The Roads Not Taken

I find LinkedIn to be the rare social network these days that’s almost entirely accretive and positive. I think they’ve nicely balanced an algorithm that blends interest, relevance, and curiosity. And I think they also do a great job of policing it. While the site certainly has a fair bit of non-professional content, I would say there’s very little that’s decidedly unprofessional. I’m certainly a bit biased as my current job at Respawn came about entirely because of a fortuitous LinkedIn connection. Respawn’s 3D Art Director, Ryan Lastimosa, is also an Ironman triathlete, and when he saw I worked at Zwift he reached out in mid-2019 on LinkedIn. A year later, when I was looking for a job at a more traditional gaming studio, I reached out to Ryan on LinkedIn, and the rest is history.

One of the things I enjoy the most about LinkedIn is seeing all of the new job announcements, something that has only increased in frequency during “The Great Resignation.” I’m fascinated by jobs that I didn’t even know existed, the various niches carved out by folks that I know, or knew, or simply am connected to via the odd web of whatever a “social graph” really is. I often think about sheer randomness and felicity of the momentous decisions that I made that lead me to where I am professionally – the decision to walk down to the boathouse in the middle of winter my freshman year in 1999 to try out for the crew team a bit “off cycle”; the decision to turn down a promotion and instead quit my first job out of college in 2003 to pursue triathlon full time; the decision to email Dan Empfield of in 2005 to say, yes, I thought I might be able to help him wrangle some answers from his spreadsheet of Kona bike data; the decision to pack pretty much everything I owned to drive across the country from NY to Flagstaff in 2007 in my (successful) attempt to be adopted by Simon Whitfield, Joel Filliol, and the Canadian National Team; and my decision in 2017 to retire from the sport without a second thought to go work for Jon Mayfield at Zwift.

But I also often think of the impact of decisions I made to not do something. Or of those jobs that I didn’t get. It’s normal, of course, to post about a new job because of the promise of opportunity. History has shown me, however, that there’s often as much opportunity that stems from a path not taken, from a decision not made, or from the job you did not get. I’ve seen other such stories like this on LinkedIn, and it’s these stories that always captivate me the most. Accordingly, I thought I’d share my own list of the jobs that I turned down, or that turned me down, or that simply never really materialized. I have chosen to include the specific names of these companies as I hold them all in high regard. I think that when I was turned down, it was for reasons which were entirely justified. And, of course, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out, so no hard feelings.

2002 – Engineer at TRW, a Raytheon Company

This was the first job I applied for during my senior year. TRW was (is?) a Raytheon subsidiary in Princeton that, at the time, did mostly classified work around missile tracking systems – e.g., they make the software that allows a “heat-seeking missile” to seek. Heat-seeking is a bit of a misnomer, as what they are really doing is seeking an exhaust signature. It was very math heavy – almost all of my day would have been spent working in MATLAB. The pay was really good – inflation adjusted, it was an astonishing amount of money out of college. Defense contractors paid well. Still do. But the nature of classified work seemed quite lonely – sitting in a room with no windows, no internet, programming matrices. I had graduated from college, but I was still very much struggling with who I was. And I just wasn’t sure that this was it.

I had no qualms about the defense industry – I did Army ROTC my freshman year (not on scholarship, just because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated) and only stopped because they weren’t accommodating of my commitment to rowing; and then, my senior year, was very close joining the Marine Corps via OCS, but I just felt like I had unfinished business athletically and wasn’t ready to give up on rowing just yet… But the work felt so removed. I think that was the first indication that I had that having a passion for the work was always going to matter to more than anything else. Almost every job I’ve taken has been a step down in terms of compensation from what I was doing before. The job I took over this was not any more interesting – maybe even less – but the work environment was definitely more relaxed. I didn’t end up loving that work any more than I think I would have loved this, but the first year out of college is a tough one. Thankfully, I discovered triathlon and, after that, it almost didn’t matter what I did, because triathlon was the thing that consumed me well before it became my profession.

