Someone over on Hacker news posted a link to a comp.lang.lisp post that I wrote three years ago that's generating a lot of discussion. I found I had more to say about this than would comfortably fit in a comment, so I'm putting it here instead.
The gist of the original piece was that knowing Lisp gave my career an early boost because it was such a productivity multiplier, but later turned into a handicap because it led to frustration with the languages that were becoming the industry norms. The title of the piece was "How knowing Lisp destroyed my programming career" but that's a bit misleading. To understand how it's misleading and why I wrote it that way I have to give you a little bit more background. In particular, you have to understand the context in which that piece was written.
"How knowing Lisp destroyed my programming career" was a followup to an earlier and even more inflammatory piece that called How Common Lisp Sucks. That in turn was a follow up to literally years of off-and-on arguments about whether or not the Common Lisp standard ought to be revised. I thought (and still think) that it should be, but the overwhelming consensus in the Lisp community is that everything is just fine the way it is. (The argument is not unlike the one occasioned by my recent screed on CSS and several followup posts, including this one, which I think sums up both situations quite nicely. (One bit of evidence for this: of all the posts in the series, it is the one that has garnered the fewest comments.)
The important thing to understand about that post is that it was not intended to be therapy or a confession, it was intended to be persuasive. (It failed miserably, but that's neither here nor there.) The idea was to highlight the negative impact that knowing Lisp on the one hand and its failure to penetrate the market more deeply on the other had had on my career, in the hope that that might motivate some people to take market penetration more seriously. (Like I said, it didn't work. There is a hard-core group of Lispers who think Lisp is fine and dandy just the way it is and they honestly don't care whether Lisp is popular or not. These people wield enough influence in the community to effectively halt nearly all progress. But that is not what I want to talk about here.)
Anyway, that was the idea, and that's why I chose the gloom-and-doom title. It's misleading because the fact of the matter is that I never had a career as a programmer. My career up through the year 2000 was as a researcher. My product was academic papers, and if you'll pardon a bit of immodesty, I was pretty darn good at it. In fact, I was so good at it that by the time I was in my mid-thirties I had the equivalent of a tenured faculty position, and I was the most cited computer science researcher in all of NASA. (For all I know I may even still hold that title. I still held it in 2006 despite the fact that I hadn't published anything substantive for over five years.)
I say all this not to toot my horn, but to put my "destroyed career" in perspective. I quit JPL not because I wasn't successful, but because I was bored. I was successful not so much because I was good, but because I had figured out how to game the system. I figured out how to write papers that would get published, and how to write patents that would get accepted. (I successfully prosecuted three patents, including one on an invention that violates the laws of physics.)
Mind you, nothing I did was dishonest. I did not violate any laws or rules. Everything I did was completely aboveboard. What I did was to find the weaknesses in the system and exploit them. And one of the weaknesses that I exploited was an order-of-magnitude productivity increase in writing code. That let me do in a day what would take my colleagues a week, leaving me nine days free to do other things. Like study quantum mechanics.
Whatever problems I may have, an unwillingness to learn new things is not one of them. I love to learn new things. That's one of the reasons I hate Java, because learning Java didn't teach me anything except how truly brain-damaged a language can be. (I've never learned Perl, but I've never learned how to run the deep fryer at a McDonalds either. I like learning new things, but life is short and there are some things I'm content not to know.)
My problem is that I'm lazy. I don't mind working hard, but I mind very much working harder than I have to, especially if I know a better way. This is particularly a problem at an institution like NASA which, despite its reputation for innovation, is actually quite ossified and set in its ways, especially where software is concerned. So I quit and went to work for an obscure little Silicon Valley startup company named Google. And that worked out OK, despite the fact that I felt like I was borderline incompetent. I made some money, but more importantly, I learned more in my one year at Google than in the previous thirty. And when I was done I tried to bring some of those lessons back to where I had come from, back to JPL, and back to the Lisp community. They weren't interested, and while that saddens me, it doesn't paralyze me.
I may not be a particularly good coder (though I think I can hold my own) but I've discovered that I have one very marketable skill, and that is picking winners early. I've had two big wins so far in my life, Lisp and Google. Since Lisp "destroyed" my programming career I've started a new career as an angel investor and entrepreneur. I've been involved in over a dozen startups in the last four years, sometimes as a passive investor, sometimes as a co-founder. And I feel like I'm just getting started. I'm very new at this and I have a lot to learn. But I'm having a blast, so I say bring it on! I used to fret over not being able to program in Lisp; no more. If being in the Silicon Valley taught me anything it is that the world is planted thick with opportunity, and life is too short to worry about the road not taken.