Illegible work

When James Scott uses the word legible, he doesn’t refer to handwriting that is clear enough to read. He uses the word more broadly to mean something that is easy to classify, something that is bureaucrat-friendly. A thing is illegible if it is hard to pigeonhole. I first heard the term from Venkatesh Rao’s essay A Big Little Idea Called Legibility.

Much of the work I do is illegible. If the work were legible, companies would have an employee who does it [1] and they wouldn’t call a consultant.

Here’s a template for a conversation I’ve had a few times:

“We’ve got kind of an unusual problem. It’s related to some things I’ve seen you write about. Have you heard of …?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Never mind. We’d like you to help us with a project. …”

Years ago, when people heard that I worked in statistics they’d ask what programming language I worked in. They expected me to say R or SAS or something like that, but I’d say C++. Not that I recommend doing statistics in C++ [2] in general, but people came to me with unusual projects that they couldn’t get done with standard tools. If an R module would have done what they wanted, they wouldn’t have knocked on my door.

Doing illegible work is a lot of fun, but it’s hard to market. Try typing “Someone who can help with a kinda off the wall math / computer science project” into Google. It’s not helpful. Search engines can only answer questions that are legible to search engines. Illegible work is more likely to come from word of mouth than from a search engine.


[1] Sometimes companies call a consultant because they have occasional need for some skill, something they do not need often enough to justify hiring a full-time employee to do. Or maybe they have the skills in house to do a project but don’t have anyone available. Or maybe they want an outside auditor. But in this post I’m focusing on weird projects.

[2] When I mention C++, I know some people are thinking “But isn’t C++ terribly complex?” Why yes, yes it is. But my colleagues and I already knew C++, and we stuck to a sane subset of the language. It was not unusual to rewrite R code in C++ and make it 100x faster.

“Why don’t you just use C?” These days I’m more likely to write C than C++.  Clients don’t want me to write enterprise applications, just small numerical libraries, and they usually ask for C.

4 thoughts on “Illegible work

  1. I don’t think you have analyzed the source of your problem solving ability or at least the domains you operate most effectively in. Unstructured or illegible problems involving math is too broad a category.

    “So you have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.
    Charlie Munger

  2. Is the real purpose of this blog post to give you some Google juice for the phrase “Someone who can help with with a kinda off the wall math / computer science project”? Because if so, well done, and I hope this comment assists in that endeavor.

  3. This is a great post John. I was recently reflecting on how my own work is illegible. My title is quality engineer, and I am heavily involved in data analysis and statistics in that work, but I have not found what I would consider my most unique skills common among quality engineers, even very experienced ones.

    If I had to describe what I’m best at, I would say that I see patterns in data, and then act on that pattern, but as Sean complained above, that seems too broad. Nonetheless, it is what I do. Like you said in your SIAM interview, I think it is a kind of applied epistemology.

  4. Illegibility can and does apply inside salaried employment. Companies can hire for a basic skill set, a baseline intelligence and curiosity, and then be flexible in applying the person to the dynamically-evolving problems at hand. (I am fortunate enough to have such a position at present. It’s probably keeping me from becoming a FT consultant.)

    It’s almost like being an internal consultant. One trades off search-for-next-client with internal politics and things like admin/HR-drag, but at the right place these latter can be quite minimal.

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