And I, for one, welcome my new Linden overlords

Aug 09 2007 Published by under Second Life, Self

It's been a few days. I was out in West Virginia last weekend watching my cousin get married. After driving back Monday, I started the new job with Linden Labs, and that has been occupying most of my focus.

I've spoken at length before (in that and other posts) about why, despite how much I loved the science and the teaching, it was time for me to leave academia. I have asserted, however, that my new job isn't just "rebound" (i.e. me saying, ak! I'm sad! Find me something else!), but actually something that I'm really looking forward to.

Why?

(Before I go further, I should underscore what's in the left sidebar: this is my personal blog, and nothing I say here should be construed as the opinion or policy of Linden Labs. I speak for myself only. Heck, not even the Seed folks who run the site sign off on what I post before I post it, so I'm not speaking for them either!)

A number of reasons. First of all, one cannot deny the fact that Second Life is cool. (Lots of people do ask me, "but what do you do with it?" It's not a game in the way that World of Warcraft is a game; you don't log in and have quests to complete and monsters to fight and leveling up to do. I will write more on this in the near future, but a short answer might be the return question, "What do you do with a box of Legos?") While this is what got my attention in the first place, it's very far from being a good answer. Consider, for example, the horror story of EA Spouse about Electronic Arts— a horror story that I'm led to understand isn't really all that atypical in much of the video game industry.

Back at the end of May, when I pulled myself out of the funk I went into after learning about my latest NSF grant denial, I started seriously considering moving on now. I knew that ostenstively I had up to three more years I could have stayed at Vanderbilt; one more year to try to get an NSF grant, the year when the tenure decision went forward, and the "lame duck" year one gets after a tenure denial. The thing is, if the NSF grant in the next year were turned down, I would know that I would not get tenure (based on direct and repeated statements from my department chair), so I'd really have had 2+ "lame duck" years. Talking to friends who have been in similar situations, that's unpleasant. But, beyond that, I had to think: if I went into this much of a funk this time, what will it do to me next year if the 1-in-5-or-worse chance to the NSF doesn't pay off? When I know for sure that my future at Vanderbilt is shot? I also had to think, what will the stress of leading up to that do to me? And, to my wife?

So I started seriously thinking about what else I could do with my life. There were a couple of obvious routes. One was high school Physics teaching. I know there is huge demand out there. Alas, the laws of supply & demand don't seem to work for increasing the salaries of high school Physics teachers. (Instead, the good ones do it for love, and schools fill out their ranks with not-as-good ones.) It would have been very hard on Alyson and I to move in the next three months, and there is no way we could meet our medial and household expenses on what high school teachers in Tennessee get paid.

The second obvious route was something in the Computer Nerd industry. I've always been a hard core programming and computer type for an astronomer (although not for a professional computer person). When I took the job at Vanderbilt, the other job offer I had was with the supercomputing center at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I had considered leaving astronomy once before, earlier in my post-doc, to go work with a computer clustering research group. So it wasn't too much of a stretch. I did a little bit of idle research into what jobs were available in the local area— so that we wouldn't have to move. I also looked at working with Google, because of all the great press there is about how Google respects its employees and how great a work environment that is. It was definitely attractive to me, even though it would have meant moving.

However, given that I was already a Second Life geek, I clicked on the "You might be a Linden!" link on the Second Life home page. Among other things, I discovered The Tao of Linden. Assuming this was real and not just PR (which, now that I know more, I can say that it is), it sounded like this was the sort of company that was working the way that academia ought to work (whereas in reality, academia seems to try to outdo business when it comes to personal agenda, backstabbing dog-eat-dogism, and internal politics).

"Be transparent and open": including being willing to admit your failures, and to document them so that others could learn from them. If only academia really believed this! As it is, you have to hide any hint of doubt or failure in academia for fear of forever tainting your image. (Even to the point that there are at the very least psychological barriers against publishing "non-detection" papers.)

