You and Your Research Print E-mail
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Now you might tell me you haven't got control over what you have to work on. Well, when you first begin, you may not. But once you're moderately successful, there are more people asking for results than you can deliver and you have some power of choice, but not completely. I'll tell you a story about that, and it bears on the subject of educating your boss. I had a boss named Schelkunoff; he was, and still is, a very good friend of mine. Some military person came to me and demanded some answers by Friday. Well, I had already dedicated my computing resources to reducing data on the fly for a group of scientists; I was knee deep in short, small, important problems. This military person wanted me to solve his problem by the end of the day on Friday. I said, "No, I'll give it to you Monday. I can work on it over the weekend. I'm not going to do it now.'' He goes down to my boss, Schelkunoff, and Schelkunoff says, "You must run this for him; he's got to have it by Friday.'' I tell him, "Why do I?''; he says, "You have to.'' I said, "Fine, Sergei, but you're sitting in your office Friday afternoon catching the late bus home to watch as this fellow walks out that door.'' I gave the military person the answers late Friday afternoon. I then went to Schelkunoff's office and sat down; as the man goes out I say, "You see Schelkunoff, this fellow has nothing under his arm; but I gave him the answers.'' On Monday morning Schelkunoff called him up and said, "Did you come in to work over the weekend?'' I could hear, as it were, a pause as the fellow ran through his mind of what was going to happen; but he knew he would have had to sign in, and he'd better not say he had when he hadn't, so he said he hadn't. Ever after that Schelkunoff said, "You set your deadlines; you can change them.''

One lesson was sufficient to educate my boss as to why I didn't want to do big jobs that displaced exploratory research and why I was justified in not doing crash jobs which absorb all the research computing facilities. I wanted instead to use the facilities to compute a large number of small problems. Again, in the early days, I was limited in computing capacity and it was clear, in my area, that a "mathematician had no use for machines.'' But I needed more machine capacity. Every time I had to tell some scientist in some other area, "No I can't; I haven't the machine capacity,'' he complained. I said "Go tell your Vice President that Hamming needs more computing capacity.'' After a while I could see what was happening up there at the top; many people said to my Vice President, "Your man needs more computing capacity.'' I got it!

I also did a second thing. When I loaned what little programming power we had to help in the early days of computing, I said, "We are not getting the recognition for our programmers that they deserve. When you publish a paper you will thank that programmer or you aren't getting any more help from me. That programmer is going to be thanked by name; she's worked hard.'' I waited a couple of years. I then went through a year of BSTJ articles and counted what fraction thanked some programmer. I took it into the boss and said, "That's the central role computing is playing in Bell Labs; if the BSTJ is important, that's how important computing is.'' He had to give in. You can educate your bosses. It's a hard job. In this talk I'm only viewing from the bottom up; I'm not viewing from the top down. But I am telling you how you can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.

Well I now come down to the topic, "Is the effort to be a great scientist worth it?'' To answer this, you must ask people. When you get beyond their modesty, most people will say, "Yes, doing really first-class work, and knowing it, is as good as wine, women and song put together,'' or if it's a woman she says, "It is as good as wine, men and song put together.'' And if you look at the bosses, they tend to come back or ask for reports, trying to participate in those moments of discovery. They're always in the way. So evidently those who have done it, want to do it again. But it is a limited survey. I have never dared to go out and ask those who didn't do great work how they felt about the matter. It's a biased sample, but I still think it is worth the struggle. I think it is very definitely worth the struggle to try and do first-class work because the truth is, the value is in the struggle more than it is in the result. The struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself. The success and fame are sort of dividends, in my opinion.



 
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