I just finished reviewing a colleague’s latest project. It is absolutely beautiful. It’s a collection of very pretty looking documents and forms that you can use to keep track of your professional accomplishments and portfolio. The idea is that each person can use it to cultivate more agency in the professional development process — and it will definitely help people as individuals achieve that goal.
So why would it make my heart sink? Because it’s perfect for one person (or a handful of people) to more easily manage an individual (and isolated) process, but will make it difficult for us to gain visibility into the collection as a whole. It’s a personal management tool, not an organizational management tool. What it won’t help us do is:
Search across 10s or 100s of portfolios
Scale to 100s or 1000s of employees
Keep the content relevant and up to date
So when I see this gorgeous looking thing, I feel sad: so much work went into this, and although it’s going to help solve one problem, it is going to create a maintenance nightmare. In addition, now we’re locked into a single UI and any change will require a ton of effort (and manual changes in each employee’s worksheet). How could we have avoiding painting ourselves into this box?
Thinking in layers is a habit I’ve developed from decades of working in software. By thinking in layers, you can create more maintainable, systematic, and repeatable solutions for solving operations problems. If we had solved this problem in layers, here’s what the solution components would have looked like:
Data layer – store all the data in CSVs, with one observation per row and one variable per column
Processing layer – a way to create, read, update, and delete documents, records or fields & perform calculations
Presentation layer – a way to display the data and make what the user sees pretty
(One of the reasons I love R Markdown is that it gives you a way to easily combine the processing and the presentation in a way that still doesn’t break the layers. If you want to change what people see, you change that in one spot in your Rmd, then re-knit.)
The moral of the story is: you can’t build a scalable system without layers. Think in layers.
I find it amusing that my last post, exactly 9 months and 1 day ago, was about burnout. That’s before we knew what would happen just 8 weeks later, when we’d all go into a collective (and very dull) sweat lodge to rediscover ourselves by immersion in the ordinary. Which, as it turns out, also leads to burnout. Who would have guessed.
And not unexpectedly, in that interim, WordPress changed Gutenberg again and the editor is unrecognizable. I wish developers would stop making slick UIs that make it difficult to get tasks done, or that surprise unwitting users with an unplanned for cognitive load, without great up front preparation and expectation setting. (I’ll probably end up loving the new interface. Give me until Saturday.)
The second thing is that I joined Ultranauts, an early stage professional services startup that provides quality assurance and quality engineering via functional, manual and accessibility testing; software test automation; and data quality engineering. We’re unique because over 75% of the workforce is autistic or otherwise neurodivergent… and unlike other similar companies or “autism at work” initiatives, we just focus on creating an individualized work environment where everyone can thrive. (Sounds like something that would be great in any company, right? Exactly… that’s what we’re working on.)
I’m still not out of the pandemic fog. In fact, it’s been so thick since maybe July that I haven’t been able to focus on anything but work and related obligations, and sleeping (so apologies to anyone whose messages I’ve missed; I’ve been firing on fumes). Since I started this blog 11 or 12 years ago, I’ve rarely missed a month on the board… posting is enjoyable to me, and a great way to make sure fleeting thoughts don’t completely fleet away. So here’s to the fog lifting, the posts starting to flow again, and a new life pattern emerging.
Preferably one that includes traveling to other countries. And trains.
Over the past week, I’ve noticed lots of people on social media talking about burnout — loss of energy, loss of enthusiasm, and loss of self-confidence at work. The holidays have ended, and it seems many are not getting back into the swing like they hoped they might.
Are you burned out? If so, you’ve probably taken steps already to fix it. Most people have a natural desire to do well at work, and to make valuable contributions… and besides, burnout doesn’t feel good day to day. Maybe you spent lots of time away from your email or phone, and with family or friends. Maybe you focused on “self-care” — those activities that are supposed to pull you back to center, to restore your depleted energy.
