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Field Report 7: A Day in the Life of a Spy


Okay, we are seven columns into my career-change odyssey. We have shared the humbling trip to the unemployment office, plumbed the depths of my self, and even visited the accountant together. You know (roughly) how much money I make and (roughly) where I make it. So I figure that it's about time to tell you what I do. And I don't mean "I am a science writer" or "I am a science communication consultant." I mean what I really do. Day in and day out. From 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. And do I really work from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., or am I just trying to intimidate you by inflating the number of hours I work?

I can't possibly tell you everything in just one column. Well, maybe I could, but I would have to leave out so much that it would read like a résumé. Or worse--a curriculum vitae! Instead, I'm going to take it slow and give you all of the gory details from my very first job as a science communication consultant.

I was hired by a local nonprofit company to produce an educational multimedia CD-ROM. It was to be (and later became) a compilation of materials demonstrating how a variety of kindergarten through grade 12 art and science teachers have integrated image processing into their classrooms. The teachers had already delivered all of their materials. My job was to put it all onto the CD-ROM and then make sure that all of the files would open on both Macintosh and PC-type computers.

Here we go! I thought to myself. This is the job for me. Way back in my self-assessment phase I had even written the following description of my dream job: "I want to design entertaining and educational multimedia. ..." And now I was about to start doing just that. I was even the "producer." Maybe all those dues I paid as a graduate student and postdoc were starting to pay off.

I arrived for my first day eager to get started and to make a good impression. These were my first clients, I realized, and I didn't want them to be my last. I was wearing a snazzy but slightly rumpled outfit that I told myself conveyed both the artist's concern for appearance and the scientist's disdain for it. In hindsight, I might have given too much thought to my clothing. Their offices are in a converted strip mall, and my cubicle was in a secluded corner far from the front door. Without a concerted effort on someone's part, the day could easily pass without my seeing a soul.

I beat back the flicker of disappointment I felt at seeing this grim little cubicle by reminding myself that I was about to produce my first multimedia CD-ROM. So what if my last office was in a historic French observatory with a window overlooking Paris, this was my new (and chosen) career; I was determined to get right to work. So I sat down at my two computers (a Macintosh named Charlie Brown and a PC named Beaker), turned them on, logged in, checked my e-mail, and then stopped. Cold.

Did I mention that I don't have the slightest idea how to "produce an educational multimedia CD-ROM"? Well, at the time, I didn't. Not a clue. And I had never claimed that I did. In my interview, I only said that I was certain I could learn how. My new clients had, to my great surprise, seemed to accept that. Even though everything I had ever read about finding a job said that you have to demonstrate skills to your potential employer before you start the job, these people seemed willing to let me learn as I went. I was broke and desperate to start earning money, so I never bothered to wonder why they had such confidence in my unproven ability. I was about to find out.

Once she noticed that I had reached the end of my modest "production" abilities, my supervisor for the project, Dawn, stopped in to my office and inquired about how I was doing. I admitted that I wasn't quite sure where to go from here and asked if she wouldn't mind showing me what exactly they wanted me to do. She said sure. And so I learned how to produce a cross-platform educational multimedia CD-ROM. It was not very entertaining.

As producer, my job was to make sure every file sent in by every teacher opened correctly on both Charlie Brown and Beaker. I spent one day opening almost 2000 images on the Mac, and then I came back the next day and opened the same 2000 images on the PC. Naturally, many didn't open. So I had to convert these errant files to different formats, which means I had to open them again with a conversion program. Then I had to reopen them to make sure I had corrected the problem. Then I had to reopen the same files on the other computer to make sure that I hadn't introduced any new errors. If I had, and I assure you that I did, the whole process started over again.

