“What would keep you with our company for 10 years?” This is a question I pose at every interview I conduct. Whenever I ask this question to a prospective employee I am greeted with a wide variety of responses — the younger the job candidate, the more incredulous is his reaction.

I can hear the wheels turning in their head as though they are thinking, “You can’t be serious — are you?” A few of them are honest enougah to say, “I feel that’s a life time. I don’t know where I’d be two years from now.”

The good news is that over the years I have heard a few interesting responses ranging from “I don’t know about 10 years, but I can tell you why I’d stay five years or so,” to “I have just spent the last 12 years in one company, so here’s why I’d stay…” The answers for their staying at one job any serious length of time are usually — good people, good work, and continuous learning. These are what make them stay — freedom, support and flexibility are why it is easy to stay.

With the same certainty that I ask this question, most job candidates usually end up asking me one definite question “What more are you going to be doing?” The senior candidates usually pose this as, “Can you tell me what else is on your roadmap?” The younger ones are more direct and want to know “Are you going to do anything beyond Bluetooth?” or “Will I get to work on Java or MIDB or Layer 2 protocols?”

Simple and natural as these questions are, I find myself often having to bite my tongue and not ruin the whole interview with an acerbic retort, such as “We intend to do only one thing and do that really well, before we’d consider doing more.” To understand my own seemingly irrational response, I have tried to reflect on why this is such a point of contention for me.

Diversification – not always
The knowledge industry and particularly the information and biotechnology businesses themselves are relatively young and the typical employee in these firms even younger. The great enthusiasm, eagerness and a can-do attitude that marks their youth is accompanied by great impatience to perennially move on to the next thing.

They seem unaware of the old saying “Plough well and plough deep” and the rest of us, as managers and employers, in our anxiety to recruit employees, appear to be doing far too little to champion this message.

It would be wrong to blame this all-too-common desire to go wide, as opposed to deep, solely on the young. The social phenomenon at play here is one of perceived risk and its management.

There is a strong belief that, as with personal investment portfolios or national reserves, diversification is not only good but also necessary. It would be hard to argue that diversification inherently is wrong — but what is good for money or asset management is not necessarily good for a technologist or knowledge worker.

The rationale
Natalie Goldberg, the American writer, quotes her Zen master Katagiri Roshi as stating “If you go deeply in one thing, you know everything else.” The thought is not only non-intuitive but provocative as well.

Lest you misunderstand Katagiri Roshi, it is worth clarifying that his assertion that, by being the best writer/runner/plumber you can be you know all there is to know about singing/biking/engineering, focuses on the how we acquire knowledge, not what. In other words, by becoming the best C programmer or VHDL hardware designer or customer support engineer, you can learn about yourself, how to learn and how to apply what you have learned. Now to do anything else, however different, is now only a matter of applying this knowledge to the specifics of the new thing you are trying to learn.

Winners all
I realise how true Roshi’s statement indeed is when I take even a cursory look at the great engineers I know of and admire. Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and a teacher par excellence of physics epitomised this concept of diving deep.

Feynman’s Nobel Prize was for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, a field few outside the rarefied atmosphere of theoretical physics would easily understand — yet he has written the most lucid and immensely popular introductory physics textbooks that college freshmen use. His simple demonstration and explanation, on what went wrong with the O-rings of the space shuttle Challenger leading to its accident, only reiterated his deep understanding of his chosen subject, solid state physics.

Nearer home, Robert A Pease or Bob, as he’s called (\rap as he signs himself) has been a fixture at National Semiconductor for 30 years now as an analog designer. Bob arguably has spent most of that time working on ‘one’ thing — how to make analog circuits and make them better. Yet as a prolific writer — he’s a highly respected columnist at Electronic Design, sought-after speaker and as an engineering mentor he has few equals. A living example of how doing one thing unbelievably well pays off in spades in multiple dimensions.

As managers we (and those of us who are also parents) understand how difficult it is to communicate effectively what we know to be true and correct. Doing so in a manner that is both comprehensible and palatable to the other person is yet more difficult. So to all those prospective employees I interview, I try to explain why we are looking for people who want to dive deep in one domain — why we feel we have yet to explore (not to mention profit from) Bluetooth sufficiently before we look to things beyond it. Why becoming an expert in a single domain can create great generalists, but like the proverbial rolling stone — shallow knowledge in a wide swathe of subjects does little for them and is of no interest to us.

Much as I’d like to say that I am successful in this evangelical endeavour clearly there is a long way to go for me, for the prospective employee and for all of us as an industry.

This article first appeared in the Hindu Business Line dated January 21, 2008