TITLE: Invent. Tell the Story. AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 28, 2007 8:42 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I recently mentioned again Seth Godin's All Marketers are Liars in the context of teachers as liars. One last mention -- this time, for researchers and students. As I read pages 29 and 30 of the book, I was struck by how much Godin's advice for marketers matches my experience as a researcher, first as a graduate student, then as a young faculty member, and now as a grizzled veteran. Consider:
There are only two things that separate success from failure in most organizations today:
  1. Invent stuff worth talking about.
  2. Tell stories about what you've invented.
That is the life of the academic researcher: invent cool stuff, and talk about the inventions. Some of my best professors were people who invented cool stuff and loved to talk about their inventions. They relished being in the lab, creating, and then crafting a story that shared their excitement. As a student, undergrad and grad alike, I was drawn to these profs, even when they worked in areas that didn't interest me much. When they did -- wow. Many people get into research because we want to do #1, and #2 is just part of the deal. Whether the young researcher wants to or not, telling the stories is essential. It is how we spread our ideas and get the feedback that helps us to improve them. But on a more mercenary level it's also how we get folks interested in offering us tenure-track positions, and then offering us tenure. Over the course of my career, I have come to realize how many people go into research because they want to do #2. As strange as it might sound, Getting a Ph.D. is one of the more attractive routes to becoming a professional story-teller, because it is the de facto credential for teaching at universities. Sometimes these folks continue to invent cool stuff to talk about. But some ultimately fall away from the research game. They want to tell stories, but without the external pressure to do #1. Maybe they lose the drive to invent, or never really had it in the first place. These folks often become great teachers, too, whether as instructors at research schools or as faculty at so-called "teaching universities". Many of those folks still have a passion for something like #1, but it tends toward learning about the new stuff that others create, synthesizing it, and preparing it for a wider audience. Then they tell the stories to their students and to the general public. As I've written before, CS needs its own popular story teller, working outside the classroom, to share the thrill... I don't think that has to be an active researcher -- think about the remarkable effect that Martin Gardner had on the world by sharing real math with us in ways that made us want to do mathematics -- and even computer science! But having someone who continues to invent be that person would work just fine. Thank you, Mr. Feynman. So, to my grad students and to graduate students everywhere, this is my advice to you: Invent stuff worth talking about, and then tell stories about what you've invented. But this advice is not just for graduate students. Consider this passage from Godin, which I also endorse wholeheartedly:
On a personal level, your resume should be about inventing remarkable things and telling stories that register--not about how good you are at meeting specs. Organizations that are going to be around tomorrow will be those that stop spending all their time dealing with the day-to-day crises of shipping stuff out the door or reacting to emergencies. Instead the new way of marketing will separate winners from losers.
This is where the excitement and future of computer science in industry lie, too. Students who can (only) meet specs are plentiful and not always all that valuable. The real value comes in creating and integrating ideas. This is advice that I've been sharing with entrepreneurially-minded students for a while, and I think as time goes by it will apply to more and more students. Paul Graham has spent a lot of time spreading this message, in articles such as What You'll Wish You'd Known, and I've written about Graham's message here as well. The future belongs to people who are asking questions, not people who can deliver answers to other peoples' questions. So, this advice is not just for students. It is for everyone. -----