Ruurd
Ruurd

Aug 21, 2020 18 min read

From science to IT

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I have been working in IT for over a decade. Before that I pursued a career in experimental physics. It was quite successful, one of the outcomes was research that started a new field. However, after attaining a PhD I decided to exit research and switch fields. Over the years I have spoken to people about the considerations I had at the time, and why I chose IT as my next step. However, I never shared this with a wider audience, also because I wondered if it was interesting beyond the personal.

This changed recently. I still know quite a few people in active research, and a while ago one of them approached me: they were at a similar crossroads in their career and followed a career advice course at university. With a group they interviewed both people who had exited and stayed in academia for their experiences and advice. I was one of the people they interviewed.

In this post you will find the interview. I hope it has value for academics thinking about their next steps, and for people thinking about entering IT.

Disclaimer: it is edited a bit but raw in the sense that instead of remaining politically correct and bland, I tried to be as open and honest to the students as I could in order to give them something to think about. It is colored quite a bit as it contains my personal experiences and opinions. They may or may not resonate with you.

So, onto the questions:

Q: Why did you quit research?

A:

During my research, I realized more and more that I really liked physics, and really disliked having a career in it. There are lots of details and stories to tell, but basically it comes down to a few things:

  • slow progress - progress in experimental research is tediously slow. We like to think results from groups around the world are incremental and build upon each other, and of course you use the ideas from other labs, but there’s very little commoditization and few of the associated gains. Even between groups inside the same research institute you may find people do not share fabrication recipes, measurement setups etc. This means most of the time is spent on reproducing stuff that’s already known to get to the point where you can do something new. Then you hope to add the unique new bit and get it published before the other lab does. The realization of the amount of waste in this process made me dislike it.
  • postdoc bottleneck - the typical career progression in research is PhD ⇒ Postdoc ⇒ Assistant professor (fixed length contract) ⇒ (Associate) professor (tenure/permanent). This model worked until ~30 years ago when not too many people would attain a PhD. Often people would know that after a postdoc at another institute they would have a permanent seat waiting when they came back.
    Since then, the number of PhDs awarded has increased a lot, but permanent staff positions have not. This leads to the postdoc bottleneck: scientists stuck in one postdoc position after the other, without ever getting a permanent position. Imagine you are in your mid 30s and you are still on 1-2-year contracts, with no option of investing in a life in one location as your next gig may be half a continent away. You have to really love science more than life to live like this.
  • your competitors are also your venture capitalists - in any regular business setting, your success as a company is determined by how much the people you sell to like your products. You may have good relations with your competitors, but it is not strictly necessary. In science, you can not get anything done without your competitors’ approval: your research funding is awarded based on peer reviews, and the same is true for getting the results out there (published). On the face of it this is a good thing, as peer review should enforce quality. This is however a bit naive. What it really does is enforce kindergarten social behaviors, as some of the smartest people in the world are also the pettiest. I have seen (prized) scientists moving out of buildings as their egos wouldn’t fit in them anymore; you wouldn’t want them to review your paper or grant proposal. So, you need to suck up and be political. One way to do this is through group formation: ‘mutual admiration societies’ decide to all love the work they all do to navigate the schoolyard.
  • the end game - at the end of a successful career path is a tenure position. The job of this person is not to do active research but to get funding and attract scientists. I did not like that outlook at the time.

Q: Why did you choose your current field?

A:

I sometimes ask myself that same question :) Without kidding, it was a natural progression. Technology has always had a way of pulling me in, and I have been into programming and computers from an early age. I was schooled as a physicist but in IT I am an auto didact. In university and later during my research I also created physical models in lower level languages like C++ to make them perform. I always loved those episodes. After I realized I did not want to continue in research, I figured my real passion was in technology and hardware/software, so IT.

Q: What do you most like and dislike in your current field?

A:

Likes:

  1. pick your path - IT is a very broad field, with lots of options in terms of career paths and things to work on.
  2. unlimited learning potential - Progress in IT is fast and ever accelerating, as a lot of especially the open source (software) side is not a zero sum game. To illustrate, it has been 13 years since I left research, but I could dive right in: research is still very active in quantum computing, as it was in the early ‘00s. I would need a few months to catch up on literature, but that would be it. In IT you can forget about that, the world has changed a lot since then.
  3. fast feedback cycles - In science there can be a long time between working on something and seeing practical use, if any. In IT you are almost always making an immediate human impact by what you deliver. This makes it rewarding, and I found out I am much more sensitive to this aspect than I expected.
  4. positive atmosphere - More than in science, people celebrate each other’s successes. It is a very positive atmosphere generally.
  5. young industry - IT is a very young field. You do not need formal training to work in IT. That means there are people with all kinds of different backgrounds, making it very diverse (although most are white dudes, see below). Some of my best colleagues were (almost) kicked out of school. Some others have university degrees. You can not find this in any other field.

