Tenure and luck

I recently got official notice that I have tenure from Cornell [1]. With competition fierce for tenure-track jobs, I’m keenly aware that someone else might be writing this blog post right now [2]. And, though skill and hard work played a role, I want to acknowledge and call out the role of luck, circumstance, and coincidence in how I got here [3] — much of which was the result of other people.

I wouldn’t be so happy at Cornell or willing to stay if Lindsay Benoit [4] didn’t like Ithaca so much after moving here (2011).

I wouldn’t be as well known in my research community as a contributing member except for François Guimbretière and Sue Fussell inviting me to serve on PCs they were running shortly after they got hired here [5]. (2009-2010)

I wouldn’t have been hired by Information Science at Cornell except that my postdoc here gave me the chance to work with tons of folks in the Networks Project at the Institute for Social Sciences [6]. (2008)

I might have been hired in Communication instead of IS if Sue Fussell hadn’t applied to Comm the same year I did [7]. (2007)

I wouldn’t have applied for the postdoc, except that labmate Sean McNee from Minnesota met Sadat Shami, PhD student with Geri Gay at Cornell, at a late night CHI party where Sadat told Sean I should apply [8]. (2006)

I wouldn’t have even been able to apply for that postdoc with Geri, except that Louise Barkhuus had to turn it down late in the game to manage a two-body problem [9]. (2006)

I wouldn’t have moved into my niche in the socio-technical gap [10] without John Riedl and Joe Konstan at Minnesota, Paul Resnick and Yan Chen at Michigan, and Bob Kraut and Sara Kiesler at Carnegie Mellon collaborating on a grant while I was a student [11] that brought social science, design, recommender systems, and online communities together. (2003)

I wouldn’t have had a CV that looked postdoc-worthy if I hadn’t been lucky to have a high hit rate of papers as a student [12] and an awesome group of folks to collaborate with at Minnesota [13]. (2000-2006)

I wouldn’t have applied at Minnesota except that I had bumped into recommender systems as part of my masters thesis research [14] and thought they were cool. (1998-1999)

I wouldn’t have applied for a PhD at all except that James Madison University needed a CS instructor right after I graduated from the masters and they trusted me to do it [15]. (1998-2000)

I wouldn’t have thought of James Madison except that Sue Bender [16] had gone there for her undergrad, and wouldn’t have been able to go except that they were willing to fund an untested music ed major as a CS grad student [17]. (1996)

I wouldn’t have gone back to school for a CS degree if I hadn’t gotten a job as the one-man computer band for Progressive Medical Inc.: hardware, helpdesk, and network guy, plus maintaining a custom COBOL database [18]. (1995)

I wouldn’t have gotten that job except that David Bianconi (of Progressive Medical) got a recommendation to ask me from someone at Fifth Third Bank who I tried to help with installing a modem [19], and who remembered that when David was looking for someone to take over the tech side of the business a year later. (1994)

I wouldn’t have been working at Fifth Third except that in student teaching, seventh graders proved to be too dangerous for me to handle when armed with musical instruments [20] — and that Sue had gotten me interested in temp jobs, which is how I got hired there. (1993)

I wouldn’t have met Sue except that a traveling concert band at Ohio State needed two replacements for an overnight trip, who were me and her [21]. (1991)

And, I would never have had the skills to be interested in CS except that my dad somehow knew that he should buy me [22] a TRS-80 Model 1 [23] when I was 7. (1978)

There are also tons of people [24] and groups to acknowledge: parents for putting me in a position to be able to do this [25]; immediate family, notably Sue and Lindsay, for putting up with all the irregular schedule crap that comes along with having both great flexibility and responsibility in academic jobs; collaborators, co-authors, and mentors around research and teaching [26]; the folks who make the computational and bureaucratic systems that I worked with run well; students who testified that I’m not a total teaching loser; people who’ve trusted me with money along the way (largely NSF); participants who made the studies possible and organizations like Facebook and Wikipedia that have given me interesting contexts to study and tinker with.

I’ve probably left both some people and some luck out, but I think these are the highlights. Not all of these are necessarily for the better. In 2006 if I hadn’t gotten this postdoc I might have wound up at PARC or Drexel [27] and those could have wound up great too; maybe I would have been super-successful in Comm; teaching music might have been an even better life.

But it’s been a good ride, and to go back to my original point, a lucky and contingent one. My list is pretty long but I bet if you asked around, a lot of successful people would have their own stories of coincidence, luck, opportunity, and timing [28]. If you have some of your own to share, I’d be happy to hear them.

It’s probably not much comfort in the moment of a paper rejection, a turn-down from a school, an interview that goes badly [29] — but I’ve found that as I’ve become more mindful of the role circumstances play in life, I’ve mostly been happier about things no matter how they turn out. Hopefully reading this was useful for you, too.


