Career (v., int.): To rush headlong or carelessly; To move rapidly straight ahead, especially in an uncontrolled way.
In thirty years I’ve covered a fair bit of ground, and it’s definitely been headlong, careless and uncontrolled. I’m not sure “straight ahead” quite fits, so maybe I’ve had a “careen” more than a “career” so far.
Everything is an exploration. I got into engineering because I wanted to know how things were made, so I could make things. I got into physics because I wanted to know how the universe is made, although I don’t currently have any plans for making one. I was fortunate to go to a school that had an engineering physics program, and that let me move on to grad school in first a fairly applied area and finally some pretty esoteric stuff for my terminal degree.
For reasons I still don’t understand I got a post-doc at Caltech, which let me explore the rarefied atmosphere of top-tier American academia, as well as the less rarefied atmosphere of Los Angeles. During that time I designed a small neutrino detector that actually detected neutrinos using some fairly clever techniques to suppress backgrounds that were many orders of magnitude larger than the signal. That was also during the time of the 17 keV neutrino controversy, and I got to contribute to the untangling of it.
I wanted to raise my kids in Canada, though, so my excursion in the US didn’t last long, and as I changed countries I changed fields to medical physics, and spent a year up to my neck in megavoltage imaging. The new high-speed desktop computers–the 386 and 486–and peripherals were letting us do things that had been impossible a few years before, like capture and process images in realtime on a few thousand dollars worth of hardware. It was an exciting time, and the “pseudocorrelation” image registration algorithm I invented at that time turns out to be one of the more useful things I’ve done. It was based on some numerical techniques I’d learned as a pure physicist running radiation transport simulations, but applied to an imaging problem. Cross-pollination at its best.
The lure of pure physics brought me back to Kingston and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, where I worked on detector calibration issues for several years. I will always be grateful to Queen’s for giving me such an enormous range of opportunities. Pretty much every opportunity I’ve had is directly traceable to Queen’s.
I wanted to stay in Canada and also give my kids a life beyond the poverty line, so leaving academia seemed like a wise move, although it was easily one of the most difficult things I’ve done. I had always assumed I’d be a career academic, but there was both a lack of jobs in my field and a lack of interest on my part in doing the things one needed to do to climb that particular ladder.
I’ve always believed that it’s incoherent to say you want to do something if you don’t want to do the things that doing that thing entails. Want to be a musician? Better want to practice and study diligently, to go where the jobs are, to manage your career, and so on. Those things are what “being a musician” means. Likewise, being a professor means a lot of things, many of which I wasn’t very well-suited to. I loved hands-on research, but that’s not what profs spend most of their time doing. It was a disappointing and difficult realization, and one that took years for me to really wrap my head around. I can be kind of slow that way.
In the meantime, the dot-com boom was echoing across the land. A local company–Andyne Computing–was hiring anyone who was warm and breathing and had a little Unix experience. I had expanded my job search outside of academia and was sending off resume’s everywhere that looked remotely plausible. They turned me down for the job I’d originally applied to but would “keep my application on file”, which turned out not to be a euphemism for trashing it. A few months later I got a call and within a month or so I had jumped from academia to industry.
It was probably the most challenging time of my life, personally. The academic world has a lot going for it, but it has toxic elements that are difficult to see from the inside. The most important one is its hyper-competitive nature. In academia, everyone is a threat to everyone else’s advancement. Resources are few and finite, and any piece of the pie that someone else gets is one that you don’t. For all its superficial collegiality, the academic world is necessarily tense and hostile under the skin.
The business world is totally different. There, everyone is a resource to help grow the company. There is still politics, obviously, but one of my biggest revelations in my years at Andyne (later Hummingbird) was how much healthier the place was from a psychological point of view than even the best of the academic milieu. Academics who haven’t experienced both worlds will probably sneer at this, but for me at least the business world was just a much better place to be.
At the same time, I was getting interested in starting my own business, so I eventually moved on to explore far end of the commercial ocean, where small businesses and startups live, which turned out to be more frequently swept by storms and squalls than the sunny climes of large corporations.
I’d been through a downsizing at Hummingbird, but as the dot-com boom turned into the crash, smaller places were getting killed off at a rate sufficient to make f’dcompany a high-traffic website. The startup where I had been the first employee, putting together a computer-assisted surgery platform from scratch based on a lot of academic work done at Queen’s and KGH, folded, followed a year later by the genomics startup I jumped to after that. During that process I got to see the other side of downsizing, as I shrank my team to help lengthen the company’s runway.
Facing unemployment, I cut a deal with Parteq, the intellectual property arm of Queen’s, and licensed my former employer’s technology as part of a deal to help find a permanent home for it. My own company, Predictive Patterns Software Inc, came out of that deal.
I made some good judgements and some bad judgements over the next few years, and by the time the dust was settled PPS was a scientific and software consulting company with as much business as I could handle, including a great contract implementing my pseudo-correlation algorithm for an extremely complex intra-operative multi-modal registration procedure. I worked on everything from opthalmic ultrasound to cardiac imaging to advanced database design for clients ranging from university labs to some of the largest corporations in the world. The only thing I wouldn’t work on was stuff whose primary purpose is to kill people: I have no interest in being a deadweight loss.
When the financial crisis came rolling across the world my client base went strangely quiet. I was in the business of outsourcing rocket science, and in those uncertain times no one was spending money on anything the least bit speculative. Fortunately, one of my earliest clients had just been bought by a multi-national, and I was asked to come on board full-time. I took that opportunity, and while I continued to do a little consulting as the world recovered from the crisis, I’ve been living that alternative lifestyle known as “having a job” for almost six years now, which is almost twice as long as I’ve ever been employed by anyone other than myself.
Today, as it happens, is the last day of that employment. Corporate strategies and needs change, and what was once a business unit dedicated to new product development is being turned into one dedicated to supporting existing products. C’est la vie.
This leaves me at a juncture. I’ve done a lot of stuff in the past thirty years, and I’ve got another decade or two left in me. What to do with it?
As I said above, I’ve always been an explorer, and as such I’m drawn toward the new. While I’ve done a lot of project management over the years, it has rarely been my sole responsibility, and I’m thinking that may be one place to go next. While I’m proud of the technical work I’ve done, some of my most satisfying memories are of solving managerial problems, because they make the biggest impact on the people immediately around me.
I’m applying to some writing positions because that’s something else I’ve always wanted to do for a living. I’ve been selling my work in a small way for decades. Maybe it’s time to turn that into something more. It’s a difficult business, but what worthwhile thing has ever been easy?
There are other avenues of approach too. I’m not completely closing the door on further technical positions, or even going back to consulting, but again: I’d rather do something new over anything I’ve done before. That means I don’t capitalize quite so much on past experience as I might like, because companies increasingly want to hire people who have already done the exact job they are looking for, but that just means that I won’t end up working for people quite that myopic.
Or I could do something completely different, so different that I’ve not even thought of it yet.
So it’s an interesting time to be alive, and since I’ve had about five weeks vacation in the past fifteen years, I’m going to take advantage of the current gap to enjoy the sunshine and some of what the city has to offer while I look for the next landscape to explore.