Professional Relationships

The wonders of the Internet and social media seem to have radically changed the nature of relationships.  This is perhaps most apparent in personal relationships where email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other offerings provide constant updates on what a vast network of family and friends are doing and thinking at the moment.  Many people spend a significant portion of their time generating and responding to this flow of messages.  I find this particularly disconcerting when teaching class and several students in the front row never look up from their devices, their fingers endlessly tapping on their smart screens.

As amazing as this all is, in this post I address professional relationships and how information technology has morphed the ways in which individuals seek opportunities, secure positions, and perform once in these positions.  My daughter pursued jobs a few years ago and my son more recently.  They prompted the observations that follow.  It struck me that the value of any advice I could offer was substantially offset by the fact that I have never applied for a job in the sense that this act is now construed.

This is due to the simple fact that all my opportunities over 50+ years have started with relationships, not websites, electronic documents, etc.   During my senior year in college, I interviewed with several companies on campus and took trips to GE (railroad engines), IBM (computers), Pratt & Whitney (aircraft engines), Raytheon (submarine systems), and US Steel (railway cars), and received offers from all five companies. I applied for graduate school at MIT, RPI, and URI and was accepted by all three universities.  Thus, I had eight opportunities that were linked to people I had met and talked with along the way.  Of course, in those days, there was no other way to do this.

Once I finished my PhD at MIT, I took a visiting position at Tufts University on the advice of my advisor.  I then pursued a single alternative, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after communicating with the department head.  I spent a year at Delft University of Technology, invited by a colleague with common interests.  The school chair at Georgia Tech contacted me, convinced me that I would find a visit interesting, and subsequently made an offer too good to refuse.  I called the dean at Stevens informing him that I would soon retire from Georgia Tech and I was offered a chaired position there within a few weeks.  I am currently considering a few alternatives that have emerged from a range of professional relationships.

My first company, Search Technology, was founded with a single customer where a former graduate student worked.  The company grew via major contracts with companies where colleagues worked.  The next company, Enterprise Support Systems, emerged when Search Technology customers asked for products and services that were not feasible within the older company’s costs structure.  Specifically, a company used to multi-million dollar contracts can find it quite difficult to create software products selling for $1,000 per copy.  Enterprise Support Systems grew by selling to other divisions of existing customers.  Eighty percent of revenues came from twenty Fortune 500 companies.

One or more of these companies served as lead customers for each new software tool.  They would buy a corporate license, at a big discount, for a product that did not yet exist.  Their users became members of the design and development team, assuring that they were pleased with how well the product met their needs.  Our close relationships enabled their trusting us and investing in yet-to-be-defined solutions.  A side benefit was that no other companies were able to bid against us.

What is different now?  One of my PhD students recently applied for almost 40 faculty positions.  He did this online.  The web-based system immediately requested that I provide a reference letter, with a two-week deadline.  Tailoring the letters a bit to each institution, I managed to almost meet the deadline for the 40 letters.

He will not end up interviewing with even half of these institutions.  However, it was convenient for them – not for me – to request these letters just in case they later needed them.  There were no humans involved – just me and a website.  There were no business relationships – just an IT system executing a workflow.

Lots of things work this way now.  When you submit articles to professional journals, the interactions are all automated.  A year or so ago, I submitted an article and was requested to choose key words from a fixed set.  None of the words matched the journal’s topical areas.

I emailed the editor, asking how to respond.  He said that I had to choose among the key words provided.  The vendor of the platform did not allow changing the choices.  It was rather difficult to map my article on healthcare to reinforced concrete and welding.  It certainly did feel that I was serving the platform rather than it providing services to me.

It used to be that people in your organization were experts in benefits, contracts, purchasing, etc.  You knew them and could call on them for help as needed.  Now there are IT systems, often multiple IT systems that require multiple entries of the same user names and passwords to access a single function.  If, for example, you want to change your mailing address, you have to do this in each system because databases are not integrated.  You need to keep track of what each system knows.

As machine learning increasingly becomes the underpinnings of such systems, they will know a lot about you – but they won’t know you.  We will work remotely, interact through various IT systems, submit work products electronically, and the balance of your bank account will occasionally be incremented.  In the “gig economy” we will bid on opportunities to create work products, compete with untold other bidders, sometimes get selected by the deep learning vendor selection system, and use various online sources to create and deliver the promised outcomes.  We won’t really know anybody professionally, although your buddies at the local pub may argue the strengths and weaknesses of the next generation IT platform.


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