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Building Your Coalition
If you hang around enough scientists and engineers who are deep into their respective fields and have advanced degrees, you might quickly realize that we are all quite diverse. Our one common trait might be our need for good data and a lot of it. I have no data today, just some vibes.
Being a likable person in sales seems to be a given, but for a technical person I think it tends to get overlooked in lieu of acquiring a deeper understanding of a technical area. In a prior issue of this newsletter, I had a long quote from “The Bear” wherein the protagonist gives a 7-minute monologue about cutting people out of his life and spending more time in the kitchen and that as he cut more people out his life, his life got quieter, and he got better at being a chef. This happens all the time in science too and after a while when you start to interact with “regular people” you come off as kind of a weirdo or “difficult to talk to,” or as someone in sales might say, “I can’t take this person on a customer visit.”
It can be very easy to 1) not talk to anyone during intense graduate research and 2) only interact with the people who are in your program. In your program it might be normal to work 80-hour weeks, talk to people in the lab on Saturday afternoons, and interact with Principal Investigators who work not only as much as you but perhaps want to see their own work ethic reflected in their students. If you were a little [insert self-description here] before graduate school, then this might be amplified after you finish your graduate degree.
If I have ever possessed a unique skill as a scientist, it has been an innate ability to get people to trust and like me as a collaborator, a coworker, a supplier, a customer, or as a random person they met at a conference. There were plenty of people who didn’t like me, but I was able to get enough to form what I call a “coalition of support.” Working in any company is a team sport and your success is often contingent on people helping each other. If people do not like you because of [insert your issues here] then there is a good chance you will not succeed, or your career will be capped.
I was catching up with an old friend recently and we were talking about how often everyone you work with is super qualified or technically brilliant on paper. When trying to hire it often comes down to figuring out who you might get along with the best as opposed to trying to assess who might be the most technically accomplished. Being able to connect with strangers, gain their trust, and get them to like you is a great skill to have and when you pair it with technical excellence you are likely going to be unstoppable.
There is this clip from the movie Spy Game that comes to mind when Robert Redford is trying to teach a younger Brad Pitt the finer points of being a spy. Also, the more spy movies and shows I watch the more it appears to be an awful job.
When I was working at Hexion (I guess it’s Bakelite Synthetics now) we had this process of requesting Safety Data Sheets through SAP for experimental samples we had created in the lab to send to customers. When working on a customer project we had to have an SDS to ship our samples for testing by our customers because we adhered to the law. It might have taken me a few weeks to even figure out something that worked as far as I could tell in the lab and for most people it might take you 3-4 weeks to even get your SDS approved and sent to you by the people in the product stewardship (regulatory compliance) team.
This resulted in customers being upset at not getting their samples, which involved them calling their account managers, who reported this to their managers. Samples not going out meant things were going slower than anticipated and being slow means more cost. When margins are already slim, the company is losing money due to debt payments, and/or losing volume to competitors then being slow at getting samples to customer is about the worst thing you can do.
Everyone I worked with complained, frequently, about this issue of not getting our Safety Data Sheets faster. From what I could tell, no one was happy, but no one really ever spoke to the people writing the Safety Data Sheets either. Everyone knew it was a problem, but no one had any solutions. I thought this was weird, so I looked up the person who was responsible for mine one day, and I gave her call on the phone.
I found out that this one person was responsible for generating Safety Data Sheets not only for the whole R&D unit where I was, but for other divisions of the company too. She got way more requests to generate Safety Data Sheets that she could handle alone, and they took a lot of time to finish. Often, the submissions were not necessarily complete, which also made her job more difficult.
This was a broken business process and there was no one working to figure out how to make it better. This one broken business process slowed down the product development process and likely pushed out timelines by months and the only thing that I think the executives saw was that R&D was “slow.” I eventually worked out a way to give her a heads up I was going to submit a request, outlined the importance of that submission in an email, and then I would submit it via the enterprise software. The sheer number of submissions in the system resulted in a situation of my submission getting lost in “the pile,” and this is what was happening to my coworkers.
I think the reason I succeeded in this particular example was due to approaching the situation as a true novice and seeking to “understand why,” as opposed to demanding results. We are all often at the mercy of broken business workflows or processes that can negatively impact us individually, but overall organizations as a whole. Forgiveness is built on understanding and we can only understand each other if we are willing to communicate and be real.
Zooming Back Out
If you take anything away from this at this point it should be this: Don’t be a dick.
You’d be surprised at what you can learn and the types of people who are willing to help you if you are there to listen and are willing to try and make their working life better. You’d also be surprised at what people will tell you and/or do to help you out if you are new or express your ignorance. I kind of feel ridiculous writing about this topic because it seems obvious to me, but I think it is something that often gets overlooked Being friends or at least friendly with your coworkers is one of the oldest ways to network. The longer you work the bigger your network. Eventually, you’ll need your network and when you do I hope they help you.