Archives for category: Management

When I first visited Duke University more than 10 years ago as a faculty candidate, our current Chair, Larry Carin, was the host for my visit. I met several of our faculty members who have been at Duke for some time, as well as senior faculty members that had just joined the department (then-Chair April Brown and then-Director of the Fitzpatrick Center David Brady, among others). What impressed me the most was the enthusiasm that prevailed in the department, about the effort under way to establish a great academic unit with the core values of outstanding education and prominent research. As the recruiting process progressed, Larry recommended a book to me, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which was a very popular title at the time in business management. The book summarizes a research effort analyzing the case of 11 companies that have done extremely well compared to their peers and the general stock market for a period of over 15 years, trying to identify the critical elements that led to building such successful organizations. It was clear to me why Larry was interested in such a study, as this topic was in the minds of everyone in the ECE department at that period in time.

While it is impossible to tell the true predictive value of these types of postmortem analysis, there were some interesting and compelling points that were worth discussing. I certainly was intrigued by the prospect of building up a strong research effort and new educational initiatives in the department, and decided to come join the excitement. Having 10 years to look back upon our department that has gained substantial momentum along the way, it is an interesting exercise to see what aspect of those analyses were relevant to our department’s current path to success. The book describes six characteristics of these success stories, but I will ponder upon three or four that might be directly relevant to academic institution like ours.

Before I put together my random thoughts on these issues, I would like to share the insight some of our colleagues have shared in the “ECE Corner Office” section: I most strongly resonate with Richard Fair’s story on “Change, or Die”. All of our operating environment changes over time, either fast or slow, and the thriving organizations derive their success from how well they adapt to these changing conditions. Such changes often pose threats to successful organizations, yet provide opportunities for upcoming organizations to compete. All of these factors of success cannot be considered unless in the context of constant change: the Roman Empire did not last forever, and neither will the era of those dominant Engineering research/educational institutions of today, no matter how strong you feel their grip is in the current environment. Everything changes, and there lies our opportunity to build a great organization.

The first topic is the type of leadership that is common to these organizations with success. The authors term the type of leadership “Level-5”, characterized by individuals with extreme personal humility and intense professional will. They are the most modest people who never let her/his own ego get in the way of the success of the team/organization, nor quibble about trivial credit taking for personal gains (as the authors quote Harry Truman, “you can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit”). At the same time, they move with incredible intensity when it comes to achieving success for the team or organization. I have personally been blessed with having two mentors I can confidently identify as “Level-5 leaders” throughout my professional training process prior to Duke (one is my thesis advisor, and the other is my manager of three years at Bell Labs). While they do not strive to attract the flashes of stardom, they focus on building the core ingredients of success with ferocious will, eventually achieving outstanding success. Many Nobel Laureates I know in person also feature such a leadership: throughout their career, they do not explicitly pursue the glories of Nobel Prize, but work tenaciously to achieve scientific progress which eventually lead them to such an honor. Look around our department, and you will see many such leaders quietly building up incredible momentum, whether it is the novelty in their cutting-edge research efforts or means to educate the future leaders of our society: I am sure these efforts will eventually lead to outcomes that will have a huge impact in our world.

The second topic is about the process of building the organization by attracting outstanding talent, which many of us can see as an important procedure towards a great organization. We typically struggle with the role of strategic planning to think about where the organization (department) should go, and finding adequate people with the right talent to achieve those strategic goals. One of their findings is somewhat striking (and counter-intuitive): they find in these success stories, that instead of defining a strategic direction and then getting people to get them there, these leaders have done things in the exactly opposite order. Making analogies to people getting on a bus to go to a great place, “they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus), and then figured out where to drive it”. They always begin with “who” rather than “what”, which make it easier to change directions and adapt to the changes that one will inevitably face down the road (remember the “Change or Die” comment from Richard!!). What is an important field of research will inevitably change in ten years, and we want people who can be successful in those future fields. More desirably, we want to have people who can define what will be an important field of research ten years from now, and naturally be the leaders in those fields by driving those changes. I believe we have done exceptionally well on this front. Looking at our faculty members that have joined the department since I came in 2004, we have assembled an outstanding group of people who have become leaders in the field since. We certainly got the right people on the bus without necessarily worrying about exactly where the bus will go (of course, that does not mean that we want the bus to be driven in random Brownian path!!): the classic example is myself, in the sense that I absolutely did not foresee that I will be working so heavily in quantum information science, nor gigapixel cameras, when I accepted the offer to come to Duke. After 10 years, we indeed have a pretty clear direction that our people should be driving towards: such direction as the big data and information analytics and system integration research (current developments in “Future Technologies” initiative). These are some new directions that have become clear opportunities for our department based on the talent and expertise we have accumulated in the past decade, that was not obvious when the these faculty members were brought to Duke. We face an exciting prospect of becoming leaders in these rapidly emerging fields by driving the cutting edge of change in these research fields. These days, I get into interesting discussions with my colleagues that I have the most respect for, on whether we should hire pure talent or strategically in certain areas of research. We are in a bit of a different place compared to 10 years ago: we have some directions along which we want to “drive the bus” now, defined by some great people that have come aboard our bus in the past decade and a half. At the same time, we cannot lose the sight of bringing the “right kind of talent” on board: those that do the most rigorous research yet are capable of pursuing new directions. One cannot build a leading organization by following others. The fact that everything changes works greatly in our favor: if we have people who take some risks and strives to be at the leading edge of those changes, that is the recipe of success for building a leading organization in the future.

