Beki Grinter

Industrial Research

In discipline, research on March 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I’ve made a number of mistakes in my life. Probably the most serious one I made in my career was not grasping fully the way that industrial research works. This was problematic for me since I worked in industrial research for eight years.

In graduate school I had a very high degree of independence. Some of that was because I was self-funded, some of it was because I am stubborn as a mule (but in a good way of course — I walked away from one advising relationship because I could not bear the problem that my advisor wanted me to work on — it held no excitement or passion for me).

When I left Irvine, my thesis advisor, told me that he thought I was better suited to academia. Perhaps it’s the stubbornness, but I went to industry. And I don’t regret it. I’ve written before, many times, about the education I received in industry. I’ve also written, and I probably can’t write enough about what it meant to me, an immigrant to end up working at two places that shaped the 20th century, and generated many of the technologies of Computer Science.

But it took me a long time to understand an essential difference between academic and industrial research. In academic research, your research agenda is yours. In industrial research your research agenda is a negotiation between you, your boss and the goals of the corporation.

Why does a corporation invest in research? And knowing that a) that is an important question to answer and b) what the answer to that question is for the corporation your working for is crucial. That’s the mistake I made. I admit this now, but I will also claim that I was pretty young and pretty inexperienced when I first started out in industrial research. Inexperienced with any form of industrial employment…

At Bell Labs, in my department this meant that we would solve problems in the production processes for the systems that the corporation built. As the good revenue years waned, so the corporation started to exert shorter-term and product focused goals. I’ve experienced bosses who’ve attempted to completely protect individuals from the goals of the corporation, but when there is a tightening of resources that becomes, as you might expect, increasingly hard. So, the aspirations of the corporation matter, they end up in your goal setting activities that occur as part of your performance appraisal assessment each year.

At Xerox, initially I couldn’t actually tell you what the original goals were of the corporation. PARC, in California, was so far away from the corporation largely based in New York. After Lucent, where I was one of 25-30 researchers in a 12,000 person facility where the other 11,980+ people were producing commercial products, Xerox felt very different. That changed pretty soon after I arrived, when Xerox decided to spin PARC out as an independent company and decrease its stake in that company over time (something that was optimistically described as the “runway”). At this point, research goals included patents, profits, licensing strategies, partnerships, and so forth. Xerox PARC was very different to PARC Inc during that time. By that point I did start to understand how the goals of the corporation were affecting my research. I realized that for me, it did not reflect my aspirations, and that was one of the reasons that departing for Georgia Tech was a good idea. (Another was the opportunity to work at Georgia Tech, I still have to pinch myself a bit when I think about who my colleagues are and what they have collectively and individually accomplished. OMG sums it up pretty well.).

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