[1] It says so right in our Workday system, which I checked on the day the letter promised it would be official. Even at the end I figured it might all be a mistake.

[2] My guess is that many successful people in academia have similar non-linear, luck-filled trajectories; we have a tendency to attribute good to ourselves and bad to the world but it’s nice to be honest sometimes.

[3] I am also influenced to do this by stories about the prevalence of adjunct and alt-academic jobs in the world. I don’t know what my orientation should be toward this, but it’s a real issue that many folks who come to grad school picturing a R1 position don’t wind up there.

[4] Current fiancee, to be married in November (in Austin, largely because we liked it as a mini-vacation after CHI 2012. Circumstance, indeed.)

[5] Serving on PCs and reviewer, by the way, is a real eye-opener if you haven’t done this already.

[6] There were a ton of good candidates in the IS search that year: Krzysztof Gajos, Tovi Grossman, Richard Davis, and Julie Kientz. All of them looked at least as good as me on paper, and without both the learning from and the collaboration with the folks at ISS it’s unclear I would have even gotten an interview. Plus, I met Ted Welser and Laura Black through that and, among other things, learned about poker from them. Geri hooked me up with that group, another thing to be thankful for.

[7] I still remember Gilly Leshed telling me that she’d heard someone senior was applying for the comm job that year and being pretty sad. And, as with [6], this is a “probably” (I might not have gotten the comm job either way).

[8] I had seen the ad for the postdoc at the conference, but figured I wouldn’t be good enough for Cornell. I still have serious issues with impostor syndrome.

[9] I remember chatting with her about this last year at CHI and thinking that I was pretty lucky, and also about how we all have to make choices around balancing family and career on a regular basis.

[10] $1 to Mark Ackerman.

[11] My only regret from that is that I wish I’d gotten to spend a semester at one of the other places to see a different look at things.

[12] You need to be lucky enough to get some papers accepted and becoming well-known in the community as a grad student. I had more the first than the second, largely because I was pretty bad at meeting people and networking. Students: read Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network. Soon.

[13] The fact that GroupLens was structured around a set of common problems and encouraged collaboration between grad students was a perfect fit for how I do things (though, I suppose it also shaped it).

[14] I still remember getting the comments back on the draft from Christopher Fox, that the work was good but “the tone was inappropriate for a scholarly monograph”. Judge for yourself (section 1.4 is particularly choice). And, some things don’t change: I got essentially the same comment from our grant office about an internal pre-proposal for a National Research Traineeship grant. It’s too bad: the grant would have been in part about the management, method, and ethics around doing social science research with social media datasets. Timely, that.

[15] And then realized that if you want to teach at a university in the long term, you more or less need a PhD except for some smaller places — and even that has become much less common than it was in 2000.

[16] Sue and I were married for 17 years.

[17] The princely sum of $5,500 a year, which was not quite enough to live on in Harrisonburg, Virginia, but pretty close.

[18] I still have a fond place in my heart for both COBOL and maintenance programming.

[19] Failing miserably, it turned out. I did also help them with some custom Access database development that must have gone better, although I didn’t know any more about Access than I did about networking or COBOL when I started.

[20] The high schoolers weren’t that much better for me. Trumpet divas and the “suck band”. I think I’d have a fighting chance now but at 22 I was no match.

[21] I played one of the loudest wrong notes in recorded history in Jackson, Ohio.

[22] To be fair, he might have bought it in part for himself, too; he had some gadget in him.

[23] Four K of memory and a cassette drive. Feel the power of the TRS-80 Model I!

[24] Plus all the people already mentioned, and others who I have not for narrative or memory failure reasons. To folks I miss: I am sorry for not listing you.

[25] Going bankrupt in the process.

[26] Special academic shouts out to Geri, Jeff Hancock, and Jon Kleinberg at Cornell; John, Loren Terveen, and Joe at Minnesota; and Mark Lattanzi and Chris at James Madison.

[27] Where I’d be The Senior HCI dude now, which is a little scary. They’ve really built some nice momentum there.

[28] I wish I could write a good blog post about how to increase your chances of those things; maybe someday.

[29] I have some stories about that, too. A future post, perhaps.

CHI 2014 highlights, 3rd and final

And, finally, a wrap-up of my favorites [0] from CHI paper talks I attended, following up on Part 1 and Part 2. We probably don’t do enough to call attention to other good things and people in our community, so this is a modest attempt at that [1].

I’ll start with a quick nod to former co-conspirator Xuan Zhao and her paper with Siân Lindley about Curation through use: understanding the personal value of social media. At a high level, the talk put the paper at the intersection of the Many Faces of Facebook paper and some of Will Odom‘s stuff on digital possessions, but with a focus on the suitability of social media for personal archiving. I liked the “digital keepsake” with social media content exercise as a way to prime the pump, and some of the suggestions around identifying meaningfulness through use (a la Edit Wear and Read Wear [2]) felt fun. I also like the design implication to use social media content to help people build narratives for self and others [3]: instead of “see friendship”, you might “show friendship”.

