One of the benefits of attending SI is the school’s strong alumni network. You can find alums working at some of the hottest companies and in almost every industry. This aspect of the school was a major draw for me when I was applying to grad schools. If others who attended the school could get a good job, I figured I could too. Later when I learned more about social networks and Granovetter’s work on weak ties, I realized that having that network could be important for my career. Admittedly, when I was looking for a job after graduation, I didn’t directly use those weak ties – it just sort of fell in my lap. I learned of the position opening for my current job and was able to interview for it through an alum (via a classmate). And when I got my summer internship in 2005, a second year student who had held the position the summer before offered invaluable advice about what to expect and how to get the most out of the experience. In short, SI alums helped me along the way and I like being able to help others. At the same time, I think there is a right way to contact alums and a wrong way to contact alums. Here are a few painfully obvious tips:
Don’t send me a generic email. Nothing says tacky than getting a one-liner that simply says “I’m interested in your company.” OK, why? Show me that you really are interested. Why do you want to work in UX and why at Microsoft? Be specific about your request – what sort of advice or feedback do you want? Simply sending me your resume and expecting me to somehow get you a job or plaster your resume isn’t going to cut it.
Don’t spam all of my friends with that same generic email. Guess what? I still keep in touch with other SI alums, especially the ones who live in the Bay Area. Some of them are even my friends! And I even work with an alum! We talk! Spaming a large number of alums with the same email doesn’t make me want to help you – it says that you’re lazy, unprofessional, and rude.
Don’t send me a generic LinkedIn request. If I’ve never met you or communicated with you before, don’t send me a LinkedIn request, and worse yet don’t send the generic LinkedIn request! “Noor, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” Um, ok, but why should I add you? I don’t know you. Why would I want you to see my network?
You’re not entitled to anything. I don’t have to help you. I don’t have to get you a job. Don’t send me an email with that attitude. First of all, I can’t believe you’re so naive as to think that I’m somehow capable of getting you a job – when I’ve only been out of school 1.5 years myself. Again, ask direct questions about what sort of help and feedback you’d like. Try to build a relationship. Asking me to plaster your resume isn’t building a relationship.
Say thank you. If I’ve sent you a response to your email, say thank you! How much effort does it take to say, “Hey Noor, thanks!” OK, so I probably didn’t get you a job, but if I’ve offered tips on your resume, passed you somebody’s contact info, or given you advice about interviewing at Microsoft, say thank you! It takes time and effort for me to respond to you so send a quick note that says you appreciate it. Not saying thank you doesn’t make me more willing to talk you up to my colleagues. Again, it sends the message that you’re lazy, unprofessional, and feel entitled to that feedback.
Be prepared/show you care. Have somebody look at your resume (umm, like Career Services?) and portfolio before contacting me. Attaching a sloppy resume is bad form and again won’t make me want to pass it around. Again, you’re sending the message that you’re lazy and just don’t care. If I recommend you to one of my colleagues, my reputation is on the line – I’m less likely to do that when your resume is unpolished and sloppy. It is also a waste of my time (and yours) for me to send you basic feedback about your resume.
I don’t want this post to make it sound like I’m grumpy and don’t want to help people. Because I really do. I enjoy getting emails from current students and like sharing my experiences with others. But nobody likes feeling used. The bottom line is – when contacting alums, seek advice and try to build a relationship. After all, only you can get yourself a job.
It’s hard to believe but it has been almost two years since we submitted Fitster to the CHI Student Design Competition. As much work as it turned out to be, it was a really fun and rewarding experience, especially given how awesome our team was :). Since our team was the first team from SI to participate in the competition, we had to figure out a lot of things on our own (“you’re doing what? who are you again?”). I’ll never forget how intimidating it was to be the only team from Michigan and watch as other teams (from lesser universities I might add) got coached by their faculty advisers while we were just glad that United finally found and returned our luggage (oh yeah, and relieved to have managed to get our poster reprinted in a French speaking city :)). I was combing through my inbox this morning and found a thread from last year where our team was giving some advice to another SI team. I figured reposting these tips might help other teams down the line:
Read the CHI guidelines carefully and follow them. We made sure that our paper fit the expectations of the judges. We addressed all of the things they were looking for.
