Are You Hyphen-ated Enough?

Bio-Informatic. Forensic-Auditor. Enviro-Psychologist. If you want your career to take off, make yourself a one-person, cross-functional team.

Question: What do you get when you cross the growing number of multi-disciplinary teams in companies with the growing influence of the individual knowledge worker?


Answer: the hyphenated career.

The job of the future is all about hyphenates — smart people who combine education, interests, and skills to become virtual one-person cross-functional teams. The world is no longer divided into specialists who know everything about something and generalists who know something about everything. Gaining an edge in the future depends on the ability to hone the hyphen — to creatively bundle (and re-bundle) skills and knowledge.

Some of the most dynamic companies have come from the cross-fertilization that happens when two or more unlikely fields combine — technology and art cross-pollinate and “Toy Story” results. The industries of the future all have hyphens in them: bio-tech, multi-media, eco-production.

Mixing science and art, technology and humanities, vocation and avocation, hyphenation is the meta-skill of the new economy. Some are born with it, some strive to acquire it, and some have it thrust upon them. For composer-teacher-technologist-musician Tod Machover, hyphenation is a matter of genetic inheritance. “I got the hyphenation from my parents,” he says. “My mom is a well-known pianist and music teacher, my dad was one of the first people in computer graphics and an evangelist for the idea that computers should be user-friendly.”

Machover’s career is a blend of both: he trained as a composer and cellist at the Juilliard School, studied mathematics and philosophy, learned Fortran and computer sciences, and helped develop the first computer-as-musical-instrument. “I seem to be drawn to expanding the different sides of what I do — to make the hyphen stronger and then each side of the hyphen stronger,” says Machover, a professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab.

As the latest project in a career that includes pieces written for Yo-Yo Ma, four CDs, and an opera based on the science fiction novel “Valis” by Philip K. Dick, Machover recently launched “The Brain Opera,” a two-act interactive opera that incorporates the participation of the audience as online and live co-producers.


Ed Greenlee has worked at the hyphen from the beginning of his undergraduate education in information science. He earned an MA and PhD in cultural anthropology and later went on to get a law degree.

Now a librarian-anthropologist at Design Science, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based company that designs and markets multi-media products, Greenlee blends three disciplines into a hyphenated approach to market research. “Right now, I’m focusing on issues concerning perceptual development,” he says. “That involves research in developmental psychology and cross-cultural studies, looking for the most effective way to deliver instructions for toys for children.” His library sciences training makes Greenlee an expert at searching for the right data; his background in anthropology equips him to interpret what he finds.

Individuals like Machover and Greenlee make a career out of co-mingling education and interest. For others, like Tony Kerlavage, trained as a protein chemist, hyphenation happens. Two events during Kerlavage’s tenure as a researcher purifying protein at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the late 1980s converted him into a hyphenate in high demand today. Breakthroughs in cloning receptors and the introduction of powerful DNA sequencers to automate the process, drove Kerlavage and his colleagues to “drop everything to learn molecular biology ? and to teach ourselves computational skills,” Kerlavage recalls. He went further still to develop an expertise in data management in response to the avalanche of data generated by supercomputer-powered genome research. “I knew then I had crossed the line – from lab bench to computer,” he says.

When Kerlavage left NIH in 1992 to join the Institute for Genomic Research in the new hyphenate role of bio-informatic, the number of DNA sequencers had risen to 6. Today the Institute has over 40, and Kerlavage’s mix of bio-chem background and computational skills “is in the hottest demand in the field,” says Craig Venter, president. Now director of the 17-person bio-informatics department, Kerlavage says “a lot of breakthroughs in medicine will come out of the efforts of bio-informatics.” Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies are falling over themselves to hire representatives of the new breed, including Kerlavage, who gets calls from headhunters every week.

Bio-informatic. Performance-technologist. Visual-ergonomist. Psycho-linguist. Compu-ecologist. Cyber-librarian. Bio-manufacturer. Forensic-auditor. Geo-environmental-marketer. These are only some of the job titles of the future — indicators that to get ahead, you have to get hyphenated.