Next up was a pair of papers that approached asking for help from friends and neighbors from very different value positions.

The first was Estimating the social costs of friendsourcing by Jeff Rzeszortarski and Merrie Morris. They note that asking for help can impose a burden on receivers and perhaps, via privacy concerns, on askers, then study how people balance those costs with the potential gains in social capital from asking and answering questions. The experimental design was plausible and the work related to parts of Munmun De Choudhury‘s presentation around seeking stigmatized health information online (with Merrie and Ryen White).

The second was my favorite talk at CHI, by Victoria Bellotti [4] on behalf of the authors of Towards community-centered support for peer-to-peer service exchange: rethinking the timebanking metaphor. She took a critical look at the idea that favors might be converted into time-based currencies to trade for later favors, suggesting that the metaphor misses the social meaning associated with doing favors [5] while highlighting largely-negative constructs such as debt. She then proposed a number of design vignettes for emphasizing social values of exchange in the most energetic, fun way I’ve seen in a CHI talk in a couple of years [6].

I found the contrast fascinating, and both papers were thoughtful and worked out. They were also in different sessions, so hopefully bringing them together here will encourage people in this space to read them on a long, lazy summer afternoon and think about how they come together.

I also enjoyed the talk about Alexandra Eveleigh and others’ paper about Designing for Dabblers and Deterring Drop-outs in Citizen Science [7]. The high-level story is that since participation in citizen science (and other peer production systems) follows a power law, much activity is in the tail, the “dabblers”. Thus, you might design to target them, rather than power users. To do this, they went out and asked both high and low contributors about their motivations for participating and came up with a fine set of design ideas that target infrequent contributors. I resonate with this goal — SuggestBot [8] was originally designed to help Wikipedia newbies do more useful work more easily. It was hard to actually get it in front of new editors (who often never return to log in or edit, and if they do, may not have known enough about Wikipedia software to see SuggestBot’s posts). The paper suggests that requests in the moment — to “tempt them to complete ‘just another page'” — may be more effective as a general strategy for engaging the infrequent [9].

Finally, Amy Voida‘s talk about Shared values/conflicting logics: working around e-government systems, a paper she did with several Irvine colleagues, gave me a couple of thoughts. First, the talk made clear that even when high-level values are shared between managers, designers, and workers around systems, the interpretations and instantiations of those values by the parties (“logics”) can lead to problems in practice. Not a totally new story [10] but it highlights the utility of design Processes [11] where communication might reduce the chance of this value drift. It also called out that designing for end user independence is not always appropriate. Even a perfectly capable user of the electronic application system might not be able to effectively get help from the government aid System. Instead of designing to reduce applicants’ reliance on workers, you could imagine a design that helps applicants and workers cooperate to complete applications, providing support for situations when applicants get stuck and really do need help from people who know how the System works.

That is pretty much it for the story of favorites, so let’s be done. But think about doing trip reports yourself and sharing them with the world. It’s good to recognize interesting work, useful for learning more about the community, smart for connecting to the people and work that you call out, and hopefully a service to other people who benefit from your experiences.


[0] This is a personal view based on my tastes and the pragmatics of session attendance; I’m sure there were lots of other cool things, while other people will have different papers that take them to their own happy places. Another reason for you to do your own trip reports.

[1] Which has the nice side effect of me learning about the community as I put it together.

[2] Still one of the most inspiring papers I’ve ever read.

[3] It’s somewhere between scrapbooking and a “social media mix tape”.

[4] Who, at the time I searched for her on Google Scholar, had exactly 9,000 citations. Soon she will be “over 9000“, as it were.

[5] As a borderline Aspergers kind of guy, when people come to me with problems, I also tend to focus on the problem, rather than the person and their needs around the problem. As you can imagine, this goes over great with my fiancee when she’s seeking support rather than solutions.

[6] Sadly, the paper didn’t have as many vignettes, very few visual. I wonder if there had been napkin sketch interfaces of the kind that were in the talk if it would have triggered “and so does it work?” reactions that system papers often get at CHI.

[7] It’s very cool that they tapped into this “dark matter” of infrequent contributors; we often only study the large, the successful, the vocal, the frequent.

[8] Google search results say “You’ve visited this page many times”. Indeed I have.

[9] Related to this, one of our goals at the CeRI project is to give people feedback about the comments they submit to public civic discussions while they write them, in order to improve quality and engagement.

[10] It reminded me of the idea of “work to rule” as a deliberate way to cause conflict.

[11] In the same way that I am about to use “system” to mean a technological artifact and “System” to refer to a set of concerns, people, and interactions around that artifact, here I am thinking something a little higher-level than the process of just designing the artifact. Maybe participatory design is more like it.