"Your choice is your responsibility." This is the picture of a very non-hierarchical company. Where employees are respected to know what they're doing and to be able to figure out what ought to be done. Where employees are trusted to be working for the interest of the company, and are given the freedom to fully use their creativity in so doing. Mind you, this doesn't mean that one will have as much freedom to work on what one wants as one ostensibly does in academia. In academia, I can choose whatever research project I want to do, and just do it... if I can get the resources. Of course, as I have learned, if you don't choose the right bandwagon at the right time, you are handicapping yourself when it comes to getting funding. But, you're very self-directed. At Linden, it's not quite so much, because there are ongoing projects that need work. And, in the job I'm in, I will have specific responsibilities to specific things. Nonetheless, this is the picture of a company that trusts its employees, respects its employees, and has a better clue than academia about how to get the most out of intelligent, motivated, and creative people.

So the company philosophy looked really good, appealing in a way that was similar to Google. The company product is something I already thought was Way Cool. I went ahead and sent in a resume. The really cool thing, though, was that one of the jobs listed was, indeed, a telecommuting job. Linden was advertising for "DNOC" ("Distributed Network Operations Center") positions. The idea was to build a group of network-savvy people around the world so that there would (eventually, as enough people were hired) be round-the-clock grid monitoring by awake people. In addition, this group would have the responsibility to enhance and create tools for maintaining grid stability.

When I went out and interviewed, I found that I was interviewing with a bunch of dynamic and intelligent people, and that what's more there really did seem to be buy-in to the company philosophy.

There was a lot of separation anxiety when it came to leaving academia— for, as I have noted before, there were many things I loved, and I felt teaching college Physics to be something of my calling— but it wasn't really too hard to make the decision when I got the offer. This looked like a fun company to work for, it looked like a challenging project where I would be able to do a lot of the things that I really enjoy doing, and it looked like something that would be a very positive change for me. I get to work on improving something, together with a couple of hundred people all working towards the same goal. Quite a contrast from academia, where I would have been living with the sword of Damocles, and living with a bunch of people who talk about working on the same goal while meanwhile trying to figure out how to avoid getting undermined by each other.

By the way, you should all be aware that a basic Second Life account is free! With that, you can get into the world and go everywhere in the world. A premium account (at $10/month) gets you the ability to own land (although you still have to buy that land with in-world Lindens), and access to support channels.

11 responses so far

  • PattyP says:

    Hi Rob. I read your blog occasionally but have never commented on it, as far as I can recall anyway. This post about Second Life caught my eye. I've been an SL resident for several months, initially joining to attend the in-world version of the YearlyKos Convention. I've had a lot of fun with SL and am really impressed and surprised by what some residents are doing with it. Anyway I just want to wish you the best of luck, the Lindens do seem like a fun bunch. 🙂

  • andy.s says:

    So what kind of physics education resources are there on SL?
    It would be really cool if someone were to host a General Relativity class, but I suppose that's too much to hope for.
    SL + MIT's Open Course Ware. Would that be cool or what?

  • Rob Knop says:

    It would be really cool if someone were to host a General Relativity class, but I suppose that's too much to hope for.
    Man, that's something I'd love to do. But it would be tough to find people with the commitment to really take a full class.
    I probably should think about doing a series of lectures about GR at the "educated layman" level.
    -Rob

  • Dan says:

    Grid monitoring? Are you going to carry a pager? I do that, and it's tiring.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Short term, perhaps, but the vision is to get *away* from the pager thing. Instead, we'll have people who are online all the time.

  • Seonaid Barrett says:

    So, who's your Linden, in game?

  • AD says:

    just for curiosity, how much is a typical salary for high school Physics teaching in the US?
    And best wishes with your new life.

  • Luna_the_cat says:

    Rob, do you have a Second Life name? Or is that not something you necessarily want to share?

  • Rob Knop says:

    Prospero Frobozz is me. If you're in world, look me up.

  • Rob Knop says:

    High school Physics salaries vary widely. In TN, if I had made the switch to teaching high school, I'm not sure exactly how much I would have made, but it likely would have not been much more than $40,000/year-- and perhaps less.

  • Luna_the_cat says:

    I'm Llewyn Llewllyn on SL, and I *will* look you up, as soon as I can. Right now my computer at home seems to be incapable of dealing with the SL graphics. New computer bits are sitting on my desk, waiting to be installed.