The next topic is termed “Confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith”. This topic indeed is about how organizations face the issue of “change”, especially if it is of the nature and magnitude that completely changes the landscape the operation of their organization stands on. Many organizations face this issue as the world is changing, and again, as our colleague Richard points out, one will die if they do not face the challenge and change. The successful organizations have recognized the nature of the changes that is impacting their existence, and “developed a simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of their decisions on in confronting these changes. The changes do not go away if you turn your head the other way. When confronted properly, these changes that are potential threats to one’s existence can turn into the greatest opportunities for success. We know of many great companies of the past, for example Kodak, Zerox and Nortel Networks, who have failed to see the change in the landscape (in these cases, shift to digital imaging and internet-based communication technologies) and disappear. Big changes of similar magnitude might be coming our direction, such as on-line education, federal funding environment for research, and higher education in developing countries, that might change the way Duke operates the education and research enterprise. We have to accept these changes as the new norm, and figure out an effective way to transform ourselves to not just survive but thrive in the new environment. I do not claim to know all the answers at this time, but feel that these crises might indeed turn out to be an opportunity for us to shine and rise to be the leadership status if we can learn to seize the changes and use them to our advantage.

The final topic that is of relevance is developing “simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of the organization’s important decisions on. This insight must effectively answer the following three questions: “What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? What are you deeply passionate about?” Among these three, the second one is highly relevant for the companies they analyzed (pursuing economic profit), but might be less relevant for an academic institution like ours. Although we cannot ignore the cost of operating an academic institution, I believe neither education nor research should be driven with economic profit as a metric. Our success should be measured by the success of people we train, whether they are undergraduate or graduate students, based on the impact they make in the society. So, we should paraphrase the questions as follows: What can we be the best in the world at, in which we are deeply passionate about, that will make our graduates the most successful once they leave Duke? If we can collectively come up with an answer to these questions and base all of our decisions based on that answer (faculty hiring, how to structure our educational programs, our research portfolio, and strategic initiatives), we should be able to make consistent decisions that will allow us to build an organization that best addresses these goals.

They describe the process of “good to great” transition as a slow yet steady momentum-building process, just like turning a large flywheel. The initial efforts to get the flywheel turning are enormous yet the results are not visible: but they are essential in building up the momentum to get things going. Such build-up process can be painful as the progress will necessarily seem very slow, but once the momentum builds up, spectacular results will follow. We have a lot of institutional experience on this front at Duke: Coach K had 10 years of build-up period before he could establish one of the greatest college basketball programs in the history of the game. While the long-term sustainability is yet to be seen, it took Coach Cutcliff over six years to achieve the success we witnessed this season. Duke’s highly visible educational programs, such as our professional schools and the signature undergraduate program, took a few decades to build up momentum and emerge into national eminence. We have definitely been building up a lot of momentum that is starting to show up in objective metrics (as Larry pointed out in the past few years). Our progress in undergraduate education is based on a long track record of our excellent teaching, as well as important initiatives such as the curriculum reform from 10 years ago that has led to our current educational structure. Based on these momentum-building measures, we have recently cracked the top 20 in undergraduate education in electrical engineering. The rate at which we have been expanding our research is equally stunning: the systematic expansion in research has led to a very high level of success in faculty productivity in various metrics, and our Ph.Ds are making much larger impact in both academic and industry environments of late. There is no question we have built up huge momentum in the past 15 years, and the trend is likely to continue. We are indeed about to make a huge leap, and it is exciting to note that it came as a result of the successful drive that has built up in the past 15 years.

On a closing note, it is important to again point out the message from Richard’s note: Change or Die. After an additional decade, we have the benefit of seeing where the 11 examples of Good-to-Great companies studied by Jim Collins’ team have landed at this point. While some of the companies continue to excel (such as Abbott Laboratories and Nucor Corporation), many companies have fallen victims to the changes that have caught them by surprise. Circuit City has gone out of business after the electronics retail industry largely moved to on-line marketplace. Fannie Mae deviated substantially from their core business values during the housing crisis, and needed huge infusion of public funds just to survive and has not recovered since. These examples show that even the most successful organizations are vulnerable and can lose their prominence in this changing world: a great opportunity for department like ours as we try to build up more momentum and rise in the ranks, but reminds us that the core values of the institution must be maintained for continued success. The essential driving force to adapt to the changes is the ability of our members to take some risk and move into new areas to lead this change: some of our most successful colleagues have done exactly that, whether it’s metamaterials, computational imaging, or machine learning. We should create a departmental environment where our young faculty members are encouraged to take some risks in their research directions. I am convinced that with adequate mentoring and guidance, the types of people we hire will be able to make progress in new areas, eventually growing into leaders of their fields. When we have more people like that, we will naturally become a great department in the leadership position.


I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could offer in a corner office piece that would be distinct from all of the excellent perspectives that we’ve seen so far.  An advantage in coming later in that sequence is I can carve out a pretty focused topic or two, as I’ve tried to do below.

Administration: Sometimes Good

As I’m just about to step down from what is really my first long-term administrative position with day-to-day responsibilities, I have been debriefing myself about what was good, what was bad, and what might I do differently if I find myself in a similar position in the future.  For what it’s worth, here are my some of thoughts on that experience and things that I will consider with respect to any future opportunities.

Many aspects of being DGS were very rewarding.  That sounds a bit fake, I know, but it’s the truth.  It was a new experience that called on different skills than those exercised in the research and teaching parts of academia. I had the privilege of working with some dedicated and talented people (Samantha Morton and Stacy Tantum in particular).  When things are firing on all cylinders, and everyone brings complementary skills and ideas to the issues at hand, the amount that can be accomplished is impressive.  Being part of that kind of team is enormously satisfying.

As DGS, students really appreciate you and the attention and help you can give them.  There are a surprising number of student issues and conflicts that require a neutral viewpoint beyond the parties involved.  Being able to provide that perspective to help find a solution, and more generally assisting students to navigate a sometimes-tricky path towards a Ph.D. is also very satisfying.  Faculty colleagues are also appreciative of your effort, but there’s always an element of thank-goodness-I’m-not-you about that appreciation.  I too had that feeling before I was DGS, and I look forward to feeling it again (sorry Jeff and Krish!).

