The Trade-off Between Useful and Interesting

Brown Betty Teapot
Credit: flickr / clevercupcakes

I don’t think I’m cut out for graduate school.

I say this as someone who just spent half an hour hiding in the bathroom in tears, so take what follows with a pinch of salt. I’m not giving up quite yet.

Today, my supervisor told me my work made no contribution. I admit, that I haven’t exactly defined in my own head what my contribution is, but given the interest in my work from a couple of companies, the people I talk to, the requests for talks, and the traffic stats for my website I thought it was clear that I’d made something that was potentially useful. I thought that would imply a contribution.

Perhaps the reality is that I have not made a contribution to computer science. I’ve taken stuff that already existed, and arranged it in a different way. My innovation lies in the combination, not the creation, of technology.

However, if we look at the people who are innovating they’re innovating at the edge. Facebook innovates in technology, but their greatest innovations are in the social aspect. Apple innovates where hardware meets great design (fascinating post on the design of the iPhone and the upcoming Apple Tablet). Google innovates where technology meets utility. Google docs, for example, innovates in Javascript but the biggest game changer is being able to work on your documents online, from anywhere, with anyone. Whilst Google came from academic research, the thing that made them the big player they are in technology today was AdSense, not the content of the seminal paper that started the search engine. Google is a great example of what I’m talking about. Everything they innovate seems to bring some new innovation that’s not just technical. Even speeding up searches – whilst I don’t notice that my single search takes less time, the search API is infrastructure underling things like Google Squared, so I will notice when a square takes much less time to generate.

The people whose work I admire most are working at the intersection of tech and art (Sep Kamvar, Jonathan Harris, Gilad  Lotan), or organization in creating tech (Joel on software). The academic work I admire is coming from places where technology enables, but are not necessarily technology-focused, like danah boyd at Microsoft Research, Clay Shirky (NYU prof and author of “Here Comes Everybody” – Amazon) and the MIT Media Lab (I particularly like Mycrocosm).

This  disconnect between real world and university is frustrating me. In design, there’s the ideal that something can be both beautiful and functional (see Don Norman’s TED talk and his post about teapots). In creating software, my ideal is something that is both interesting and useful. As a compromise, I’ll take useful. The university ideal is interesting.

I was confident because I thought I’d hit the interesting and useful jackpot. I’ve read so many papers about Twitter, the bar seemed low, I thought it would be easy even. Papers proposing the addition of semantics (I never saw the point of this, the power of Twitter is it’s simplicity), making simplistic errors like saying you could only @ someone if you followed them. Papers proposing a system of vast complexity in order to facilitate how people used instant messenger asynchronously or their status to send a message… and then Facebook came and blew that idea away by just inviting people to set their status and then displaying it in a stream friends can dip in and out of.

This search for interesting above utility has the potential to spawn research that’s like trying to find the fastest way to ski on old-fashioned straight skis. What’s the point in that? If you goal is to ski as fast as possible, you need to get a pair of parabolics and learn how to master the parabolic technique. This research has a very limited audience. It is not where I want to be.

In this analogy, University is like the ESF (Ecole du Ski Français), an institution so steeped and stifled by unionization and protectionism they will take you, on your parabolic skis, and teach you to ski upright with your legs jammed together, rendering it impossible to take advantage of the parabolic edges.

I need to be skiing parabolically. I want to be heading to what I think is important – usefulness, and interesting. But if I have to compromise, I’d sooner be working on making better hairbands (useful, but not that interesting), than making better straight skis (interesting, but not useful). This means that I want to be at the edge of Computer Science, not in the middle of it. Because that’s where I think the innovation is. Perhaps grad school is not the place for me as a result of this.

Yes, what a terrible time to realize this.

In any situation, there are options. What are mine?

  • Give up, drop out.
  • Work harder to determine a “contribution” I can claim to make.
  • Stop trying to publish and just write a thesis.
  • Something else I’ve yet to think of.

Advice welcome.

11 thoughts on “The Trade-off Between Useful and Interesting

  1. The problem is perhaps not your work per se, but rather the communication/sales/marketing of it. In many cases it comes down to doing what you do, but framing the explanation in terms which fit the expectations of the sorta computer science society/community. For example you can compare a picture of twitter users graph with that of a spammer is useful. Adding in some kind of mathematical calculation of said graphs somehow speaks to the expectations of the scientific community….even if it is a tad on the BS side. But, so what? Put both! Heck make a table of the results of said calculations!

    I actually ran into a bit of this myself, and certainly all grad students run into periods of being in the dumper…feelings wise. Your not different. It is a phase of grad school.

    Chug a vitamin water…you will be and do fine!

  2. Agree with pinemud, it seems to be part of the process. kind of like a startup figuring out the what's and how's. Rash/quick decisions are probably detrimental to the outcome you want.

  3. Cate, there is another issue here that you are not tackling head-on: in academia anti-social behavior, such as telling a talented and hard-working person bluntly that their work “made no contribution”, is prevalent and acceptable. What ever happened to mentoring? guidance? or at a minimum a gentle choice of words? It's not that the world is short on jerks of all kinds, but in a commercial software setting this is far less common. In my world of software startups it's almost unheard of (but the few cases of ultra-jerkness that I did get to witness in my career do have something in common: the ultra-jerk is always a CS PhD).

  4. Yes! Thanks so much for writing this. Whilst people have given me great advice (which I've assembled in my head into a coherent plan) I'm still reeling that anyone would this this is an effective way to get anyone's best work out of them. Despite the plan, I feel pretty discouraged and alienated. Can't wait to leave academia and join the real world.

  5. Thanks guys 🙂 I'm taking your advice, and current plan is to create a 2 page document outlining what I've done and what I'm thinking in bullet points as the big part of the problem is that he's not read anything I've produced :-s

  6. I didn't think you *had* to contribute something new to your field in a Master's program—I thought that was something only Ph.D's had to do. Maybe your supervisor thinks highly of you and therefore is holding you to a higher standard?

    Having seen some of your work, I wouldn't call it “uninteresting”, and certainly not hopelessly so. I don't know what your supervisor has seen, though, so perhaps pinemud is right that your contribution may need to be more clearly articulated.

    Also, I wouldn't just blame academia for the disconnect with practice. Practitioners don't seem to be particularly good at learning even from their peers, never mind academia. Several times in my relatively short experience with Ruby/Rails, I've gotten burned by wrongly assuming that I wouldn't have to worry about problems that were solved 5+ years ago in other environments. It's made me wonder about what can be done to avoid having to reinvent the wheel every time a new language/platform/community springs up.

  7. I don't know if my supervisor is trying to hold me to a higher standard, whatever he is trying to do he is not really making it clear. Yes, I need to articulate it better but I didn't realize that he hadn't read the stuff I had given him, so his attitude to certain things and some misunderstanding of certain aspects seemed completely bizarre. Now, coupled with the fact that he doesn't use Twitter, it makes complete sense.

    You're right. There's a lot of disconnects. A lot of people writing off what other's are doing because they think they can do it better, ignoring the rationale behind decisions and causing new problems. Computer Science has so many communication problems.

  8. I don't know if my supervisor is trying to hold me to a higher standard, whatever he is trying to do he is not really making it clear. Yes, I need to articulate it better but I didn't realize that he hadn't read the stuff I had given him, so his attitude to certain things and some misunderstanding of certain aspects seemed completely bizarre. Now, coupled with the fact that he doesn't use Twitter, it makes complete sense.

    You're right. There's a lot of disconnects. A lot of people writing off what other's are doing because they think they can do it better, ignoring the rationale behind decisions and causing new problems. Computer Science has so many communication problems.

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