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Academia vs Industry


on 14 September 2012

Tags: Design

This article is more than 11 years old.

I have now worked at Canonical, ‘The company behind Ubuntu,’ for almost 4 months. The time has flown by, and I am finally getting up to speed with the working environment, the people and the atmosphere.

So what differences have I noticed between the academic setting and the industrial setting?

My biggest fear of moving into a commercial environment was losing the ‘freedom’ of academia, having to sit in a shirt and trousers all day and work in a 2 by 2, high walled cubicle, doing work that is given to you rather than work that you choose and drive in a direction that excites you.

I’m glad to say that I had nothing to worry about!

At Canonical, there is no requirement for a shirt and trousers (not to say people don’t wear them). There is desk space aplenty, and the teams all sit close enough together to have a conversation, whether that be about work, or just general banter. There is a nice overall tone to the whole working environment. ‘Shit gets done,’ but not at the expense of enjoyment in the environment. That brings me onto the actual work…

Canonical Office in London (you can see my desk!)

The main reason I wanted to step away from academia was that the pace was getting a bit too slow for me. Countless times I have been told over the last five years, academia is about adding your small grain of knowledge to the bigger picture of your chosen field. This frustrated me.

Even though some of the projects I worked on while in academia were extremely rewarding and really made a difference in people’s lives within a short period of time, it can be considered rare for this to happen in academia. Back to life at Canonical, it is really cool and rewarding to see something that you have spent hours working on go live on the website. It gives you that sense of achievement. The pace of work is also much quicker, and I find myself working on several projects and speaking to different people, while at the same time always learning. One of the most interesting aspects of the work is finding a balance between giving the user the best possible experience of using the Ubuntu website and meeting the business and marketing goals of the company.

An example of this are forms. At all costs, from a user’s point of view, you want to avoid forms and especially forms with hundreds of fields in them! But over the last few months, I’ve been able to understand better why the company needs these forms, and I’ve been able to balance out where forms are and how they are implemented.

An example of (part) of one of the forms I’ve been working on

I also thought that leaving academia would see the end of my visits to conferences. This was one of the more enjoyable aspects of academia, a place to go and see what other people are working on, networking and being impressed (as well as hopefully impressing others). To my joy, conferences in industry are just as common. The content however is completely different to what I’ve been used.

During talks at academic conferences, the focus is on results and statistics. In industry, the focus is on experiences, what worked and what didn’t. There are pros and cons to both approaches. I feel that at academic conferences, the quantitative data can sometimes obscure what is actually found by studies, where a user’s thoughts and feelings aren’t taken into account. There is no doubt that the measures are mostly accurate, but just because a button is quickly clicked by each participant with no errors, does it matter that the participants don’t like where the button positioned on the screen? The statistics will usually win over. However, this is an approach that industrial conference speakers could learn a bit more from. The thoughts and feelings of a speaker are all very well, and as they regale stories of their work (or a lot of the time completely unrelated to their work), then I have found myself asking ‘so what?’ If I ever do a talk at an industrial conference, I hope I can find the middle ground between these two approaches, where statistics aren’t the be all and end all, but that I can couple these with qualitative information that I have learnt. Don’t get me wrong, I have read papers and seen presentations, both academically and in industry, that do a great job of doing this already. I hope that I will be able to follow in these footsteps.

The main stage at Reasons to be Creative in Brighton

So, that’s my story 4 months in. I’ve learnt a lot in those 4 months, and it will be interesting to write back in 4 months more to let you know what else I have learnt… and I’m sure there will be loads!

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