Another benefit of serving in a position like DGS is that you learn a lot—way more than I imagined I would. I wish I’d read Jeff Glass’s corner office early in my DGS term.  It contains many, many nuggets of useful advice on the soft skills needed for administration, some of which I have learned the hard way.  In my view, the most important of those is this.  Like all academics, I always know best (or think I do).  And there are times when you simply cannot believe the stupidity (from your perspective, of course) of what others are doing or decisions that have been made.  Through this, it is absolutely essential to remember that, deep down, you are usually all on the same team.  You really have many of the same high-level goals, but the boundary conditions that exist for or are perceived by different people in different positions are different.  Keep it rational, try to orient the problem so that it can be defined in terms of a common goal, and don’t let it get personal.  Easier said than done, but with thought and care usually problems can be solved to everyone’s equal satisfaction (or more truthfully, dissatisfaction). This is how you know when you’ve found a good solution.

Administration: Sometimes Challenging

One of the biggest challenges I faced as DGS was what I think is a mismatch between both the quantity and the types of administrative duties the job requires, and the human resources available to dispatch those duties.  Everything I’m about to say is probably obvious to those who have had administrative responsibilities before.  In fact, if I traveled back in time to visit myself to pass along this advice, the younger me would have told the older me that this is all obvious and not to waste his time.  But the degree to which these things matter is much more than I would have guessed. 

Any biggish organization (and I think one that is responsible for around 200 students, as ECE is, qualifies) needs enough people to keep an eye on things all the time.  Something that size can go off the rails very quickly without constant vigilance (especially when students are involved!).  But just as important as the quantity of effort available is the availability of different kinds effort to address the distribution of complexity of the things that need to get done.  In a way, this is the universal impedance matching problem.  The ability to transmit power depends not just on the amount of power available but the distribution of that power within its component parts (V and I, E and H, etc.).  A bad match means a lot of wasted power.

The need to have the right balance of available effort is particularly true when a significant fraction of the job involves interfacing with an organization (the Graduate School) whose administrative procedures have been structured around on departments with grad programs that are far smaller than ECE. These procedures do not scale up in a sensible way and can create a massive and not-always-necessary time sink for the one person with the official authority to handle them (the DGS).  Nan Jokerst mentioned this to me once, long ago, and I had no idea how right she was.

It’s hard to know what is the right distribution of authority and personnel to successful run an organization (although I can say that placing essentially all authority and responsibility on the DGS, as the Graduate School requires, is probably not optimal).  A useful strategy to find a reference point might come from looking at a comparable administrative structure that definitely is successful on many levels.  Having worked closely with them for several years, I consider the Pratt Professional Masters Program to be an extremely well-run group, top to bottom.  They react quickly and sensibly to deal with new issues that arise, and solve problems in a way that leaves a process in place to deal with them when they appear again.  And the program provides great service to its students. 

Admittedly there are structural differences between the ECE grad program and the Professional Masters Program.  But the number of students in each is comparable, and many of the administrative responsibilities scale with student population.  The Professional Masters Program has two full-time, senior-level administrators, and 6 full-time academic, admissions, and support staff (I’m excluding career services which also supports the regular Pratt grad programs). 

In contrast, the ECE grad program has one full-time, mid-level administrator (and I admit I’ve been fortunate to work with two excellent ones), a high-level faculty administrator who devotes whatever time can be cobbled together from that which research and teaching do not demand, and a lot of additional (also excellent) support from research staff who devote far more time and energy to helping with the grad program than they perhaps should.  You may be asking yourself, why didn’t I try to change the amount and distribution of administrative support available?  Ah, but I did, and that ended in one of the most unbelievably Kafkaesque scenarios that I’ve ever witnessed.  Suffice it to say, it didn’t work.

This is definitely not to say that it can’t be rewarding to be responsible for an organization that is administratively lean, especially when it involves working with great colleagues and coworkers as I have had the chance to do.  We were able to grow the program and leave it on solid (maybe too solid!) financial footing, and we also managed to improve a few internal structures and processes (such as the distribution of grad school money among the Pratt departments).  But leading a lean organization has left me a little unsatisfied in the sense that I really wasn’t able to accomplish or improve all of the things that I would have liked.  The sheer volume of routine but time-consuming tasks that probably don’t all need to be attended to by a faculty member (but must be) made that tough.  And should I consider taking on administrative responsibilities in the future, I will take a close look at the distribution of tasks, staff, and authority before saying yes. 

I think much of the above might come across as more negative than I intend, so let me end this part with a prediction.  Right now I’m acutely aware of all of the challenges of administration, and the thought of doing this again is pretty far from my mind.  But as I get farther removed from it, I’m going to start missing some of the positive and even fun things about it.  I bet I’ll say yes to some future opportunity, and I may even seek one out.  But later, not now.

One More Thing

I’d like use this platform to raise one more issue that I wrestle with a lot and definitely do not have solved.  If any of you do have this solved, please let me know and I’ll buy you a nice dinner while you tell me the answer.  I suppose it’s more of a confession: I wish working with Ph.D. students were more uniformly rewarding.  My words were carefully chosen.  In my experience, almost all students are rewarding to some degree.  But there are a lot of times when it is frustrating, especially when so much effort is spent to support them, and what comes back in return is clearly not anywhere near a comparable effort.

In many ways I feel like a coach, herding and organizing and pushing my team of researchers to try to get the most out of everyone’s skills.  That by itself can be a rewarding experience—just look at all of the collegiate and professional coaches who are in it for life.  But there’s a twist that I think applies to all of us faculty: we can still play the game better than most of those we coach. So, where is the right balance between playing and coaching duties?

I know people who have gone to extremes in both directions. I have a colleague who left a faculty position after more than a decade to go to research company because he was tired of students, not him, getting to do all the fun stuff.   But I also know have a colleague at NASA who been PI on more scientific rockets than almost anyone (more than a hundred, I think) who simply loved to manage.  The moment the money came in on a project, he was on telecons, pushing everyone to meet their obligations, and that’s what he wanted to do.

