Tom Erickson on industry research, telecommuting, and practising for retirement

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Tom Erickson is a cognitive psychologist by background and was a researcher (social scientist and designer) at IBM Research since 1997, having previously worked in the early days of Apple and their Advanced Technology Group, and at a start up. Tom reflects on his experiences working in industry research, some of the pivotal work he has been involved in. He has also telecommuted most of his work life and he talks about how he made this work. Tom has also recently retired and he managed his transition to retirement in a really thoughtful way, being very deliberate in thinking about how to make a better life for himself and in what he calls ‘practising retirement’.

“I have a limited amount of time and do I want to spend it all working?”

“What is it that I do during the day that I love? And for me it’s design, it’s interviewing people, it’s reading interview transcripts. I just love the details of stuff.”

““How I am perceived and what I am valued for within the corporation and [keeping] that separate from how I am perceived and valued professionally.””

“As scientists or designers… we need to be mindful that the ultimate thing we’re doing is we’re shaping ourselves and how we see the world, so that we can help the field collectively move in a good direction.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:30 Tom talks about his psychology background, how a better climate was a factor in deciding where he wanted to do his PhD in cognitive psychology and human cognition. PhD with McClelland. Published one paper as a grad student in late 70s early 80s. One paper has had a resurgence of popularity in the last years because of a mention without reference in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast Thinking Slow book.

06:16 Ended up dropping out of grad school and many people do not know that he does not have a PhD. Combination of things – personal reasons, not really passionate about what he was doing, supervisor being away, getting involved in a small start-up, funding ran out and start-up then wanted to pay him. Became their UI tsar for a company making software for first IBM PCs. Competitor was Lotus. Did that for 5 years. In the good times he was the design guy, in the bad times he might be writing marketing, or manuals (Software Products International).

10:15 Towards the end of that time got married. His wife was in Stanford. So he got a job at Apple by sending in a resume for a job in the paper. Word got around during the interview process and Joy Mountford said ‘you should be in our group’. That led to a job in Apple in the Human Interface Group. It was like a quick course in design school. Learned three rules of design: cheat, steal and keep it simple!

14:57 Started off in Stanford but then his wife graduated and got a job in the Uni of Minnesota. Was looking for a new job but then got a contact by Don Norman who was a new Apple fellow and wanted Tom to work with him. He suggested telecommuting. So Tom switched to Don’s group. Some face time in Stanford for about 6 months then transitioned to Minnesota.

16:57 Lasted 5 years until second coming of Steve Jobs. Jobs was against Apple having a research organization. Tom moved to the Advanced Technology Group (ATG). Talks about some of the innovative products they were working on in the early 90s.

22:02 But Steve came back. His team ended up getting laid off about 3 months before the rest of ATG which gave them a shot at the market. Had previously gotten to know Wendy Kellogg, they started talking and he ended moving to IBM Research. Had a 3 day break between jobs. Initially hesitant about moving to New York because of his wife’s work. In the end he was hired as a telecommuter. And they made a plan for how to make it work. One condition of his contract was having to work 15-20% of his time building up connections with other groups at IBM and that ended up being really good for the first period. Talks about how they made the telecommuting work and the telecommuting culture at IBM.

27:54 Tells people there are three things to think about re telecommuting: needs to work for you; has to work for the group and working out ways to pay your own dues; and navigating the organization since at a distance and not visible. And thanks to his manager Wendy Kellogg for always helping to make him visible. And he used his time on site to make himself more visible, e.g., design sessions, working one-on-one with people, sitting in public spaces.

33:16 Retired 6 months ago (when recorded in November 2018). Did a lot of work to prepare for it. Was anxious about it. Practised for retirement. Thought about what he would be losing. Did his greatest invention, despite being shy and introverted, ‘the pleasant chat’. The pleasant chat is a repeated meeting with someone called a pleasant chat. Has 5-6 people he has ‘pleasant chats’ with to keep in touch. “Big challenge is how do I get these new channels of ideas and stimulations coming in. […] You have to figure out what works for yourself and that kind of structure works for me.” Been at IBM for almost 21 years. Cast of characters has changed entirely. Only known 1 person from beginning to end.

