By some statistical fluke this summer I got invitations to and attended faculty summits at Google, Microsoft, and Facebook within a period of two weeks. All were well run and a lot of fun, but left me wondering whether there are better ways to foster collaborations between faculty and these great companies.
Each company put on an admirable event. The scales were different—400 attendees at Microsoft, 100 at Google, and 30 at facebook. But the overall structure was pretty similar for all three. The bulk of the time was devoted to conference-type presentations by company engineers and researchers, highlighting a bunch of the interesting work they were doing. A few faculty also presented on the results of their collaborations with the company. There was a presentation on funding opportunities. And, in the evenings, conversational dinners.
The summits were very well done and entertaining to attend. But I’m not convinced they took best advantage of the opportunity presented by the gathering of faculty. This was really brought home to me at a Google summit presentation on online education: It explained how the traditional model of education, with one faculty member presenting to a room full of passive students, has become outmoded now that such presentations can be recorded for online consumption by anyone. Of course, this presentation was given to a room full of passive summit attendees. And it felt a lot like a classroom, with many “listeners” directing their attention to their email.
Given these summits’ strong similarity to conferences, centered on a sequence of talks, it’s worth remembering that the real value of conferences is in the hallways where attendees can have one-on-one conversations. I saw many of these conversations happening at the summits, but the majority seemed to be among faculty who already knew each other, and have plenty of opportunity to talk to each other at real conferences.
What was disappointingly scarce was the one thing that these summits seem distinctively suited to generate: faculty-industry dialog. Emphasizing this point, each summit offered one event that did support such dialog; in each case I found it to be the most valuable part of the summit which highlighted the limits of the rest. Microsoft held a demo/poster session, where faculty circulated among various Microsoft groups who presented the projects they were working on. With the faculty spread out among numerous projects, there was lots of opportunity for small-group discussions that could really dive into technical issues and possibly identify shared research interests. At Google, the summit held “breakout sessions” on various topics; small mixed groups of faculty and Googlers spent an hour discussing specific topics of interest posed by Google. I’ve already held a followup discussion with some Googlers around the topic of one such discussion, and can see some great research questions emerging. Facebook held a single mixed “round table” (feasible given its small size) that went meta, discussing the question of how to enhance Facebook-faculty collaboration. Also noteworthy at Facebook was my lucky dinner seating between two Facebookers that gave us time for lengthy discussion of some research questions.
These relatively short interactions gave me a sense of how much potential these summits have to foster interaction. Working off them, here are some thoughts on how to fulfill that potential.
- Can the lectures. Instead of presenting company research to the few physically-present faculty, record them and post the canned lectures so everyone, not just attendees, can see. Have summit attendees watch them in advance to prepare for the summit.
- Bipartite poster/demo sessions. Copy Microsoft’s demo/poster session which lets faculty learn about lots of different projects happening at the company and engage in small focused dialogs on projects they’re interested in. Then invert it: set up a mirror session where the faculty are the ones with the demos and posters and employees circulate to discover interesting connections.
- Bring the mountain to Mohammed. In particular, a faculty poster/demo session is a much cheaper way for potentially thousands of employees to get a sense of faculty research, and a chance to influence it, than sending those thousands of employees to conferences. Faculty seemed to significantly outnumber company attendees at these summits, suggesting a missed opportunity for interaction. I know these companies are full of PhDs who enjoy talking about research. Where were they?
- Mix things up. Break up the knots of old-buddy faculty and get them talking to employees. Enforce mixed seating at meals. Use some if the company’s cool technology to decide which faculty should be meeting which employees, and make sure it happens.
- Questions not answers. Most of the talks presented finished work. If the work is done then there’s no collaboration opportunity. It would be great instead to see presentation of research objectives, that might help flush out others with related objectives, or with tools or data that could help meet those objectives.
- Unconference planning. I’ve attended a few “unconferences” such as Foo camp where attendees set the agenda communally after they arrive. This ensures that the topics are what the attendees actually want to talk about (the planning process also helps identify shared interests). And the inability to prepare in advance means less presentation and more productive discussion.
Admittedly, a these suggestions are predicated on the assumption that faculty research might have something useful to offer to these companies. Given the tremendous creative talent that these companies employ, that isn’t clear: perhaps our research is unimportant and the goal is simply to impress us into recommending these companies as good employment destinations for our students. I’ll try to tackle that question in a separate post.