How to buy new scientific equipment

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An acquaintance of mine started working in a new lab, and they have a beautiful, expensive, nearly brand-new liquid handler*. It’s currently unused and gathering dust. The technique they bought it to perform (which has to be laborious to do by hand, or they wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place) is currently being done. By hand.

*A liquid handler is a robot that is programmable to, literally, handle liquid. You can load it up with plates, tubes, reservoirs, petri dishes… whatever you’d like, and it will transfer liquid for you from one place to another. If you’d like your mind blown, check out my current favorite at HamiltonRobotics.com. Check out their youtube videos. (I’m not being compensated or anything to say this – it really is my favorite.)

The saddest part is that I’ve heard this song and dance before. A lab finally convinces their PI/Director/Money-Giver to purchase an automated system, and it sits there unused because… why? Most of the time only one person in the lab knows how to use it. Perhaps it worked for a while and then broke and you can’t get the supplier to fix it. It’s usually never used to its full potential, and in the meantime, people are still getting carpal tunnel from repetitive pipetting.

This post is very nuts and bolts, but I can’t help myself. I’ve decided to write a tutorial on how to buy a new piece of scientific equipment. Do I have credentials to speak on this topic? Yes. Have I been employed to sell scientific equipment for the last 10 years? No my friends. My education came from the streets. When you are put in charge of buying HPLCs, liquid handlers, peptide synthesizers, plate readers, mass spectrometers, and other things I can’t even remember, you learn a thing or two.

So here we go – these are my super-duper, number one, must-follow commandments to buying a piece of equipment. Share widely!!

1. Demo. Demo, demo, demo, demo, demo. Seriously. Do not purchase without a demo. Most manufacturers will offer to bring it on-site, but they’ll want to babysit you through one experiment and then leave. Ask them to leave it with you for a few days so you can find the bugs on your own (they are very good at avoiding them with a hand-held demo).

If they won’t bring it on-site, go to them if you can (but first, be wary – why do they want you to buy something without testing it?)

If they won’t bring it to you, and you can’t go visit them, but you absolutely have to have it, then write a conditional statement into your purchase agreement that allows for a trial period. Most manufacturers work on at least a net-30 basis if your lab has any credit (meaning you don’t have to pay until 30 days after it arrives). See if you can negotiate a 50% down net-30, and then 50% later (or even better terms). That way if it breaks or isn’t working properly, you still have leverage so they’ll pay attention to you and fix it.

2. Pretend you are dumb. I can’t tell you how many pieces of equipment could not actually perform the function they were built to perform. When they show you how it works, ask what every button means, and ask why they are using the software in a particular way. This is how you find the bugs. Let’s not live in a fairy tale here – there will be bugs. The sooner you find them, the sooner you can tell if you can live with them. Try to think about any variable you’d want to change during an experiment and see if the equipment can handle it. Be annoying, but in a charming way. Buy them a cup of coffee and express excitement for the product (while asking them every question you can think of).

3. Purchase equipment that exports raw data. For those of you who already analyze your own data – bravo, this is clearly a must for you. For those of you who don’t – why not? Are you sure you won’t ever need the raw data… ever? Even if you only use their analysis software, can you guarantee that the next software upgrade won’t change something that you can’t control? Most equipment will export raw data into a simple file, like a .txt, .csv, or .xml. You can probably find a way to work with whatever form it’s exported in (as long as it doesn’t come out in binary).

4. Modify your purchase agreement. If you were buying a new car, would you take the initial offer? Oh heck no. You’d negotiate. Why? Because you are a smart person, and you know the only time you have leverage is before the purchase is made. In this industry, most of the profits are made from the service contracts, not the equipment itself. That means they get more money from servicing their equipment than selling it. Don’t just sign what’s offered. Make a list of exactly what the equipment needs to do for you:

  • How often does it need to function?
  • What accuracy is required? (Be specific! Also, make sure you can test and confirm any of these numbers, and offer to share the data with them)
  • What does the software need to do?
  • What happens if the software upgrades? (Doesn’t it still need to do the things above? Why yes, yes it does.)

