I was born in Germany in 1970. My father traveled the world as a consulting metallurgical engineer, my mother worked as a secondary school teacher (English and geography). I spent my early years in Germany. When I was 8 years old, my family moved to a small mining town in the north of Namibia, a country that’s just to the northwest of South Africa, where I grew up.
After finishing 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. I fell hard for continental philosophy (critical theory). It seemed like a good way to challenge my intellectually promiscuous interests. 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. The early 90s also saw the advent of email through the university, and — eventually — the availability of a dial-up internet connection. I actually remember the internet before the web. It soon became somewhat inevitable that my work would be related to the internet in some way. A succession of early jobs (all at South African ISPs/telcos when the internet was still “new”) saw my work slowly morph from “building digital stuff” to “marketing.” During this period, I learned a lot about advertising, design, communications — and the mechanics and economics of marketing consumer products.
In the late 1990s, I was headhunted by Microsoft South Africa to build and launch MSN in South Africa, the company’s global consumer portal. At Microsoft, 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 in a small, remote subsidiary of a huge global corporation, 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, various versions of Internet Explorer, and at least one version of Microsoft Office.
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 at first to understand Canadians. 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. An important (if occasionally painful) lesson. I came to Canada feeling entitled not to experience the “typical” cognitive and social dissonances immigrants are faced with but still had to face them all the same.
Eventually I left Microsoft to join a small professional IT services firm as a consultant. Here, 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 enterprise software for document management, collaboration and web publishing.
In 2013, I started my own consulting firm, Carsten Knoch Consulting, providing boutique freelance consulting in a variety of focus areas. While I still “do” technology consulting, I have evolved my career in a more general management/strategy consulting direction. I currently have two primary areas of specialization: organizational development and innovation coaching. In the area of organizational development, I help organizations close their strategy and execution gaps in a variety of ways (mostly by providing an independent ear to listen carefully to what people are saying). In innovation, I mentor organizations through the process of building products and/or acquiring technologies that will transform the way they do business.
I have also recently completed a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Toronto. My bet with this degree (apart from the fact that I love working academically and wanted to return into the university “fold” because I enjoy it) is that an ethnographic way of thinking and doing will play an increasingly significant role in the kind of management consulting work that I do, and that this combination might constitute a relatively unique offering. My aim, through my research, was to theorize some of the ethical and methodological problems related to ‘doing’ ethnography in a non-academic context; you can read the results here.
While I was in the master’s program at UofT, I co-founded the Ethnography Lab which promotes ethnographic research methods and practice in the university and outside academia. I continue to be involved with the lab’s events and website.
I live in Guelph, Ontario, Canada with my partner Jennifer.