Written by Creative Strategy

Fewer unicorns, more mountain goats

Don’t believe the hype about unicorns as startups learn that it is mountain goat-based DevOps that creates strong companies.

KyleBondo.com - Fewer Unicorns, More Mountain Goats

One day, my daughter asked me what I did for a living. In an attempt to explain myself to her, she stopped me in mid-sentence to exclaim, “Pops, I’ve talked to all my friend’s Dads, and none of them are like you! Are you some kind of unicorn?”

“No,” I told her. “I don’t think that I’m a unicorn. Those are very special.”

“Then tell me what you do in one sentence,” she demanded.

“Ok,” I said. “I dream up solutions to problems, then turn those solutions into ways people can find information.”

“What kind of problems?” She asked, still not sure about what I did.

“I fix people’s broken or buggy websites, get their ideas unstuck, and find them better ways to build software.”

“So you’re not a unicorn at all. You’re a mountain goat!” She declared.

“A mountain goat?”

“Yes. Like the ones that take out the monsters that lurk under bridges,” she said.

Out of the mouth of babes! “How do you figure that I’m a mountain goat?”

“Easy. Unicorns are pretty and only care about themselves. They don’t help anyone. You help people. Just like the Billy Goat’s Gruff helped get rid of the troll from under the bridge.”

“Unicorns wouldn’t ever get their white coat dirty with doing stuff like that,” she stated.

“Unicorns would have left the problem for someone else. Mountain goats stay and solve the problems,” she finished.

“I’m glad you’re not a unicorn, Pops.”

Who could argue with the logic of my 12-year-old princess? Especially one with far more experience with what unicorns would and would not do. Fortunately, that was the day I discovered something about my place in the digital revolution. A place that my 12-year-old little girl could see plain as day.

I was definitely was not a unicorn.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw it. I would never be a unicorn. I was indeed a mountain goat! For the longest time, I wanted to be a unicorn. To be one of those unicorns out there in the technology sun, grazing on the better roughage of higher salaries and awesome projects. To be employee number three in a company that had venture capital money delivered to them by a mac truck. I was certainly skilled, with enough experience to equal three unicorns. So why had I been so easily overlooked? Why did I feel that I didn’t fit into the image that most startups wanted in their unicorns?

It was because I was not a unicorn. I was one of those odd and rugged technologists that did not fit in any box. I was a mountain goat.

Are you one of those that have had the same sobering revelation? Have you discovered that explaining what you do to other people has become a pointless endeavor? You see, nobody understands what you do because to understand means being a mountain goat too. It is hard to find us.

Why is it hard?

Because mountain goats live and work in strange places. These are places you would never find a unicorn, but you may find unicorn-fanboy and unicorn-fangirls. They are goats in unicorn clothing that are wannabes that will never be. You see, unicorns are specialists in one thing that makes them the best of the best. Their specialization elevates them into programming rock star status with a BMW license plate that plays word salad with the term code ninja. In that one thing, they are at the top of the mountain. But just that one mountain and just that one thing.

Mountain goats, on the other hand, live on the sides of those mountains. They are not specialists, they are generalists. To specialize in one thing is to become bored. Mountain goats are not friendly when they are bored because they have an aptitude for technical knowledge to learn multiple things. They are skilled enough to understand the unicorn life but do not have the patience to be locked into just one thing.

Some might say they have a good-enough aptitude at most things. But unlike unicorns, they not only can move from mountain to mountain without losing their footing but need to. To not move is to die. This means mountain goats often go from programming an eCommerce website, to designing a WordPress theme, to experimenting with a radio-frequency identification door lock, to setting up my neighbor’s wireless Internet, and then to learning how to produce my own podcast. Sometimes, if there is enough of a muse going, that can happen all in one night.

It is THIS extreme capability they possess. To create concepts on-the-fly, tear them apart, know how they work, run experiments, discover what makes them useful, and then move on to something else is a skill no unicorn has. Mountain goats don’t have the temperament to spend 10,000 hours on just one thing. There are too many things to discover, explore, and learn.

Are the rockstars and ninjas? Not in the traditional sense. They purposely don’t stick with one thing long enough to become the best of the best in that topic. Furthermore, they combine a love for geek culture, turn caffeine into all sorts of creative things, and always have time to fill their atomic dustbin with useless trivia.

A unicorn would call this flighty behavior. That’s because unicorns do not understand the sides of mountains, only the tops. They do not live in a perpetual what-if mode of curiosity. Mountain goats see the future and then try to build what is missing. Each topic, each mountain is another “what-if possibility” that drives them on to find some patch of grass to satisfy their curiosity. Once they find it, it becomes a box in their atomic dustbin to be used when needed at some later date. Then it is off to the next mountain, and the next patch of grass, and the next tiny discovery.