38:55 What else he has been doing to practise retirement. Explains how the practice came about. Period of 6 months where he and his wife lost three remaining parents, plus a couple of friends who passed away, shifted the notion of being immortal. Limited time. Oldest generation. A head shift. Sees generation losing ability to do things eg always like to hike. Might not be able to do that later. “I have a limited amount of time and do I want to spend it all working?” Reflects on an exec who died two weeks after retiring. This shifted him to thinking about retirement, as well as an IBM reorganization to focus on AI that he doesn’t believe in. Took advantage of an IBM program to allow him to work 60% to figure out what else he would like doing. And started restricting work to 8 hrs a day on work days.

43:52 Would have worked previously 10-14 hrs/day but never felt resentful. “Work segues into play for me. […] Pretty much wrote all the papers out of working hours. And I love to write. … mostly seems more like fun than work.”. Reflects on roles of organisations and not being dependent on the individual and not expecting the organization to care for him.

46:25 Shifting to 8 hrs not a hard transition. Not excited about the AI focus. Started thinking about “what is it that I do during the day that I love? And for me it’s design, it’s interviewing people, it’s reading interview transcripts. I just love the details of stuff.” When he moved into the AI area, got into interviewing scientists and it was doing what he loved even though he didn’t care for AI. But didn’t write this up.

47:54 Instead started figuring out “What do I need that will keep me happy afterwards?” Did a couple of things. The main thing that worked better than he expected was he started taking piano lessons. Hard to start with but loves practising. And can see himself getting better. Would play for 2 hrs before starting work, Which means that when he retired, he still got up had his coffee, did 2-3 hrs piano practice. The routine. Also runs as a routine – took this up when he turned 50.  “The piano was probably the best thing I did for myself.”. So taking up piano, the pleasant chats.

And began working on developing some individual friendships. “I think friendships and one-to-one relationships are crucial.” But needing to put in more deliberate effort on this.

53:02 I reflect on him being very self aware and deliberate in creating his good life. He reflects on one of his strengths in both being self aware and then sitting down and developing a strategy to achieve what will make his life better.

54:05 Advice to younger clueless self? Thinks the younger self did a lot of things right. Industry getting more and more applied and topic for research changes because every 3-4 years you get someone new in the executive changes and they want to make their mark. He did well fitting into this while maintaining a consistency of themes by choosing themes at the right level. Also occasionally took on side projects that weren’t funded. Some of the work he enjoyed the most had not funding.

58:30 Advice – would encourage younger self/younger people to be mindful – you do have to follow the corporate agenda but if you are doing a good job there can be opportunities on the side.  And taking a dual approach – “Thought about how I am perceived and what I am valued for within the corporation and kept that separate from how I am perceived and valued professionally.” Ie how he depicts the type of work he does to which communities.

1:01:45 Always driven by his personal situation. Tries to draw inspiration from things he sees in the world, problems he faces. Don Norman as inspiration. Having experiences, making them into stories, turning them into constructive research.

1:05:10 Wrap up – one thing he is grappling with now he is retired is how does he remain involved in the field or does he? What ways to continue activity in the field? One idea is writing a blog or column, maybe called ‘Late reviews’ reviewing books and making them accessible to the field eg mentions ‘Governing the commons” by Elinor Ostrom and ‘Seeing like a state’. The other thing he is thinking about I show to stay connected without being full-time. Maybe a workshop as people are aging out of professional roles? Are there ways they can remain available to the community? Also thinking about what impacts has he had.

01:11:53 Talks about HCI Remixed book with David MacDonald – importance of reviewing older research. And changing how researchers see the world. “As scientists or designers…we need to be mindful that the ultimate thing we’re doing is we’re shaping ourselves and how we see the world so that we can help the field collectively move in a good direction.”

01:14:16 End

Related Links

Some of the people he mentions:

Joe Konstan - http://konstan.umn.edu

Joy Mountford - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_Mountford

Don Norman - https://jnd.org

Austin Henderson - http://rivcons.com

Paul Dourish - https://www.dourish.com

Wendy Kellogg - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendy_Kellogg

Christine Halverson - https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/author/christine-halverson

Elinor Ostrom - http://www.elinorostrom.com

 

Apple Advanced Technology Group - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Advanced_Technology_Group

CSCW – Computer Supported Cooperative Work - https://sigchi.org/conferences/conference-history/cscw/

 

Tom’s highly cited 1981 cognitive psychology paper – Erickson & Mattson, ‘From words to meaning: a semantic illusion’ : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022537181901651

Poem: Theory Theory: a designer’s view - http://tomeri.org/theorytheory.html

Book: HCI Remixed - http://tomeri.org/HCIremixed.html