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Relational Engagement in Project Teams

I participated in the ICOS dissertation poster session today, and while there had a number of helpful conversations about my dissertation. One of the preliminary findings I included on my poster discussed the perspective-taking and social language use I’ve noticed in interviews with members of the bridge project. Perspective-taking is a concept found in psychology literature, and it usually refers to our developed abilities to understand that other people have experiences different from our own. Some education researchers such as Hunter Gehlbach at Harvard use the idea of social perspective taking as a way to help students develop social skills. Linguists such as James Pennebaker at UT-Austin use the term social thinking to refer to language that indicates an awareness of other people.

In my data, members of the bridge building project indicate their perspective taking abilities and social thinking when they make comments such as

I would think that if you guys got involved with maybe [a community college], they have a concrete technology program up there. You could get a lot of free help with a lot of experiments up there, and they’re more than willing to work with concrete and do labs and anything you guys don’t like doing.

By saying, “I would think…,” the interviewee indicates awareness that someone else might think something else. The speaker implies that there is more than one idea about what the listener (“you guys”) might want to do. In other interviews, my participants express concern about the goals other members of the project have when they make statements such as, “Well, I know he’s more concerned about cost.” Here, the speaker explicitly tells us that he understand another person’s concerns and knows their relative importance.

Why does it matter that my participants demonstrate perspective taking and use social language? Project teams that include people who respect and understand perspectives that differ from their own are more successful. By “more successful” I mean those teams are more likely to accomplish their goals, have positive affect and impressions of their work, and maybe even to work together again. The social aspects of the relational engagement that perspective taking produces eases tension and builds commitment among project team members, making it easier for project teams to work together smoothly. It may be that positive relational engagement – interactions among team members characterized by perspective taking and social thinking – is more important than project structure or timing. When we talk about projects, especially engineering projects, we often focus on how they should be managed at the project level; when should what get done, who should do it, to whom should that guy report. It may make more sense for us to focus on managing interpersonal relationships on the project team, developing trust and concern for one another. The way we relate to our project teammates is likely to have a huge impact on our ability to work together successfully.

Poster Printing

Grad students print a lot of posters. Every time this grad student tries, something goes horribly wrong. So, finally, I’ve documented a successful poster printing process, and now I’ll share it with you.

Background Info:
Before you even begin to design your poster, make sure you know

  • The dimensions your poster is allowed to be
  • How wide the poster printer’s paper is
  • What file format the poster printer likes best
  • Whether you will be allowed to install fonts on the computer from which you send your poster to the printer

Standard posters for conferences are often 36″ x 48″ or something close to it. Some poster sessions require portrait orientation, some landscape. Most poster printers on my campus (and at FedEx Kinkos) print on paper 42″ wide. Poster printing is usually charged by linear foot. Most poster print shops use Windows PCs and Windows-based software to manage poster print jobs. Using a file format such as PDF with embedded fonts should ensure that your poster looks the same on a Mac and on Windows.

Now, you’re ready to design your poster. Many people use PowerPoint. I am not one of those people. If you’d like help designing and printing a large poster in PowerPoint, go here instead. I use Inkscape, an open source alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Inkscape produces .SVG files and allows you to save in a variety of formats including .EPS, .PDF, and .AI. Inkscape is available for Mac, PC, and Linux. I’m a Mac user, so I use the Mac version.

The instructions below assume you have already finalized your design. I recommend designing a poster with edges no longer than 42″ because that’s the size of the poster printer’s paper. By designing a poster that’s 36″ x 42″ instead of 36″ x 48″, you’ll save yourself a linear foot of printing cost and the hassle of trimming the extra paper off your poster. If you use another tool such as PowerPoint or Illustrator to design your poster, you can still use the instructions but start at #12.

I perfected these instructions using the poster printers, Macs, and PCs, available at the Tech Deck and Angell Hall computing sites at the University of Michigan. Both poster printing shops use HP printers. Both places also offer user support, and all the staff I worked with rocked! See special notes below about each of these poster printing sites.