Dislikes:

  1. lack of diversity - I am not sure it’s the same everywhere, but at least in Northern EMEA and the US especially in terms of gender and color there’s a tangible lack of diversity in IT. This is problematic as I believe in diversity: obviously because everyone should have the same opportunities, but also because I believe - and studies have shown - diverse teams make better (business) decisions. Science is not so different in this respect, and it is a cultural problem in society. But we should and can do much better.
  2. the big picture - in science, the goal is to accumulate and create knowledge that can - when applied in a good way - advance humanity. I always liked the idea of a legacy (however small). In IT, and especially in services, you’re on the ‘applying’ side: you can work with cool new tech and help customers but it can sometimes be hard to feel good about the industry you work for.
  3. wild west - I like that IT is a very young field, but it can also lead to scary situations, where for instance the doctor performing surgery has to spent until his late 20s in school, when the people servicing the vital IT equipment can be high school dropouts. Some regulation would be good.

Q: What do you most like and dislike from your current position?

A:

I am part of the leadership of our company, and responsible for everything we do in a separate area of expertise we call ‘Cloud Native’. This comes with a wide array of responsibilities such as product (service) development, delivery at customers, pre-sales, attracting talent and growing it, and vendor relations management. So, my actions can have a lot of impact, and I see a lot taking place. I really like to work with a team (at a customer), talk about the outcomes they like to get to, and see the results. The downside is that I’m less hands-on than before and get to spend less time on tech itself.
As a company, we started in the services industry. Basically this means every hour we spend at a customer makes us money. While I love the work we do this way, it has some downsides. For one, there is a constant pressure on higher billability: the fraction of the time we spend at customers. It can be hard to spend time with people internally to develop new services and skills, as pulling them from customer projects will directly eat out of your revenue. Moreover, an hour not spent at a customer cannot be recovered. When you sell a product and have a bad month, you can make up next month by selling more. With services this is not possible.

Q: How did you apply for your current position? How long was the process?

A:

After science, I worked on a small software start-up idea. It wasn’t a commercial success, but it was an invaluable experience: it gave my development skills a boost and exposed me more thoroughly to the hosting and infrastructure side of things, and showed me how to (not) sell a product. At some point I realized I should probably get a proper job again. I talked to someone I knew who worked at a software company, and a little while later I was hired as a developer. The process was minimal as I was introduced via my ‘warm network’. I then had two interviews. First with a manager from the HR side, then with someone testing me on a technical level. They told me I could start the week after. What helped is that I did not have very steep salary demands, knowing that IT is an industry where your compensation can change quickly over time, and I was willing to invest in my own future.

Q: How do you identify your career development needs (to get to your current position and to progress to the next stage in your career)?

A:

This is not always easy. I tend to start from the other end: I try to identify what elements in my work I like, give me energy, and in what areas I would like to stretch myself to get better. Then I try to aim for a position in which I get the opportunity to focus on those a bit more.

Different positions require different hard and soft skills. With respect to the first, some areas of IT can be very certification focused. I’ve always approached this a bit different myself, as with a MSc and PhD in physics you may not have a lot of relevant knowledge in this field, but does show you’re smart, have stamina and get things done. So, any additional investment I did was only to actually learn something, not to prove to anyone that I did. With one exception: to get my first regular job in IT I had to commit to do a couple of technical exams within the first half year to prove I was catching on. So that was kind of enforced. From there on, I identified technical skills I needed to develop by working on projects for customers and seeing what they used and talking to colleagues about new developments and technology being introduced. I work in a company that communicates high ambitions, so there are a lot of people constantly searching and finding ways to work with new technology, that is really cool. What changed in the last years is that since I am not hands-on behind a keyboard writing code every day anymore, it’s much harder to find the time to stay up to date.

Once I shifted from technical to leadership roles, I mainly recognized I had gaps in my soft skills and have been working on them more intensely than on my hard skills. I was used to working with customers every day, but now I had to work with people in management roles, talk to customers in pre-sales and advisory roles, and guide projects to be successful. That is different. I followed some trainings, talked to people in similar roles to see how they handled situations, read books about this topic, and mainly tried to play roles ‘in the wild’ with increasing requirements on these soft skills to put myself to the test.

Q: Is the position and the tasks you have different from what you initially thought?

A:

Yes. There is some irony here as when I was behind a keyboard every day, I had a pretty low esteem for management. I had the feeling most they did was push paper and attend meetings to keep themselves busy. I still think that way about the majority of managers :) If we talk about bullshit jobs this is the stereotype that springs to mind. However, a leader who knows what they are doing can mean the world. I strive to be that person. What I try to do is embrace or develop a clear strategy, get the very best people, align them with or co-develop the strategy further, enable them, expect their best work, but don’t tell them how to do it. Smart people need to be judged based on output.

Q: What kind of accomplishments tend to be valued and rewarded in your field?

A:

In the end IT is about using technology to deliver business outcomes. So we tend to value skills in those areas. I’ve been in tech for a while, but some people are real technical wizards and continue to amaze me. However, when you love tech and work with it all day, you can easily get sidetracked and lose sight of the real goals. So, the ability to get things done while keeping your eyes on the ball, or the ability to bridge the gap from business to tech are valued as well.