Include conditionals so that it has to do those things or you get to return it. You can ask your lawyer friends for some good legal terminology to use here.

Be prepared because they are going to push back a little on this. They will say they can’t guarantee their instrument will function perfectly all of the time. “Of course” – you say in a conciliatory tone, because you are buddies – “we’re in this together”. Ask them what they can guarantee. Make it clear that time lost is money lost. If it’s broken, how quickly can they fix it so it meets the previous expectations?

If you are going to hold them to a high standard, put yourself there as well. Get as much data as possible from your controls and experiments so you can show them when it works and when it doesn’t. Be meticulous and offer to share that data with them if you can.

5. Make them invested in you. Try to make them care about their instrument’s success in your lab. Perhaps you have friends who will all want to buy their product if it works well. Maybe you can use their equipment for a new application – this means more $$$ for them, and you can offer to work with a product manager to write a new application note. Or maybe you can just get them to care about you and your work, and the negative impact that’s made when their equipment doesn’t function properly. This is why you have to be friendly and charming through this whole process – this is a dual investment, and they should want to work with you.

Hungry for more? If you’ve read all this and want to keep going, then we should be friends. Really. See my super pro tips below:

Super pro tip #1: Buy your own computer. If the equipment needs to use a computer, purchase it yourself (or better yet – build it). Ask what types of connections are required to hook up to the instrument (Serial port? Ethernet? PCI card?). This way you are in control if the computer breaks down, you can get a decent model to your specifications, and you’ll save some moolah. Otherwise they’ll charge you $3000 for a crappy Dell laptop. (No offense to Dell, but seriously).

Super pro tip #2: Ask about software compatibilities. If it only runs on Windows XP, be afraid. Be very afraid. If getting stuck with a $3k Dell laptop is bad, getting stuck with one only running XP for the next 5 years is worse. This will help you gauge how much they care about their software. In my experience, most instrumentation companies are made of hardware people, not software people. The hardware can function beautifully but bad software will screw it all up.

That’s it! If you have any additional tips or comments, let’s hear ’em. We should be fighting to make research better, not putting up with the same problems over and over again.

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Funemployment: Re-entering the working world

[Comic from Doghouse Diaries]

If you want to sigh at the word “funemployment”, go ahead. It’s cool.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about what it is. If you want to google it, you can read examples that mostly buoy the impression of the self-entitled youth. You know, the twenty-something-who-doesn’t-understand-hard-work kind of thing.

In my experience, that stereotype doesn’t really fit for unemployed (fun or not) scientists and engineers.

When we decided to go to graduate school (say, in the years 2004 – 2008 or so), we were told that higher education was the key to job security. We were assured that we shouldn’t worry about student loans. And then, one by one, tiers of professional options toppled. Major law firms shut down. Pharmaceutical companies slashed R&D departments. NASA and other scientific funding sources were cut. I was lucky – I was able to weather some of the storm in grad school. But even when I took my “risky” job at a start-up in 2010, I had more job security there than friends going to work for Pfizer or Merck. 

The job market for STEM professionals (and lawyers) is still pretty dire – that fact can’t be ignored. Excluding those who are desperately looking for a job, there are still many of us who are choosing, at least for a short period of time, to stay unemployed (a.k.a., funemployed). How come? It’s not because we don’t understand hard work, or we have a lot of money, or we’re lazy. In fact, let’s do a little focus study on your typical graduate student:

If we look at the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a prestigious award, it offers its 2014 awardees $32,000 as an annual stipend. Let’s be generous and use that as a ballpark graduate student salary (in fact, it’s typically $2000 or so above the stipend offered by the school).

First point: The stipend is a flat rate. If you look at stipends for graduate schools across the country, the values are pretty flat there as well. Cost of living is generally ignored. From someone who has lived in Arkansas and Silicon Valley, I can tell you that $32k stretches further in some places than others.