And if the concerted steps you’ve taken don’t seem to be working, you’re probably even more stressed out (and more burned out) than you were weeks or months ago.
What’s the solution?
The good news is, the burnout won’t last forever. There’s a natural endpoint for burnout, and that’s when you completely reach your limit and don’t even have the energy to remember why you cared in the first place. Most of us would rather not get to this point. So what’s the alternative?
You have two choices, both of which can have huge impacts on your life:
Stay, and work on improving the situation, or
Leave, recognizing that you’re not able to contribute to a solution.
Unfair treatment at work. If you’ve been treated unfairly, or if you see coworkers being treated in ways that you feel is unfair, your trust in the organization is going to falter. It takes a long time to build trust, but only one or two incidents to break it.
Unmanageable workload. If you’re given too much to do, or if you work on tasks that (for some reason or another) tend to get changed, shifted, or cancelled in-progress, you’ll have a hard time seeing your efforts pan out. Everyone needs a chance to see their work come to fruition.
Lack of role clarity. If you don’t know (or are not told) what to focus on, OR if you’re told to focus on one area and then later discover someone else actually owns it, conflicts are bound to emerge.
Lack of communication and/or support from your manager. This doesn’t mean you don’t talk to each other, or that your manager doesn’t philosophically support your work — it means that they aren’t doing enough to make sure that #1, 2, 3 and 5 aren’t happening.
Unreasonable time pressure. Being expected to pull off heroics can lead to burnout, especially when it’s the status quo. The people who do the work should always be asked to provide effort estimates, particularly when the work is engineering or software development. Failure to develop and implement systematic, repeatable processes for effort estimation can lead to mass burnout later.
But here’s the part of that HBR article that really resonated with me…
The list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted — if only leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.
In our interview, Maslach asked me to picture a canary in a coal mine. They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave. But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious: the coal mine is making the birds sick.
The lesson here is: If you’re burned out, it’s not a personal failure.
Burnout is a symptom of structural or process issues… that senior leaders are responsible for repairing.
The “Should I stay or should I go?” question, then, boils down to this:
Stay if you can help the organization treat people more fairly, establish manageable workloads, define more clear roles, improve communication with managers, and/or alleviate time pressure.
Leave if you can’t.
Granted, the decision process for you individually is probably more complex than this… but perhaps, by realizing that burnout is a characteristic of your environment and not a referendum on your personal resilience, you’ll be able to figure out your own path more easily. Good luck!
Although there are many aspects of my life that I’m thankful for (e.g. my cat, the people around me, the amazing R community and the software they build), this post is going to be focused on THINGS I am thankful for. These things definitely improve my quality of life.
I don’t usually venture outside the bounds of management, quality, or data science, but I’m on “vacation” (ie, not working for a week) and my chemical exposure model has an Object of Type Closure is Not Subsettable error (which means I need to let it sit for a while) so want to share with you things in my life that spark joy. And… Happy (American) Thanksgiving!
#1 My Brita Water Filter
I drink a lot of water… and a lot of coffee. And I’m really sensitive to the way the water tastes, especially after an incident years ago where the water in my house had black mold (no one else could taste it, but I swore there was something with the water — they started believing me when I broke out in hives from drinking it.) When the Brita entered my life, my quality of life changed drastically.
We make coffee with Brita water… we give the cat Brita water. We even got a 2nd Brita so we wouldn’t have to wait if the water in the first Brita ran out. I love these things.
#2 My Behmor Coffee Machine
Initially, I was skeptical about this coffee machine. It looked like it didn’t hold enough cups, and for goodness sake, I don’t need my coffee maker to be hooked up to the internet. Turns out I do. Every time I wake up, the coffee is already made for me, and there’s a cool app where you can customize the temperature of the water and other factors. It is the nerd’s ultimate coffee machine. I have no idea why it’s got weak reviews on Amazon.
I like this so much, we bought a second one that’s sitting in the closet — waiting for the moment that the first one breaks.
