicorn job – but it's the closest that I can get at this point, so I'm very grateful for this opportunity.

Unicorns Are Temporary

I've heard similar stories of influential people at companies sponsoring unicorn jobs for lucky unknowns (like me) for a few months at a time. But ultimately this model is not sustainable. Sooner or later, the political tides will inevitably shift, and the unicorn job will disappear as quickly as it was created. After all, companies aren't in the business of paying unknowns to work on their own projects.

Two years was the longest that anyone I know has ever kept a unicorn job. The co-founder and CTO of a prominent startup really valued the expertise that my friend built up during his Ph.D., and also liked him as a friend, so he hired him to unicorn it nearly full time. Again, his gig was great for a while, but as the company grew and political tides shifted against the CTO, it became harder and harder for him to protect my friend from the forces of capitalism: His unicorn project wasn't benefiting the company financially, so it was constantly in danger of getting killed. It was only a matter of time.

Even famous programmers cannot sustain unicorn jobs forever. Guido van Rossum, the creator of the Python language, which is used by bazillions of people, worked for Google for seven years. He was allowed to spend 50% of his time working on Python, his unicorn. Other famous programming language and operating systems creators usually have similar agreements with their employers, where they split time evenly between their own project and the company's projects. So if world-famous luminaries can't even spend most of their days working on unicorn projects, then what makes you think that you can?

Finding Your Own Temporary Unicorn

Maybe I'm turning into a crabby old man, but whenever someone now asks me for advice about how to find a unicorn job, I first ask them, Okay, are you really good at anything? I mean, really, really good, like world-class good. If you've got a moderately known software project like mine, then maybe you can sneak into a unicorn job for three to six months. If you're a leading expert in your field like my friend with his Ph.D. work, maybe you can hide out at a company (or at a university research lab as a postdoc or visiting research fellow) unicorning for two years. And if you're a world-renowned, award-winning programmer like Guido, then maybe you can sustain a long-term job with 50% unicorn time.

On the flip side, if you're not really good at anything, then you have no shot at a unicorn job, even a temporary one. So start getting good at something, preferably something useful to others. How do you do that? Contribute to open source software, get a Ph.D. in an applied field with compelling real-world applications to become an expert on a given topic, or work in a bunch of hard jobs to build up your technical expertise, street cred, and professional connections. Merely graduating from college – even a top-ranked one – isn't nearly enough; there are tens of thousands of fresh-faced 21-year-old grads just like you every year coming out of the world's top universities.

My second question is: Are you good with people? Ultimately somebody influential needs to “sponsor” your project and convince their organization to let you work on it. And for that to happen, you need to be good at knowing what other people want and love, to lead from below. You need to convince others to pay you to work on your dream; that's no easy feat. If you're a reclusive asshole whom nobody likes, then nobody is going to sponsor you to unicorn it all day. (The only exception is if you're so incredibly good at what you do that you become world famous even despite your lack of social graces.)

My third question is: Are you willing to move? The only unicorn jobs that exist are temporary and maybe not where you live, so you need to be willing to pick up at a moment's notice and move on to the next gig. It's a nomadic lifestyle, and finding your next unicorn gets more and more difficult as you grow older and desire more stability. One way to approximate a long-term unicorn job is to continuously hop from one short-term unicorn job to another, but if each gig lasts for less than a year, then that's a lot of job hopping, which can get exhausting.

In sum, if you want to unicorn it, you stand the best chance by getting short-term gigs that cater to your specialized skill set. Doing so requires deep expertise in something, not just a vanilla college degree; a Ph.D. is one well-recognized way to demonstrate expertise, but so is becoming a famous technical blogger or open-source software contributor. Also, unicorn jobs usually materialize through personal referrals, so the better you are with people, the more likely you'll find one. And finally, remember that even if your unicorn doesn't last, it will still be a memorable and worthwhile experience, and might help you catch future unicorns. Good luck!

Conclusion: Nobody Truly Unicorns

The creative people I know who love their jobs most are successful professors, entrepreneurs, senior engineers, and corporate business leaders who have made it to the top of their respective professional ladders. Even though they have sustained a passion for their work over many years, they only spend a tiny fraction of their time doing what they love – maybe 10% to 30% at most. In other words, they don't have unicorn jobs. However, they put up with the other 70% to 90% of unglamorous grind because that 10% to 30% is totally worth it to them. (Even world-famous programming language inventors get only 50% unicorn time.)

Thus, it seems like the only way to sustain a near-unicorn career long-term – over a few decades – is to acknowledge that you will only get to do what you love a small fraction of the time. Creative people must fight hard to carve out the freedom to pursue their passions at work, and keep fighting on different fronts as political tides shift. That means doing lots of tasks that they don't ordinarily want to do, and frequently stepping out of their comfort zone. Freedom isn't free.

One trite suggestion is, Why don't you just start your own company? From talking with friends who have done so, I can confidently say that entrepreneurship is not a unicorn job. You spend the majority of your work days on logistics, errands, coordination, and other overhead that's not at all related to furthering your core dream – but those steps are ultimately necessary for launching your product and succeeding in the marketplace. It's a great gig for some people, but definitely not a unicorn job.

The only people who can potentially have a true unicorn job are those who are already wealthy enough that they don't need to work for a living. In other words, they don't need a job. Succeeding as an entrepreneur is one common way to get there. And if you're in that category, then you obviously have better things to do than reading this article.

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Created: 2013-12-11
Last modified: 2013-12-11
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