To a mountain goat, it is the journey that is more important, not the summit. Unicorns build big camps at the top while the mountain goat is happy with a backpack that includes only the essentials.

Unfortunately, many company CEO’s don’t like the unpolished nature of the mountain goat. They want the shinny of a unicorn that they can hang their company’s future on. That is where the unicorn thrives. The unicorn adores the summit where they are kings and queens of that mountain. Their single horn is always shining, pointing out their awesomeness for all to see. And CEO’s give them everything they need to remain at the top.

Meanwhile, the mountain goat’s horns are not for show, but for battle. They curve back behind their ears to protect their head, and they coarse fur is matted and unkempt, but tough enough to take a beating and keep on going. They understand what releasing over the weekend means, what an outage call at 3:00 AM is like, and how to rollback code by hand. They are there when the chips are down and keeping their footing when things get hard. Walking the sides of mountains teaches you how to be resourceful and what real falls are like. These goats know what work means.

Yet, many are drawn to the unicorn, not the mountain goat. These employers want their next hire to be an impressive specialist, the one who has all the answers to that thing that causes them the most pain at the moment. They want the one development creature that has forgotten more than other people know about their topics. They think that paying for a unicorn will give them the capability to work twice as fast and build twice as much.

While the mountain goat’s endless supply of what-if ideas is too intense for most employers. They do not like scattered history that does not match the perfect career of the unicorn. They don’t see the mountain goat as a hidden talent and label their methods as a hyperactive side-effect of some kind of borderline attention deficit disorder. Mountain goats are downright terrifying to the ordinary folk of the village.

Always the outcast, never the star.

That is until someone notices what the mountain goat brings to the fight. Their mega-combination of non-standard skills forms what some might call “the missing link” with regards to dreaming up solutions to complex asymmetrical problems. They become the only ones who can explain to clients what the unicorn just said in their own language. And then explain to the unicorns what the client meant in a language only they can understand.

They can transform what unicorns build into a project narrative that can tell the whole story to all involved. They are akin to being a “vision whisperer” on a good day and a “Celtic druid” on a chaotic one. However, many free-range mountain goats do not land those jobs that unicorns often hold.

Employers only want a stable of unicorns. They don’t have time to understand how powerful a herd of mountain goats can be. The result is a roaming flock of mountain goats wandering from startup to startup. Many turning into freelancers who do not fit neatly into corporate settings.

These goon squad of survivors may all seem a bit scatterbrained or unfocused, but every one of their engagements, every one of their experiences, and every one of their wide-eyed, enthusiastic dive into curiosity has helped them become something far better than a unicorn. They have become a rugged individual what can overcome, adapt, and improvise circles around a unicorn. They don’t run off when the going gets tough. They gather the flock, put their heads down, and get creative. Why are they the tough ones? Because they know what it’s like to get kicked in the teeth. They know what it’s like to have been overlooked in favor of selecting a unicorn over them.

Too many have had numerous Facebook-ish and Google-ish company’s “wish them well” in their job search, but pass because they only had a moderate level of skill in most of the “full-stack” technologies requested. But the joke is on the unicorn hiring folks that are too smug to look over the edge and see the mountain goat standing on the side of the cliff. They don’t have expert knowledge of their top technologies or even expert knowledge of one technology being requested. Yet they have enough knowledge about enough technologies to know what works with what, and how it all fits together.

When the problems mount, and the company loses 25-percent of their market share due to a hack, or glitch, or crash, it is the mountain goat that sticks around to pick up the pieces, not the unicorn. The unicorn does not have a trait called loyalty unless they are referring to themselves. Unicorns are all about being unicorns after all.

Meanwhile, the mountain goat is all about the safety of their herd. These are the technologist that is the duct-tape and baling wire that come through when the going gets tough. Since a unicorn cannot handle the criticism of producing bad code, they are the ones to bolt at first sign of trouble. The mountain goat can deal with bad code because it can teach and make the next time better. This is how the mountain goat holds many of the best technology companies together during good times and bad.

The next time you think about what you do, but don’t know how to say it, just remember Billy Goat’s Gruff. Tell them that you’re a goat who likes mountains. Be proud of the hard slog that has given you the skills to survive the dark times. Unicorns only come out in the morning sunlight. It is the mountain goat that comes out every day it is asked to show up and walk the cliff’s edge.

Don’t believe the hype that every company wants only unicorns. More and more companies are starting to realize that unicorns do not make a company strong and only the immature startups are looking for a stable of unicorn rock star ninjas.

If you have a choice, be a mountain goat, and stay true to your tenacity and curiosity. Keep searching and discovering new mountains every single day. And remember what my daughter said about mountain goats and how they take care of trolls under bridges. One day a company is going to need someone to kill a troll. Because the unicorns have all left, to solve the problem, they will come to you. Be a mountain goat, solve the problem, and finally receive your reward.

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Last modified: July 1, 2021