I spent 7 years in graduate school and 4 years as a postdoc for this?! And don't get me wrong; I'll be the first to admit that research can be numbingly repetitive. For me it was: Write a program; run it with one set of parameters. Then another. And another. And another. Ad infinitum, or at least until you have generated enough numbers to publish. But that was one of the main reasons I left research (that, and the fact that no one offered me a job doing research ...). Yet here I was, back at the computer getting repetitively stressed.

It had to get better soon. Right?

Wrong. After I had finally corrected every error in all 2000 images (Did I really correct every error? Let's just say no one has complained. Yet.), it was time to "burn" the first CD, which means I had to copy all the files from Beaker and Charlie Brown onto a CD-ROM. In order to make a CD that runs on both Mac and PC platforms, all the CD-ROM file names have to conform to something called the "Joliet Standard." The association with the famous prison is, as far as I can tell, no coincidence. The Joliet Standard says that file names cannot contain :;'/?(), a lowercase Z, or any permutation of the word Macintosh. Who invented it and, more importantly, why? Beats me, but I suspect a disgruntled-but-obscenely-well-paid engineer at a giant software company.

So I had to go back through all 2000 files and make sure that none of the file names contained :;'/?(), a lowercase Z, or any permutation of the word Macintosh. Aughhhh!

In the past, when my work situation became too tedious or irritating, I would have turned to my co-workers. I have always found that a half-hour spent bitching about my on-the-job stress can be wonderfully therapeutic. But there was a problem. As a consultant, I felt like everyone was my boss and I wasn't at all sure how far I could go with my complaining. I knew the work was tedious and boring, and I was sure they knew the work was tedious and boring, but what if I said something that inadvertently gave them the impression that I thought the work was too tedious and boring? And what if that convinced them that I was overqualified? And what if they decided to call someone else for the next project? Someone without a Ph.D. Someone who might charge a little less per hour. Someone who was not me.

With these paranoid thoughts floating in my brain, I inevitably replied "Fine" when anyone asked how the work was going. But as the days passed, I began to notice that a little smile played around the corners of my co-workers' mouths whenever they asked me that question. This encouraged me to let a little honesty creep out. "Fine, but it's a bit, um, tedious."

Dawn nearly burst out laughing. "Is it ever! God, why do you think we hired you to do it? None of us could stand the monotony!"

And the rest of the story soon followed. All this time, they were worried that I would quit because the job was too boring! You see, creating educational software to teach science requires a rare blend of skills. You have to understand the science. You have to be able to communicate to a variety of audiences. You have to be computer savvy. And you have to be willing to do some pretty monotonous work at times.

My new employers had decided to put me to work on a pressing but simple project (the CD-ROM) that combined all of these skills. That way, if I had overstated my abilities, it would quickly be obvious. What actually became clear to everyone (including myself) was that I was very well suited to this sort of work. In fact, I picked it up so quickly that the work became tedious long before the CD-ROM was finished.

As a consequence, Dawn worried that I would move on to something else before she could "promote" me to more interesting projects. But she needn't have worried. Although I had once thought seriously about bagging this job, by the time the ice finally broke I was starting to enjoy it.

Partly, this was because I had started to work on more creative projects. But even as I was slogging through my first assignment as a multimedia producer, something else happened. The executive director of the company became a film buff, frequent visitor to Italy, and fellow dog lover. The public relations expert became an exuberant chalkboard artist, adviser to several start-up companies, and a former promo person for a comedy club. The head of lesson evaluation became an avid camper, opera singer, and sometime actor.

In short, as I settled into my new environment and my vision cleared, I saw that I was working with other people. People who spread plastic, glow-in-the-dark cockroaches all over the lunchroom. People who worried about losing their jobs if the grant money ran out. People who ordered 48-inch pepperoni pizzas to celebrate Secretary's Day. People who took a leave if their children were hospitalized. People who visited the hospital and brought balloons. People I liked. And you know what they say: (ahem) "People (everybody sing along), people who need people (don't be shy, you know the words), are the luck-i-est peeee-pullll, ... innn thaaaa worrrld."

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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