Tuesday, February 02, 2010

By Any Other Name

Courtesy of a colleague who enjoys dumping work on me, I had the opportunity to discuss my role and responsibilities with a graduating dissertator last week.

"It's more business oriented than I thought," she finally said politely and I grinned before agreeing. My job revolves around communication - can I understand problems from our customers and collaborators well enough to translate them and motivate teams to find technical solutions? I sit in meetings and take phone calls. I visit sites and pitch solutions, listen to criticism and observe workflow. I don't code nor do I invent. And while I can occasionally test something, I'm more likely to write the plan and delegate the hands-on work.

From her questions, however, I have been considering what might bother me - what clearly does trouble some of my colleagues - were I a scientist in the corporate culture. Loss of independence is a frequently cited drawback thrown against better salaries, larger resource pools and longer-term stability.*

* Since we tend to hire scientists directly from grad school, I'm comparing against the alternative of a post-doctoral position. Given that starting salaries range from $85-100k depending on location and experience, we clearly crush even the best post-doc in terms of cash flow. We spend untold money (well, someone knows - that person isn't me) on research and development and access to equipment is rarely problematic. We also don't institute a '3-4 years and out' type of policy - you could spend your career as a scientist in Industry and be quite content, according to men who have done just that.

"It doesn't bother me," one man told me over chips and guacamole. "I actually think it's kind of cool - to realize there's a technical solution and a corresponding clinical problem and - even if the latter is outside my comfort zone - be able to learn and adapt and create something valuable."

But I joined a Rose meeting this morning - we've met for well over a year now to discuss Roses and how to grow them and what colors we liked and how they should smell. The group - all scientists - have gardens planned and are well along to hybridizing or whatever the hell one does with Roses. And they're quite content - this one with his bushes of red, that one with long-stemmed yellow blooms in crystal vases. It's a good group and I enjoy them.

Yet, when the first of the roses was done, it was handed over to me for productization. And they fretted, the scientists, before hesitantly handing it over - both thrilled they'd done something valuable and horrified that another team of gardeners would change or ruin what they'd created.

Sure enough, the product teams took one look at the pretty pink petals and shook their heads.

"Too complicated to mass produce," said the engineering team, stripping some of the petals to reduce it to base functionality and increase reliability. I dutifully bent to scoop up the discarded pieces, determined to glue some of them back on or save them for future updates.

"Costs too much," argued our business leaders, turning to engineering to ask if we really had to fertilize or if leftover water from the cafeteria would be sufficient.

But marketing was the final straw for the poor scientists. "It's pink," they noted approvingly, "but Rose sounds too snooty. We'll call it Tulip!"

Now I personally like tulips and, having talked to customers, thought the new branding strategy made sense. The inventors, however, visibly shudder each time they hear it, clinging doggedly to the rose name they feel is more appropriate and correct. So when I discuss Tulip as an upcoming release, I inevitably know if scientists are in the room since "Rose" is softly but firmly uttered immediately afterward.

In my mind, at least, it's not so much that the business decides what you work on - problem definition and prioritization tend to be embraced if the story is right and true. But the fact that you find a solution - grow and nurture, live and breathe - that is inevitably taken from you by teams you may not know or trust certainly can be a difficult thing.

"It is different," I tried to soothe them, but fear I did the opposite. "Tulip is no longer pink Rose. Certain features are changed. It smells a bit different and the blooms are smaller. So it's OK to have a different name - let pink Rose be what it was and know that it contributed to Tulip - a more accessible, distributed solution to the same core problem."

Yet there is a lingering sadness - a certain protective nature when it comes to the new bushes they continue to tend even as we look at purple Rose here at Headquarters and think it might make a very nice Violet indeed.


rpg said...

Oh, I so hear you on the Rose/Tulip thing. When I worked for $STUPID_CO we were told a product was to be called 'gNAPS'. Rather than call it by the 'real' name we had great fun with the pronunciation, to the supreme annoyance of management.

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

I often wonder how I'd feel about just that issue if I went into Industry. I get pretty territorial about my current project-- and it is under no threat of being taken away from me. I don't know how I'd feel if I was told my Rose was going to be a Tulip. Then, again, I might be able to be content with the clinical application and the more money. :)

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