Don’t just submit what you did for your class. I don’t think our project would have been accepted had we just submitted what we did for infoviz. We did a lot of reformatting and rewriting. We took out course-specific terms. We wrote about the project knowing that the judges had never seen it before (unlike our prof). There were things in our final paper that were important to meeting course requirements but weren’t important for CHI. We took those out.
Describe your methods and process. What sort of user research did you do? How did you come up with your design decisions? Did you test your final design with your users?
Describe the problem your project is addressing. Who is going to use it? Why is this problem important? How does your design address the problem?
Don’t wait to the last minute! At this point in the semester, you might be wanting to take a break and just worry about it in January. We did that and that week before the submission deadline was pretty rough for us!
Proof read it [over and over and over again]. If you’ve got time, get someone outside of your team to read it (especially someone who isn’t familiar with the project). Even better – find a prof who knows the CHI community and its expectations and have them proof read it for you.
Include quotes from your users. This makes it sound more legit and it is always fun to read what real people have to say.
Do some literature/product research. Has anyone researched this problem before? Has anyone developed a product like this before? What did they find out? How did you incorporate their research into your design? How is your design better than its predecessors?
Include photos/screenshots/flows/visuals. Some things are better described with images. Make sure to have the right balance, though.
Give yourself enough time to format your paper into the paper template.
Spend some time on the poster. Make sure to balance visuals with text. You can find examples from last year on flickr (search for chi2006 or chi2007). Your poster should look professional.
Funding. Once your paper is accepted, you can get funding from Rackham (I think it was a travel grant). You just fill out one piece of paper and include your acceptance notification. We also made our case to SI and got some additional funding that way. We all also signed up to be student volunteers which covered our registration and hotel expenses.
Functional prototype. If you have the time and skills, try to build something. Wireframes and mockups are good but a working prototype along with sound methods is more likely to impress the judges.
Take photos. Take lots and lots of photos. Aside from just documenting the whole experience, having photos to describe your process and methods will really improve the quality of your paper and poster. And it looks nice/impressive in a portfolio and when you’re looking for a job.
Practice, practice, and practice some more. Presenting at a poster session is a bit different from a traditional presentation so try to get as much practice as possible presenting your project in a non-linear format. Sign up for ExpoSItion and try to get as many profs as possible to quiz you and offer you feedback.
Don’t check your luggage.
Bring lots of business cards and resumes to the conference. You’re going to get a lot of exposure doing this and you’ll end up talking to lots of UX professionals.
Have a backup plan. You never know what could happen to your poster! Bring a soft copy!
HBO has produced an excellent documentary about the UM/OSU rivalry. I just watched it and thought it was extremely well-produced. It goes through the history of both football programs and the roots of the rivalry between the two schools. They even trace it all the way back to the two states fighting over Toledo (who’d fight over Toledo??). It also explains that part of Michigan’s elitism stems from the rise of the auto industry and the wealth that brought to the state. I thought the documentary was fairly balanced – although they did seem to (accurately) paint UM as the better snobbier school and OSU as the redneck school with the crazy obnoxious fans. ;)
There are a lot of times when I take for granted the rich history and traditions that come with a UM degree. Having attended grad school at Michigan, this stuff was all around but it was hard to soak it in when I was so engrossed in our little academic program. I think it was hard to see the big picture of what it really meant to walk by the Big House everyday. It was pretty cool to watch something like that on TV and not only recognize the buildings I was seeing but also know that I’ve walked through them (“hey! that’s the law quad!”).
Oh and now I know why there’s a Yost Arena and a Crisler Arena (I figured they were named after somebody but now I know who).
A few weeks ago, I came upon the SI is Broken blog, through another SIer’s (Andrea?) del.icio.us feed. Like an ill-conceived SIstudent project, the anonymous blog starts off with an overly ambitious goal but then miserably fails to deliver on its objectives. With only three bad posts and no follow-up on any of the comments, we can only conclude that SI is not THAT broken or the student got distracted with the sexiest geek poll over at Wired. From what I’ve seen of the blog so far, I’m finding it fairly silly. I don’t think SI is broken, but it isn’t perfect either. But if someone is going to offer feedback, why not offer constructive feedback to actually improve the place (other than just whining)?