#3 New Mexico Pinon Coffee
I always thought I’d live in New Mexico… I did work there for a while (if you count traveling to your office’s other site) and I do have a graduate certificate in management from the U of NM. But who needs to live there when you get to taste pinon in your coffee every morning! That’s right. We usually mix 40% pinon to 60% french roast.
#4 My Smart Mattress Cover
I’ve had pretty serious thyroid problems since I was a kid, and every so often, it gets out of control. The past several months, it’s been really bad. In addition to being super sluggish with dry skin, it also makes you cold which means (for me, at least) that it’s hard to fall asleep at night. But not when you have the smart mattress cover! A few minutes before I go to bed, I pick up my phone, connect to my mattress, and turn on the heat timer… which roasts me for up to 8 hours and then shuts off. I love this so much that I miss it when I’m away from home on travel. I have never missed being away from home while traveling, so this is a Big Deal.
I am not a huge fan of this company’s mattresses, but their mattress cover is A+. The app also comes with a sleep monitor, but I swear, they’ve got new software developers tweaking their algorithm on a daily basis. We don’t trust the sleep score any more, and the sleep app UI is so infuriating (and changes so often) that we’ve stopped using it. But it doesn’t matter because… the heater is blissful. Did I mention that the heater works separately for each side of the bed? So you can roast while your partner… doesn’t have to.
There’s another fringe benefit… you can always tell when someone else has been sleeping in your bed because your phone will alert you. And it will also tell you exactly what minutes your side of the bed was being occupied. I’m sure some people would like to have this kind of information.
#5 South Dakota Fry Bread
When I lived in South Dakota, I was introduced to fry bread via Indian tacos. Today, when I fry this up, I’m immediately taken to a part of my life that was simpler and more carefree. The fry bread might taste good just because it evokes these emotions in me, but who knows… it might work for you too. And you don’t even need to do the taco part! Just fry up the bread, eat it, and be transported to… South Dakota.
I may add more Things I’m Thankful For as I think of them.
Today is Cinco de Mayo! It’s also the 10th Anniversary of my PhD defense (in Quality Systems)…. something I carefully timed for late afternoon on this day in 2009. (I wanted to make sure I could celebrate the joyful occasion — or drown my sorrows — with 2-for-1 margaritas. Fortunately, the situation was liquid joy; unfortunately, I still got a hangover.)
I’m writing this post to share what I’ve learned about the value of getting a PhD (is there value?) and the applicability of PhD-level work to industry. If you’re considering more education, maybe this will help you decide whether it’s the right choice. If you’re in industry and trying to figure out whether to hire PhDs, some of what I write here might help. But first, some background!
I never even thought I’d get a PhD — it certainly didn’t happen out of intent or design. My family was poor and I studied ridiculously hard so I could “escape it.” I didn’t think I was smart enough for a PhD, even though I started college at 16 taking half undergrad classes and half grad classes in meteorology. I aced my grad classes and very maturely ignored my required classes, so I got kicked out. (At the same time, I wasn’t really fitting in with people… my roommate called me “Nerdcole”.) When I was let back in the department head wouldn’t let me take any grad classes so I got bored and burned out… not surprising since I was supporting myself, and working three jobs to make that happen. I quit school to work at an e-commerce startup when I was 18. A few months later, thanks to (good) peer pressure, I took 3 credit by exams to see if it would get me over the finish line, and thanks to some side skills I had picked up in vector calculus and statistics, it worked and I got the BS. But I was still left with a pretty bad GPA, and even worse self esteem, and I was convinced no one would ever let me into grad school.
I figured I’d focus on industry and help companies grow. There was no other choice.
The Back Story
After spending a couple years building web sites and storefronts (a huge feat in 1995 and 1996!) I took a job at a national lab as a systems analyst, supporting older scientists and engineers and helping them get work done. The main lesson I learned during this time was: Alignment between strategy and objectives doesn’t come for free (teams of people have to spend dedicated time on it), and most people are really disorganized. There had to be a better way to get work done.