So, obviously, the sweet spot in this balance varies from person to person.  But it is easy to unintentionally slide into a state where you are more coach and less player than you want to be.

A Closing Thought

The things I’ve discussed here all boil down to the most precious commodity in life: time.  We all think about this in the context of work-life balance, among other things.  But within the normal faculty existence the issue of work-work balance is pretty important too.  The number of different hats we are asked to wear is staggering.  Without careful career management, it is very easy to slip into a state in which you have nearly zero time to spend on the things that are actually the most important to you or that are the most valued in academia.  The feeling of loss of control that comes from that imbalance can be very stressful.  Fortunately we do all have the ability to manage our work-work balance, at least to some degree.  But it takes real effort to do so.

Looking back at my publications, I can see that most of my research output during my time as DGS was built on ideas I had before becoming DGS.  Those ideas have by now been mined pretty well.  Now it’s time to spend more time hiding in my office, getting my hands dirty with research, and (hopefully) starting to replenish the bank of interesting new ideas to pursue.  Undoubtedly the best thing about life in academia is that I have that opportunity, and for that I’m grateful.

When I look back over the history of the AT&T Corporation from the invention of the telephone in 1876 to the break up in 1984, I see a world that operated at a very different pace. Imagine thirty-two years from the introduction of rotary dialing in 1919 to the introduction of direct dial in 1951 !

Throughout this early history AT&T was so dominant that if you were an engineer and you wanted to change this industry, than you would naturally elect to work for Bell Labs because AT&T provided a unique path to influence. When I graduated from Caltech in 1980 there was only one place that I wanted to work., and when I joined Bell Labs I slept on the floor of my apartment for 6 months because I was sure my department head would soon discover his mistake and send me packing.

The Bell System embodied vertical integration of service infrastructure, network/service customer management and network infrastructure. The Bell System was a regulated monopoly, so if $10M was spent hunting a Nobel Prize in superconductivity then the return to the company was $10M plus a guaranteed margin. This really was a golden age for physics and certainly a business model that promoted unfettered curiosity, because the more stones you turned over the greater was the payback.

Inverted Triangle-01My inverted triangle is shaded green the color of money, with light shading representing commodity businesses and darker shading representing businesses that are able to support speculative research. The money is in networked applications.

When there was one Bell System there was really one source of innovation. Today there is a tide of innovation in IP networking and I would like to mention two Bell System ideas that were swamped; ISDN and ATM to the desktop. They were designed with central control in mind whereas IP was designed for organic growth. It turns out that networks prosper by making third party applications run successfully.

The breakup of AT&T and Lucent happened in 1995, and at the beginnings of AT&T Labs there were many who questioned whether a services company needed a research organization, let alone one centered in the computational sciences. It was customary to think about research in terms of inventing the transistor, and the long march through development, product and finally services. I think that most ideas do not survive this long march. If you run a Research organization on this model, and if you do it really, really well then you might bat .300; that means 7 out of every 10 conversations you have with your boss are about how you failed. It is far better to work backwards from challenges where someone cares about the answer. What takes judgment is finding challenges that illuminate the research frontier in science and engineering disciplines and can sustain an intellectually vibrant organization.

The long march can be lonely. When I joined Bell Labs, my department head showed me to my office, reminded me that a Member of Technical Staff was an independent researcher, and advised me to get busy. I think I prospered by finding very good people to work with and by working in many different areas. When I became a research manager I drew maps where edges connected individuals if they had collaborated on a successful project. I looked for individuals who had contributed to several successful projects and tried to reward them for making the organization more than the sum of its parts.

I left Bell Labs in 1995 because I had worked 10 years at the physical layer and I was attracted by the new challenge of creating a research organization for a services company. We soon recognized that what distinguished AT&T was operation at scale, and we tumbled to the idea that we could use company data at massive scale to illuminate the research frontier in statistics and many other disciplines.

In statistics the mainstream now revolves around understanding large dynamic data streams, rather than sorting outliers in small data sets. We organized an entire research program around what information is needed to operate and compete, and how this information is obtained and applied. AT&T came to look to Research for ideas; we built the system used to manage all voice calling, optimized the IP network infrastructure, and used speech technology to transform customer care.

Something I like very much about Duke ECE is interdisciplinary projects that go all the way from revolutionary cameras to revolutionary mathematics. Other universities have very good parts (perhaps their cameras are not quite as good) but Duke is special in that it has all the parts and the parts like working together. And what is important in both industry and academia is this kind of community. I am sometimes asked whether it easier to manage in industry than in academia given that in industry it is just possible to tell staff what to do. My experience telling very smart people what to do is that it does not work terribly well either in industry or academia. It is much more effective to generate excitement about a research challenge and to celebrate the research community when the research program is successful.

At AT&T Research we learned that interdisciplinary communities enable early career success by amplifying the impact of individual contributions. Vahid Tarokh, now a Professor at Harvard, was the first electrical engineer to win the NSF Waterman Award, and his work on the geometry of scattering has transformed wireless communication. Jennifer Rexford, now a Professor at Princeton, developed tools for router configuration, network monitoring, and traffic engineering that are in daily use in AT&T’s backbone network, and is now a leader of the NSF initiative to reinvent the Internet. Ann Rogers and Kathleen Fisher revitalized the field of domain specific programming languages by making it possible to use traffic flows to build and maintain signatures on a billion network components.

Along the way we also learned that interdisciplinary communities also improve retention by making it necessary for a competitor to replicate a community that enables larger success.

They are also more fun and we came to Duke in 2010 to have more fun.

Robert Calderbank

Alan Deutschman has written a book entitled “Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and Life.” Deutschman asserts that both individuals and organizations are involved in a process of natural selection and will survive the competition only if they can adapt to their environment. However, he acknowledges that change is difficult, but it is a necessary mutation of the old self into a new one. His message is that individuals and organizations must constantly adapt or they will fall behind and eventually perish.

