Gabe Stein is a technologist, developer, and occasional writer interested broadly in how media shapes society, and vice versa. He is currently the Head of Operations and Product at the Knowledge Futures Group, a non-profit that builds public good knowledge products, including PubPub1 and the Underlay.
He has worked at the intersection of publishing and digital technology in multiple technical and editorial roles, including front-end engineering at Ogilvy, support for Google's display advertising platform, reporting and editing at Fast Company, audience development and product management at Upworthy, and product development at Heleo, a digital trade publishing startup. Before joining the KFG, he founded Massive Science, a company that teaches researchers how to communicate their work to the public and partnered with scholars to study the impact of public communication using interactive web tools. In his spare time, he bakes a lot of sourdough bread.
This site serves as his personal homepage, archive, and occasional blog. On it, he posts about topics ranging from media, science, technology, programming and politics to fashion and sourdough bread.
The best way is via email, gabe at g-h-s-communications dot com, though if you send me a Twitter DM, I’ll probably get it. I’m no longer particularly active on social media, because, a, I don’t want to do free labor for companies whose values I don’t share, and, b, it’s terrible for my anxiety. Another good way to reach me is to add an annotation to one of my posts on this site, which you can do by highlighting text and clicking the comment button that appears next to your highlight.
I once gave a talk about worrisome trends in the academic publishing industry to a small undergraduate science media class. They graciously quizzed me about my talk for a few minutes, and then asked the question that actually mattered to them: “you’ve had a strange, varied career — did you plan for it? How could we do that?” Here’s, roughly, what I said:
I tell a great story about how I’ve been obsessed with the intersection of media and technology my whole life, and how I’ve spent my career trying to gain experience with just about every part of it, from advertising at Ogilvy and Google to journalism at Fast Company to audience development and product management at Upworthy to launching my own science media startup. Over the years, I’ve gradually combined my love for media with my lifelong passion for science, and honed in on academic publishing and knowledge technology, a niche I really love.
Truthfully, that story is a smoothed over, post-hoc narrative that attempts to explain what was more or less a random walk through the tree of jobs that were both potentially available and adequately interesting to me at various points in my life. It’s true that I love science, technology, and media. But there was no plan to “experience just about every part of it” or “combine my love with my passion.” It only occurred to me that that’s what I was doing when I needed to pause for a moment and look back on what I had been up to. Unless they’re an academic, doctor, politician, or careerist at a big company like 3M, I suspect no one is really making that plan looking forward — at least, no one I know — because late capitalist life is far too unpredictable and unstable to unfold according to any kind of plan2.
The truth is, I‘ve been privileged and lucky. I was born into a comfortable middle-class existence in Denver, Colorado during the last days of the Reagan administration3, which afforded me a fairly uneventful, though quite enriching, childhood. My father was the editorial cartoonist at our local paper, and my mother was a radio DJ and TV and documentary producer, and they indulged my curiosity by letting me hang out in newsrooms and video editing suites and play with computers and cameras. Those experiences really did kickstart a lifetime obsession with media. In fact, though I only put this together in my mid twenties, I ended up starting campus publications in elementary, middle, high school, and college, including one that nearly got me expelled when I was in 10th grade.
That’s when my luck started in earnest. Although these publications were primarily distributed in print4, my hobby coincided neatly with the news industry’s widespread adoption of the internet in the early 2000s. So, it wasn’t enough just to print my campus publications. I felt they needed a website, too. Which meant I needed to learn how to code. In another stroke of extreme luck and privilege, I attended an alternative private middle school that allowed me to design my own course of study. I promptly chose web design, tethered myself to a library computer and a stack of O’Reilly books, and as my school project built, naturally, an online Harry Potter RPG5. Yeah, I had a lot of friends6. But, I became “that kid who knows how to build websites," and suddenly found myself in demand developing community forums for classmates, websites for local businesses, my high school newspaper’s first digital edition, and a series of Denver sports blogs that landed me my first paid writing gig covering the Denver Broncos for AOL’s short-lived “Hometown” blogging experiment. On the internet, nobody knows you’re 16.
When it came time to graduate college (after starting another publication, producing a campus TV show, and taking a few computer science courses), I had no plan at all, and because the country was still inching its way out of the great recession, I didn’t believe I could afford to have one. I took the first job that interested me, a contract front-end development gig at Ogilvy, where I had interned the previous summer. I did that for a while, and then one day a Google recruiter sent me a message on LinkedIn — LinkedIn! — that I thought was spam. I told my boss at the time, who, in another lucky break for me, rolled her eyes, sighed “oh, Gabe,” and told me I needed to at least reply to it. So I did, and after the infamously grueling interview process, I was hired to build efficiency-enhancing tools for client-facing advertising platform support teams.
I worked hard (way too hard) and did well at Google, but after a few years, I found myself spending more and more of my time on Twitter, and thought it might be fun to find a way to be paid to do that. I found an opening for a role at the business magazine Fast Company that required a blend of writing and technical skills, but I had no idea how to explain why I was in any way right for the job. So, for the first time, I took a step back and thought about what the hell I had been doing with my life. That process, during which most of what I’ve described above occurred to me for the first time, resulted in a cover letter that may still be the best piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It began:
I made a mistake. Despite realizing some time ago that my primary interest is the intersection of technology and journalism, I decided to start my career with only a little hacking and no hacks. I've had a good run, but my life is missing something: a newsroom.
The rest of my career has more or less proceeded apace. When it feels like it’s time to make a change, I try to figure out what I’m interested in and why my current job isn’t fulfilling that interest. Then, I look around for jobs — internally and externally — that might have a better shot at meeting my needs, and put together a story I can tell about why I’m interested in those jobs. It helps that employers tend to value entrepreneurial, curious people, and that most of my stories are about wanting to learn new things. I’ve been ignored and rejected plenty over the years, but when I’m really, truly excited about a role, I tend to at least hear back. And knowing how to tell my story was a crucial skill to have in hand when raising money for Massive, the science media startup I co-founded.
So, in the end, I guess what I’m saying is: don’t plan, lie. Well, not really. All narratives are post-hoc rationalizations, including, most likely, consciousness itself. So in that sense, it’s not so much lying as it is willful self-delusion, which, I suspect, is what most of life is anyway! Sorry, let’s not open that can of worms right before midterms.
My advice is not to worry too much about career planning, and instead figure out what you’re interested in and motivated by, find a job that satisfies enough of those needs, and learn how to tell prospective employers good stories about how your interests and motivations match their roles. Those stories will be true, even if you didn’t realize they were unfolding until after you lived them. More importantly, the process of putting together your personal narrative will help you learn a lot about yourself and what you truly value, a lot faster than if you started by trying to plan out your career from step to step. If you repeat that storytelling process every once in a while, especially when you get bored, and notice how the story changes, you’ll find it becomes pretty straightforward to realize when it’s time to look for the next thing, and how to go about finding it. Over time, as you learn more about yourself and have a range of experiences, you’ll start to hone in on the specific qualities — industries, role types, leadership, company sizes, etc. — that most satisfy you, making the process easier.
I don’t know for certain, but I strongly suspect this is what most people are doing, even if they themselves don’t realize it and have managed to convince themselves there was a plan all along.