Why Unicorns?

Sometimes you pick your memes, and sometimes they pick you. So select wisely. Why do unicorns appear so often in my Twitter stream and on whiteboard worldwide?

Unicorns are rare indeed.

Unicorns are rare indeed.

Let’s start with some functional definitions of a unicorn. At it’s core, it’s a mythical creature. Yes, breaking news, unicorns are NOT real. The mysticism and search for perfection is at the heart of the connotation of the word.

The tech world has long embraced the term to mean everything from a perfect but unattainable solution (e.g., a single pane of glass management solution) to a super high-functioning team member (see also, “rock star”) to the individual who possesses a heady blend of tech prowess and communications skills.

“Unicorn” can be used adjectivally (that’s a unicorn solution you’ve just proposed), but is most commonly a noun (see, “Interview with a Unicorn“).

A quick search led to some fun results charting common usage:

Since I need to be working on a PPT slide and not writing this blog, I’ll let someone else hunt the first use of the term. I couldn’t find it, but feel like it was coming into prominence within the last 2 to 3 years.

Beware the dark side.

Beware the dark side.

Now turn back time to the Summer of 2012 when I was developing the Engineers Unplugged concept with Brian Gracely. By developed with I mean he told me to stop being boring and produce something.  We whiteboarded out the basic concepts that very afternoon.

Brian challenged me to find some connective thread through the narrative of varying tech talks, something everyone could do and that would set the tone of an otherwise serious and technical show.

Secretly, watching highly intelligent people scramble to draw a unicorn is both highly entertaining and disarming.

The unicorn challenge was born in the second episode.

I didn’t create unicorn lingo, I just borrowed it from the community I was joining. For the record, I never owned a single unicorn-themed anything as a kid. Now I have a rich variety of unicorn items and toss the word around like a native.

Punk Rock Unicorn: My Spirit Animal Phone Case

Punk Rock Unicorn: My Spirit Animal Phone Case

Another fun fact, in 6 seasons of shooting Engineers Unplugged, with an average of 12 episodes per season, no one has ever refused to draw a unicorn.

So the better question may be, why not unicorns?


Next Up: Why bacon?