2003 – Director of R&D at Trinity RC Cars

I applied to work at Trinity RC Cars during my senior year as they were local – then based in Edison, NJ – and, at the time, still made cars. They now focus entirely on electric motors and batteries, but at the time their cars were extremely cutting edge. To give a brief aside, my summer job from end of high school and all through college was doing vintage and historic race car maintenance and restoration. I was very close to applying to work in F1 or NASCAR, but I wanted to keep rowing and purse my own racing career. I never heard back from Trinity until over a year later, when out of the blue they asked if I wanted to head up the R&D department. I had just quit my job to pursue triathlon, and it was – and still is – the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally to turn down the offer from Trinity. If I’d gotten that same offer in college, I might still be making RC race cars. Of all the jobs I never took, this is the one that I most wonder how things would have turned out. I’ve always loved RC cars. Even more than video games. This was a dream job. Just at the wrong moment. Designing scale race cars for what was, at the time, one of the most innovative manufacturers in the space? I still don’t really know how or why I said, “thank you, but no.” I’m mostly glad I did, but this one still makes me go “what if…” every so often. This also marked the start of a 12 year hiatus from the “traditional“(?) labor market. (As if making RC race cars is “normal“…)

2015 – Content Creation & Management at Health IQ

2015 was the first year I started to think about retiring from professional triathlon. 2013 had been a pretty disappointing year. 2014 was worse. And, at least based on the start, 2015 seemed like it was going to be even worse. With three young kids, I was increasingly anxious about my ability to support a family being so tied to something as fickle as the business state of a niche professional sport. Sponsorship was always the thing I hated most about sport, and once it was no longer about me but about my family, I came to dislike it even more. Combined with results that were going in the wrong direction, retirement seemed like the best choice.

I ended up getting connected with Health IQ, an interesting life insurance start up out of Silicon Valley that had been able to show that knowledge of health and wellness related topics as measured by a survey was actually quite closely correlated with actuarial models around health and longevity. In a nutshell, if someone knows a lot about running, it’s probably because they are a runner, which probably means they are above average in terms of life expectancy. It’s both obvious and profound. Unlike something like John Hancock’s recently introduced Vitality insurance, which was tied to a fitness tracker like a FitBit, all Health IQ required was you to answer survey questions on their app. The more questions about diet, and wellness, and exercise, and related topics that you got right, the better your score. The better your score, the lower your rate. I did some consultation with them on the triathlon questions, and they ended up asking me to interview for a role managing the creation of their quiz content.

At the time, I deluded myself into thinking I could keep racing professionally and do the job, and it seemed like an ideal fit. I ended up getting rejected for the role because the assessment of the team was that I was “too mercenary” – which I took mostly as a compliment. I was like, “I make my living hurting myself in order to beat other people in races… What did you expect?” But Silicon Valley is weird. Everyone really does work there for the money. But you need to pretend you are doing it because of “the work.” I am not a very good pretender. Thankfully, the whole process sort of help rekindle my love of triathlon, saw me turn around my season and, really my career, and go on to win Ironman Mont Tremblant that summer.

Silicon Valley is an interesting place. There’s so much about who I am that resonates so deeply with the ideals of innovation, and technology, and engineering. And yet I think, rightly, that the Health IQ team recognized that I am not one of them. I’ve never really pursued employment at a Silicon Valley company since then. And I think a lot of that is because of what I gathered both about the culture there and about myself during that summer in 2015.

2016 – Director of High Performance at Princeton University

Even though I rediscovered my love of triathlon, I still knew that I was at the tail end of my career at 35+. I was basically sure I was never going to win Kona, and I didn’t really have anything outside of Kona that I wanted to achieve and had not. I liked being a professional triathlete, but I also liked the idea of knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And how I was going to support my family. And so during 2016 I started doing more exploration about what exactly that might.

What seemed like it might be the perfect role materialized thanks to my continued connection the Princeton Rowing Team. The bonds formed by rowing are lifelong. And the strength of attachment that most alumni feel to Princeton is also extremely strong, at least based on the alumni giving rate, which is several standard deviations higher than the next closest major university. As I like to joke, “black and orange runs thicker than water.” So when I heard from my freshman coach – now head coach – Greg Hughes that Princeton was looking for a High Performance Director, I thought I’d found the perfect fit. I love California, but fundamentally I’m an East Coast kid. (My wife, however, is not…) And I still rank my collegiate athletic experience as the most impactful single influence in my entire life. Rowing really made me who I am. And the chance to help guide and improve that experience for the next generation of collegiate scholar-athletes seemed like a dream come true.