The Instructions:

  1. Open your SVG file in Inkscape
  2. Go to File -> Save As...
  3. Choose EPS from the drop down at the bottom right
  4. Choose a location, probably a jump drive, to save your poster as a EPS
  5. Take your jump drive to a computer at the poster print shop that has Illustrator (I’d stick with a Mac at this point if you can)
  6. Open Illustrator
  7. Choose New Print Document and set the dimensions to the size of your poster
  8. Choose File -> Place and select your EPS file
  9. Quadruple check all the parts of your poster to make sure it looks right (See Note 1 for tips perfecting your poster in Illustrator)
  10. When it’s perfect, save your poster as PDF. DO NOT print to PDF. SAVE AS PDF.
  11. Take your PDF on your jump drive over to a PC that can print to the poster printer
  12. Open the PDF
  13. Quadruple check your poster in Acrobat on the PC
  14. Send your poster to the poster printer (See Note 2 for details about appropriate settings in the print dialog box)
  15. Cross your fingers, and hope for the best
  16. Enjoy your perfect poster!

Note 1: Illustrator and File Formats
Where ever you print your poster probably uses Illustrator. Illustrator will be happy to make a nice PDF of your poster, and you may be able to go straight from placing your EPS file to saving as a PDF. If you use transparent fonts or have placed images from PowerPoint, you will have to make some adjustments. Changing the fonts should be easy enough – you can simply select the text and change its opacity. If you’ve placed an image from PowerPoint, and it looks wrong, go to PowerPoint, save as a PNG, and place the PNG using File -> Place in Illustrator.

Note 2: Setting Properties in the Print Dialog
You’re using Windows because the print dialog box will let you adjust the settings appropriately. The Mac print dialog box will probably not work. Remember, these instructions are for HP poster printers (e.g. HP DesignJet 5500) So, in the print dialog box

  • Select the poster printer from the drop down list of available printers.
  • Click on the Properties button.
  • In the Properties window, select the “Advanced” tab.
  • Expand the Paper/Output selection and select “PostScript Custom Page Size” from the Paper Size: drop down menu.
  • In the PostScipt Custom Page Size Definition window enter your document’s height and width.
  • If the longest edge of your poster is the width of the printer (in my case 42″) or shorter, from the Paper Feed Direction: drop down menu select “Long Edge First.”
  • In the print window, verify that your document size is correct.
  • Click the Print button to send your document to the printer.

Tech Deck Notes:
The Tech Deck uses some software on a PC directly attached to the printer. You can print directly from Illustrator on the Mac to the poster printer, and then you’ll do your last quadruple checking over on the PC attached to the printer. Tech Deck staff will help you through all of this. You will pay for your poster at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library’s Circulation desk.

Angell Hall Notes:
The Sites personnel may or may not be able to help you. The instructions above will work if you design your poster in Inkscape on a Mac, use a Sites Mac to make a PDF, and then use a Sites PC to print to the poster printer. After you click “OK” to print your poster, you must visit http://mprint.umich.edu/poster and release your job to the printer. Your student account will be billed for the cost of printing your poster.

Dissertation Abstract and Update

A number of wonderful, attentive, concerned friends and family members have asked for a dissertation update, and here it is. Thank you for thinking of me! Now all of you who wanted to know but were afraid to ask can know too. The latest short abstract is:

In the fall of 2005, drivers in a small midwestern city began crossing over an interstate on a new kind of bridge. The bridge beneath them looked like other bridges carrying city streets over the interstate, but this bridge could bend. It couldn’t bend like Gumby, but it could bend like steel. Building the deck of this bendable bridge involved a state transportation department, a university research lab, and several private contractors. Given the complexity of construction projects, the challenges in doing innovative construction work, and the potential pitfalls of collaboration projects, the success of the bridge is surprising. This dissertation explores how the team managed to build a bridge with a remarkable new kind of deck.

Existing scholarship provides insight on the problems that plague projects and collaborations and identifies many mechanisms to help meet these challenges. My analysis suggests that the bridge project avoided possible problems common in projects such as (1) loose coupling among actors in a project limiting the information sharing that occurs and (2) procurement processes that encourage builders and clients to see one another as adversaries through (a) social language and its associated attention to others, (b) the flexibility and localized control loose coupling affords, and (c) the motivating influences of affect. This study will combine and extend theories about social capital, creative projects, and loose coupling in order to better understand the nature of collaborative projects involving multiple communities of practice and how those projects can be successful.

I’ve written at least 68 good pages and probably about 50 not-so-good ones that will eventually work their way, in part, into the good stuff. I have a few (< 10) interviews remaining, and that means more time in analysis. I'm on target for my personal deadline of a spring/summer defense and am actively seeking new opportunities beginning summer or fall of 2009.