In a lighter vein, Papa Roach has written a song entitled “Change or Die.” The words from one versus are:
“Change or die
We’re looking for the answers of our life together
You gotta change or die
The answer is for you to do what’s right tonight”

Papa Roach likely did not intend career advice for engineering faculty, but there is a general message here that I have seen played out over the last 40 years. Institutions change, the focus of science changes, people change, and priorities change as we progress through our professional lives. Yes, even the culture in the university may change, even though universities are perhaps the most change-adverse institutions ever conceived. The only thing that stays the same are the ages of the students we see year after year!

Fortunately, few of us will be faced with the hyberbolic rhetoric that conflates change with life and death. However, we all experience changes that affect our professional lives at Duke, and it’s important to know how we might respond. These changes may come in the form of new standards for evaluating performance for promotion and tenure, changes in granting agency priorities, redirecting or closing academic programs or departments, technical obsolescence, and retirement. Long before retirement, however, we may find that we have reached a plateau where professional goals are less clear. According to Marvellen Weimer, author of “Mid-Career Faculty: Staying Challenged and Enthused,” the absence of motivating professional goals can cause professors to settle into a dull routine or begin to invest their energies in activities outside of their professional lives. According to Weimer, “once you’ve gotten tenure, you are sort of in charge of your own fate. You’ve achieved a certain level of professional maturity that indicates the department doesn’t need to oversee or nurture your next promotion. That’s kind of up to you.” So you are faced with the choice of change or die, where “die” means “retire in place.”

Most faculties find the autonomy of academic positions highly attractive. But being left alone also means that faculties assume the responsibility of taking care of their own instructional health and well-being. Numerous academics continue to work in the same field that carried them through graduate school. The thinking is this: I have about five years to get tenure, so I don’t have time to start a new field of research. If after five years a favorable tenure decision is received, this means that one has enjoyed success and recognition in his field. When you attend conferences, peer recognition and invited talk offers make you feel good – emotionally attached to your field. Other workers begin to defer to you and your opinions. Perhaps you have topped out and have become an impediment to further progress in the area! But it still feels good, so why quit? Now I can coast to retirement! Eventually, the number of papers in your field, which were exponentially increasing with time, may acquire a negative exponent. Yes, but you can still make a contribution, and the Dean counts publications each year. You have plateaued and it feels good! Or are you just uninspired?

As we heard from Nan Jokerst: “adaptation and change are critical to an academic career – to remain relevant in research, I have found that I need to refresh my focus every 5 years.” (Nan Jokerst, ECE Corner Office, Nov. 2, 2012) Jeff Glass cautions: “…don’t get too emotionally attached to an area.” Jeff advocates a project management approach in applying novel ideas to a few different areas and then assessing which ones gets traction. (Jeff Glass, ECE Corner Office, Oct. 1, 2012) These observations are really good advice from two highly evolved colleagues. However, if you too are not yet self-actualized, changing directions can be hard. It may mean prying your fingers off a field and moving on to something new. Now, when you attend conferences in your new area, no one knows who you are! No one invites you to give talks or to write papers. You are starting over in unfamiliar territory, and it doesn’t feel good anymore. And besides, you may have to learn new stuff, like biology, to play in the new area. And the Dean may see “zero” next to your annual publications list for a while.

I can personally attest that this journey is worth the pain! The change from the familiar to the unfamiliar is only temporary. After attending silicon diffusion conferences for 30 years, I began attending microfluidic conferences, and I began hanging out with chemists, biomedical engineers, and mechanical engineers. Electrical engineering brought a unique perspective to this field, and within two years we had brought digital microfluidics and architecture to the game. Shortly thereafter, 35 labs worldwide were working in this new area. We received 17,000 hits on our website as soon as we brought it up. It began to feel good again. The effort has brought along other great collaborators in the ECE department at Duke (Nan Jokerst and Krish Chakrabarty) as well as nationwide (Stanford and Harvard), and resulted in a spinoff company (Advanced Liquid Logic). And, I don’t plan on riding this field into the ground (or onto the plateau).

Thus, according to Alan Deutschman, I have experienced “creative destruction”, which occurs when something new kills something older. Creative destruction happens in technology (i.e. the PC replacing mainframes, CD’s replacing tape, etc.), and it also happens in people. According to Deutschman, “individuals as well as organizations must constantly adapt or they will fall behind and eventually perish.” Change or die.

Does Deutschman’s hypothesis also apply to research institutions? Assuming that it does means that it is good to be aware of the health of the institution that employs you. In dealing with institutional change one needs to know the rules of engagement, know when the rules change, and to always keep oneself marketable as part of an exit strategy. As a personal example, I was at Bell Labs during the glory days, when individual contributions to research were valued. Bell Labs was forever. Then the rules changed. Bell Labs came under pressure to justify funding from its owners within the Bell System. In 1984, an antitrust lawsuit resulted in the divestiture of the Bell System. The business model of a central R&D lab ceased to be sustainable, and the bluest of blue chip companies died.

My colleagues responded in different ways. Cultural inertia made it very difficult for many employees to adapt to a product focus. Those who pined for the old Bell Labs and who didn’t change became bitter, resentful and eventually unemployed. My contemporaries who rode it out closed the doors of Bell Labs in their 50s with few options available to them other than too early retirement with too little pension. Others of us who had prepared an exit strategy, built our credentials, and those who didn’t hang around out of inertia and loyalty landed in good academic positions, while they lasted. The lesson: always prepare yourself to be ready and competitive to face the next change if your institution fails to sustain you.

And now, a word for the institution: innovative people (those who are not intransigent to adapting and morphing as required) also keep the institution healthy, assuming the institution can handle the change. Duke should have a vested interest in supporting faculty as they move into uncharted territories. This should include seeding new research areas deemed important to furthering institutional priorities. I also see it as enlightened self-interest for the health of all concerned.
So it’s all about change. Blind Mellon’s song “Change” has these lyrics:

“And as we all play parts of tomorrow,
Some ways will work and other ways will play.
But I know we all can’t stay here forever,
So I want to write my words on the face of today,
And then they’ll paint it.”