I ended up not getting the job. As far as I know, they never filled the role. I think it was a job based around a perceived need, but without a clear definition of what the end goal was. I think that’s often the case with high performance. I’m not sure I helped my case any by saying that most “innovations” in the world of sports are either 1) bullshit or 2) a façade for doping during my interview and that my primary concerns would be that athletes 1) got good nutrition and 2) got enough sleep. Much like my Silicon Valley experience, there are the things that you are supposed to say during interviews and things that you are not supposed to say even if you think them. I was not – and still am not – particularly good at differentiating between the two. And also don’t really want to be.

I think this attitude ingratiated me with the coaches who interviewed me – they talked a lot about the technology arms race and needing to have certain things just because recruits expected them – but I think the administrators were probably hoping for something more “innovative” than sleep and good food. This was, sadly, before Christie Aschwanden’s fantastic “Good To Go” which basically covers all of the research that shows that sleep and nutrition are basically the only real innovations and that most everything else is either 1) bullshit or 2) a façade for doping. Though I’m honestly not sure that would matter much. Sport is – and always has been and probably always will be – a ripe area for hucksterism. This is, of course, because every so often real innovation does happen – like carbon-shanked shoes and “super foams” – and records are decimated. Would I have gotten the job if I’d spent more time talking about the wonders of ketones? Maybe, but I kind of don’t think so. I think, fundamentally, the job itself didn’t know what it wanted to be.

I hope that the job does come back and that the right person fills it. I’m amazed that I achieved as much as I did athletically in college with terrible sleep habits, terrible eating habits, a semi-bad (relatively) approach to alcohol, and just an astonishing amount of sheer stupidity. High performance can be a hugely impactful discipline with the right person – e.g a Stephen Seiler type. Ironically, I think I ended up doing a lot of this type of work at Zwift, and ended up making a real difference in the sporting realm even after retirement.

2016 – US Congressman

So, this one is kind of an outlier. Because it wasn’t really a job I applied for. But after the 2016 election, I thought very seriously about running for Congress. Thanks to Princeton’s absurdly strong alumni network, I had a lot of very serious conversations with folks who actually had managed successful campaigns about what that might look like. But ultimately, what I learned is that being a Congressman is really about two things. And only two things. It is – first and foremost – about fundraising. And then it is about everything else. And, because of the two year cycle, it’s always about fundraising. I wanted to run for Congress because I thought our political system had gotten to the point where it was pretty broken. Without wanting to stray too far into the political realm, I will say that I decided not to run for Congress because it was clear to me that our political system is entirely broken. The whole process here was among the most depressing endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.

2017 – Special Agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Even though it was clear I wasn’t cut out to be a Congressman, I still had a strong desire to do national service. The same feelings that drew me to consider the Army and the Marines in college still burned strong. I believe deeply in America as an ideal. But I’m also troubled by what I see as the state of the country. The FBI had always been something I considered, but the whole role that James Comey played in the 2016 election really turned me off on the FBI. But Andrew McCabe changed that. When I heard his 2017 testimony before Congress, it was one of the most inspiring things I’d ever heard.

Quite simply put sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people, and upholding the Constitution.

Those words made me want to join the FBI. And, a bit to my surprise, Jill supported the idea. I know the truth is always messier than the ideals. But what McCabe said really resonated with me. Unfortunately, that testimony was in May. In order to join the FBI as a special agent, you need to start at Quantico before your 37th birthday. I turned 37 on July 28th. I had three months. Security clearances typically take 9 months at a minimum. The LA office declined my application for this reason. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. McCabe was an Ironman triathlete, so I reached out to the triathlon community. There are a number of former rowers – that rowing community is strong! – within the FBI, including a close friend. US law permits the Director of the FBI to grant an age-waiver to “exceptional” candidates until the age of 40, at which point only the Attorney General can do so. “Exceptional” candidates are usually military personnel, but that’s not a requirement according to the law. I thought I had a good case for getting an age exemption – as did a number of agents who were gracious enough to speak to me thanks to rowing or triathlon connections.

Unfortunately, I think the turmoil surrounding McCabe didn’t help things, and I don’t know how far the letters I wrote that friends of mine had offered to relay to him made it. He ended up being replaced by Christopher Wray who was a lightweight rower at Yale – there’s that rowing community again!, and it seemed like that might have offered a second chance, but I think there was – and likely still is – simply too much turmoil in Washington for the FBI to worry about missing out on a candidate who missed the age cut.