Becoming Manifesto-y, Telling Stories

A couple weeks ago, my advisor counseled me to make the research statement I was writing for a job application “more manifesto-y.”  A few days later, we elected Barack Obama President of the United States, spurring at least one manifesto [story from the Boston Globe]. This week I have watched an embarrassing number of episodes of The West Wing on DVD.  The characters on The West Wing are constanting publicly declaring their intentions.  Today, my brother sent me a Tom Peters manifesto from ChangeThis. Manifesto seems to be the theme of my life for November.



—noun, plural -toes. a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization. (from Dictionary.com)

This definition from Dictionary.com seems to be missing some of the “flair” I normally associate with a manifesto.  For me, a manifesto is not just any public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, but an energetic, empassioned public declaration.  Without passion, it’s just a statement.

Why blog this?  Well, I’m worked up.  My guy won the White House.  A close friend wrote something that was entered into the Congressional record and may find a public outlet for other important work.  My brother sent me something from non-academic workplace literature that made me sit up and pay attention while I read.  President-elect Obama. We millions who voted for him. My friend the policy researcher. Tom Peters. These people made public declarations of their opinions and objectives, and they did so with passion.

It seems silly to compare those actions to the kind of effort my advisor asked me to use in my research statement. I don’t think I really understood when she told me to “be more manifesto-y.”  I definitely improved my statement after that advice, but it did not turn into a research manifesto.  It’s probably too early in my career for me to be writing research manifestos.  After all, I need some political capital in order to get a job.  I don’t have the protection of tenure to shield me in the event that my manifesto is unpopular.

I don’t think my manifesto would be unpopular though.  My manifesto would be about doing research that helps us change the world by working together.  Research that helps us solve problems like AIDS, bioterrorism, crumbling civil infrastructure, and the uncertainty and pain of starting new careers.  Those are the problems the people I study are solving.  My research will be useful to them.  My research will help us work together better.  My research will help us organize our projects so that we can accomplish more together than on our own.  My research will help us feel better about our work, about what we can accomplish, about our relationships with our colleagues.  My research will enable us to get more from ourselves.

That is the research statement I can make here, on my blog, after regaining hope in my country, after watching my friends do their best to change the world, after reading about how to succeed.  I make it here because it’s not appropriate for my job packet.  I make it here because while reading #17: Work on Your Story in Tom Peters’ manifesto, I was reminded of my frustrations about presenting and discussing academic work.  Tom Peters claims that “he/she who has the best story wins!”  He claims that telling stories is better than simply giving presentations.  I am a great story teller.  Ask my friends or the people who come to my parties.  My friend Caroline, for sure, will vouch for me.  I want so much to believe Tom Peters that being a storyteller will help me succeed.  The trouble is, I’m not sure my audience can handle it.  I’m not sure my conference presentations go over that well when I try to be a storyteller.  I know reviewers get frustrated when I don’t stick to intro, method, results, discussion and bullet points.  I’m pretty sure a hiring committee would rather I send them the statement I did than something like the paragraph before this one.

Am I asking too little of my conference audiences, of those hiring committees?  Would I be better off if I showed them the passion I have for the study of collaboration?  I’m not sure.  I do know I want to be more manifesto-y.  The stories about the work I’ve done and seen could inspire.  I don’t know who would listen to them though.  I don’t know what audience would match my energy.  The dry, monotonous style of academic publishing, both in print and at conferences, does not lend itself to manifesto.  We academics are reserved; sometimes we are cynical.  When I’m all worked up like this, that reservation, that cynicism is troubling.  I see some value in a cold, passive, rational approach.  I do.  Just not tonight.

NSF Award

Stephanie Teasley, Erik Johnston, and I teamed up this spring to propose a study of post-docs joining virtual science teams. NSF awarded us funding at the full amount this week. Our project kicks off this September and runs through (at least) August 2010. I’m very excited about this project. To read more about it, visit NSF’s site.

A Productive Summer

Andrew Begel and I had a very productive summer. We conducted 95 interviews with 26 people, and spent 7 days onsite observing new remote employees. We’ll be presenting a poster titled, “How will you see my greatness if you can’t see me?” at CSCW in November. The poster session is Monday night, Nov. 11. Come by to hear more about our study, especially our findings about how excellent work is and is not observable from a distance. Stay tuned; we’re submitting longer papers to two other conferences, and I’ll post here when they get accepted.