A few years later, I was a traveling Solutions Architect, parachuted once or twice a month into CRM software implementation fiascos around the globe. My job was to figure out what to do to turn these jobs around — was it a people problem? An architecture problem? A training problem? A systems thinking problem? A little of everything? I had a couple weeks to make a recommendation, and then I was on to the next project (results were usually pretty good). But since this required evaluating technology decisions in the context of business and financial constraints, my boss suggested that I use the tuition benefits offered by my job to get an MBA. I had taken 9 credits of science and industrial engineering classes since I’d graduated, so I contacted two of the local MBA schools to see if they’d accept me and my credits. Sure enough, one of them did! I took evening classes for a year and a half, and eventually ended up with an MBA. But I never thought I could (or would) go farther — I’m not that smart, I’d tell myself. Also, it’s expensive. Also, a PhD would probably make me less marketable. (All lies, spoken by a lack of confidence.)
Shortly thereafter, the travel started to get to me (I was flying at least three days a week), so I looked for an opportunity to grow and cultivate a software development organization. (That’s how I ended up in Data Management at NRAO.) A little management led to a lot of management. A few years later one of the organization’s leaders said it was “too bad I didn’t have a PhD” — because in a highly scientific and technical organization, it would give me more credibility and make me a better leader.
“Will you pay for it?” I asked. “Sure,” they said. I just had to find a suitable program that wouldn’t require me to go full time. I’ve always loved learning, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of free education — even if it meant I’d have to balance the demands of a challenging full-time job and a first-time baby at the same time. That’s how much I love learning, just for learning’s sake! I still didn’t think a PhD had that much value, unless you were studying to be a lab scientist or you were dead set on becoming a historian and teaching for the rest of your life. None of these personas was me, but the free education thing sold me, and I didn’t really think about how relevant this step was to my career direction until much later.
The next few years were pretty rough, and by the time I got my PhD, I was in my 14th year of post-college professional employment. First lesson learned: it’s probably not the best move to start PhD coursework when you have a three-month old. I have no idea how I made it through.
Shortly after graduating, the impacts of the financial crisis hit our federally funded organization and I was able to segue into a second career as a college professor, teaching data science and manufacturing/EHSQ classes. For the past year, I’ve been back in industry (maybe permanently; we’ll see) and have a better sense of the value of PhDs in industry.
Value of Getting a PhD
There are lots of reasons I’m happy with the time I spent getting a PhD, other than the fact that it helped me get an entirely new job when the economy was down:
First and foremost, I’m a better critical thinker. It’s now my nature to look at all parts of a problem, examine the interactions between them, and make sure I have all the required background information needed to start working on a problem.
I’m a better writer too. I look at reports and presentations I wrote years ago, and can see all the holes and places where I made assumptions that weren’t valid.
I developed a new appreciation for clarity. Researchers want to make sure their messages, methodologies, and models are clear and unambiguous… through the contrast, I was able to recognize that in industry, there’s often pressure to skip due diligence and move fast to perform. This pressure leads to ambiguity, which tends towards what I call “intellectual waste” – people assuming that they see a problem or a project in the same way because they haven’t taken the time to guarantee clarity.
It’s easier for me to quickly determine whether information might be true or false, or whether there are gaps that need to be closed before moving forward. (It’s possible that this skill is more from grading and evaluating student work… something that’s orders of magnitude harder than it seems.)
I realized that words matter. Really thinking about how one person will respond to a word or phrase, and whether it conveys the meaning that you intend, is a craft — that’s enhanced by working with collaborators.
And although I knew this one prior to the PhD, I found that data matters. Where did your data come from? Can you access the original? What kind of people (or instruments) gathered it? Can you trust them? The quality of your data — and the suitability of the methods you choose — will impact the quality and integrity of the conclusions you generate from it. Awareness of these factors is essential.
