Twitter asks you to limit your description to a generous 160 characters. That’s 20 characters more than the maximum length of a tweet. I have a number of different versions of this shorthand summary of myself; the version I use in the sidebar of my blog is a little longer than 160 characters (because I can!). Here’s what it says:
Software and services professional, attentive music listener, vision enabler, instigator, reader of books and the web, vegetarian, affordable audio hobbyist, thinker, writer, blogger, tinkerer, Internet dweller since 1992. Human being since 1970.
Here’s the long-form version:
I was born in Germany in 1970. My father travelled the world as a consulting metallurgical engineer, my mother worked as a secondary school teacher (English and geography). My origins can in fact be traced back to when my parents were living in Belledune, New Brunswick, Canada in the late 1960s (my dad worked at the zinc/lead smelter there, a facility that still exists — apparently it mostly serves to extract metals from recycled electronics today, which somehow feels suitable). My mother was pregnant on the ship back to Europe in late 1969, and I was born in Cologne, Germany in April of the following year.
When I was 8 years old, my family moved to Tsumeb, a small mining town in the north of Namibia, a country that’s just to the northwest of South Africa. My dad worked as superintendent of the lead smelter located in Tsumeb, which is situated atop very rich mineral deposits. A former Germany colony, Namibia still has a large number of German-speaking inhabitants (descendants of the colonists), and there were other international mining families around (with ‘mining brats’ of similar ages), so my 8-year-old self mostly thought of our big move as a big adventure. Of course, in 1978 Apartheid was entering its final phase south of us, and Namibia (then South West Africa) was engaged in its own liberation war. While the country was effectively run as another province by the government of South Africa (it was officially a ‘protectorate’), the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) found refuge at military bases offered by the newly minted socialist government of Angola just to the north, and frequently attacked the South African military in cross-border raids. As an 8-year-old new immigrant from Germany, it felt a little strange when my class was trained to hide under our desks in case we heard gunfire.
After a few years of permanent summer and playing outside (mostly barefoot), my dad stopped working at the mine but wanted us to stay in Namibia. Two years of ‘figuring out’ eventually led to us settling in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. My sister and I went to school at the German private school while my mom taught school and my dad built a successful plastics business (swimming pools). I was a bookish, musical kid — never any good at sports — and finally found good social connections through being a music nerd, the DJ at parties and eventually playing in a band in high school.
When I finished high school, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa to attend the University of Cape Town. While working on a liberal arts degree focusing on history and literature, I became convinced that I wanted to spend the rest of my adult life working as an academic. On the plus side, this meant that I took my studies seriously and actually learned something (research, writing, carrying an argument at a moderate level of sophistication). The downside only began to dawn on me once I realized that academia is very hard to break into, especially from a university in South Africa (albeit an excellent one), and that the majority of academics has unstable employment for fairly low pay. During my studies in Cape Town, I took a first part-time job with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German international development organization that was then setting up shop in South Africa, one of many international organizations that came intending to help facilitate the country’s transition to democracy.
After 4 years in Cape Town, I moved to Johannesburg to continue my studies towards a master’s degree in comparative literature while I also continued to work at the German NGO.
When I bought my first desktop computer (initially, to write essays for university), I took to computers like a fish to water, discovering a kind of natural affinity for them (both software and hardware) and a fascination (that hasn’t let up to this day) with their nature as the ultimate flexible tool. This was essentially a deeper version of my love of sound recording and reproduction equipment that I’ve had since childhood. My computer skills were useful for my employer, and my job gradually evolved from general office tasks to IT management.
The early 90s also saw the advent of email through the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (for me, at least), and — eventually — the availability of a dial-up internet connection. I actually remember the internet before it became the web. In a country like South Africa — on the cusp of massive political change and, from a telecommunications point of view, in the firm grip of a poorly managed monopoly telco desperately trying to hold on to its market position — it soon became clear that the internet needed to be considered as an important thing in and of itself whose development shouldn’t just be left to market forces or clueless politicians (who were legitimately busy with more important things anyway). I maintained and published an FAQ about internet connectivity (which, remarkably, is still out there!) and also joined forces with a group of like-minded people who cared about ensuring that such things as rural connectivity — and connectivity to other African countries — were kept in mind as the internet grew in South Africa. (A few years later, I wrote an analysis of the South African academic network for Canada’s International Development Research Centre, which is also still available.)