Related links:
Human Interactions in Programming Group at Microsoft Research
ACM’s Computer Supported Cooperative Work Conference (CSCW08)

Special, so special

Earlier today, I was plowing through some old emails, and I came upon a link Cory sent me a couple months ago.  He knew I was off to Microsoft to study new software engineers and thought I might be interested in a post from Paul Johnson’s blog about how there is no process for programming.  I commented on some of the details of his post, namely that I thought professionals deserve a little more respect than I thought he gave them by saying, “Think about other important areas of human endeavor: driving a car, flying a plane, running a company, designing a house, teaching a child, curing a disease, selling insurance, fighting a lawsuit. In every case the core of the activity is well understood: it is written down, taught and learned.”  What a load of crap.  (On my own blog, I can say that.  On his, I thought I was polite.)

I was excited to get an email response from Paul about my comment; he addressed specific points within my comment and clearly took some time to consider his responses.  The gist ended up being, “If you tried programming, you’d know I’m right, and then I would respect you.”  Another load of crap.  Clearly he thinks programming is different in kind from other professions.  While I agree that it is, I don’t think programming is different because it doesn’t follow a process or isn’t easily described as a process. Instead, I think it’s different because it requires an approach to thinking about problems (Paul made a nice comparison to mathematics) that seems procedural to an untrained, inexperienced eye.  I think what Paul’s missing is that the same is true about professions like management and medicine.  What looks to outsiders like process is often not at all.  Software engineering is not alone.  Many professions include something akin to “write the code” where the magic happens, and we should respect that.

I could’ve titled this post, “Why I Should Never Comment on Blogs.” I appreciated that Paul took the time to reply to me, but I did not appreciate the slapping he gave me.  Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but the stress I’ve felt since reading his email and then responding and now blogging is disproportionate to the importance of our conversation.  I love studying people, especially at work, because I get to learn how different they and their jobs are.  And today I stood up for similarity.  Now, I’m schizophrenic.  Sigh.

Formative interventions and design research

Discussions of method don’t often sound all that sexy, but I love them anyway. My first two sessions of the ICLS 2008 conference have been about method (maybe process is a better term). First, Yrjo Engestrom talked about formative interventions, an activity theory-style approach to research, and then Ilya Zitter described her process for using Educational Design Research in her doctoral work.

Not surprisingly, Engestrom railed against the “gold standard” of randomized controlled trials as the best and only way to properly conduct research. He mixed in a couple jabs at the U.S. — one for emphasizing such studies and one for making unpopular interventions. I’m with him on both. Randomized controlled trials (RCT) shouldn’t be the gold standard for all kinds of research, and the U.S. shouldn’t have intervened in Iraq. At least not the way we did. But, I digress. I was talking about method.

In contrast to the positivist RCT program, Engestrom recommends a different process entirely. His process, we’ll call it formative interventions (that was on his slides), engages the research site as a participant in the project rather than as a passive recipient of a designed intervention. It differs from ICT (and even from Design Research — an approach gaining popularity in education research) in three main ways:

  1. starting point,
  2. process, and
  3. outcome.

The starting point for formative interventions are poorly understood objects. RCT and design research start with some goal in mind. Having a goal presupposes that the goal is desirable. I dislike the arrogance behind starting a project from, “I know how it should be,” and so it’s no surprise that I like formative interventions’ starting point.

Engestrom calls formative interventions’ process “double stimulation.” That term doesn’t really work for me. I think what he means is that the research introduces and recognizes changes in the research environment over time. Whether those changes are planned by the researchers or not is not terribly important. The process of studying a changing phenomenon differs dramatically from the “execute, refine, repeat” approach RCT takes.

Lastly, the outcomes of the two methodological approaches differs. For Engestrom, the outcome should be “new activity concepts” and for RCT, it’s “solutions.” I’m often frustrated by “solution” terminology — because I’m uncomfortable labeling social phenomena as broken, because I’ve seen too many “solutions” that don’t have clear “problems”, because I just don’t see the world that black and white.

So now we have an outline of Engestrom’s preferred methodological approach. I like it. It’s engaged, rigorous, and embraces the ongoing and changing nature of social situations. Trouble is, it’s hard to sell, in the U.S. especially, and even harder to do.

Enter Ilya Zitter. Ilya is a PhD student at Utrecht University, and she uses a method she calls “Educational Design Research” in her doctoral work. Basically, she uses research, design, and practice approaches to study undergrads in a projects course. Hooray for higher education at ICLS! It’s almost as satisfying for me to engage as adults’ informal and workplace learning. Anyway, Ilya gave a short talk in a firehose session where she described how she conducted her research. This is exactly the kind of talk I like to attend at conferences. I can read papers, but papers about how the research was conducted are hard to come by. Sure, papers include methods sections, but those don’t often tell you the nitty gritty details. Ilya talked about her struggle to balance research, design, and practice in her work. This is a struggle I get to avoid in my dissertation but which is central to my life at Microsoft Research.