SI is pretty new (only ten years old) and like all new things, it could use a few tweaks here and there. I’ve been giving it some thought and here is the list of things that I would change if I were running the place (ha! isn’t that a scary thought?). I should preface this list by saying that I think SI is a great program that I’d recommend to anyone with my specific interests. I really enjoyed my two years and met lots of cool people, many of whom I still keep in touch with. When I graduated, I got a job offer pretty quickly and in a position, location, and organization that matched what I was looking for and that I was excited about. SI is far more student-centered than many other places and I was always surprised by the amount of student feedback they collected (and acted upon). Very few places are as accommodating as SI when it comes to student feedback. For instance, when I was in SOCHI, we managed to get an HCI class moved because it conflicted with another important HCI class (and all it took was a quick email pointing out the conflict).
What I’m trying to say is that it’s a great place but there is some room for improvement. My feedback is going to skew very heavily in the direction of the HCI program, specifically, since that’s what I’m familiar with.
Make admissions more competitive – there’s a good 5% of the master’s students who are incapable of handling the material and shouldn’t have even been admitted. It devalues the MSI degree and the program when incompetent people somehow manage to graduate. It is also SO frustrating to be stuck in a group with people who shouldn’t have even received undergraduate degrees, much less be in a master’s program.
Require at least two years of full-time professional work experience – I felt like I got so much more out of the program having had a little bit of work experience. I also found that I learned more when I was working in groups with people who had more (or different) work experience than me. Since it’s a professional program, I think the discussion sections could really benefit from the sort of discussions that can arise when you have a room full of students who’ve actually worked before.
Create an intro to UX/HCI class – UI/interaction design shouldn’t be a student’s first exposure to HCI. There is so much to HCI and UX and making 682 the entry course into the specialization weeds out far too many people who actually do have an interest in UX but may not be designers. 622 and 682 try to cover so much material in such a short time. Having an intro class would take away some of those burdens, and offer a nice primer to the field for both HCI students and ARM/LIS students.
Create a design research/contextual inquiry/ethnography class – 622 is great for evaluation and analysis but there is a whole world of UX research that happens before and alongside product design. 682 doesn’t cover that and there really isn’t any time to do it. SI needs its own design research class to cover all of the qualitative methods associated with design research. We get no respect in sociology, don’t make us venture over there for a qualitative research class! ;)
Hire an instructional designer – for a School of Information, there are way too many bad PowerPoint slides and course websites/CTools sites. There is a whole profession that is just about information design (and specifically curriculum design), why not take advantage of it?
Update those slides and don’t use other people’s slides – nothing says I could care less about teaching this lowly master’s class than outdated slides . . . and even worse, using somebody else’s slides. This field changes and evolves so quickly that slides can’t be a semester outdated, let alone a few years outdated.
Learn from the B-School – I know the B-School has a lot more financial resources and different objectives but they do a lot of things right. Why not benchmark them? There is a whole set of students doing the dual MBA/MSI degrees, why not get their feedback? They’ve got the best perspective into both worlds. A couple of quick ideas based on my conversations with my MBA/MSI friends: the MAP project is what the 501 project should be, replicate the West Coast Forum (or co-sponsor it with the B-School)
Restructure the discussion sections so that PhD students aren’t teaching Master’s students – I had mixed experiences with SI GSIs – some were so so awesome and some were so so horrible that I hope they dedicate their lives to research and never teach a class ever again. I understand that PhD students need practice teaching but if I’m paying over $20K for tuition I don’t expect to be a guinea pig. And if a discussion section is so unimportant that SI can take a chance on it being poorly taught by an inexperienced GSI, maybe that discussion section isn’t a vital component of a course.
Create a formal advising structure – I liked SI’s floating advising structure because that meant I wasn’t stuck with one prof for an adviser and I could visit with as many profs as I wanted to. But the whole point of advising is to actually have someone who is familiar enough with your needs/goals that they can actually advice you. As much as I liked the floating advising structure, it was like starting from scratch with every meeting (“I’m Noor, I’m interested in X, I want to do Y, What do you think I should do now?”). I also think that SI should hire more staff people to act as course advisers to do the boring “you need class X and class Y to graduate” sort of advising and leave the profs to do the advising that they do best – “read this paper, talk to this person, look into this field or that theory.”
