Michael Muller on principled engagements, value tensions, liking people & giving back


Michael Muller is a researcher at IBM Research in Cambridge MA. We cover a lot in this conversation, Michael reflects on his long PhD process in cognitive science, long in part because of chronic diseases that he still deals with. He talks about the decision to move to industry and his experiences working in various industry positions since then, including interpreting participatory design methods for a North American industry context, finding out he wasn’t suited to management, and loving the work he is doing now. A theme across many of the stories is the tension arising from navigating organisational demands and his own deeply held values, and throughout you can hear his deep care for people.

Work in any organisation involves some kind compromise of principle at one time or another.”  

“I’m a white American boy, got all this honour and privilege, let’s do something constructive with it.”

“Mentoring very quickly becomes two ways.”

“I like the work I’m doing, I love the people I’m working with. And it’s work I can hold my head up about. It’s work that I’m thinking is making good kinds of changes. That’s a good life.”

“That’s the core spiritual practice… Take care of people… be in relationships in which we are exchanging affection and support.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:30 Introducing his cognitive psychology background and now working in a research organisation in industry (IBM), scored like academics, managed by objective and the processes in trying to get criteria for preferred publication venues changed; cushioning of researchers in the organisation

07:30 Discussing reasons for his 9 year PhD – two chronic diseases, costs money, working part-time, and moving across parts of Psychology Dept at Rutgers

09:15 Going to work in an industry organisation straight after, seeing academic psychologists not very happy, story of his role model Mark Altan (?) who was dedicated to teaching, received a teaching award which he was told was a ‘kiss of death’, told not going to get tenure, and went to work at Bell Labs. Michael lost his role model. A shearing between surface and deep values – “Didn’t fancy being in an academic environment in which each time I wanted to do something kind or considerate or useful for students I would be jeopardising myself”. Advisor told him “Michael you will have to learn to be a mediocre instructor like the rest of us” because he was being too dedicated to students. So he went into industry, thinking industry jobs were relatively stable compared to not getting tenure.

13:55 After finishing degree with 4 hours to spare, finished winter at uni as a research assistant then took his first job at IBM in Charlotte NC but was not the place then as it is now. Within months, the choice was stark, he could stay at IBM or stay married – he chose love and found some way to get them out. Spouse depressed at isolation. Then went to Bellcore for 8 years.

16:13 Sometime was in Seattle for a CHI conference, went to Participatory Design Conference nearby, first one in North America and “got religion”! A year later he began to think with two colleagues about how to adapt participatory design (PD) to the American context (though says Susanne Bodker still doesn’t think it was Scandinavian PD); became the existence proof this could work in industry. Industry attention span is brief so they shortened PD methods down to less than 60 mins and conducted a series of conversion experiments. Glory days. They were revelations to people. Showed it was fun, information rich. Local management in Bellcore got it. But then baby Bellcores started taking each other over.

20:30 He was doing something pioneering in North American industry context, had thought they were following the Scandinavian model, but with modifications for industry attention span and culturally had to make changes, mostly by intuition, mostly got it right. Said ‘workplace democracy’ over and over again but sometimes got push back and this probably delayed their promotions.

22:55 Eventually made the mistake of trying to get a promotion when at Microsoft and within 10 months Microsoft and manager explained what a bad mistake that was! He was given a performance improvement plan – could see it was designed to be non-survivable and the criteria for success were not well spelt out so he could be fired at any time without protections. Accepted that judgement and went away.

24:30 Had moved from New Jersey because of spouse at the time found her spiritual life in nature, and a job came up in US West Advanced Technologies in Boulder Colorado – called Terry Roberts (manager) about it, moved there. A different kind of job, interviewing telephone operators to help them lose their job but was also able to show they were doing important knowledge work. CHI 1995 presentation explaining this (link). But he was deemed by management to have helped the wrong side.

27:10 He talks of observing operators’ work in a bunch of places, their work being monitored by management, the tension of having sympathies with the workers but reporting to management. He reflects on having just listened to Mark Ackermann talk at ECSCW17 about the far right organising on the internet. He was helping management use technology to displace labour. Principles in a grey area. Lost sleep over it. “I’d say work in any organisation involves some kind compromise of principle at one time or another.” Making it an explicit topic of conversation.