And so colleagues, my parting wish for you: Change and thrive!

With special thanks to Professor Cynthia D. Fair, Elon University, who reviewed the content and who lives into the principles advocated herein.

Traversing a career – and life – is a challenging prospect, and I am glad to share some of my experiences. In this issue of the ECE Corner Office, I will take on the hardest question (for me) first, that of how to spend my time. Next, some aspects of research as a function of time, and finally, thinking about life trajectories and not only dealing with, but embracing and creating change in our lives and careers as they progress.

Time Triage and Goals

Whatever your life and work situations, time management is the name of the game in academia. Actually, the reality is more on the order of “time triage” – a focus on what is most critical, limited attention to what we cannot let fall by the wayside, and a decision to let the rest decline though inactivity! We have a great deal of personal freedom in academia, and that is a challenge to excel, a ticket to exhaustion, a burden of responsibility, and a creative outlet that can all add up to a fulfilling, productive life that has a real impact in the world. As our lives progress, sometimes we will achieve balance, and sometimes we will be forced from the path of moderation to excess – pouring work into tenure, enjoying time with a new baby, spending precious moments with an aging parent. How to navigate all of this?

Identifying your personal goals can guide you through your time triage, but setting goals is a great deal more difficult than it might seem at first glance, especially when you are trying to balance the multiple aspects of an academic career (research, teaching, service) and a personal life (dating, partner/spouse, children, parents, friends, exercise, recreation). Try to be realistic in your goals, and honest. Then, prioritize your tasks and time to meet your goals. Be firm with yourself about time allocation. Watch for burnout, and be sure to get some sleep. If you are uncomfortable with where this leads you to, then re-formulate your goals.

Your goals will change with time, and it is a great idea to set a time each year to think about your path through work and life. Looking at your goals, and your progress toward your goals, will insert a realism into your planning that may be a bit painful in some years, but that will give you a powerful sense of self-determination, accomplishment, and capability as time progresses. Looking back, my goals and choices did not always result in exactly what I expected, but rather, opened up some unanticipated adventures that at times enriched me, and at other times taught me a lesson. Set your goals, but also let your goals flow with time, and events, and be open to the unexpected – there is a great deal of room for living with spontaneity while keeping the larger picture in sight. Having goals enables us to think strategically, which is a powerful way to consciously set our own paths, rather than following those that might be set for us, or that we wander into.

Set a variety of goals – some short term, some long term, some easier to accomplish, and some that will be a real stretch. If you reach every goal, or none of your goals, in the time period you set, that’s a wake-up call that needs attention. I have found it very helpful to talk to friends, colleagues, and experts, as well as to read and get data about what realistic goals are for my age and profession. How many papers do faculty publish, who are my age, tenured, at my rank, a Fellow, a NAE member? How do people with school age children and a spouse handle work and family? What resources can I leverage to give myself more time?

Projects, Students, and Collaboration in Research

Research is the name of the game in a research university, and leverage can help you to achieve more results in less time. I leverage my research efforts through a diversity of projects, by engaging students, and through collaboration. I attempt to build a continuum of funding, projects, and students with varying completion dates. A diverse portfolio of projects that have a common technical foundation is efficient, so that my students can share knowledge and problems that are synergistic internal to the group, and then go out and use that knowledge in collaborations with other groups. A diversity of projects and funding sources can also help to alleviate the inevitable hiccups in support that occur, so if funding becomes difficult in one research area or sponsor, another can support the group.

A productive, positive relationship with research students is one of the most satisfying aspects of an academic career, and your students can significantly magnify your efforts. Recruit the best students possible, and treat their ideas, work, and time with respect. One of our greatest privileges and challenges is to guide and enable our research students, and to share the determination that is necessary to realize solid research, the savvy needed to judge what the best questions are, and the rush that is a successful result. Be straightforward with students, and give them feedback when you are impressed with their work, and also when a better effort is needed. It is critical to build up a research program with multiple students of varying levels so that more senior students can teach the junior students, which leads to significant times savings for everyone involved. I aim for, and usually achieve, a positive mentoring relationship with my students, so that we are “rowing in the same direction,” to get high quality research results in a timely manner, and to publish the results.

Collaboration is another great approach to leverage and diversification. Working with others to achieve a common goal occurs in many venues – at work, with a spouse, with a family, with friends and organizations. At work, for tenure and promotion, it is important to distinguish yourself as a researcher, both through individual and collaborative research. Particularly in multidisciplinary, highly competitive fields, it is important to form collaborations so that you can compete effectively. Bring your skills to the table for collaboration: approach other researchers who may not be in your field, limit the jargon that you use to communicate effectively, and explore how you could partner together to create something new and exciting. Creative energy and ideas can flow at an amazing pace in a great collaboration. Talking with others that are higher or lower on the “food chain” is an excellent approach – who will use your technology? What do you need to make your technology better? All of us have problems that need solutions. Your solutions could be useful to program managers, hospital clinicians, faculty in another department, and individuals in industry. They key is to approach people, and to engage them.

The most effective collaboration is when multiple investigators bring capabilities to the research, each has a clear contribution that is needed for the project to succeed, each can perform work that can progress initially without results from the others, and everyone appreciates the skills for the other’s work. Collaboration is a relationship – it evolves with time, mutual respect breeds good relationships, and trust underlines the relationship. I talk to lots of people about collaborating, but choose a few to spend my time with – down select to people that you enjoy working with. Collaborations have lifetimes, too; long term collaborations are great, but funding, areas of interest, and commitments shift, so don’t hold on if there is no reason to do so.