Publicize GSRAs – Given the cost of Michigan tuition and the limited research opportunities/GSRAs for master’s students at SI, getting a GSRA should be based on merit, not personal bias/favors. Heck, you can still hire based on favoritism but at least create an application process.
Create events that include master’s and PhD students and faculty – the physical divide between the two campuses (Central being mostly master’s students and North being mostly PhD students) shouldn’t isolate them from each other. Creating social environments where students, faculty, and staff can regularly interact with one another will really help unify the School and strengthen its culture.
Take better advantage of alums for networking + jobs – SI has an amazing alumni network, why not conduct a more aggressive effort to reach out to them? I don’t think an alumni website or blog is the answer, though. Why not create networking events for alums and students (and don’t just rely on the local Ann Arbor/Detroit alums)?
create a real Intranet/knowledge base – In the real world, you have to utilize your social network to get information but as a School of Information, why not embrace open access to information? SIclops tries to do that but a more formal effort that is sponsored and managed by the School is needed.
Engage students in research projects – all sorts of cool research happens at SI but you hardly ever hear of master’s students being involved. :(
Improve facilities – there needs to be actual work areas/design areas, checkout the workspaces that the Architecture students get and try to create a similar studio environment.
Follow the McCullough model for readings – nobody is going to read a 1000+ page coursepack, brevity is a skill that SI preaches, how about practicing it when selecting readings. By selecting only relevant and interesting readings (as Malcolm would say, “stuff that you actually want to read”), you’ll create an environment where students are actually engaged with the material and informed enough to intelligently discuss it. If you don’t believe me, sit in on one of Malcolm’s discussion sections and then sit in on a discussion section for an SI Foundations course.
Every class project should have some sort of an outcome – I think every project should have a real world outcome. It should either help a client or lead to a publication. Get rid of the busy work (cough 503 homework cough)!
I think that’s about it. I’ve been out of SI for about 8 months and I’m finding that as time passes, my frustrations and annoyances with SI fade and I’m left with more fond memories than anything else.
What would you change about SI? What do you think of this list? Am I being unfair? Am I being too nice?
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a private two-day conference (entitled the Conference on Blogs and Democracy) sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I am honored to have been selected and am very grateful for getting the opportunity to hear some of the most influential people in this area talk about online communities and blogs.
During my talk, I mostly spoke about my thesis, specifically my observations of the Kuwait Blogs community. As part of my participation in the conference, I was asked to draft my reflections about the conference. Since others may benefit from these thoughts (and may want to engage in a discussion), I decided to post these thoughts publicly. Below you’ll find a few themes from the conference that I’d like to comment on:
The Importance of Blogs in the Arab World – Even though blogging in the Arab world is a fairly new/contained phenomenon, it is still an important phenomenon to study and observe because it sheds a lot of light about what is happening in Arab societies on a daily basis. The Arabs who are adopting blogs (and del.icio.us, flickr, etc) may not represent the larger Arab societies (mere observation, no real data about this yet). They tend to be the early adopters (more technically astute and of the financial/social/educational elite). Putting those characteristics aside, we can still get a general pulse of what is happening on the ground (unlike mainstream Arab media which is heavily censored in some nations). CNN has recently used videos and experiences posted by Lebanese bloggers in their reports about the current crisis in Lebanon [Wired article] [another related article]. Moreover, in some nations, these blogs are helping people become more organized in regards to civic issues [similar to Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs]. This article credits the Kuwait bloggers with organizing a street protest for election reforms. From a sociological perspective, I think these blogs are documenting (and perhaps helping expand) the slow changes that are occurring in Arab culture.
Social network analysis – SNA was mentioned several times as a promising methodology for understanding blog network topologies and studying impact of initiatives on communities. In some respects, such assumptions are true. However, SNA is rather quantitative in nature and fairly difficult to do well without extensive experience and training (there’s a pretty good reason why the most influential researchers in this field tend to be physicists, statisticians, and mathematicians).
