The PhD and Industry

Back in April I was invited to give a talk at the  Lancaster University Postgraduate Research Conference held at the university. The room would be full of PhD candidates and other postgraduates, so I wanted to give a talk that would have been helpful to me when I was at this stage.

I know the main thing worrying me at the time was about my options and if academia was right for me. I didn’t really consider that industry would be interested in my skills or if they even applied.

I was wrong about that, so I wanted to make sure the students in the room knew it was an option for them.

Here’s the video of the talk

Top 3 things to take away:

  1. Time and project management skills learned during the PhD are incredibly transferable to any other role you choose to pursue.
  2. A PhD is all about communicating complex concepts into understandable language. This puts you at an advantage within industry as you can quickly and efficiently spread your message.
  3. The skills you’ve picked up by finishing a PhD are valuable, rare, and sought after outside of academia.

If you’re interested in transitioning from your PhD into industry, I’m happy to advise. Please email me at carl at heinventions dot com or DM on twitter @carlc75

Big displays and tabletops – the wrong approach?

The current model

Current research trends are in favour of large public displays, hidden projectors, and table top displays – Microsoft’s Surface being a prominent example along with the many research projects involving public displays.

A lot of these projects have options for multiple users operating the systems, in fact some are made only for collaboration in the workplace (Highwire’s CoffeeTable, and Intel’s What Do You Bring To the Table?). However, when systems are in a public setting, the use becomes more of a public service than a means for collaboration and when the users are acting independently great efforts are made to determine identity and facilitate independent interaction and data presentation.

The classic example of this is where you walk up to a public display in a university and the display shows your time-table.

In the above scenario, what happens when a display is surrounded by more than one person – say 5 people. Does it show 5 individual timetables? If 50 people approach the display does it show 50 timetables? That is impractical, so what is a fair way to display a crowds worth of information to a waiting crowd? It could be shown one at a time, but then who gets to see theirs first, and more importantly how does one recognise your own timetable if you can’t remember it in the first place? Does your name have to appear with the time-table? Will public users be comfortable with this scenario? What authentication methods are used for systems such as these, do users need to opt in, will these questions have the same answers for different displays?

If we ignore other issues except authentication, how does the display know who you are to display the relevant information? Read a unique ID from your phone, a smart card, or some other wireless unique device? How does this deal with phones being sold, or smart cards being lost? What happens if someone of a criminal nature got hold of young student’s ID card and started stalking the student? Is there a line of how public information must be before it appears on a public display? Even if the display is not in a completely public setting, say it is behind the security check point in a company, who decides the amount of information which is displayed on a screen? The user, or the programmer in charge of the presentation software? If authentication is required before information is shown on a display, does this not ruin the workflow of the display – and would this not also stop frantic late users from approaching the system?

With privacy being a current issue within society, do not public displays get relegated to becoming glorified billboards with the only personal information they will be allowed to show will be that which could be found on the public page of a person? Will the only use of these systems be for when one has lost their phone, and the display is currently free?

Currently I believe the only use of these systems will be gained from location-based advertising – where content is changed based on the demographic of people around it and the time of day.

A different model

If we are looking into the future (a trait which many scientists are likely to do) there is another model which is what I believe public interacting displays should be tending towards.

By dissecting the mission of a public display it can be seen that it encompasses two functions.

  1. Being a dedicated geographical point for a certain type of information or request,
  2. Having a method to display feedback to the user.

If we look to the future and imagine a hypothetical piece of hardware exists, we can remove point 2 from the list of needed functions – and remove a lot of privacy issues.

We have this technology – albeit in a crude way – at the moment. A personal screen. Currently, this tend to be a smart phone/device of some sort. These tend to have authentication when they are switched on, via a pass code. They even support banking systems which – one would hope – worry about the security of the device in question.

The limitations of these devices are their size and resolution. A personal screen of 4 inches isn’t brilliant, so let us create a hypothetical product to facilitate this model. Imagine a pair of glasses which could project upon its lenses virtual displays at any arbitrary projection and geometry to simulate real life displays. They could even be simulated on static points in the real world, needing a user to be close to it for it to be used – as in real life. The simulated displays would be displaying what ever the public display wanted to – by virtue of its number 1 function: being a dedicated geographical point for a certain type of information or request.

Let’s go back to the 50 people in front of a timetable billboard. With their own personal screen they would be seeing just their timetable, in an almost completely private setting – while still being surrounded by 49 other people. In fact, if wireless communication density is sufficiently high, it could replace conventional screens on desks, on phones, all together. With regards to public billboards though, advertisers would be able to get what they have always wanted – a message directly to who they want it to go to.

This is of course all conjecture, but I think it should be where the domain should be heading.

4 weeks in corporate research – initial thoughts

So I’ve spent the last 4 weeks in Cambridge working as an intern at Microsoft Research and I thought I’d share my observations on the differences between academia and corporate research.

Academia, I find, is far from the ivory tower that it once was. Forgetting the worrying need to find economic benefit for projects, most research is now being spun as a product.

Surely the last thing you want for a product is a buggy bloated research prototype, and surely the last thing you want for a research project is a polished product. I mean you want it for one thing, to prove a hypothesis for your thesis.

