As cofounder and vice president of product management at LinkedIn, Allen Blue thinks a lot about careers—both others' and his own. Before joining LinkedIn in 2002, Blue had been director of product design at SocialNet, an early social networking site—and before that, he spent seven years doing lighting and scenic design for the theater. Here, he discusses the similarities between the world of theater and tech startups, the roots of his interest in technology, and how passion is the key to bringing a wide-ranging career path into focus.
FAST COMPANY: Before cofounding LinkedIn with Reid Hoffman, you had a career as a theatrical set designer. How did you get involved in that?
ALLEN BLUE: My degree from Stanford was in scenic design, and I went into the business right away after graduation. That was my first career. There were basically two paths you could follow—one was to actually do the work; the other was to do an MFA, a terminal degree in the design industry which sets you up to do only design. I chose the work path. I worked in theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area doing scenery, lighting, costumes, and being a general do-it-all backend theater guy for seven years after graduation. For my last three years doing this, I was also teaching theatrical design at Stanford. My three-year billet came up at roughly the same time I met [LinkedIn cofounder] Reid Hoffman.
What did you enjoy most about that career?
In general, the thing I loved best about theater was that the distance between having an idea and having it realized was really short. Now, a startup can come out with a new product or an app in weeks; back in the day, you couldn’t do anything in technology in weeks. But you could spend three weeks building a set in a theater, another few weeks rehearsing, and then people would see what you made. To see a thing in your head and watch it become real—that was the thing that was most attractive to me.
What prompted your move into the technology industry?
I had loved computers even before I got into theater. I started coding on an Apple IIe in 1982. Home computing was brand new, and I started writing games in BASIC. The thing I liked about that was the same thing I liked about theater. When you’re actually coding, the distance between an idea and seeing it happen is very short.
Throughout my theater career, I also built text-based multiplayer games, or MUDs. In an afternoon, I’d create an adventure for a bunch of people—80 simultaneous players at a time was massively multiplayer, and it was all running on one box at a university on the East Coast. Those were the first times I had to worry about things like organizational dynamics. There were just five or six people who would write the games, but they were geographically distributed around the world. We had to think about how to make decisions as a group, how to do something coherent, and what tied the group together.
Were you able to apply any of your tinkering with computers to your work in lighting design?
I did spend some time testing and advising on some early lighting design programs. These weren’t control programs, but types of programs that create plans to that tell technicians where to hang lighting and how to wire it. Because I spent a lot of time actually hanging lighting, I was able to help a professor at Stanford develop something called Argus, a piece of code that took the pain out of the plotting process.
So how did you connect with Reid Hoffman?
It’s a total LinkedIn story. I met Reid through a mutual friend who had been in the Stanford theater program and had gone into tech. Reid had asked him to be a chief of staff guy, but told him he was also looking for someone creative and asked if he knew anyone. He said, “You should talk to Allen." Reid and I got together and had an epic four-hour discussion over Thai food in Mountain View. We talked a little about business, but mostly about things we had a common interest in. He had done a bunch of work in technology, but he also has a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford. We talked about philosophy, citizenship, and ways to make a difference in the world. Soon after that, we got together in founding LinkedIn.
Are there any skills or ways of thinking from your theater days that are useful in your current job?
I like to say that the worlds of Internet startups and theater have absolutely nothing in common. One of the things that really typifies theater is that it’s an incredibly efficient business—every nook and cranny of how shows get done has been worked out years ago. It’s a bunch of work, but there’s no mystery how to do anything. High-tech businesses are completely different—we waste half our time here. What we’re doing is unknown. You are always looking to do something that has as little in common as possible with what’s gone before.
That said, theater is a business that is about attitude more than anything else—and being an entrepreneur is exactly that. Being an entrepreneur is an attitude, not a set of skills or capabilities. It’s saying we can get stuff done and being willing to believe that we can win. It’s the same attitude in theater—every show is different, and whatever happens we’re up for it. Also, there’s a sense of humility that’s true for both. Real theater people are humbled before the art. In technology, you have to be humble and recognize that you don’t have all the answers, to be willing to change direction if you’re wrong.
There’s also something else about building social software that connects to theater. Martin Esslin, who was a drama professor at Stanford, described theater as “the erotic art.” By erotic, he meant that, unlike TV or film, in theater you feel the presence of another human in front of you. There’s something about that connection that I know I touch when I work on a social platform.
As someone with an eclectic background—and who works at the biggest professional networking site in the world—how do you think that people with eclectic backgrounds should present themselves when looking for new opportunities?
At LinkedIn, we believe that the age of the individual professional is upon us. Individual professionals in smaller and smaller groups are going to be able to produce great results, and people will be able to take on anything they want and are passionate about. As a professional you will have a greater ability to shape what your career looks like and do things you care about over time. I think about the LinkedIn profile as way to help you get the job you think you’d be great at doing. It’s different from a resume—it’s not just what you’ve done but what you’re passionate about right now. That passion is what’s going to drive you forward as a person.
In my case, having my theater stuff in there is something I thought a lot about. I believe my background in theater is important to how someone should understand me as a person. While I have technical and entrepreneurial skills and worked for and led some companies you’ve probably heard of, I’m also somebody whose feet are in the humanities, whose foundations come from how human beings understand themselves using the tools of performance, philosophy, and storytelling. That’s the picture I’m trying to paint of myself. I believe now more than ever that a liberal arts education—understanding art, ethics, philosophy—is essential to become a leader in the world.
When I’m talking with new candidates, I tell them I love my job. I love coming to LinkedIn every day and I love the projects I’m working on. And I think everybody should love their job. That passion for what you’re doing is what turns a generalist into a successful specialist, and a happy one. If you start with a strong foundation in the basic understanding the world and people, and what responsibilities we have to each other, and passion to make something in the world, then you can pursue that passion to success. If you get to a place where you’re doing what you love, that’s what will drive you forward. I would love to figure out a way to make that story possible for everyone.
[Image: Flickr user slimmer_jimmer]