Jagged Thoughts | Dr. John Linwood Griffin

April 5, 2015

Every Eighteen Months, part 1: First steps

Filed under: Opinions — JLG @ 7:05 PM

Imagine, if you will, a much younger John.

Ten years ago, almost exactly to this day, I stood on the rain-slick precipice of darkness, scrying into the future to decide what’s next? for my life.

I had spent the past six years as a student in the best storage systems research laboratory in the world, itself part of the #1-ranked computer engineering program in the world. I’d learned how to think in graduate school—how to explore the question why?—how to look at trees and see the forest. I’d gained confidence: confidence to formulate and pursue a technical hypothesis, confidence to take the risk that a line of investigation might be wrong, confidence to lead and advise others in the pursuit of their personal goals.

I had spent most of those six years assuming that I would follow in the footsteps of my thesis advisor—become a tenure-track faculty member, set a visionary research agenda and rally a large team to sponsor and drive the work, change the world through my research results, and nurture my own set of wide-eyed/wet-behind-the-ears students into the change-the-world visionaries of the future.

I had a wonderful girlfriend ready to help me succeed in my career, supportive colleagues and contacts in academia and industry, a solid record of publication and public speaking, a reasonably compelling vision for my future research agenda, and an eagerness to move somewhere new and experience/travel/enjoy being there.

I had my choice of off-the-hook amazing job offers in amazing places. In academia, both the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and the University of Waterloo (Canada) offered me the academic positions I’d dreamed about. I’d also interviewed at world-class industrial and business firms—including Google, Hitachi, Intel, McKinsey & Co., and Microsoft Research—and had received offers to work directly with two of the most impressive people I’d ever met (John Colgrove at Veritas Software near San Francisco, or Dr. Leendert van Doorn at IBM Research near New York City).

I was the king of the world!

But then I asked my advisor a question he couldn’t answer.

I asked for my advisor’s advice on how to choose which job to take—what to consider in terms of internal and external impact, work-life balance, and personal satisfaction; what I could expect over the first few years of my career; what were my personal strengths and weaknesses that would be unique (or be problematic) in each position; how each choice would tie in with my long-term career and life plans.

He answered that he couldn’t advise me. He couldn’t because he had only ever worked in academia; he didn’t have the experience to help me understand what I could expect; to suggest which choices would open or close which doors; to guide me toward the right decision for me.

That answer stunned me. It opened my eyes that I would have the same limitation if I went straight into an academic position.

It was the mentorship aspect of a job in academia—the “confidence to lead and advise others in the pursuit of their personal goals” and the “nurture my own set of wide-eyed/wet-behind-the-ears students into the change-the-world visionaries of the future”—that was the key draw to my pursuing such a position. From this conversation with my advisor I realized that I needed more personal work experience in order to pay forward the gifts of encouragement, nurturing, guidance, and freedom that I’d received from my teachers and mentors over the years.

Moreover, if I was going to change the world I realized that I needed a better understanding how the real world works. At Carnegie Mellon I saw firsthand how many successful faculty members pursued technology transition: Some, like my advisor, built relationships with key technology companies in his field and freely shared results (and freely shared graduate students for internships) to ensure a steady flow of ideas and technology both into and out of his group. Some, like Dr. Phil Koopman, applied his years of industry experience toward choosing projects that were both academically rigorous and immediately practical for solving the complex problems that had vexed him but that industry couldn’t (or wouldn’t) solve for itself. And some, like Dr. Garth Gibson, took the flat-out entrepreneurial approach and founded a company to productize the game-changing technology concept he’d conceived, defined, explored, and proselytized over the past decade.

So I decided not to pursue a professorship, at least not for a while, while I instead went out to discover how the real world works.

(Saying “no” to the position at Edinburgh is the hardest phone call I’ve ever made.)

I accepted the position at IBM, and the next decade turned out to be far more interesting (and far more interestingly chaotic) than I imagined they would be.

[Author’s note: I wrote this text on May 10, 2014.]

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