Leverage and collaboration are keywords for me at home, too. I thought that the time crunch hit right away while I was seeking tenure; exercise, friends, and recreation didn’t get much time. When I had children, the real time crunch hit. I found that I was unable to do everything that I wanted to do, and if I exhausted myself, I ended up sick, and in an even deeper time pit. So, I leveraged family and salary into daily help (child and elder care, cleaners), made friends with other people in similar circumstances in the neighborhood and at my children’s schools (we help each other out), exerted control over my schedule so that I could be more flexible if an emergency arose, and became more efficient at home and at work than I had thought possible. Those were the days when the children were young – little sleep, lots of work, but great times. As the children have grown, the time demands have changed, and the high level of external help at home is no longer needed, but the network of family and friends is increasingly important. There is an enforced balance for me between life and work, which takes continuous prioritization, negotiation, compromise, and juggling.

Transitions, Trajectories, and Strategic Thinking

Our careers and lives have trajectories that evolve with time, and transitions are not only to be endured, but can be embraced to keep us fresh. Adaptation and change are critical to an academic career – to remain relevant in research, I have found that I need to refresh my focus every 5 years. As I have grown more senior, I have been asked to do more management and service for Duke. We wrap our story around again to our goals – they have guided me in transitions, set my trajectories, and led me to think strategically about who I want to be, and what I want to achieve as I go through my career and my life.

In my early academic years, the focus was to earn tenure, and so I concentrated on research. Build your research program fast, recruit the best students possible, perform some individual and some collaborative research, and publish in solid journals. Teach well, but minimize the time input by teaching a few courses. If possible, teach the same basic “bread and butter” course once per year; after a couple of years, this will minimize the effort necessary for that class. Be organized and enthusiastic, teach clearly, and treat the students with respect, and you will do well as a teacher. Take on limited service commitments that maximize benefit for the time spent.

Once you have successfully earned tenure, then it’s time to build your reputation. In research, it is important to continue to build the story of who you are – the areas in which you are an expert, how you lead, your creative drive, and your collaborative capabilities. This is a time to volunteer at the local and national levels for journal, conference, and leadership positions to build visibility in your field, and, you guessed it – to publish and to graduate research students. You have the freedom to expand your horizons a bit in teaching and service. Just be aware that your research production and reputation will shape your future more than most other activities at this point.

As your career progresses, take the time to strategize about your future – what are your possible paths for the next 5, 10, 20 years? I have found that I enjoy collaboration immensely, and have focused my research on collaborative efforts that all have a common technology base in my expertise. I have also faced critical decisions about where I want to work and live, and ended up surprising myself occasionally when I took the time to really think about what I wanted, and not what the world was pressing me to do. If we think about our lives, we can make decisions about who we are – it has been enlightening for me to explore these thoughts.

These reflections, and sometimes, lack of them, has led me down some forked paths that have taught me some lessons, and have opened up vistas that I had not anticipated. When you make a transition, especially involving a decision to stay or to go to a new place, you are at a vulnerable point. Get everything important in writing, however, decide where to be flexible – draw some lines, and don’t insist on having every detail nailed down – just the critical points – and express yourself clearly to the negotiating parties. I have found that when I have questions about new forays into the unknown, asking people like me who have traversed that path can be helpful. And if you, or a recruiter, can’t find anyone like you who has walked that trail, then be aware of how difficult trail blazing can be.

My largest service commitment to date has been the design and upfit of SMIF. When I took on SMIF, I had little idea of the time commitment that it would be, the discussions that would surround SMIF, and how my research program would be challenged. Service and leadership are about enabling others and the common good, but it does help if the personal good sees benefit, too. My experiences have been greatly expanded through SMIF, and that has helped me to think more broadly and creatively. I have taken on other service roles at Duke, as well, because I have found that I am interested in the inner workings of the University, and I have a contribution to make. It’s not for everyone, but it has kept me fresh and interested, and intellectually challenged, and that is most certainly one of my most cherished goals in my career.

I decided to address three topics for the inaugural ECE Corner Office: (i) Jumpstarting your academic career and navigating tenure, (ii) Transitioning from one position to the next or one research area to another and (iii) Managing research groups and graduate students.  There is no “one size fits all” for any of these topics so please simply consider these ideas to be possible approaches based on my experience.

Jumpstarting your academic career and navigating tenure

Use a portfolio approach for your research – Especially early in your career you should think carefully about applying your skills and your most novel ideas to a few different areas and then assess which one gets traction.  This means using judgment about the number of areas you can try to nucleate simultaneously and achieving the balance between being too focused vs. spread too thin.  Also, there is a fine line between being persistent and being stubborn.  Areas that are not getting traction should be eliminated after a reasonable time and effort.  Most of us have had projects that we wish we had pursued but simply could not get funding.  Don’t give up too early but don’t get too emotionally attached to an area.  Also, keep in mind that your portfolio can handle more projects if you are actively collaborating (see the next section for more thoughts about collaborating).  The nucleation or seeding process for your portfolio should involve a lot of networking…..

Networking – Of course this means going to many conferences and workshops but it also means plenty of cold calls to the agencies you think might be interested in your ideas.  Early in your career you can take advantage of the fact that program managers want to help you with advice on how to get started.  Any opportunity to discuss your ideas with program managers informally at conferences and on targeted visits to their offices is simply invaluable.  Sometimes the PM’s are hard to reach but when you do reach them they are happy to accommodate a brief conversation and provide you with feedback and referrals to other people.  Even “drop-bys” to their offices are usually well-received in my experience.  If you think of this not as trying to “get money” from them but rather as trying to obtain advice and ultimately to build a relationship it is a much easier endeavor. In fact, it is just as likely you will help them out in some way in the future as it is that they will help you build your research program.

