Reflecting on the Year and Going on the Job Market

Early in August, I celebrated my first anniversary at AT&T and I reflected on the year. I made a list of ten events and activities that I found most fulfilling and fun during this year. In no particular order, these were:

  • Mentoring my summer intern (Tom Jenkins): coming up with a scoped project, working to understand the space, and advising on the direction of the project and study design
  • All of the STEM advocacy work I’ve done, including the invention workshop for the “Take Your Child to Work Day,” speaking to women at the “Girls Who Code” Camp, blogging for HuffPost on STEM stuff, etc.
  • Giving back to the academic community by serving on committees, including being short papers chair for IDC (that short paper madness was MAD!!) and serving on the CSCW PC for the first time.
  • Working in interdisciplinary teams on new patents for AT&T and having more than 5 of them pursued by the company (I was the primary lead on 3 of those).
  • Seeing a Masters student I advised at Georgia Tech (Sanika Mokashi), present her work as a first author at IDC and knowing that I had a big role in helping her shape and carry out this research.
  • Having my first single-author publication at CHI and getting an honorable mention award for it. Presenting the work at CHI, I felt that the community really appreciated my contribution.
  • Finding that other researchers are actually starting to use the questionnaire I developed in the course of my thesis work, even before its official publication (slated to appear at CSCW). That made me feel really useful to others.
  • Blogging and getting feedback from friends and colleagues on early ideas and reflections like this one. Having 3 posts hit over 1000 views: 1, 2, and 3.
  • The three workshops I participated in this year: Diverse Families @ CHI, Enhancing Children’s Voices @ IDC, and DSST, and all of the follow-up work and new research that’s coming out of the collaborations forged there.
  • Working with the OCAD University’s Suz Stein and my department to understand new research directions for AT&T through future-casting design techniques. Following up on these ideas to flesh out and sketch concrete scenarios, that eventually led to patents, projects, prototypes, etc.

It’s definitely been a fun year with lots of excitement! Unfortunately, I’m coming to realize that the recent organizational changes at AT&T Labs Research might make it harder for me to do the aspects of the work that I enjoy most. Also, it became clear that the things I enjoyed most about this year are much easier to pursue in academia than in industry (except maybe collaborating on department-wide project and developing patents). I love working with students, publishing, going to conferences, collaborating with researchers from other institutions, and doing service to the community. I am allowed to do all these things at AT&T, but it is becoming harder and harder to carve out time for them under the new organizational structure — researchers are expected to dedicate a lot more of their effort to projects vetted by the company’s strategy division.

This reflection has led me to the decision to go on the academic job market this year. I want to be clear that I am not making this decision because AT&T has not been a fun place to work. I love my colleagues and my manager, the culture of collaboration and willingness to help both in and outside of my department, and the potential for having my ideas influence real products. But, I think at this point in life, my passions are taking me in a different direction.

I’m open to any institution that will allow me to pursue the things I love most: working with students, investigating interesting problems, and publishing my work. And yes, I do understand that there are other parts to the job as well, like grant writing, teaching, and serving on committees — I think that I would enjoy all these parts as well. If you think I may be a good fit for your department, let me know! I’d love to check it out and learn more about it. Here’s my 140-character Tweesume: I am “an HCI researcher, investigating technologies for enhancing social relationships in the contexts of familyhealth, and personal growth.” I linked an example paper in each context (though, many more are available on my publications page).

To Build or Not To Build: Role of Technology in Twelve-Step Fellowships

At CHI 2013, I’ll be presenting the ultra-secret project that I’ve been working on for the past year and a half. (Why ultra secret? I was supposed to be 100% working on my dissertation at the time!) In this work, I investigate the role of technology in helping members of twelve-step fellowships (e.g., Narcotics Anonymous) recover from addiction or alcoholism [Full Paper]. I’ve already made a Follow the Crowd Blog post about this work that gives a bit of background and highlights some of the findings. And I didn’t want to just mirror it, but rather talk a little bit about what was interesting and surprising to me in doing this work.

As a researcher who designs and builds communication systems, videochat has kind of become the hammer with which I attempt to fix every situation. I went into this study, thinking that this was going to be another one of these cases. Wouldn’t it be cool if people could just attend meetings through videochat? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if AA meetings could be brought directly to jails, institutions, and rehabs through videochat without all of the (considerable) logistics of a physical visit? Going through the process of doing this study (attending more than 100 meetings and interviewing 12 participants in-depth) made me better appreciate why the twelve-step communities are wary of these approaches and why they coud present a huge problem to the community. Technology focuses on making things easier and more efficient, but through this it might actually be reducing opportunities to show effort, build community, and construct meaning.

In writing this paper, I (and the reviewers) asked myself “what would I build based on these findings?” and I’m not sure if I actually came out with an answer. I know I have a better sense of what wouldn’t work and a greater appreciation for the complexity and wisdom of the processes that are currently in place for twelve-step communities. Can I make it better with technology? Possibly, but I’m almost paralyzed by the fear of making it worse.

If there are other designers or builders who have found themselves in a similar position, I’m  curious to know how you have approached this struggle.

A Taxonomy of Helper-Finding in the Enterprise

This week, I guest-wrote a blog post on Follow the Crowd about my CSCW paper on the taxonomy of helper-finding activities in the enterprise. I’m just going to direct you there instead of stealing the views, but to get your appetite whetted, here’s a comic about the study (click to enlarge):

Systems are not always particularly good at finding somebody who can help in the workplace. (Comic by me, in the style of xkcd)

Systems are not always particularly good at finding somebody who can help in the workplace. (Comic by me, in the style of xkcd)