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).

No Love for Wireless Communication Providers

Today, I went to a town hall lead by AT&T’s VP of research, Chuck Kalmenak. Chuck’s talk really painted the larger picture of research at AT&T and our priorities as a group. Also, it drove home for me that I’m now in industry and that I’m part of a larger company which makes it possible for me to do all the fun stuff that I do. So, today’s post is about public opinions of wireless communication providers, like AT&T.

I recently came across “What Does The Internet Think” which is a website that searches based on associative sentences to understand the general sentiment towards a particular search. This is obviously not an infallible approach, but I think that it’s a cool way to get a general lay-of-the-land. So, I searched for the 4 biggest wireless communication providers in the U.S.: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. All-together these four providers represent 294.1 million U.S. subscribers. Here are the results, sorted from best to worst:

Why is the Internet so negative about wireless communication providers?

Why is the Internet so negative about wireless communication providers?

For me, this was good news and bad news. The good news is that I work for the best wireless provider and I’d like to think that I am or will be part of that success. The bad news is that even though the Internet was least negative about AT&T, it was still negative. Why is there no love for any of the mobile providers? What can we do better than what we’re doing right now?

Phoneman Sense

Recently, I got to spend a week learning how to be a phoneman (let’s just pretend that this is gender neutral). It’s a long story, but every member of research at AT&T Labs is expected to also pick up an essential trade within the company and get trained to be able to perform one of these core services. These training sessions are done by experienced AT&T employees who have been at the company for decades and can impart on us some of what they term as “phoneman sense.”

I section of the cable that runs under the ocean. For scale, imagine that I only come up to the second silver band.

A section of the cable that runs under the ocean.

My favorite part of the training was getting a much better idea of how data is actually transmitted around the world. I am now convinced that the communication network is the most ambitious endeavor attempted by humans: more reliable than the power grid, stretching across the world and even into the orbit, and maintained by hundreds of thousands (millions?) of individuals world-wide. The thing that really blew my mind was thinking about how much data can be transmitted over a single cable. In the beginning, there was just a pair of copper cables: your voice was sampled on one side, each sample converted to a number, and the number was sent as binary code over the wire by varying the voltage. Easy-peasy! This is known as a DS0 connection and it transmits 64 Kb/s. But it didn’t stop there, once the wires come out of your house, somehow data from all the phones in your neighborhood needs to be combined to be sent to the central office. This is done by taking a byte off each wire and multiplexing them.

In training, I got to get decked out in all the safety gear that I would wear for working with batteries and other hazards.

In training, I got to get decked out in all the safety gear that I would wear for working with batteries and other hazards.

Combining 24 DS0 connection in this way, makes your standard DS1 connection which transmits 1.5 Mb/s. At this point, the connection is frequently no longer transmitting over a wire but rather through an optical cable, by flashing a laser light for 1s and not flashing it for 0s. At this point, I was already pretty impressed — doing anything 1,500,000 times per second just seems like a big deal. But, it doesn’t stop there. Three DS3s (and some info bits wrapping the data) are combined into an OC-3 connection,12 DS3s are combined into an OC-12, and so on until you have the OC-192 which transmits 192 DS3s by flashing a laser 9,953,000,000 times a second! Over a single cable that’s thinner than a human hair! Maybe I’m too easy to impress, but this totally blew my mind! I can’t even wrap my head around that number, let alone imagine doing something purposeful that many times a second. And this is happening every single moment in your back yard!

It’s pretty cool to potentially be part of this, even as a tiny cog in the machine. I learned some good stuff like how to maintain the systems that do all of that multiplexing and maintain service in a power outage by hooking up generators and maintaining the batteries at remote terminals. It really makes me appreciate all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that I always have access to my lolcats.