Then there are certifications. They are valued, but as I said before, I have mixed feelings about those. A certification is a sign someone has knowledge on a topic. And when qualified people take an exam and get some paper to showcase their knowledge, it is great. However, I’ve seen highly certified people do very stupid things in the real world and have seen people without certification fix them. So, the real value is pretty limited in my view. More than anything I consider certifications the effect of companies wanting something visible in exchange for spending money on training, and as proof the people they sent paid some attention. Also, it’s a gift for managers who want to set SMART HR goals, or employees who want to work towards a certain SMART goal.

One other thing that is valued quite a bit is sharing knowledge in the form of written content like blogs, papers, books. What works especially well however is going on stage and speak. We in tech like to idolize those that do. I do not know exactly how the psychology behind it works, but a couple of public talks on a subject can make you the go-to expert irrespective of your actual experience level.

Finally, I would like to share a few skills that are undervalued (in my opinion), but which can make your career a success. The first is having common sense, which is as its name does not imply, a rather rare skill. The second is being kind, which is not the same as being nice. To have some empathy with people, giving them space and trying to understand where they come from can go a long way.

Q: What are the greatest challenges your company faces?

A:

  • Right now, some declining demand due to COVID-19, but generally the business model of consultancy is fragile and potentially expiring. We recognized this and have begun offering new services based on more long-term models such as support and managed services.
  • It is hard to find people who have a continuous learner mentality. In most professions you learn something for a while and then apply it for decades (with minor periodic schooling). In IT, prepare for new technology to come faster and faster, disrupting how you and everyone works. You need people who can stay up to speed and continuously invest in their own skills.
  • Due to the accelerating pace of innovation, it becomes harder and harder for our customers to decide what technologies to invest in and to recruit and keep the right people to work with the technology. This indirectly becomes our problem as well as it leads to wrong and/or slow decision making, and success is not guaranteed when you don’t have the people.

Q: What advice would you give to someone thinking about going down this route?

A:

  • Talk to more people you know about what they do in this field, and what drives them. These are only my views.
  • Try to find out what type of organization you like (large or small). They both have their pros and cons.
  • Another main choice is to figure out if you want to work in product or services. Again, pros and cons.
  • Don’t work on (web) front-end. Most systems interfacing with humans (mostly websites) are trivial text based clickable input/output generators. There is a whole science behind the correct layout and tech stacks are constantly shifting, but it never gets complicated on a level of a physics PhD. With this background, it is very likely you’ll want to rather work on what happens to the data – ‘the backend’ – and systems design based on that.
  • Map out your own career, at least for the coming 3-5 years, and make it more specific the closer it is in time. Every so often recalibrate – am I still happy, challenged, valued? If not, do you want to develop along a tech direction (learn to work with a new technology), or rather in soft skills (giving talks, pre-sales engagements, giving workshops, managing a team, managing a team of teams, helping people develop themselves instead of working on code)?
  • I give this at the risk of sounding arrogant, but when you think about working anywhere outside academia, realize you will always be the smartest person in the room from now on, or at least in their company. Now add that in science you get ingrained with the scientific method and structural thinking which means you can quickly see to the core of a problem and identify blockers, routes around them and dead ends. This sounds like a valuable combination, but it really is a burden. There have been times when I wished I was less intelligent or functionally stupid. You may not always have the correct answer yourself, but you will (often) be faced by decisions you do not understand as they are quite obviously wrong or stupid. This is especially problematic if they are made by those in a more senior position. You may even become paranoid and think people have a second agenda. In fact they may, but usually they do not. So, after this lengthy disclaimer: never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Work on your social skills and especially patience to make people see for themselves without them getting angry at you.

Follow-up questions

Q: Do you ever think about going back to research? Could you?

A:

I occasionally get nostalgic about physics, and I follow the developments in Quantum Computing from the sideline, but I don’t miss traditional research for the reasons mentioned before. What is appealing to me is the industry fueled research of the last few years, where large IT players (MSFT, Google, Intel) invest in QT research with labs cooperating with the traditional research labs. I think it would not be very hard to jump back in.

Q: Is it hard to stay challenged in IT?

A:

It is harder than I thought. Life would sometimes be easier if I could be that person who can learn a trick and function on 20% of their ability for the rest of their lives, but this isn’t me. I am happy when I’m challenged and learning, I’m prone to bore-out when I’m not. So, I have to find something to keep learning.
Apart from the technology, what was key for me years ago is to work in consultancy. Here I was introduced to many customers and so different environments (small versus enterprise organizations) and verticals (finance, HR, IT for IT, government), and could learn how they work and are organized.
But at some point, even that may lose its appeal (it did for me after 4 years or so), as you feel you’ve seen most environments, and it becomes repetitive. At ITQ I got the chance to develop a strategy around a new area of expertise, based on what I saw in the field. They gave me the chance to develop and deliver services and set up a new team, which came with its own challenges.

Q: If you would enter IT now, where would you start?

A:

Really big strides have been made in the areas of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I have seen customers develop really cool functionality with today’s tech that simply wasn’t possible 10 years ago. It is really wild, from predictive road maintenance based on photos or early recognition of breast cancer based on medical scans. A background in science is almost necessary in this field, and so I would start here if I would start today. It is no secret this is also an area I actively research right now.