Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Paul Maglio is senior manager of Service Systems Research at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. His group encompasses social, cognitive, computer and business sciences, and aims at creating a foundation for basic and applied research in how people work and create value. Since joining IBM Research, he has worked on programmable Web intermediaries, attentive user interfaces, multimodal human-computer interaction, and human aspects of autonomic computing. He holds thirteen patents and has published more than 80 scientific papers in various areas of computer science and cognitive science. He holds a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from the University of California at San Diego.
What was the most valuable thing you learned while in the Cognitive Science Department at UCSD?
I think one thing I learned is that it's not really about the content. In a sense, if you go to graduate school in any field, one major thing you'll learn is how to accomplish something big. It seems like for most folks accomplishing something big before getting to grad school meant staying up all night. And that stops working in grad school. You have to learn how to pay focused attention over a much longer period of time. That's what grad school teaches you: how to focus your efforts, stay with one project for a long period. And in a way, this only partially prepares you for what comes afterwards, which requires you to focus simultaneously on many big projects for long periods of time.
So you'd say that in grad school you learned more about the process than the product?
More about the process than the content. I think it's really not so much about the content - although of course you can't keep that focus, maintain that level of commitment, or spend all that time without the project being something you're excited about.
What advice would you give to current students?
Wow. Hmm. I guess, read everything you can, and write as much as you can because you don't understand anything until you write about it. So that's mostly how you should spend your time.
Also, keep an open mind as you're finishing. There's a huge temptation to think that the only option is an academic job, but there are plenty of opportunities for you to make up your own role. You can even get post-doc type jobs in industry, as well as in academia, which gives you the chance to see what options are available later on. When you're in grad school it's really hard to even imagine what the other possibilities might be. I ended up at IBM in a random kind of way. It's not at all what I had imagined myself doing: I had applied for many academic jobs. But there was someone from IBM Research who'd come to the UCSD to give a talk, and then later my advisor, David Kirsh, went up to visit IBM. David got back from San Jose and called me on a Sunday and said "Hey, you should consider IBM -- they're doing all this great stuff up there." But it wasn't what I thought I was looking for, so I ignored it at first. A few months later I did look into it and it in fact turned out to be a great opportunity. So I came here to IBM and I didn't think I would stay very long. That was like 12 or 13 years ago. I think it has really worked out well for me. So you really have to be able to imagine that there are many more possibilities...
Kind of related to that, I found it's really hard to write when stuff isn't "due". The only way I could finish my dissertation was by getting a job! A lot of times the only way to finish one project is by having "the next thing" lined up. I had almost nothing written when I got the job in June, and then I was done in August. I've heard of many people who had that kind of experience.
So what do you do now?
Well, my initial post-doc position here at IBM was in human-computer interaction research. But now in many ways, IBM is much more a service company than a computer company. Today, IBM's biggest business - revenue-wise - is its service business: literally helping other companies do stuff rather than selling other companies machines or software. Last year IBM brought in something like $55 billion providing services. There is consulting (telling others how to do stuff) and outsourcing (doing stuff for others). For instance, IBM can tell you how to run your IT or parts of it, like your helpdesk or your datacenters, or IBM can tell you how to run your Human Resources or your Finance and Accounting - or IBM can just run your computer systems or business functions for you. Like literally doing the stuff for you.
My job now is managing a group of about 20 people, doing research related to IBM's service businesses. With a couple of colleagues, I spearheaded a line of research called "service science" at IBM. In service you have this situation where people are working together and with technology to create value for others. What's cool is that we don't really know very much about how people work together and with technology to create value for others. My group has been instrumental in expanding our focus beyond human-computer interaction to human-human, organization-organization, and all combinations of interactions. So we deal with any and all aspects of how to make service better: technology, education, training, organization, whatever.
What would a concrete example of this kind of work be?