Network visualizations/data gathering – On a related note, several people were curious about how I created my blog network visualizations. I used a free open-source tool called GUESS. There are a number of other free tools available, Pajek being the most famous of those. Others were also interested in how I collected my data. For the comments network that I presented at the conference, I manually collected this data, meaning that I visited every blog in my dataset (and during the time frame that I specified) and recorded who left a comment on each blog post. Gathering data in this manner is extremely time consuming and not something I would recommend for practical purposes. Nonetheless, this same sort of data can be gathered automatically for links (who is linking to which blogs) by using the Technorati API.
Blogs as knowledge management – Towards the end of the conference, the idea of using blogs as knowledge management systems was brought up and debated. Blogs can be a great tool for knowledge management mostly for their conversational tone. On the other hand, given the large amounts of text involved, blogs may not be the best tool when it comes to findability (in a body of conversational text, what is the most important and to whom?). The cultural issues surrounding the implementation of blogs in an organization are really no different than those associated with any other knowledge management system. Those issues of trust, incentives, buy-in, etc. are complicated and would require another conference with experts in the knowledge management domain to completely dissect and interpret.
I spent most of last week (with a side trip to D.C.) in Ann Arbor, coordinating and finalizing my move. All of my stuff (including my car) got packed and shipped this past Monday and should be in Mountain View in a couple of weeks. My move went pretty smoothly (well, as smoothly as those things go) but seeing my car loaded on a semi was both sad and nerve-wracking. The driver decided to drive Natalie the Jetta to the very top spot on the semi IN REVERSE. At one point, I was sure he was going to end Natalie’s short life by driving her off the stupid thing but then I felt bad for caring more about the welfare of my personified car than for the wellbeing of the driver. Alas, he proved me wrong and managed to drive Natalie up the semi without causing any damages (he was fine, too).
Returning to Ann Arbor after having been away for about a month was fun yet bittersweet. I got to hang out at someofmyfavoriteplaces and hang out with some of myfavoritepeople. During those short few days, I felt like I was home. I have memories (both good and bad) tucked away in that town and they all came rushing back. As I drove and walked around town and campus, things were still the same but they really weren’t. A fraction of my friends were still in town (and most of them are planning their exodus pretty soon, too), my old apartment is sitting vacant and un-rented, my mailbox in West Hall is empty and awaiting to be reassigned to an incoming first year, the DIAD is deserted, and there are plenty of vacant tables to be had in the UGLI. Ann Arbor, UM, and SI were home for two years but that home will never be what it was.
Of course, I wouldn’t be feeling this nostalgic or sentimental if I had visited Ann Arbor in the middle of winter when the temperature is below zero, inches of unplowed snow cover the town and campus, and the sun is not to be found for weeks.
Broke into the old apartment
Tore the phone out of the wall
Only memories, fading memories
Blending into dull tableaux
I want them back
I want them back
Since posting a condensed version of my thesis online, a few people have asked some questions or left feedback about it. I’ve been a bit busy as of late so I haven’t responded as quickly as I usually do to such matters. Apologies and excuses aside, here are my responses to the feedback/questions I’ve received:
Rob Goodspeed gave a fairly accurate and thorough review of my thesis, which I don’t have much to disagree with. Due to the labor-intensive nature of gathering comment data, I should note that I only collected comments for the Kuwait community. My observations about conversation-starters and conversation-supporters are only for the Kuwait community (but I believe that this typology probably holds for much of the blogosphere). Rob also compares my network diagrams with the long tail theory. Essentially, my diagrams are a different way of visualizing the long tail. In the blogosphere, there are a small number of highly linked-to blogs and a large number of blogs that receive a small number of links.
Carlasked about the final node count of the comments network. I gathered 3943 comments left on 468 blog posts from 89 blogs. There were a little over 630 nodes (comment authors/bloggers). The indegree of the most central node (the blog that received the comments from the most number of readers) was 100 (meaning this blog received comments from 100 different bloggers/comment authors during the 2 week sampling frame).