30:55 Eventually his work supported using technology to reduce operators so not a clean story. “A politically pure person would have walked away from that job.” Tells Arnie Lund’s story when he worked in a ‘doomed organisation’ and was made to lay people off then lay himself off -because they knew he would hate it and knew he would do it with care for the people. That was their gift to the employees. “So I tried to do things with care […] but at the same time I was hopelessly compromised. That’s the life in an organisation.” Thinks it also happens in academia. “If we work in organisations, organisations have their own logic and it’s a little bit more reptilian, cold blooded, than the logic that most of us bring to each other.”

33:50 Continuing to work in industry contexts, for family reasons. Discusses options for moving to academia. Currently has an unpaid academic role at Wellesley College. Paying back white male privilege. If could find a way to increase work in academia without letting people down (the only social scientist now in his group) he would do it. Mentors students in internships.

37:45 Doing mentoring, “I’m a white American boy, got all this honour and privilege, let’s do something constructive with it.”, can open doors, and ongoing relationship with students/mentees. Has roughly same job title as started with 1984 because he tried the ‘manager thing’ at Microsoft and it didn’t work. Managing not his skill set but can mentor, also has friends who are female, LGBTQ, native American, etc, and can understand he has had a blessed life so helping to open doors for others. An ongoing mentoring relationship but also responsibility of person to walk through the door. But opening the door an important first step.

40:40 Discusses doctoral consortium and career development workshop mentoring experiences. “Our own failures are an important part of what we bring to those.” Some about careers. And it’s thinking together. “Mentoring very quickly becomes two ways.”. Gives example of Shion Guha. Reflects on internship mentoring and transitioning to peers/colleagues.

45:55 What is keeping him excited at work? Asked by IBM to work on employee engagement. Doing engagement surveys, find out if there are issues, do an intervention in Jan, but can be too late in next Nov to find out if it worked. So trying to use data from IBM’s thriving social media ecosystems (Bernard Geyers, David Millen’s work) but first attempts didn’t work; now fixed and can get monthly reports. So can describe, predict and now into fixing it by gathering ideas to increase engagement. Making the experience of work a better experience, and helps the organisation. It’s fulfilling.

52:56 Other part of job is to help IBM think about leadership position in AI and ethics. Collaboration with Vera Lia0, bringing qualitative methods. Returning to some participatory themes and design fictions and value sensitive design to explore.

54:56 Navigating long working hours. “Our work could expand to cover every waking moment that we have and then cause us to have more waking moments. We all have to work out work family balance.” Talks about current partner and “supporting each other as they both over work” and her passion for justice, where both are “trying to make positive change in the world, make up for the good stuff we’ve got”. And the work content is extremely interesting. “I like the work I’m doing, I love the people I’m working with. And it’s work I can hold my head up about. It’s work that I’m thinking is making good kinds of changes. That’s a good life.”

59:00 How he maintains his health and wellbeing? “I love people that’s a very healthy thing to do.” “That’s the core spiritual practice… Take care of people… It is to be in relationships in which we are exchanging affection and support.”

1:01:03 End

Related Links:

Michael Muller - http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-michael_muller

Wendy Kellogg - http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-wkellogg

Scott Robertson podcast - https://changingacademiclife.com/blog/2017/7/27/scott-robertson

Susanne Bødker - http://pure.au.dk/portal/en/persons/id(87d4fbb6-b38c-449e-b87d-59f693b7d6f0).html

Terry Roberts - http://terroberts.home.mindspring.com/IntDesUAPortfolio/index.html

Mark Ackermann - https://www.si.umich.edu/people/mark-ackerman

Arnie Lund - https://www.linkedin.com/in/arnielund

Shion Guha – https://www.shionguha.net

David Millen - http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-david_r_millen

Matt Davis - http://researcher.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-davismat

Vera Liao - http://qveraliao.com

Wellesley College - http://cs.wellesley.edu/~oshaer/index.html

CHI conference - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conference_on_Human_Factors_in_Computing_Systems

Participatory Design Conference - https://pdc2018.org/about-pdc/

Usability Professionals Association - https://uxpa.org

CHI95 paper: Telephone operators as knowledge workers: consultants who meet customer needs - https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=223904.223921

Human Computer Interaction Consortium - https://hcic.org/hcic2018/index.phtml

Value Sensitive Design - http://www.vsdesign.org