This of course, is a massive generalisation, and more applied to the recent batch of Ph.Ds coming through, especially as they come through doctoral training schemes which mesh (mostly unsuccessfully) different fields together. Still, scoring a blue-skies research project without lying through your teeth in the impact section of a proposal is like finding real ale in Essex.

Of course, there is the positive side of academia too. The freedom to tackle your problem via any means. Flexible working hours (unless you are an RA), flexible supervision, flexible scope. You can produce a highly polished massively overworked Ph.D, or the bare minimum which gets the job done. It is a very personal thing. Research projects are a bit more managed, you have a more rigid supervisory system, project meetings, but your section of stuff is pretty much yours to do as you will.

This environment breeds two types of people: the successful ones who generally ask for and give help to their peers, accept criticism with grace, and who thrive in a space where they make the rules; and the other ones who, having seen the gaping ravine of work in front of them, bottle it and fail. Maybe not straight away nor suddenly, as it could creep up after a year or two, but Ph.Ds have been known to just disappear into industry after 4 years, with not a word to anyone. It is very easy to lose sight of where you are aiming to get to, reaching a false summit of your thesis and calling it done.

Academia is very much a dog eat dog world. The UK has a much nicer tenure-free environment, but even the tenant of the American “publish or perish” culture still exists. Academics live off their reputation, and their reputation is written in the black ink of a bibliography.

Corporate research is exactly the same landscape but with a few key differences.

For a start, the “build a prototype” message is very clear, especially for systems which may one day be products. You are building and evaluating a proof of concept, as it should be.

Secondly, the atmosphere is completely different. Whereas in the academic environment it is almost taboo to ask on a struggling Ph.D how their work is going, in corporate research struggling researchers are actively propped up and discussions at lunch and the pub are refreshingly problem orientated.

Thirdly, your supervisor is your manager. Which from a managerial point of view is awesome, you have someone who is your boss and *knows* what they are talking about, whilst still being your supervisor and knowing all the issues that come from research and how best to stimulate ideas out of dead ends. From an intern perspective this is also good, as seeing your supervisor as your boss makes you want to impress them more, and meet deadlines days earlier.

Finally, the pay is miles better.

Those are the good bits, and of course, there are some bad bits too.

Corporate research labs tend to have a “eat your own dog food” policy, which means that if the company creates a tool that can do you job, you use it, unless you can find a valid research reason not to. Working at Microsoft and being a Linux user, you can see how this has led to initial slow productivity as I’ve readjusted to an alien tool-chain.

There are also some scary law type things which get attached to the job, such as losing a kidney if I speak of what I see on whiteboards and such. However, this style of development is slowly losing ground as projects like Gadgeteer are being released under an Apache licence.

As a final point, having worked in some small companies where you have the “family” feel, I still find that you get this here. It may be due to the organisation of the research lab, but everyone is very friendly and you associate with your research group quite strongly. But not in a “compete against other group” way, as everyone in the building is amazingly friendly.

So far I’m enjoying it, we’ll see if I still do in 8 weeks time 😉


NSTA – Progress

Woo Progress!

NSTA has progressed to a fully fledged prototype. It now outputs the node position and the connections in the logical graph. Shall do some message browsing and a quick propogation algorithm and release it for you viewing displeasure!


Academic Updates

Francois, Hugo and myself have almost finished writing the paper summing up our work on PAMPA for the last 2 years. We shall be submitting to the International Workshop on Middleware for Pervasive, Mobile and Embedded Computing, at Middleware 2009 in Illinois, USA.

I have also been working on making my NS-2 trace anaylser package ready to be released and making a small example program to use. Hopefully shall be released soon. Shall open it and SourceForge it once it is ready.

Cheers all!

Exam 1 Science 0

Well, it has been a while.

I have been working on a paper of my cumulative work from the past 2 years to submit to IEEE LCN 2009 …. however the paper deadline was today. I had an exam, and so time was spent revising.

I decided to pull the paper and look to submit for MobiCom09. This should give me some time to get some more data and show better trends.

Plus any edit time is good time.

So! Exams. Concurrency and Operating Systems today. I think it went ok. Questions I answered were on User/Kernel threads, implementing fork() from first principles, some mutual exclusion questions, spin locks over semaphores and such for the lower level concurrency section.

Discussion piece for System calls, device drivers and then some file system questions and Amdahls Law stuff.

All in all it was a rather decent exam.

Right. Personal stuff.

New house, with FLATMATES. Makes such a difference not coming home to an empty cold flat everyday. There are challengers for Xbox supremacy. I like living here.

Stuck in exam period however, with exams Wednesday and Friday and the following Monday. Cram time.


Summer, Lisbon and Research

Well the talk in Glasgow went great, and I managed to receive a grant to visit the university of lisbon for a week in the summer to continue my research.

I managed to find some interesting results and managed to create a small java application to view my results visually.

It came out quite nice, and as such I have plenty of interesting avenues of new research for next year, including a new radio propagation method that takes into account buildings. It would help urban scenarios imensely.