Next, let’s factor in the 2014 federal tax brackets. If you are making $32k a year and filing as single, you are going to be taxed at an average rate of 13.58%. You are taxed at 10% for an income of $9,075, and 15% for any income over $9,075 but below $36,900. (My mother, the accountant, is so proud of me right now). If you do the math, that means you’ll be paying $4,346 in taxes.

Your final take-home income is $27,654. For a 40-hour workweek, that’s not too bad – about $13.30 an hour. But what graduate student only works 40 hours a week? Let’s be generous again and say the average workweek is about 60 hours (though mine and my colleagues were typically longer). That drops your taxed hourly pay (remember – generously) down to $8.86 per hour.

Forgive my rant, scattered with nuggets of stipend averages and tax math. Do I think graduate students and post-docs are underpaid? Yes.

But my point is this – we’re not in it for the money. If one of my colleagues is funemployed, it’s not because they are lazy or entitled. We’re in STEM fields because we are passionate, motivated, innovative people who think we can change the world. We want to understand cancer, make green energy alternatives, synthesize new therapeutics. Even by the 3rd year of graduate school when we’ve been bumped down a few notches, we still think we can make a difference – and we’re willing to be paid minimum wage to do it.

So why are some of these motivated, passionate people choosing funemployment? From what I’ve seen, it’s one of the following options:

  • They’re at a crossroads. Maybe they’ve just graduated, been laid off, or their contract internship/fellowship/etc. has ended. (Maybe, you know, they just moved across the country for their husband’s job or something.)
  • They’re disillusioned. With the current job market, that’s not too rare.
  • They’re burnt out. They’ve been working themselves silly for the last n years, and need to take some time to remember what they’re working for.
  • They’re considering a career transition. Sometimes this isn’t their choice – some of them might have wanted a faculty position (something that feels about as rare as Halley’s comet nowadays).

Funemployed people are lucky in some way, meaning they have an alternative source of financial support (savings, a spouse’s salary, etc). It’s usually not the lap of luxury, but they can get by, so they take a break. They re-assess their initial motivations and evaluate how they’ve transformed over the last few years. They try to define their unique skills and identify career paths. They’re not making 40-year plans here – they’ve seen too much disruption to hope for that. Even a five year plan is a little optimistic. So they mull on what they want to do for the next 1-3 years.

And now – we’re finally at the real point of this post – they are ready to re-enter the job market. And by they, I really mean we, because I am one of these people.

There are some really good things about this phase. We STEM people are probably too type-A or energetic to sit around eating cheetos all day (at least, not for more than a week or two), so we’ve probably done something interesting with our free time. I started a blog (a cliche for a funemployed person, I know), spent time with my family, read voraciously, and was re-introduced to life “off-call” (not constantly checking my phone, email, etc). Learning a new programming language is next on my list of things to do.

Having time off has re-invigorated my creativity. The freedom has given me time to reconnect to my natural instinct to write, and I’m able to satisfy my curiosity when something comes along I want to know more about. (Since I’m addicted to all things TED, that happens a lot). So much time to reflect allowed me to draw a road map of myself, my motivations, and the type of job I’m looking for.

But it’s not all rainbows and cupcakes. I’ve been funemployed for two reasons – I’m at a crossroads, and I’m considering a career transition. In some ways, compared to the fast pace of science & tech, I feel like the last few months have been a little stagnant. I feel caught between two worlds because I can’t whole-heartedly commit to the jobs I’m qualified for, but I don’t have enough experience for that different job I want. I’m in a new area of the country with a different culture and new acronyms (jobs here are defined in terms of a general schedule for goodness sake). It’s a little overwhelming. Maybe some of you feel the same way.

So what does a funemployed person do when they are ready to re-enter the work force? I have three pieces of advice.