Do the statistics and don’t use a shot gun approach – Use a project management approach to your activities; determine how many projects you need to: (i) keep a healthy research group funded, (ii) publish the number and quality of papers that you need and (iii) graduate the number and quality of PhD students you need to (“need” means for tenure or promotion).  From there, decide how much networking you need to be doing to find the next high potential funding source.  For my areas of interest, I always have one or two proposals actively being written to specific RFPs and I am simultaneously networking once a quarter with new program managers.  These numbers really depend on the size of the proposals and the particular agencies you target.  Don’t get caught in the trap of just throwing a bunch of proposals “over the transom.”  Cultivate the relationships with Program Managers and get guidance on where your proposals have the highest probability of success.  In your proposals, specifically and directly (blatantly) address each of the points in any RFP and the points that the program manager tells you are of interest.

The Research, Teaching, Service Balance – This is probably the most controversial topic!  When starting out or when trying to transition to new research areas, you simply cannot spend too much time and energy on teaching and service.  To me this means teach-what-you-know or look for real synergies between teaching and research.  Say “no” to service opportunities that are too time consuming (or rather say – “could I take that on after I have built a solid foundation for my research”).

Don’t ignore the internal relationships – Although we will be primarily hired and promoted for our accomplishments, you need to take a systems view of the process.  The department and school are a network of people and if you disrupt that network and the relationships therein while acquiring your accomplishments, you could be doing more harm than good to the “system”.  In this case your individual accomplishments may be overshadowed by the negative impact of your actions.  You can call this politics if you want to but that obscures the fact that relationships are needed to build and run organizations and if you are not contributing to those relationships (or worse, if you are damaging them), you are missing a career opportunity.

Don’t fool yourself – Getting tenure or promotion in a major research university is tough and takes an incredible commitment. But also remember it really is not for everyone, especially if you don’t enjoy the process of obtaining funding and publishing.  Try to be as realistic with yourself as possible about your accomplishments, especially when it comes to quantitative assessments like publications, research grants and students graduated.  If you are on the border, accept that and try to fill the gaps.  If you are not sure, talk with senior faculty who you feel will give you an honest and tough assessment.  Most people want to make you feel good so they tend to make the situation sound more positive than it is.  Take that into account when you ask someone and be sure to request their toughest assessment.  Don’t rely too much on what was done for past promotions since the bar is always being raised.

Transitioning from one position to the next or one research area to another –

Focus – My biggest mistakes on this topic were trying to do too much in too many areas, especially with respect to simultaneous administration and research.  You can do both but generally you need to choose which one will be in “steady state” and which you will be trying to grow or significantly improve.  You must be much more critical about screening opportunities when trying to do both, especially during the transition periods.  Whereas when you are focused on research it is possible to say “yes” to new opportunities and then get up to speed on the fly as soon as a significant fraction of your time is administrative, this strategy can lead to failure unless you collaborate…..

Collaborate – It is both fun and frustrating to collaborate.  But if you want to be successful during a major transition (including starting your career), it is almost essential.  Finding the right personalities with whom to collaborate is as critical as finding the right topics.  In any case, it allows you more flexibility and more focus on your strengths when you have strong collaborations.  When I have been overwhelmed by an administrative issue and felt that my research could not survive, my collaborators have always stepped up and covered for me.  Some issues are simply too time sensitive to wait for you to have the time and when this happens in both administration (or teaching/service) and research simultaneously, it is hard to resolve without support from a good collaborator. Collaborators can be across the globe in todays connected world but due to the rich research in the RTP area, local collaborators are abundant in many areas. Of course, even so, it helps to be patient…..

Be patient (but know when to throw in the towel on an idea) – I think a sense of urgency is critical to success in academia and business.  But during transition periods, when you are moving to a new position or trying to change your research direction, it can take a tremendous amount of time.  Don’t stop trying too early.  Establishing a new research direction is a 5 year endeavor in my experience.  Take this into account when you are planning for a change in direction.  I have given up too soon in my own career when I decided not to pursue diamond thin film research in a new position.  It was a bad decision and eventually I came back to it but only after a lot of lost time.  On the other hand, don’t be too stubborn and hold on to your directions too long.  There is an opportunity cost that is hard to quantify but is nonetheless significant.

Find a hook – My most successful transitions have been based on a unique, strategic issue; i.e., a hook; a specific novel research concept, a new administrative/curricular program, a strategic initiative in the organization, etc.  The novel research concept blossomed into a complete program that has been the basis of several successful proposals.  Administrative programs have been integrated into the schools I have been involved in and served as a basis for my next moves.  If I had made any of these transitions with a less clear or less unique agenda, it would have been hard to develop momentum. It is not always clear what is a successful hook but if you are passionate about it and you are honest with yourself about the support you feel it can generate, you will be able to choose a successful hook vs. a “pet project”.

Managing research groups and graduate students

I will keep this one short but here is a list of my favorite management/leadership concepts (there are exceptions but these are good for the vast majority of situations):

  • Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to cluelessness (so many times we ascribe intention and malice to an action that was actually just an oversight or a different perspective).
  • Don’t delay giving bad news, it is generally worse for everyone involved (even for the recipient, it is usually better to know it early and move on).
  • Praise in public, reprimand in private (if your goal is to actually affect change in the behavior of the recipient, it is rarely best to publically admonish someone).
  • Trust can overcome many sins in an organization (and lack thereof can cause productivity in an organization to grind to halt).
  • Management is about managing expectations of employees, customers and stakeholders (it is amazing how reactions to the same situation can vary wildly depending on the expectations generated by previous communications; you can actively manage this).
  • Understand and respond to perceptions, not your own reality (everyone has heard that perception is reality but believing it and using it as a basis for communication is not very common).
  • Fairness is usually more important than outcome (even when people get a decision that they want, if they perceive the process used to make the decision was not “fair” they are more unhappy than when the decision went the opposite way but a fair, inclusive process was used).
  • Being a good leader or manager is about “Emotional Intelligence” (the intellectual ability we value in academia is not the key to managing or leading our employees and students).
  • Sarcasm is almost never a good choice for humor in the workplace (humor is great but keep sarcasm out of it or you will be surprised by the way it is interpreted by some of your staff)

Post by Jeffrey T. Glass, Professor and Hogg Family Directror of Engineering Managament and Entrepreneurship