Saturday, July 23, 2011

Value Subtract

Back in the mid 1990s I spent a few years as a manager at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a national lab that was chock full of supercomputers and smart people. Apparently I wasn't one of the smart people. It wasn't the first time I'd made the career misstep to go into management. This is how I came to understand that I added no value to that organization while I was in that role.

I went off to the People's Republic of China for a month on a scientific exchange program sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and it's PRC counterpart. This was a pretty major departure, pun intended. Nowadays I'd probably be able to keep up just carrying my Blackberry world phone and maybe my iPad. But way back then I was effectively cut off for a month pretty much from the entire English speaking and writing world.

Before I left, I programmed my desktop Solaris workstation to reply automatically to all of my incoming electronic mail, while filtering, categorizing, and filing it all away. At the time, I got maybe seventy email messages a day. That may seem like a low volume now, but remember this was BS, Before Spam, before the general public at large had access to electronic mail.

I had many adventures in China. I gave several talks. I kept a journal. I took photographs. It was like being on another planet. My journal could be read as a first contact story.

I returned to my office a month later, twelve pounds lighter and sporting a beard. I discovered that I had botched my email script. It had thrown all of the incoming email away. All of it. An entire month's worth of vitally important information consisting of status and problem reports, conference and request for proposal announcements, meeting summaries, vendor pleas, and cover their ass memos. All gone.

Here is what I learned in the days and weeks to come: it didn't matter. It never mattered. Ever. I never needed to know what was in any of those electronic communiques.

Perhaps you might have chosen to interpret this as a reflection on the low value of most of that email. Or on my ability to come back up to speed quickly. But I figured it meant I had actually very little to contribute to this organization, which for the most part ran just fine without me while I was gone for a twelfth of a year. If I wanted to make a difference, it was time for me to find something else to do with my life.

So I did. I quit that job just a few months later when an opportunity came along to join Bell Labs and return to being a technologist. I didn't fully appreciate at the time the impact, positive for the most part, this move would have on my career. And of course that job change would bring with it its own major life lessons.

But those are stories for another day.

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