1. Look for a company, not a job post.

I don’t know about you, but going through job search engines is depressing. At first, it’s mining for gold. Then, you are lucky to see one or two new things pop up each day. You check them all during your morning coffee and think – what the heck am I supposed to do now? If your time off has been as reflectively fruitful as mine, take that mental vision of your ideal job and find a company that matches it. If you are looking for a technical position, find a company with a vision or technology you are psyched about. If you are looking for a writing job, find a source that writes the way you want to. If they have open positions, great. If not, maybe send them your resume anyway with a cover letter that expresses your enthusiasm for the company.

2. Be unashamed.

You probably have a large network (or at least, a network that’s larger than you think). You are probably an alumni from somewhere. You probably have friends who are happy to send an email to that random classmate who started a cool company. Don’t say no to a potential networking opportunity. Find conferences, meetups, or classes.  Don’t be afraid to tell people you are job-hunting, just make sure you can communicate who you are and what you are looking for.

3. Be patient, but proactive.

I am a very impatient person. (My close friends and family understand the word “very” there is a euphemism.) Mentally I know this is going to take a while and that there are going to be some dead ends. But when I’ve read the 50th irrelevant job posting or “no open positions” notice, I try to remind myself what I’m looking for. I’m willing to intern, freelance, or be underemployed (work in a position I’m overqualified for) in order to get that job. I have to believe that I have skills worth contributing, and that a place exists for me to contribute to. Until then, I actively wait.

4. UPDATE (2/7/14): Use the 60% rule

I can’t believe I forgot my most important rule! I’m using the 60% rule (a la Sheryl Sandberg). If it’s a job I’m excited about, I apply even if I’m only 60% qualified. And yes, this is hard. I can be the queen of talking myself out of a position. But I try to remember this – let them be the ones to tell you no. Every job is going to have an element of training, and for a quick learner and hard worker, 40% to learn can’t be that hard. Just prepare yourself to put some elbow grease into it.

30

Dan's cake

In marriage, I’ve found I use the “royal we” for things, even when the experience falls primarily on the other person. “We’re” job-searching. “We” just defended our thesis. “We” are low-carb. You can’t help but be affected by the spouse – it could be a small habit (“I don’t like regular milk any more” turned into “we drink almond milk”) to a huge life decision. For example, when my husband defended his Ph.D. I truly felt like it was a “we” process. I had stopped working at that point, so I was the audience for every practice talk, the sounding board for every graphic, the therapist for every anxiety, and the sharer in every celebration.

So even though it’s weird, when my husband turned 30 this week, I feel like “we” turned 30. In truth I have 6 more months to go, but I’ve already switched from “twenty-somethings” to “thirty-somethings” in normal conversation. Pretty strange, right? Why am I so willing to throw myself into the 30s bucket when I have friends who will be celebrating 28 for at least another few years?

Your twenties are hard – much harder than you ever expect. You begin an independent life away from your parents and lingering high school habits. You do some really stupid stuff that you regret as you realize that you aren’t the center of the universe. Your personality grows, develops, and changes. If you are like me, you fail at something – really, adult fail – for the first time in your life.

But – all of these difficult things lead to incredible personal development. If you’ve accomplished so much, why would you want to stay in a decade with so much turmoil? I’m actually excited to be 30. I feel that I’ve earned it. I think 30 is an exciting phase – the perfect balance of centered open-ness. I’m still energetic, hopeful, and open to learning new things, but I don’t have the same nagging naiveté of inexperience. I know more about myself, so my deviations and explorations are more focused and (hopefully) productive.

I’m sorry to fly in the face of all those birthday-haters out there, but cheers, 30 – here I come.

Defining Your Scientific Personality

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Scientists and engineers dive into unknown territory fraught with trial and error. This discovery-based process leads to diverse work environments (self-directed vs. directed vs. team-based), differing management strategies, and variable metrics to determine progress. With so many permutations, it can be difficult for a scientist or engineer to actively seek (not just passively find) the right fit in their career. This post is about taking more control over your professional path by defining your work-relevant values– something I’m calling your scientific personality.

