Friday, September 25, 2009

Emerging Reality

Two years ago, I stood before classrooms of 40 students three days per week, for a paltry $15,000 a year, with no benefits, no office, no job security, and a 10-12 hour a week commute. I begrudgingly resigned, not only from that post, but from the academic job search, which had included about 150 applications over five years. I left... but I had no plan, other than a drive and commitment to find some means to practical applications for my ideas.

During the past two years, I've moved with my wife and three sons from Southern California to the Midwest; bought a house; established two companies (one to conduct R&D; the second to purchase and lease a building as office space to the first); I've received two federal contracts for R&D, been selected to receive a third from a different agency; and am in the administrative holding tank to receive a two year contract on the first project. Yet a third agency is reviewing another project for a federal R&D grant (I've been told that I should hear definitively within the month).

I'm interviewing several parties in the next few weeks, with the intention to hire two or three during the next few months, paying them multiples above what I made as an adjunct, along with generous benefits. And, I'm taking care of myself as well. I didn't set out to become a CEO. I set out to sustain my research, and to render it meaningful and useful beyond the ivory tower. I am on the cusp of doing just that.

Next week, I close on the building. Next month, I will make decisions about new hires. Then, to purchase new computers and equipment, finalize the administrative details of everything, and get back to my work. My heaven is pretty cluttered, full of activity, sprinkled with uncertainty, and sure looks a lot like the world on earth. It's just... a different world than I've been used to.

*** Oh... and by the way, they reopened the post across the sea. I don't think I'll re-apply. I'm a bit busy these days.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Distinctly Unpleasant Position

Another application arrived today. A doctoral candidate (on the verge of defending) from across the sea. So far, I have eight applicants for three positions: two with Bachelor's degrees; two Assistant Professors; two relatively local; two from foreign countries; one recent PhD (about a year ago); and three about to defend. Not one like me. Odd. I thought there would be. I find myself in the distinctly unpleasant position of knowing that I must turn away most of these applicants, some with truly impressive credentials; all with great potential. And I find myself realizing as well that I am not quite certain what it is I need them to be doing, or just how I should evaluate them. Thankfully, I've enlisted a handful of others to help me make those decisions.

All I know for sure is that it were a super-human feat to deliver all I've promised on schedule without help. And I know that there is sufficient funding at my discretion to hire that help. My intern remarked today--as I sent off the (hopefully) final draft of my second stage proposal, work plan, and budget--that he has worked for me nearly four months, and he's not quite sure what I do. And that is fair, because most of the time he's been in my employ, I've spent on administration and proposal rewrites and patent preparations and building purchase and travel and meetings and conferences and learning accounting procedures and project management and planning and human resources and... [EXHALE INHALE].

When my patent attorney asked me earlier in the week... and then, okay, so then what do you do? I nearly lost it. Not in anger mind you, just in frustration, in wondering yeah... what do I do? Procedures, algorithms, steps. What's novel? It's there, I know it. It works. I've demonstrated that, at least preliminarily. That's why I've gotten this funding.

But it's been nearly as much time since I've worked concentratedly on the research as I spent under the first part of my first contract. Now I'm under the second half of that first contract; I have an entirely new first stage contract starting in perhaps a month or two, for an entirely different project; and the second two-year contract on the first project is expected in due course, with the expectation that I'll be leading a team of researchers to deliver! Plus I still have two more proposals outstanding: one which has been pending review since November, and which I'd just as soon forget; but the other which I remain confident about.

So what then? I've already got budgetted full-time work for four people with part-time assistance from two others for the two existing projects. If one of these others comes through, that'd mean likely another two or three new hires. And the company remains at the moment in essence just me, with an intern 8-10 hours a week, and a wife who's agreed to take on some administrative and project management duties perhaps 4 hours or so per week. Don't get me wrong... I'm not complaining... just flabbergasted, and a bit stressed. I'm eager to return to the heart of the work. But there are so many steps just getting there.

There are times that I have lamented not having a classroom, because I love teaching. And yet, I realize this is all about teaching. My present is about training people in the research and procedures that are closest to my heart and mind. This is all about me, about my work, about my ideas. It's humbling really. To some extent this must be what it's like to teach from your own textbook in an area that you specialize in.

I have a great responsibility. I'm no longer simply putting my own reputation on the line. So what? You make a few mistakes. Nobody's perfect. But I'm on the verge of hiring a few others, teaching them what I do and how, and overseeing their efforts to coax my kernels into a field of corn. What I am offering others is risk, raw, unadorned. I'm peddling my own elixir, and seeking those who'll have enough faith in its healing powers not only to sell it on to others, but to imbibe of it themselves.

