Though fake and ephemeral
Cherished all the same
When asked what I do, I generally say that I work in R&D. I develop and iterate new concepts for things that don't exist yet, explore novel combinations of weird technologies that have yet to be fully validated, and then help determine if they're viable for further development. I've been pretty fortunate to have been comfortably paid to do this since grad school, and while I've submitted plenty of reports and demos and proposals, I'd say that I have yet to deliver any sort of product in the traditional sense (though hopefully that'll change sooner rather than later). As I've continued to meander in this thing called a career, two questions regularly come up: what sort of value am I actually generating, and who the hell in their right mind is paying me to do what I do?
If we're talking about products and functional services, whether in software or hardware, that value proposition and exchange generally makes sense to me. The market has established the worth of some good, which provides some calculable benefit in terms of efficiency or net gain. Maybe that good is consumed immediately, or maybe it's rehashed into something else and thrown back into some other market. In my oversimplified worldview of products, every bit of effort or work that goes into the good is worth some proportion of that good's value. A tangible output required some input, and a worthwhile business endeavor is probably one where the former is worth as much or usually less than the latter.
Now that I'm more or less in the manufacturing sector, that scenario gets dumbed down even further for me: we make a bunch of thingamajigs; it costs us some amount per thingamajig for the raw material and labor to make that thingamajig; there are people willing to buy those thingamajigs for more than it costs us to make them. If we fail to make those thingamajigs properly, that's bad. Whenever we implement shortcuts or savings in making those thingamajigs and still have them meet spec, that's good. If we figure out how to make more profitable thingamajigs, even better. Nothing I'm working on now has a direct impact on these thingamajigs. I'm not a technician working on actually producing these parts. I don't contact or find new customers for our products. I'm more likely to accidentally get in the way of an existing process than improving overall efficiency in any way.
I would argue that any value I produce would only be realized once it's incorporated in the manufacturing process. Before that, any gains are purely hypothetical. If my projects fail outright or don't lead to sufficient improvement in processes, my time spent should be considered a net loss. I know this is ignoring any ancillary benefits of my employment to other departments and projects, but in the scope of the sort of work that I'm generally hired for, we can assume they're relatively negligible. Certainly, I'm pretty sure no one's hiring me to boost company morale or as some sort of super technical assistant (though that would be pretty cool). Assuming the above to be true, in terms of value proposition, I feel like there's a good amount of risk in filling my role, so why?
I think the same question could be asked about any company yet to turn a profit, operating off of venture funding and grants. There's got to be a point where the ongoing losses outweighs potential future rewards, sunk costs be damned. Of course, R&D happens everywhere, in all sorts of fields and companies of various sizes, but how do we assess, today, the unrealized value of tomorrow? Even after this many years out of grad school (perhaps a synonym for sunk cost), that's not a question I dwell too long on pondering. I have the convenient luxury of letting someone else strategize over the urgency of justifying investment in me, though arguably my entire career has been dictated by someone else's patience for yet-to-be-delivered goods.
Before hiring me, or funding a pie-in-the-sky proposal, or even green-lighting a side gig, there's at least an approximation of an acceptable runway until we at least think about pumping the brakes. Over time, maybe we get off the runway; maybe the runways gets extended; maybe the runway takes a sharp left turn; hell, maybe it takes so long that we never get off the ground but make it to our destination anyway. I'm being more than a bit dramatic, but the nature of the work stipulates a degree of unknown: I can't be certain we'll ever get off the ground in the best of circumstances, and I also don't know when the hopes of tomorrow need to be traded in to sustain today.
I'm a simple man, flapping my arms as quickly as I can while running down the track. Want to take a ride with me?