At MSR, we’re engaged in a formative intervention study of sorts. We’re working with HR and managers to adjust social and technological tools used in onboarding at Microsoft. I’m often uncomfortable in the “design” and “intervene” portions of such studies. I much prefer to be a fly on the wall. That’s not immediately useful (or publishable) though. I, like Ilya, am struggling to find balance and to negotiate relationships among researchers and practitioners all while gathering and analyzing data. It’s hard, but at least I’m not alone.

What is an actor?

Some colleagues and I recently submitted a paper to a conference, and last week I sent in our rebuttals to the reviewers’ comments. Our paper introduces some terms from actor-network theory (ANT) to an audience that isn’t terribly familiar with ANT. I like ANT as a method, not really a theory, for helping sort through really dense, unfamiliar data. For instance, you can use ANT to help you figure out where to focus. If you enter a scenario as an ignorant sponge (as many qualitative methods ask that you do), it can be difficult to figure out what’s important. It’s also impossible to pay attention to everything all the time. ANT can help you find some important actors on which to focus your attention. Actors seems like a familiar term – we know of many in Hollywood, we understand what it means to act even off screen. That’s not what ANT means though. For ANT, actors are something like things that cause change, or things that other actors say are actors. You can probably see why some of our reviewers got a bit confused.

I use ANT in my dissertation to talk about what had to happen for a specific bridge to be built. I couch the study in terms of actors who did work to produce the bridge. I borrow actors from ANT in that I consider non-human actors (e.g. bendable concrete) symmetrical with human actors. Objects and ideas can do work even though they’re not human. They’re identified as important by other actors. For instance, using bendable concrete in the bridge deck required changes in how the sidewalk was connected, how the deck connected to the regular concrete deck on either side. The bendable concrete was acting in that it was creating change. Other actors, such as a construction consultant, identified it as an actor by saying things like, “If we use that bendable concrete, then we can’t use rebar there. We’ll have to use something else.” In that excerpt, he identified bendable concrete as the thing that caused a change. Bendable concrete has some agency. Had we entered the construction project without knowing anything, we’d know from the way the consultant talks about the bendable concrete that it is something important, that determines what other actors may or may not do (e.g. use rebar).

I think our paper does a good job of describing how ANT can help identify the important things in a set of data. When I find out if it got accepted, I’ll blog about the conference itself. I have pretty strong feelings about the conference to which we submitted, and they will either grow stronger or remain in check, depending on the outcome of our submission. Oh, that drama! The intrigue! Stay tuned.

A new vocabulary

I’m lucky to be the kind of researcher I am.  I get to observe and interview people who do really cool work and to learn about what they do.  A couple years ago I learned how vaccines for Black Plague get made.  My dissertation lets me learn about how bridges (real ones, not just metaphorical ones) get built.  Now, at Microsoft, I learn how software is built.  Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been interviewing managers of developers and testers at Microsoft in an effort to recruit them for my study on remote onboarding and to learn about what they do.

Years ago, before I came back to grad school, I had the illustrious title “Developer” at a web start up in Chicago with about 100 employees.  A “software team” there was a project manager, a developer, an architect, and a designer.  We built websites.  My job was to write ASP code that made the designers and project managers happy.  Towards the end of my career, I wrote ASP.NET code.  Somewhat more complicated, still produced a website.  “Developer” at Microsoft means something a bit different.  Developers at Microsoft build stuff that matters – Windows, for example.  They do it in teams using tools such as Source Depot, Razzle, test harnesses, RSOPs, WTT, and TFS.  They meet in scrums, war rooms, Live Meetings, Office Communicator, one-on-ones, and code reviews.  Those 12 phrases and acronyms are new to me. Not one of them had I ever heard before.  I now know what 5 of them mean.  I’ll leave you to guess which 5 I know.

Learning the vocabulary of my subjects is just one part of my research, but it’s been a while since I had so much specialized vocabulary to learn.  The phrases and acronyms the engineers I study use seem a bit more intuitive to me, things like “pancake test” and “aggregate” are nearly self-explanatory.  Granted, “code review” means about what you think it does but “scrum”?  No, developers are not playing rugby.

Being a new employee while studying new employees is so meta I can hardly handle it.  Perhaps next week when I meet my first new employee subjects I’ll start to feel like I have a better handle on the situation.  For now, while I’m meeting with managers, I’ll just keep typing as fast as I can and hope that I’ll know when to ask for help.