|Volume 1: No. 18|
Last week, Matthew Witten asked about career opportunities for generalists and interdisciplinary scientists.
Mark Weiser (firstname.lastname@example.org) says that being a generalist has made for a richer life and has led to territory unexplored by others. Getting tenure was a problem, though, since he was not the best in any of his fields. Universities do not really value generalists. He recommends working on the problems of one discipline with the point of view of another; since there aren't many generalists, you're likely to be the first. Also, take your many areas all to heart, and try to have each thing you work on be significant to all of them. Otherwise some fields are just hobbies, and you are not truly a generalist. Mark considers himself lucky to be at PARC, where generalists are valued.
I'm reminded of a delightful book, The Way of the Ronin: A Guide to Career Strategy, by Beverly A. Potter, 1984. I'd like to share some notes that I've interwoven with my own views.
Workers form companies in order to accomplish more than they could individually. Companies also permit division of labor, with each member doing those tasks that most suit his or her own skills and personality. This should benefit individuals as much as it benefits the group. Cooperatives and communes are often based on such ideology; unfortunately, they lack the efficiency and stability of alternative systems.
In career feudalism, an owner forms the company and retains or delegates all authority. The entire company serves the owner, and reflects the goals and personality of its leader. Workers trade their autonomy for protection and economic support -- salary, job security, health insurance, retirement benefits, credit unions, journal subscriptions, etc. The good of the company (i.e., its owner) is paramount, but the company will take care of you as required by law and to the extent necessary to keep your job slot filled.
Feudal systems are bureaucracies, and bureaucracies are exceedingly efficient at repetitive tasks. Low-paid workers handle routine tasks (often involving material processing or customer contact); supervisors provide guidance and quality control; middle managers implement new policies and intervene when problems arise; and executives monitor outside forces and set strategic direction. Line functions (those producing revenue) form the core of the pyramid; outer vertical "faces" take care of purchasing, accounting, personnel, and other staff functions. (In an accounting firm, of course, accounting is a line function. At NSF, Physics and Chemistry are the core; Sociology and Education are further out.)
Bureaucracies achieve their efficiency and stability by dividing tasks into narrowly defined functions, each of which can be done by anyone with minimal skills. Machine-like workers become interchangeable parts in an organizational machine. The company need not invest in employee development, relying on personnel screening instead. Headhunters help by cannibalizing scarce parts from other corporate machines.
Unfortunately, we have tried to fit R&D into a bureaucratic mold. R&D is necessarily creative and integrative. Universities manage by maintaining a stable educational bureaucracy and letting professors do research on the side. R&D labs and software houses are more problematic because research results must be coupled efficiently to the needs of the company. That means that the company chooses the research problems, provides the resources (including salaried time), and must obtain results in a usable form. This coupling is at odds with creative research, and little pure research actually occurs in most companies.
We sometimes denigrate industry for jumping on the bandwagon of each new technology, hoping for a quick fix or the big win. (Neural networks is the current hot topic, with fuzzy systems running a distant second. Expert systems and genetic engineering are fading, or have at least slowed. Optical computing is making a comeback, and micromachines are waiting in the wings.) Well, industry is doing the best it can. Fad technologies are the only scientific domain where bureaucratic science can compete and succeed. Neural-network researchers appear plentiful and interchangeable at the moment, and even incremental results are likely to confer competitive advantage. Any breakthrough that can't be absorbed can easily be licensed to others.
Progress in traditional areas, on the other hand, is slow, dependent on scarce individuals, and unlikely to match immediate corporate needs. Even a critically needed research effort is dangerous if the loss of a key scientist would kill the project (or benefit a competitor!). Companies find it safer to wait until technologies are developed, then license the results. A U.S. company can probably license foreign technology more easily than it can tap the research of its U.S. competitors, so foreign research labs can be a significant aid to the U.S. economy. Note also that government facilitation is more important in mature research areas than in hot new ones, so you can expect NSF's emphasis to be on the trailing edge.
To have respect and job security in a bureaucratic system, a scientist must either specialize in an essential technology or be a generalist willing to adapt to current corporate needs. The specialist is tied to a specific worksite and technological milieu, and possibly to a specific customer. He (or she) is only valuable while still actively productive, and then only if that value is perceived and bankable by upper management. Fortunately, active publication increases visibility and establishes market value; unfortunately, it makes you less of a competitive asset and less trusted to remain with the company. (Publication helps to open up jobs in other companies, but don't count on this for job security. If you're looking for work, it may be that the entire field is closing down.)
An extreme case of specialization is the "wizard." These are people who know a resource -- a computer system, say -- inside and out. They become invaluable, and hence unpromotable as well. Some are superstars, likely to leave if not pampered; some jealously guard their domains by refusing to train successors. Such people make managers very nervous, but are usually retained as long as possible -- and hired as part-time consultants if they leave. Wizards are not on either a vertical or horizontal career track, but may make out pretty well financially.
Generalists have a better shot at job security, but don't get to do their own research. They hire people for specific projects, then fire them when the customer is sufficiently satisfied (i.e., the problem is solved) or dissatisfied. (Company policy may transfer scientists to other projects instead of firing them, but that conflicts with the nature of research and greatly lowers productivity. Startups gain tremendous advantage by hiring a product-specific team, then lose the advantage when the same team must be put to work on a second product. Long-established companies are notoriously poor at innovative research.)
Scientists in industry cannot choose their own projects. [Xerox PARC excepted.] Some welcome outside direction and the chance to solve important problems, others flee to universities where they can delve deeply into just those problems matching current interests and prior training. Unfortunately, the latter are very poor at selling their research results to those who might benefit. It's like the difference between journalists and the literati who write only for their own kind. We need something in between -- for personal gain, for professional satisfaction, and for the good of society.
Beverly Potter suggests that the best course, for those with the ability and disposition, is to follow the philosophy of the ronin. Ronin, or people who do ronin, were samurai with no masters -- by circumstance, by choice, or as an imposed sabbatical to learn new skills. They were without the benefits of feudal protection (salary, health care, pension), and thus had to live by their wits. All were outlaws, in a sense, and many survived as hirelings, mercenaries, or bandits. (Have you considered a sabbatical as a bandit?) Others found or created new positions in the feudal order. Many ronin became teachers at progressive universities, and helped to mediate contact with the West.
In modern terms, a ronin is one who makes lateral moves instead of following a traditional career path. Ronin may never make it to the top positions, or they may get there quickly and then leave for something else. They may start their own companies. If they can afford to, they may also drop out entirely. The pragmatic philosophy that leads to success also reduces the desire for success, giving the ronin a win no matter what the outcome.
The ronin (or samurai) philosophy is more than I can present here. Briefly, ronin are warriors, trained to disregard any consideration that does not achieve their goals. Many people experience life as a mix of blessings and curses; ronin see only problems to be solved and tasks to be accomplished. In war, the goals and problems are imposed externally. In peace, we must choose our own. The Japanese had several centuries of peace in which to contemplate the proper role of a warrior. I'll pass along a bit more in a later issue.