This exercise can be particularly useful near the beginning of your career. Perhaps you are in a graduate program and you are struggling to define your priorities and what constitutes success. Maybe you are currently job searching and want more predictive power when deciding what environment would be best. Or you may already be employed, but sense there is a mismatch between what you value and what is rewarded in your workplace.

I spent 4 years in a graduate program that was surely troubled, but not atypical. It wasn’t until I moved to a start-up company that I realized that I had a specific scientific personality, and that my graduate program’s values were nearly opposite of my own. I wasted time judging myself on misconceived flaws – things I thought were “bad”, but in reality were simply less valued in that environment. I could have spent that energy improving real weaknesses and better leveraging my strengths.

An “advice” blog post can never replace your own learning experiences, but defining your scientific personality can help you better utilize your skills in your current position and give you more control when choosing the right environment for your career.

Scientific Archetype Spectra

Category 1: Knowledge Values

Individual_Institutional

Lovers of individual knowledge are endlessly inquisitive. They tend to be well informed on just about everything. They may not be naturally inclined to document that knowledge, but are willing to share it, typically verbally or demonstratively, if and when someone asks.

Scientists or engineers who value institutional knowledge love to document. You’ll find these people naturally writing thorough protocols and reports. They love to share what they know. In research, institutional knowledge scientists might be the few and brave with methods sections you can actually replicate.

Career perspective: This distinction could self-select for industry (institutional knowledge) vs. academia (individual knowledge), but each type is necessary in both environments. Make sure that your values benefit you in your workplace, and you can turn on or off your sharing ability in the right situation. Someone who naturally shares information (valuing institutional knowledge) could be taken advantage of in a competitive environment, and someone valuing individual knowledge could be viewed as an isolationist in teamwork situations.

Applied_Foundational

Applied knowledge builders prefer to create a solution with a specific problem in mind. They are able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant knowledge towards this end, and can even ignore things they deem irrelevant to make progress forward.

Those that value foundational knowledge enjoy building an expertise because the process of discovery is important, regardless of whether the knowledge can result in a specific product, technology, or technique. If provided with a problem to solve, they begin by learning all the basic facts rather than focusing on what might be the most obvious flaw.

Career perspective: This is typically used as a distinction between academia (foundational knowledge) and industry (applied knowledge), but this isn’t necessarily so strict. Instead, consider your preference and the pressures of the work environment. If you are a foundational knowledge builder, make sure you are given the time and flexibility to build your information base. You might get frustrated and feel pressured to ignore certain areas of knowledge if you are rushed with a hard deadline. An applied knowledge builder could be highly valued because of their ability to quickly create prototypes, but they could be seen as sloppy in a foundational knowledge environment if they don’t take everything into account.

Category 2: Task Values

Builder_Explorer

Builders like detail. They like to tear a thing apart and look at the nuts and bolts. They have patience for iteration. A builder’s biggest satisfaction comes from a system or product that is built soundly and functioning robustly. They aren’t necessarily risk-averse, but the risks they take are in a controlled environment and vital to the task at hand.

Explorers like the unknown. They like to reach and jump to try new things, and as a result, may be less emotionally affected by a negative result. They are risk-takers and opportunists. After the discovery is made, they are ready to move on – iteration can be left to others.

Career perspective: Builders may be drawn to developing devices or production pipelines, or working within a core facility. Explorers may enjoy interdisciplinary research, managing groups of diverse disciplines towards a common goal, or doing hands-on research in a new field.

Doer_Thinker

Doers favor a pilot experiment over a planning session. They might re-discover a thing or two they could have read in the literature, but they trust the physical proof of their own work more – they probably would have repeated those experiments anyway. The crazy or circuitous route they take to solving the problem widens the possibility of discovery. Doers may never solve the original problem at hand – they may find more interesting things to do or circumvent the issue entirely.

Rather than jump into an experiment, thinkers plan out the problem. Sleep on the problem. Read on the problem. They build a roadmap. They might take a while to get started experimentally, but once they do, their trajectory to solving the problem may follow a nearly straight line.