Of all the jobs that didn’t work out, I think this is the one that I will question the most forever. If I’d pursued this instead of the – in hindsight – absurd decision to think about running for Congress, I easily would have cleared the time needed to get a security clearance. I do wonder how it would have been for my family, especially if we had to relocate. And I often think things turned out for the best. And yet I still think I could have done a lot of good in this role. And I would have been proud to serve my country. And there’s a part of my that will always regret not having that chance.

Ironically, I think that missing out on this opportunity was a big part of why I threw myself so wholly into working on anti-cheating systems at Zwift and help to lead the official establishment of ZADA and the performance verification process. I care a lot about the rules – in my entire professional career, I never once received a penalty. Integrity is just something that is deeply important to me personally. And the hardest moments of my professional career have always been – and will always be – those moments when I don’t feel that I’ve lived up to my own standards in that regard. I’m definitely not perfect in this area. But I sure do try to be.

Plus, Special Agent Rapp sounds pretty darn cool…

2020 – Lead Systems Designer at Riot on Legends of Runeterra

I have written a lot about what Zwift means to me, and I will always be grateful to Jon Mayfield for giving me such an incredible answer to that massively challenging question of, “so what am I going to do when I retire from triathlon?” But it was also clear to me in 2020 that I was interested in a change. A lot of this was just that I sort of fell into game development. I’d done one thing for almost 15 years and now discovered, at almost forty, that I really loved this other thing. I loved it as much as triathlon. Sometimes more.

In high school, I was an avid Magic: The Gathering player. I started playing about two years after the game came out (and I still have several of my decks, including some pretty rare cards) and was just hooked. As sports became an increasingly large part of my life, I stopped playing, but I never really lost my fondness for card games. When Riot introduced their incredible BCG (battle card game) Legends of Runeterra, I fell instantly in love. It was like Magic, only all the cards were free (if you’re patient). Or, if not quite free, at least cheap (if you’re not patient). Success in Runeterra was basically a zero-cost proposition. I still love the game, and it’s the only game I play on my phone.

Interviewing for the role of lead systems designer – I would have been responsible for the system that underpins their competitive ladder – seemed like a possible fit after my work on competition systems at Zwift and the work I had done with Ironman. But the interview process also exposed how little I really knew about how games were made and how complex game systems work. My skillset applied to Zwift because it’s so much closer to a “sport” than a “game” – though those lines are increasingly blurring, something I expect to continue. And I think – pre-Covid – the industry was just much less inclined to take chances on people without specific experience doing “the thing.” Riot did a wonderful job of giving feedback and really helped me to understand the interview process. I think I would not have gotten the job at Respawn without the insights they gave me about the gaming industry. Not getting this job was a major blow, but I also learned a lot from the process.

2020 – Manager of Scholastic Esports Operations at Riot

This role was a lot like the High Performance Director role, only focused around scholastic Esports programs. At least, that’s what I got from the job description. The idea was to help high schools and colleges with developing esports programs – how to set up a team, competitions, etc. Zwift really opened my eyes to what esports could be – especially the SuperLeague triathlon. And the pandemic helped me discover Twitch and made me realize how engaging competitive gaming could be. But as I saw these over-caffeinated kids hunched over their keyboards for way too many hours per day, I also had my concerns. I thought in this role I could have helped teach kids that being healthy would make them both a better gamer and a better human. I don’t know what happened in this role as I never got a call back, but I think the importance of this type of role is only growing. I’m even more in love with esports now than I was then, and I think having good leadership in the amateur space is essential. I hope the person serving in this role knows how critical and important their job is.

2020 – Senior Technical Experience Designer at Respawn

I got turned down for the first job I interviewed for at Respawn. It was devastating. I thought I’d found the perfect studio (turns out I was right about that) and a good fit (my good friend and coworker Justin Masse, who got this job about a month later, is clearly a much better fit. And I’m continually glad he got this job and not me…). But Chad Grenier, the Game Director at the time, saw enough potential in me that he brought me back to interview for the role I do now. It took me a very long time to figure it out. Thankfully it took Chad way less time. But I think, a year in at Respawn, I finally know what I’m good at. And it’s as much a part of the jobs I’ve had and the success I’ve found as it is the result of all of these roads not taken.

I updated my LinkedIn bio as much of a statement of affirmation as anything: Mostly I don’t build things you see, but instead focus on building systems and frameworks to allow other designers to deliver great gameplay experiences. I like building systems. And I like making existing systems better.

But I prefer to summarize it in the words of the inimitable Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction – “I solve problems.

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