Filling in the Blanks
How can it be that it’s been nearly 18 months since my last blog entry? Well, I could wax philosophic, and point out that the path to such an outcome is like the path to other, more positive outcomes. It’s an accumulation of daily habits, and a series of perhaps small, but sometimes very distinct, decisions. So, a bit of a review of what’s been happening, and what lessons can be drawn from both the period of silence and what has filled that silence.
I’m a big fan of waiting for a big, dramatic highlight to emphasize in an announcement. Back in November, 2014, I was applying for a campus-level directorship position; I was pretty excited about the opportunity, and the ways that I could use my skills to connect research, and STEM engagement, and educational improvements at K-12 and university levels. I thought I was going to get the position. I didn’t. In retrospect, it’s not necessarily that I was a bad candidate for the job, but a bad match for the view (by others) of what the job needed. This is actually an important distinction, and I am convinced that I had never actually seen the idea of not being selected for a position in that light before. Well, a few weeks of anticipation were followed by days of anger and frustration, which in turned into a more circumspect view of job searches and candidate interviews no longer just being about showing that someone is “good enough” to be considered. Imagine that all of the finalists may be “good enough,” in some generic sense, but every complex job is a combination of factors on a very large vector of possible criteria (utility), where different people involved in the selection (stakeholders) have different ideas of the importance (weights) of the criteria, and decide what “best” looks like (stakeholders maximizing their objective function according to their multi-attribute utility weighting). I was a really good candidate for one version of the job. I wasn’t the best candidate for another version of the job. That doesn’t make me a good or bad candidate overall, and certainly not a bad person. An important lesson to learn, but not one I was ready to write about in Spring 2015.
The lab was going through a significant shift in 2014-15, both conceptually and physically. We spent the first half of calendar 2015 in Wang Hall, learning how to conduct a different type of meeting with a different configuration of students (three new, first year grad students with only four or five continuing students). We’re back in Grissom Hall as of August 2015, but the only thing about the building that’s stayed the same on the inside is the walls and bricks and windows framing the building’s outer boundary. And we’ve had to learn an even more interesting set of dynamics: we are now at a point where much of the lab’s activity officially qualifies as a distributed enterprise. Dissertation-writing students are working in industry, and other doctoral students are doing co-ops, internships, and other work in multiple time zones. Lab meetings and 1:1 individual interactions are more likely to occur in Google Hangouts than Grissom 335 (my new office) or the GROUPER dedicated lab space (which doesn’t exist). So, we have had to learn new lessons about information alignment and distributed knowledge sharing. That’s a topic for another entry, coming soon.
Believe it or not, the lesson learned about being a good candidate vs. a matching candidate for the job had to be taught to me again in 2015. This time, the position was a campus administrative post, and again, I thought I was a very good match for a visionary leadership role in a broadly influential and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the campus. Great, right? Except that this objective function was apparently not aligned with the utility vector of critical stakeholders. This is neither good nor bad, in itself. (Remember what you just told them, Barrett.) I do believe that the transition from anger to acknowledgement happened faster this time, and to be honest, it’s a lesson that does need a very strong reinforcement over multiple administrations for me to actually learn the meaning well.
Oh, there’s some outcome productivity in terms of field visits, and journal papers, and GROUPER degree completions. However, I wouldn’t suggest scheduling MS thesis defenses by multiple students on consecutive days. We succeeded last summer, and now the number of GROUPER MS thesis grads exceeds 30. But I’m not likely to try that again soon—it’s a lot of reading, and a MS thesis is often as much a test and oral exam for the advisor as for the student.
In the end, I’m better off for it, and I think we in the lab have learned a number of very important and valuable lessons. It can be dangerous if someone gets too much in the habit of doing without considering, or acting without accepting that both “success” and “failure” can be a benefit or blessing. One of the challenging, and yet extremely beneficial, outcomes is that the two interviews required me to very explicitly consider the question of how to manage the lab, and in essence, examine what was an appropriate “carrying capacity” of GROUPER at this stage of my career. (I’m probably more active than ever before, with GROUPER work and GROUPERs in 2015 supported by five federal agencies—AHRQ, FAA, NASA, NSF, VA; it’s not yet the “riding into the sunset” that I had previously considered.) We’ve been practicing skills that I see in increasing frequency in industry, but not as much in academia—how to become easy and fluent with a team operating across geography, knowledge domain, and a variety of external constraints to be focused and robust to a variety of communication channel capabilities.
More coming soon. I’m expecting a big announcement in a week or so. No, really.