Wish me luck: to find those people, yes; but more importantly to ensure that the elixir requires no antidote.

Patent Humility

Drafting a patent is exhausting and humbling! I've begun working with a patent attorney. Being put on the spot to explain one's innovation to a novice is quite a feat, especially when said novice is a somewhat impatient (though clearly competent) attorney. The trick is maintaining my self-confidence that the innovation really exists.

One essential ingredient to any presentation is knowing your audience. This holds for patent work as well. The problem is: how do you know your audience? And if you don't know your audience, you need to assume they'll have essentially no knowledge or background that you can draw from, even though you must also assume that they will have a great wealth of materials to access to compare and contrast the ideas you present. And so, we proceed by defining terms: you know like "more than one," because it's not safe to assume self-evidence.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Checking off tasks

Putting my ducks in a row:

  • Met yesterday with a regional business startup group, gave a short presentation on my company, and got matched with four local executives/entrepreneurs to serve as mentors.
  • I'll be meeting with a patent attorney later this week, to move ahead with initial patent applications.
  • I have (only) six applications in hand for my three researcher positions. Hopefully more will arrive by the end of the week. I think there's at least one or two in the pool I'll be able to make an offer to.
  • Still working on finalizing the proposal for the second stage of my big contract.
  • Still awaiting official contact for negotiating details of the new first stage contract (though I'm happy with the delay, since it might give me some more time to bring on staff).
  • Closing on the office building at the end of the month.
  • Eagerly hoping to be finished with the bulk of these administrative tasks soon, so I can get back into the heart of the R&D.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


... um... I really don't know what to say about this, but I noticed that my recent award selection had been posted to the website for the sponsoring agency. Two companies were selected at this stage. I don't know how many proposals were received, but likely on the order of 15-20. The other company that was awarded... um... they're ten years old, with 75 employees, more than a dozen patents, and best I can guess about $100m a year or so in sales.

Uh... I'm swimming with sharks. I'm humbled and flabbergasted.

Monday, September 7, 2009

So Odd

The applications have been trickling in. Tonight I received my second application from a standing assistant professor. It's so odd to be receiving materials, to be on the hiring end, to get these respectful, deferentially worded letters—Dear Dr. Dad... thank you for the opportunity to apply...)—eager, enthusiastic, hopeful. I remember so well the effort I put in. The one I received tonight shows enormous energy, and impressive credentials.

I wonder how many more I will receive before the deadline in a week and a half. Will I really be able to hire the best? Will I pale in comparison to their accomplishments and potential? How many nearly-best applicants will I have to pass over, simply because I haven't the funds (like so many departments) to hire more? Will what I have to offer them actually satisfy? I thought I'd be vetting unemployed PhDs, those like me who've spent inordinate effort for nothing. But I've yet to receive an application from that sort. Either they've just finished or are about to finish their doctorate (in one case, only a Bachelor's degree), or they're already Assistant Professors. Where are the mes of the world?

I've created the post I was looking for. But I'm no longer applying; I'm the boss. How odd. How truly odd. And the chickens are not yet home to roost. Something could always fall through. The two year contract may be delayed, or fail to get finalized. I don't expect it (at this point it's highly improbable), but I've grown leery of overconfidence, and I've gained a rooted sense of pragmatism. I know that whatever occurs, I'll be fine. The boost in my confidence and the validation of my research that I've gotten over the past couple years is enough to sustain me for quite a while.

Even in the worst case, however, we won't lose our house. I'd still be able to cover the mortgage on the new office building downtown for a couple years. I worry about those hopefuls whom I'd be forced to disappoint, the ones who by right I ought to hire, whom to be honest I would be thrilled and honored to work beside.

I remain confident that things will continue to progress. I have this second project commencing in the next couple months. I have transitional funding from my first project through the end of the year. And the two-year follow on contract remains only a few (albethey significant) formalities away.

If all goes well, I will be hiring some of the choice candidates in the coming months. I will move into my new office in the next month. I will have stable and rewarding employment for the next couple years.

Joni Mitchell's words and Judy Collins' voice best sing my life today:
Moons and Junes and Ferris Wheels,
the dizzy dancing way you feel
when every fairytale comes real...
But now friends are acting strange
They shake their heads and say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
in living every day...