Career perspective: Thinkers may prefer project management, analyst, or consultancy positions. They may not need to do the physical experimentation themselves, but can effectively direct it if given enough time to determine a course of action. They would likely be frustrated if working under very strict timelines. Doers may prefer hands-on work where they are in charge of the first iteration of a project or task. They may prefer a discovery-oriented environment where less is known and the experimental burden is high.

Short Term_Long Term

Short-term goal people need to see concrete accomplishments in weeks or months to maintain motivation. If they can’t see something they can define as progress they begin to feel aimless and burnt out. If presented with a long-term goal, they will naturally subdivide it into smaller steps to create a roadmap to a solution.

Long-term goal people need to have a grand vision. This vision doesn’t have to stay fixed – it can morph and adapt, but if it is drastically changed or suddenly taken away, they feel disoriented. Someone motivated by long-term goals can even develop tangential skills (in other words, moving laterally rather than vertically) as long as the top is still in view. If a long-term goal person is put into an environment with only short-term goals, they will naturally create a larger construct so all the small tasks can be accommodated into one objective.

Career perspective: Short-term goal people may prefer a career resulting in lots of tangible results (a device, a product, a software program). Long-term people can shoot for a large goal (curing cancer, revolutionizing a large industry) even if accomplishing this goal may take their entire career lifetimes.

Category 3: Work Environment Values

Internally_Externally

The internally motivated utilize a vision. If they aren’t immediately drawn to the goal, they create a construct they can be passionate about. It is no longer about the requirements on the page; it’s about completing their vision for the task. They’d rather do 80% of the job and do it right than rush to make a deadline.

Externally motivated people are closers. The deadline is sacred, and people depend on them because of that reputation. To quote a Facebook mantra, they believe that “done is better than perfect”. They value pushing a job across the finish line. If they can’t accomplish everything they set out to do, that’s ok – iteration after release is part of the process.

Career perspective: An internally motivated person will be highly valued in an environment where product quality is essential. An extrinsically motivated person could be an incredible salesperson. Beware of a career mismatch here – if you aren’t a good fit in this regard you could quickly find yourself labeled as “not meeting expectations”. Consider how you will be evaluated and what metrics will be used.

Teamwork_Independence

People who prefer teamwork aren’t absent of self-direction. Once there is a clear objective and concrete tasks to accomplish, they are more than capable (and perhaps prefer) working independently. But when an idea is developing, they find that a brainstorming session is the most productive way for them to organize their thoughts. The round-table input from others gives them confidence that all potential avenues have been discussed, and they have collectively arrived at the best path forward. Teamwork-oriented people may be more inclined to discuss their work at a variety of stages rather than waiting until all ts are crossed before making a report.

People who prefer independent work aren’t necessarily isolationists. They may find a brainstorming session with a team very distracting, and instead prefer the solace of their own thought until they can plan a trajectory to solving the problem. They prefer to be active in every step of a process and dislike large lapses of personal involvement or understanding along the way. They are less inclined to share results mid-way through a process, and instead may keep things to themselves until they can provide a finished product or final report.

Career perspective: Team-oriented people may like working in an interdisciplinary field where input from multiple people is usually required. They may enjoy a consultancy in which they have to work with a small team and clients to solve a problem. People who prefer independence and self-direction may like freelance work in which they are entirely responsible for producing a quality product. They would likely enjoy building and maintaining a reputation within a certain area of expertise. While most people have a preference with this spectrum, you rarely find a career that’s exclusively independent or team-based. To make sure your preference is positively utilized in your work, ask yourself: In what situation does it really matter that I call the shots? When is working with a team most valuable to me?

Conclusion: Find Matching Values

I see the world in grayscale rather than black and white, which is why I’ve insisted on creating an archetype spectrum rather than just an identity. You likely don’t fall to one polar opposite or the other. Your preference could shift based on context or under certain stressors, or evolve with experience and time. You may want to re-determine your scientific personality before every career move to see how your exposure and experience has affected your values.