A concrete example. Well, one of the ways we got into studying services was by looking at how people who manage data centers work. IT outsourcing is something like a $20-30 billion business for IBM. Hundreds of thousands of people are responsible for maintaining computer systems for big businesses with millions or billions of dollars in commerce. These businesses absolutely rely on these computer systems. By taking over a client's IT operations, IBM's goal is to make it more efficient, effective, affordable, etc. Now, at IBM, most people think about ways to make the computers better (for instance, how can they repair themselves so that a person doesn't have to), but we took a different approach: if you want to help people who manage IT systems save time, energy, and effort, then what you have to find out first is how they spend their time. We did what amounts to ethnographic studies on the problems and practices of IT system administrators. We found that for the most part these people weren't Mark Wallen -- they were mostly kids, teams of people around the world trying to work together. We found that rather than spending most of their time working with their computers - setting parameters and whatnot - they actually spent most of their time communicating with one another. You see, these systems are really big and distributed, made up of lots of different parts - different kinds of hardware, operating systems, databases, web servers, application software, and on and on. And each person only has responsibility for a small part of it, so there's a lot of conversation and coordination between people whether things go wrong or right. So we learned that one trick to making systems easier to manage is to create tools or methods that enable these sorts of folks to work together more effectively.
What do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Hmm. For me, relatively little! What I mean is I'm living in a world where it's not really about me. I'm doing more management, overseeing others. So what's really gratifying is helping other folks do well. In the academic world it's about the papers you write and the impact you have personally, but now for me, it's more about the group, their research, their papers, their impact. I mean, in general, IBM Research is very much like academia, the currency is publication and business impact. I'm just in this management role more than anything else right now.
So there's a whole community?
Sort of. For service research, we're kind of creating the community. We were one of the first groups to take research in service seriously. In a way it's a new side of cognitive science: looking at how people work together specifically in services. And you can look at it as a crazy problem or a crazy opportunity. We're trying to think of it as a whole new scientific field focused on service, what we're calling "Service Science". You see, it's relatively easy to do innovation when talking about products or goods: you want faster, cheaper, better things, and you have all of the scientific understanding and engineering discipline to help. But when you're talking about service, there's not a lot of science or discipline. There's not a lot of history. So we're creating a community, bringing together people from business schools, industrial engineering, operations management, some social sciences such as economics, others. With my Cognitive Science background - an interdisciplinary background - I can speak many different languages and help bring the folks together. Sometimes people get stuck in one way of seeing things or doing things, but having a diverse background allows me to see many sides. There are a lot of different approaches, lots of angles on the problem, and it's great to not be afraid of using different methods. With a background in CogSci, I'm kind of uniquely positioned to look at the problems in a variety of ways and to be a bridge among different fields.
So where do you see "Service Science" being in 20 years?
Twenty years from now? We'll be dealing with the same basic set of problems. The basic unit of analysis is the entire service system: the information, people, technology and tools that people use to do stuff for others. If I can begin to look at the world in terms of whole service systems, that will affect how I decide what is important and what to change, for example, how to make system administrators more effective. It will affect how we decide which parts of the system most matter, what the trade-off is between the skills people have and the technology we provide them with, and how that interacts with the specific kind of system they operate within. Twenty years from now I'll be talking about the same kinds of problems, but I hope I'll be using a different language, a new language. I hope I'll know something about how to educate folks to work effectively with others, to be flexible. That kind of thing.
If you could choose another profession to be in, what would it be?
The only other thing I've really aspired to doing besides doing research and research management is the academic gig, and the balance could definitely tip the other way. I don't have any secret dreams of owning a restaurant. I mean, maybe if I were a different person, I'd go be a chef or maybe a carpenter. Something where you could just go home at the end of the day and not be working all the time. That's not really true in my kind of job, or in academia, where there isn't really a distinction between 'work' and 'life'. There are a lot of people in the world to whom that just seems crazy, that work and life are all intertwined. It's fine, but it doesn't have to be that way. I sometimes wonder what the other would be like!
How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?
Do I? (laughs) I don't know how successful I am. I mean, one of the things I'm able to do is work from home a lot. Another thing is - and this is maybe gonna sound weird, given that the question is about 'balance' between work and life - but one of the ways I've been doing a better job at that is that I've become an adjunct professor of Cognitive Science at UC Merced. Because my wife is also a professor there, that actually enables us to spend more time together. Sure, I teach a class and get involved in other stuff on campus, but what that ends up meaning is that I have to clear my calendar and spend time at school, which is where she is. So I guess the way to maintain a balance is configure your life in a way where you're spending more time where you want to be and with the people you want to spend time with.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.