Through the Looking Glass -- Starting in the Private Sector


Friday was my last day as a professor. I am now what I call a “recovering academic.” I have started a job in the private sector. I am now a data scientist at a startup in Silicon Valley. During the transition of the past few days, it has struck me how much the title “professor” is a definition to some, myself included. I think this is just part of the work – an almost expectation that one defines themselves by the work and the title. Here is one of the changes I am looking forward to. I do not want to be defined by my job.

Coming to work for the first day was interesting. Yes, I had all of the usual butterflies that go with that. But for my entire adult life I have worked in some form of public service. I started in the national lab system, I then went into federal service, and lastly wound up working in a state university. But every one of these was funded by the government in one way or another. When on works on taxpayer-funded things (even moreso than tuition-funded things), there are a LOT of rules on how those dollars can be spent. For example, when on travel, your hotel, meals, and incidentals must fall below a certain value specified by the GSA. My university was even more stringent. I think we got $30 per day for per diem. Here for orientation in San Francisco, I am not sure that would have bought me a cup of coffee.

Moving on, I go to the headquarters building for orientation. The building itself is glorious. It has been written up in several design magazines and articles for how cool it is in Silicon Valley. Let’s contrast that with my last office, which was cinderblock walls with asbetos-laden floor tiles and pipe wrappings, single-paned windows that didn’t open, and a window-unit air conditioner that was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Private entities can (and do!) spend money on creating productive work enviroments. And it is really a very refreshing change!

The headquarters building of my new employer has a lot of creature comforts too. There is a (free) coffee shop, well-stocked bars (help yourself or with a bartended on Fridays), kitchens stocked with snacks, and a free-to-employees swag shop (we were encouraged to take as much as we wanted for us, friends, family, strangers on the street).

If you have not worked in a federal or state institution, this might not look strange to you. It might be normal. But for those from my former life, this is so far from normal that I am not really sure where I am right now. When you work for the man, you do not get these little creature comforts. There is no such thing as free food. Stocked kitchens are a waste of taxpayer dollars. Alcohol on the premises? HA! Swag? What is that? And we can’t have nicely deisgned buildings because procurement law says we must go with the cheapest bid. Most of this stuff would land you in JAIL. No exaggeration. If you think I am being overly dramatic, read this. I am Alice, just fallen through the looking glass (although I promise that mushrooms were not involved!).

Sure, this stuff might just be window dressing, I think to myself. Then I start meeting people who are starting the same day as me. I meet a guy who will be the executive assistant to the Vice President of Employee Experience (I think I got that title right). This VP’s job is to figure out with ways to help the employees be more happy. The happiness of the company’s employees is a thing. So much so that they have hired a team of people, including my EA friend, dedicated to the task.

I am definitely in Wonderland.

I am trying to remember if anyone at ANY point when I was in academia (outside of my friends and family, of course) asked me if I was happy. They didn’t even have to try to do anything to help (not that they could). Just ask. And no, nobody ever did.

Written on August 10, 2017