Value of Caution
One of the biggest lessons was the most surprising. Early on in the PhD program I was told that my opinion didn’t count — regardless of how many years of experience I had. Every statement I made had to be backed up and cited, preferably using material that had been peer-reviewed by other qualified people. At first I was kind of offended by this… didn’t these academics have any sense of the value of actual real-world employment? Apparently not.
But something funny happened as I developed the habit of looking for solid references, distilling their messages, and citing them accurately: I became more careful. And in the evolution of my caution and attention to detail, the quality of my work — ANY work — improved tremendously. I was able to learn from what other people had discovered, and anticipate (and resolve) problems in advance. I learned that “standing on the shoulders of giants” actually means figuring out when solved problems already exist so you don’t waste time reinventing wheels.
Something else funny happened as soon as I graduated: all of a sudden, people were asking me for my opinion. But the habit of due diligence was so ingrained that I couldn’t express my opinion… I was compelled to back it up with facts!
(I think this was the point all along. Go figure.)
The beauty of going through the entire messy process of PhD coursework and comps and research and defense and editing — the entire end-to-end process, not cutting out in the middle anywhere — it gave me the discipline and process to root out accurate and complete answers to problems. Or at the very least, to be able to call out the gaps to get there.
There’s a lot of pressure in industry to move fast, but due diligence is still critical for accurate self-assessment and effective cross-functional communication. Slowing down and figuring out how you know what you know — and making sure everyone is literally on the same page — can help your organization achieve its goals more quickly.
Value of PhDs to Industry
So employers (especially in tech) — should you hire PhDs? Yes. Here’s why:
PhDs are trained to find gaps in knowledge and understanding. Is your strategic plan grounded in reality, or is it just wishful thinking? Are your Project Charters well scoped, budgeted, and planned out? Is your workforce prepared to carry out your strategic initiatives?
Many PhDs with experience teaching undergrads are great at making complex topics accessible to other audiences. This is fantastic for training, cross-training, and marketing.
PhDs love research and writing, and can help you with gathering and interpreting data and content marketing.
PhDs love learning. Want to be on the cutting edge? They’re great in R&D… they can help you distill new insights from research papers and interpret and apply them accurately.
If you want to do AI or machine learning, or anything that uses Big Data, make sure you have at least one PhD statistician with practical analytical experience. They can prevent you from spending millions on dead ends and help you apply Occam’s Razor to avoid unnecessary complexity (the kind that can lead to technical debt later).
Bottom line… don’t be afraid of PhDs! We are mere mortals who just happen to have spent several years trying to figure out how to get to the core — the fundamental truth — of a complex problem. As a result we know how to approach problems like this — problems that many businesses have lots of. (We are not overqualified at all… we just have an extra skill set in something you desperately need, but may not realize you need it.)
Getting a PhD was challenging, frustrating, and maddening at times (especially the final part of getting your camera-ready text ready for ProQuest). I never planned to do it, but I’d totally do it again. I think my only regret is that I got a PhD in a hybrid business/industrial engineering discipline… it allowed me the freedom to pursue my interests, but if I was at the same crossroads now, I’d get a PhD in statistics to complement my MBA. Overall, this is a pretty tiny regret.
Sometimes small, simple tasks perplex me. Today’s challenge: I’m on Windows 10, and have a 53 page PDF of a journal. I need to make a NEW PDF that only contains pages 26 to 43 (my article) so I can send my article to a researcher who is requesting it. I know you can do this with Acrobat, but I don’t have Acrobat, and still would like to figure out how to make the smaller PDF. Here’s what I learned how to do today:
After I finished, I stumbled upon another way that didn’t require downloading a free program, and only uses Google Chrome. (Sometimes those free programs bother me. What a great way to infiltrate computers… offer a totally useful utility completely for free. Consequently, my advice to you is to download it at your own risk. Including these instructions is in no way a guarantee from me that PDFtk is safe.)
