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Industrial scientific culture shock?

  1. Jan 5, 2010 #1
    So I'm having a bit of culture shock going from academia to industry.

    I've come into a situation where management wants a positive report to be given to a customer. The customer gave us some equipment and wanted us to perform an experiment for them. The results of the experiment is completely non-physical. When I explain the non-physical results to management they accuse me of making excuse and affirm that the technique works and I just have to put the time into the project. I think multiple items are influencing managements behaviour. (1) They don't want to take the time to understand the results (2) They want the customer to come back.

    I can write the report that management wants but it would be laughed at by any journal. The customer wouldn't know one way or the other. I know my analysis is solid as I've had others look it over and confirm that it is technically sound.

    Has anyone been in a similar situation? I'm still not sure how I'm going to play out the end. I can't be fired, at least not for the next 6 months, ( at least I don't think they can cancel my contract) but they can not renew my contract in 6 months. Other than this project the work has been okay.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 5, 2010 #2
    This isn't an academia/industry issue. It's a badly run company issue.

    If management wants a positive report, then management can write a positive report, and have their names signed off on that positive report.

    Since they know what the results are, then have them write the report.

    And if something goes wrong, then they want someone other than themselves to take the blame for it. So if things blow up (either figuratively or literally) then they are *shocked* because you said everything was fine. In these sorts of situations, I'd e-mail a written rough draft that accurate describes the situation, and if they have problems with it, then then can e-mail back corrections.

    If you don't feel comfortable writing something, then you need to have an e-mail trail that makes it pretty clear that *you* didn't write it. The standard corporate-speak for this is "I'm uncomfortable with....." If you get ordered to do something, make sure it's in some e-mail.

    They'll figure out. If they don't know, then what's the point of writing anything?

    I'd have a look at the market to see what it's like. If it's a choice between bending or starving, then it's not shameful to bend. However, usually that's not the choice. It's unlikely that this is the last time they'll have you do something like this, and if it just doesn't work out for you there, it just doesn't work out.

    One thing that you do have to figure out is what your job *really* is. If it turns out that your job is 'corporate scapegoat" then its likely to be unpleasant for you. Try to figure out why they want *you* to do the dirty work. It may be because no one else is willing.

    My experience is that companies that aren't willing to face reality end up falling apart anyway. One piece of advice is that I've found it useful to switch companies from time to time just for the heck of it, so once your contract ends, assuming that the economy isn't totally horrible, it may be worthwhile to switch jobs for the sake of doing it.

    The reason for this is that if losing your job creates total terror, then this gives other people a lot of control over you. Since I've moved from job to job before, it worries me but it doesn't terrify me, and since it doesn't terrify me to switch jobs, then if someone wants me to do something that I really don't think is a good idea, I'm more likely to push back.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2010
  4. Jan 5, 2010 #3


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    Are you signing off on the report (legally are you a PEng/CEng) ?
    If not then have a paper trail, or make sure your name isn't on it, as twofish suggests.

    Is management unhappy that the report is negative, ie the equipement doesn't work/isn't safe or that your report is inconclusive?
    Customers aren't normally too upset about a negative report, they would rather you found the problem than fail an FDA/FCC certification or end up in court with a dead user.

    But a big difference between academea and industry is that inconclusive isn't an option.
    If you haven't been able to measure some effect the customer is justified in blaming you - another lab could have better equipment or smarter people.

    In science there is always some doubt, some effect that you haven't completely ruled out. In industry (and engineering) there may be a more real world, best efforts, reasonable doubt conclusion.
  5. Jan 5, 2010 #4
    Just a bit about my own experience. A few years ago, I was looking for work on Wall Street, and after talking with people in various places, it was pretty obvious to me which places were places that people really cared about what was really going on and which places where people would say or do anything to make a quick buck. Since I'm the type of person that would go insane in a "say anything to make money" culture, I decided to work with and for people that actually wanted to hear the truth, even when it was bad......

    Fast forward a few years, and that turned out to be a *really* good decision.....
  6. Jan 6, 2010 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    I've been in that situation before. Unfortunately, in this situation, it is a very fine line between being *professional* and being a *good employee*.