Shirazicriticized (see the comments section) my selection of the blog communities citing that “blogs by nature do not recognize geographical boundaries.” It is true that computer-mediated communication is not bound by geography, nonetheless research has shown that bloggers do tend to cluster along geographical boundaries [full paper][short summary]. In the Middle East specifically, we find that Arab bloggers tend to link, read, and comment on blogs from their own countries (not even the entire Middle East). In the specific cases of the communities that were part of my thesis study, Lada Adamic, my thesis adviser, and I recently did some further analysis and proved that bloggers in these communities do interact with each other [full paper, see section 3.5 specifically]
Hamad Alhomaizi asked about the differences between the offline/online relationship correlation between Kuwait and UAE. I think these differences could be explained due to the differences seen in each community. The Kuwait blogosphere is almost entirely made up of Kuwaitis, the UAE blogosphere, on the other hand, is almost entirely made up of expatriates living in the UAE.
Along with asking a similar question about the differences between the Kuwait and UAE bloggers, nibaq states: “While I was reading it I couldnâ€™t help getting this feeling that I was on a psychologists couch asking if I have sexual thoughts about gophers as Noor is smoking a cigar.” Heh, well, I don’t smoke cigars (or anything else for that matter) and I’m not planning on holding any Dr. Melfi sessions but I suppose the constraints of academic writing have made my thesis sound academic and clinical!
For anyone who might be interested, I have posted a condensed online version of my master’s thesis, which was a study of relationship formation in three blog communities (Kuwait Blogs, UAE Blogs, and DFW Blogs).
Comments and questions (whether about the results, the experience of doing a master’s thesis at SI, or the online presentation) are always welcome.
SAA has created a centralized aggregator of all decentralized bottom-up things created by SIers – blog posts, del.icio.us bookmarks, and Flickr photos. The aggregator is the closest thing that SI has to a formal knowledge base/Intranet (the lack of which has been a huge pet peeve of mine). Nonetheless, as exciting as a common pool resource like this is, I’m a bit annoyed that my feed has been aggregated WITHOUT my permission (or anyone even notifying me for that matter . . . I found out about it a few weeks ago through Technorati). I provide an RSS feed of my blog to make it easier for my friends to keep up with my blog. I know that people can reuse my content without my permission (with or without an RSS feed) but I specifically have a copyright notice (and don’t have a Creative Commons license) for that reason. Yes, you can easily rip off my content from my blog or my portfolio but that doesn’t mean that I want you to do so or that you should do so.
I’m really annoyed about the SAA aggregator for a number of reasons:
Between faculty, students, and alums, there are plenty of SI blogs. The aggregator only lists three and mine happens to be one of them. I really don’t understand why mine was selected.
A lot of the SI bloggers blog privately or by using a pseudonym. Based on how the aggregator has already been handled, it looks like those bloggers will be added to the aggregator (and outed using their first names) without their permission. That sort of insensitivity to your fellow students’ privacy is just wrong.
There is just something icky about taking my blog out of context and slapping your own logo and layout to it.
There is something even ickier about my personal blog getting aggregated into the website of an official organization, especially one that I’m not even affiliated with.
No one ever asked me or even let me know about it. What ever happened to opt-in?
Most of my posts are about me, not SI. Sure, as a student, a lot of my posts dealt with my experiences at SI. Those posts are really of no value to the greater SI community. They were there for my friends, my family, and me. They really wouldn’t help anyone navigate through SI. Aggregating them just adds more noise.
The whole thing seems to have been handled in a very techno-centric “gee-whiz we can aggregate things” sort of way. What ever happened to user-centered design?
UPDATE: In hopes of further clarifying my position, here is my response to an email I got from one of the people running the aggregator:
It is a good idea but my main problem with it is opt-in vs. opt-out. If SAA had aggregated my SI tag, that would have been different. But what do posts about my nieces have to do with SI and why should they be aggregated into an SAA aggregator?
My blog is not private or annonymous but there are lots of SI blogs that are and it bothers me that SAA is misusing its insider status to identify people who don’t want to be identified.
User-centered design means understanding users and involving them in the design process. Had SAA actually invovled some of the bloggers into their design process they probably could have figured out that some of us don’t want our blogs to be stamped with anything that is official to SI.