Through my new social circle, it was somewhat inevitable that my work would be related to the internet in some way. One friend eventually hired me to work at his startup — a new internet service provider — as an online content lead (back then, connectivity and content were intertwined — there really wasn’t that much content on the internet, and the big international media conglomerates hadn’t quite used up all the world’s bandwidth yet). The startup got sold/merged into another internet service provider. A succession of jobs (all at ISPs/telcos) saw my work slowly morph from ‘building’ to ‘marketing.’ One of my great early career successes was to launch South Africa’s first ‘free modem:’ we were giving away modems in exchange for signing up customers for 2 years of internet service (my competitors at the time accused me of ‘breaking the industry’ — I thought of it more as helping more people get online faster). During this period, I learned a lot about advertising, design, communications — and the economics of marketing consumer products.
In the late 1990s, I was headhunted by Microsoft South Africa. The job: to build and launch MSN in South Africa, Microsoft’s global consumer portal. Even though I had gotten engaged to a Canadian in the meantime and was actually planning to move to Canada, this was too interesting a challenge to pass up, and I joined Microsoft in 1999. I drank the Kool-Aid in great gulps. Microsoft had not yet become affected by its current challenges (DOJ was only just starting). Instead, I joined it at the end of its astonishing run of growth during the 90s. I got to know what it was like to be managed by a group of excellent, engaged and pragmatic ‘volunteer managers,’ all of whom probably did not have to work another day in their lives. As an employee of a small Microsoft subsidiary, I also got to participate in a variety of activities outside of my core purview that provided great learning opportunities, such as the launch of Windows 2000.
In 2000, I moved to Canada and worked for the Microsoft subsidiary here. It was a very different experience: I had joined a much larger office whose culture and priorities I initially didn’t really understand. I also struggled (for the first year or so) to understand Canadians. Culturally, North Americans really are quite different from people in other English-speaking countries (UK, Australia, South Africa), and having worked for a North American company in South Africa for a few years had given me the illusion that I would easily fit in. It was an important (if occasionally painful) learning opportunity. I came to Canada expecting not to experience the ‘typical’ cognitive and social dissonances immigrants are faced with but still had to face them all the same.
After another 2 years at Microsoft (working on a product that wasn’t ready for prime time in a market segment that wasn’t ready for such a product), I departed to join a small Microsoft-oriented professional services firm as a consultant. Initially, I worked as a project manager — a set of responsibilities I enjoyed a lot and felt energized by, for the most part. To be sure, my project management style was firmly on one side of the project management spectrum: fully grasping the subject matter and managing by creating momentum. The other side of the spectrum — planning, tracking, running numbers — was never my superpower. While I wasn’t exactly terrible at it, I experienced the typical mental blocks we experience about simple things we don’t want to do (think of your least favourite subject in school). Working for a small and growing Microsoft partner had huge advantages for me, though: I could ‘try out’ a variety of different consulting firm jobs at different levels of responsibility and impact, and figure out what worked for me. For a while, I managed the project management office, resourcing and recruiting function; then, I developed go-to-market approaches and implementation frameworks; then I worked as a business analyst and strategy consultant focusing on Microsoft SharePoint (enterprise software for document management, collaboration and web publishing), which remains my current specialization.
When I consult on projects today, I am able to wear many different hats: vision facilitator, business analyst, product manager, project manager, engagement manager, writer, scope negotiator, salesperson, marketer, trusted adviser.
I love solving business problems with software. I often say that what keeps my work interesting is that I have the privilege of working across a number of different industries — I get to deeply engage with an organization’s specific challenge for a relatively short time, and then I move on to the next engagement. I find that this way of working keeps me focused as it strikes a good balance between applying what I already know and learning new things. I love meeting people in every kind of organization and I’m passionate about gathering and analyzing business and user requirements. I like to ‘get it right’ and I’m energized when I hear from former clients who tell me they’re still happily using the software application I designed for them years ago.
I recently (2013) started my own consulting firm, Carsten Knoch Consulting, providing boutique freelance consulting in a variety of focus areas.
I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with my partner Jennifer and her son Angus.