I hope this post has prompted some self-evaluation and you can mark where you lie on each spectrum listed above. It’s even better if you can associate situations or anecdotes to each spectrum as examples of your preferences. I believe if you know your own value construct, you have a better sense of how to find a work environment with similar priorities. If you aren’t feeling validated with what your current job defines as “success”, perhaps it is time to navigate to something with more congruent values.

Coming soon:

  • Working effectively with a coworker or a manager who has a different scientific personality
  • Hiring the right team by balancing scientific personalities
  • Managing effectively by determining your team members’ scientific personalities

** Note: In case you are curious, the setting visualized on each spectrum is totally random. It does not, for example, reflect my personal preference, but perhaps I’ll define my own personality as an example in a later post!

“Fun-gineering” gone wrong

Silicon valley tech is likely patient zero of the “fun” workplace. Google and Facebook openly publicize offices with bright colors, bean bag chairs, and (according to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In), large LEGO collections.

I won’t deny that my tiny sector of silicon valley biotech embraced this model as well.

And yes – this is me:

I just read the NY Times OpEd “Who goes to work to have fun” and was horrified to hear that this workplace model has been co-opted (and even commercialized?) by “happiness consultants” or “fungineers”. Oliver Burkeman is spot on – putting up silly movie posters with your coworkers faces instead of the actors is a la The Office cringeworthy. Forced fun is just that – forced.

In graduate school, my coworkers were generally unhappy. It was a high stress environment where group-wide whisperings about our PI’s mood before meetings was normal. Yet every year, he insisted on a full-participation beach day and christmas party. We had no control over this mandatory fun – there was a highly regimented and scheduled series of events we were expected to maintain. Prior mishaps, like the time the appointed organizers chose a beach site too close to the bathrooms, lived in infamy.

When I joined a biotech start-up, there were no forced team-building exercises or trust falls. Instead, there were subtle gestures that my CEOs cared. Free coffee and tea of our choice. An endless supply of soda. A genuine appreciation of good work over face time. Relatively frequent lunches with the bosses to check in.

True to Burkeman’s OpEd, if workers in an environment feel they are not being treated fairly, no amount of mandatory fun is going to change their happiness levels. I think the Silicon Valley (SV) casual workplace idea is less about creating ‘fun’ and more about incorporating work into a larger lifestyle. Speaking from experience, the people in these SV companies are not 9-to-5 ‘ers. They don’t come in to clock hours and take home a paycheck. These are passionate people who are willing to put in lots of time because they feel they are enabling change.

I think SV realizes that managing that time investment requires some workplace accommodation. If many of your employees bike to work, make the office bike friendly. If the normal employee works 60+ hours a week, provide a gym (or a gym membership) as a healthy way to deal with stress. Set up a virtual private network (VPN) so workers can access the network or their work computer from home or a coffee shop. Don’t be afraid to push hard, but recognize when your employees need a break. Reward good work when reward is due, and provide honest feedback when improvements need to be made.

If you are in control of a work environment and want to make it more fun, just be observant, communicate authentically, and show that you care. Making an effort to make work more convenient or comfortable can go much farther in the happiness regime than a hawaiian shirt friday.

What is Automorphyc

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I like to reflect on transformations. I step outside of those pivotal life moments and inspect them. I re-live and re-process them. I almost savor them. Despite the upheaval, I think that as I’ve evolved, I’ve actually become more cohesive. It’s like I’m discovering something that’s already there, but it stays hidden from me until I can redeem it.

I thought the term ‘automorphism’ was an interesting analogy for this process – it’s a mathematical concept in which an item undergoes a transformation, but retains it’s identity. A good example of an automorphism is the rearrangement of a list of numbers, like {1, 7, 28, 53, 4} into {4, 28, 7, 53, 1}. It’s clear a change has occurred, and yet the core remains.

The title also represents the wonderful and terrible dichotomy of my technical and creative sides. I hope to find some resolution to the chaos through writing and wanted to document the journey. So here we go…