    First off, you need to be honest with yourself- are you sure *you* haven't made a mistake? What is the evidence? Can you defend your work before a committee of experts?

    When you write the report, you need to simply stick to the facts. The result you obtained must be presented in a way that an independent expert (say, the customer hired someone specifically to dispute your result) can read what you did and understand every step. And that includes details and hypotheses about why the technique failed this time when it has been demonstrated to work in the past.

    Now for the bad news: In my experience, by acting professionally when there is managerial pressure to bias results you will gain a reputation for honesty and quality, but your advancement at the company will be very limited.
  7. Jan 6, 2010 #6
    One should note that this creates an organizational bias. If you give the answers that management wants to hear, then it gets rubber stamped. If you give answers that management doesn't want to hear, then you will have to fight tooth and nail sometimes to defend them. One organizational tactic is to kill an idea by questioning it to death, and this is a good tactic since you can argue that you are just being through and objective.

    Something else that tends to happen is that technical people tend to stick together. One way of checking if its just you is to work with the other technical people to see what they think. If they tend to agree with you, then you have a united front in which management really can't do anything much. If they don't, then maybe it's not possible to fight this issue.

    The good news is that they won't probably won't fire you. If management is doing something that really can't be justified then firing someone will just draw attention to it, and in a large corporation, it's *REALLY* hard to fire someone (sometimes too hard).

    If management doesn't like you, then what will happen is that you will get below average performance evaluations (the code words here are "not being a team player", "argumentative", "inflexible"), which means that you won't get promotions. That's not necessarily a bad thing if you really don't care, and all you want is a job that lets you make a living. Once you get some hints that they don't like you, there is a pretty long period of them in which either they leave or you do.

    People in corporations rarely get fired. What happens is that there is a rank order to people to lay off in case things go bad, and you really need to figure out where you are on that line. If you are high on the layoff list, then you need to leave when the economy is good, because you'll out the door when the economy tanks.

    Also there are two things to keep in mind:

    1) Managers have managers. Things in a company can change *very* quickly, and one reason for doing things right is that you could have a high level change in policy in which what got you in trouble six months ago, now gets you rewarded. (Or it could get yourself in even more trouble.) Sometimes, if you stick around, it's your supervisors that get replaced, transferred, etc.

    2) Like attracts like. What happens is that if you have clueless managers, is that people that have skills get annoyed and leave, whereas people that bend to managers stay. This creates a reverse Darwin effect, and things can spiral downward until you either get a high level management change, or the company goes off a cliff.

    Also just like "Piled higher and deeper" gives the most insightful commentary of what academia is really like. If you want to see what a modern research corporation looks like the big resources are "Dilbert" and "Better off Ted."
  8. Jan 6, 2010 #7
    One other thing is that you need to look at the big picture and see what the consequences really are. If it's something that is going to just get included in some powerpoint that is going to be forgotten after ten minutes, then it's likely not worth arguing over.

    If it's an issue over which lives are at stake or which has risks to the world economy (and I'm not being hyperbolic since large corporations frequently *do* make decisions that can end up killing people or destroying the world economy), then it's an issue that you really should fight over. Even if you lose, you'll feel better having fought.

    One reason to not get too upset over minor issue is so that you have the energy to fight the major issues.
  9. Jan 6, 2010 #8
    I would echo Andy's question - are you sure you are right. It sounds like you are. Are the managers MBAs & sales people or were they once technical? If they have a tech background, be extra sure they don't know something you don't.

    If you are right, try not to cave in to their wishes. Once the current crises is over you may be remembered as 'a straight shooter' rather than 'inflexible.' Depends on the environment (& it sounds like you haven't been there long, maybe it isn't as bad as you think).
  10. Jan 6, 2010 #9
    I think the over riding factor is that the manager wants the companies business in future. If we give them a report that says the measurements are almost completely useless, then they probably wont come back.

    I think I've found a way to write the report that is going to deliver the results correctly and will keep the customer happy. And management can change it how ever they like after I give it to them.

    I've given the analysis to a few people that I respect. And they all agree that the analysis is sound. And in general the experimental technique works. It's just that the equipment that was given to us wasn't optimal.

    Thanks to everyone for the posts. It has given me a few items to think about.
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