The Even Easier Way
Open Google Chrome
Type Ctrl-O (that’s the letter O, not the number zero)
Select the large PDF file that you want to snip
Your PDF will open in the browser… click on the beginning and ending pages, and capture the page numbers
Click the print icon in the far upper right corner of your browser
Click the “Change” button to change destination to “Microsoft Print to PDF”
Click the second radio button under Pages, and specify the start and end pages separated by a dash (for me, 26-43)
Click Print, and select a filename for your new, snipped file
After the PDF is generated, navigate to the directory you saved it in during Step 8. Open the file and check it to make sure the pages are as you expect.
The Sad News
I tried to use the staplr package in R to snip my PDFs, but I couldn’t get it to work. Will try again some other time 😦
For a decade, I supervised undergrads and grad students as they were completing writing projects: term papers, semester projects, and of course — capstone projects and thesis work. Today, I’m responsible for editing the work of (and mentoring) junior colleagues. The main lesson I’ve learned over this time is: writing is really hard for most people. So I’m here to help you.
Me, Reviewing Someone Else’s Work
If I had a dollar for every time this scenario happened, I’d… well, you get my point:
ME (reading their “final draft”): [Voice in Head] Huh? Wow, that sentence is long. OK, start it again. I don’t understand what they’re saying. What are they trying to say? This doesn’t make any sense. It could mean… no, that’s not it. Maybe they mean… nope, that can’t be it.
ME: So this sentence here, the one that says “Start by commutating and telling the story of what the purpose of the company’s quality management software is, the implementation plans and the impact to the current state of quality roles and responsibilities for everyone involved.”
THEM (laughing): Oh! Commutating isn’t a word. I meant communicating.
ME: Have you tried reading this sentence out loud?
THEM (still laughing, trying to read it): Yeah, that doesn’t really make sense.
ME: What were you trying to say?
THEM: I was trying to say “Start by explaining how quality management software will impact everyone’s roles and responsibilities.”
ME: Well, why don’t you say that?
THEM: You mean I can just say that? Don’t I need to make it sound good?
ME: You did just make it sound good when you said what you were trying to say.
What Just Happened?
By trying to “make it sound good” — it’s more likely that you’ll mess it up. People think speaking and writing are two different practices, but when you write, it’s really important that when you speak it out loud, it sounds like you’re a human talking to another human. If you wouldn’t say what you wrote to someone in your target audience in exactly the way that you wrote it, then you need to revise it to something you would say.
Why?Because people read text using the voice in their heads. It’s a speaking voice! So give it good, easy, flowing sentences to speak to itself with.
What Can You Do?
Here are two ways you can start improving your writing today:
Read your writing out loud (preferably to someone else who’s not familiar with your topic, or a collaborator). If it doesn’t sound right, it’s not right.
Use a storyboard. (What does that mean?)
There are many storyboard templates available online, but the storyboard attached to this post is geared towards developing the skills needed for technical writing. (That is, writing where it’s important to support your statements with citations that can be validated.) Not only does citing sources add credibility, but it also gives your reader more material to read if they want to go deeper.
The process is simple: start by outlining your main message. That means:
Figure out meaningful section headers that are meaningful on their own.
Within each section, write a complete phrase or sentence to describe the main point of each paragraph or small group of paragraphs
For each phrase or sentence that forms your story, cut and paste material from your references that supports your point, and list the citation (I prefer APA style) so you don’t forget it.
Read the list of section headers and main points out loud. If this story, spoken, hangs together and is logical and complete — there’s a good chance your fully written story will as well.
Not all elements of your story need citations, but many of them will.
When the storyboard is complete, what should you do next? Sometimes, I hand it to a collaborator to flesh it out. Other times, I’ll put it aside for a few days or weeks, and then pick it up later when my mind is fresh. Whatever approach you use, this will help you organize your thoughts and citations, and help you form a story line that’s complete and understandable. Hope this helps get you started!