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November 2011

Extreme Jobs

I recently came across a fascinating article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce in an old Harvard Business Review (December 2006). Their article, entitled “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek”, describes a little-discussed subset of the workforce, where “extreme professionals” – with workweeks of at least 60 hours and exhibiting at least 5 of 10 characteristics, such as unpredictable flow of work, fast-paced work under tight deadlines and availability to clients 24/7 – feel exalted rather than exploited, and view “get-a-life dedication” as a badge of honor.

While the focus of Hewlett and Luce is on analyzing whether women are disadvantaged by this mindset, they offer an insightful picture of high-earners enthusiastic about their (not too sustainable-looking) lifestyle because of the impact their work has on their company. The authors describe this as “the American Dream on Steroids.” Since their survey was done over 5 years ago, I wonder how the financial crisis has affected these employees’ outlook and their work hours. (Back in 2006, Hewlett and Luce found that 56% of high-earners in extreme jobs worked more than 70 hours a week, but 66% of extreme jobholders in the U.S. sample and 76% in the global companies survey “say they love their job, which suggest at least one third of international extreme jobholders are happy with their situation.)  

Hewlett and Luce explain the rise of extreme jobs through the following factors: competitive pressures, the embrace of the “extreme” ethos in popular culture, new levels of connectivity that make managers expect their employees to be available at any time, the workplace as social center, more knowledge-based work (which is highly portable). I hope the authors run a follow-up survey; I would certainly read the results with interest.

In the meantime, I will also point out two less positive, and more recent, articles about all-consuming jobs – demanding many hours, but not necessarily with the exhilarating features that define extreme jobs in Hewlett and Luce’s article. The first article is a Schumpeter column in The Economist, dating from May 2010 and focusing on employees’ being overstretched, after a mention of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, which seems an appropriate if dark parable in many respects. (The suggestions to help companies deal with employees’ dissatisfaction are rather bland: 1. Redouble efforts to make staff feel valued. 2. Make more use of “empowerment”. 3. Pay attention to high performers. Yawn. But Schumpeter churns out enough great columns week after week that we can forgive him/her for a trite one. That and the fact that mentioning of "Animal Farm" earned him/her enough bonus points in the first half of the column to coast through the rest.)

The second one is an article in the Wall Street Journal called “Superjobs” with the subtitle: “Why you work more, enjoy it less”, published in May. An excerpt: “Some workplace experts say the superjob is the logical next step in management's quest to make the workplace more cost efficient… 53% of workers surveyed said they've taken on new roles, most of them without extra pay (just 7% got a raise or a bonus).” Although the article points out that many successful leaders grew from “stretch experiences”, it also provides worrisome figures: in a recent survey, only 43% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs. Similarly to The Economist, the WSJ mentions “recognition programs that reward employees for taking on extra work” and emphasizes good workload management practices, the most useful one but probably hardest to implement being to “manage up”, i.e., let your boss know when your workload is becoming unmanageable.   

For more recent takes on extreme jobs, check out this August post by Hewlett on her Forbes blog, as well as a August 2007 HBR blog post, also by Hewlett, and recent articles in the mainstream press (online) by bloggers: "Balancing Act" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and "Do you have an extreme job?" in Psychology Today.

On Charlotte, NC

This post is a rerun of a post I wrote for the official blog of the INFORMS 2011 Annual Meeting, which just took place in Charlotte, NC. Because of Charlotte's recent ascent - and struggle - as a financial center and renewed renaissance as a hub for energy companies, and because both finance and energy are themes of interest to many operations research practitioners, I thought that learning a bit more about Charlotte would be of interest to many INFORMS 2011 attendees.

First, the basics, thanks to Wikipedia: Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and the seat of Mecklenburg County. With a population over 730,000 in the latest US census, it is the 17th largest American city in population.  (The metropolitan area counts about 1.75 million residents.) Charlotte is viewed as a major financial center because Bank of America is headquartered there; Wachovia also had its headquarters in Charlotte before its demise during the financial crisis and merger with Wells Fargo (which is said to bring its headquarters of East Coast Operations to Charlotte). Charlotte is also the home of the Carolina Panthers (NFL), the Charlotte Bobcats (NBA) and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Charlotte was ranked No 8 in the 2008 rankings of "Best cities to live and launch" compiled by Money Magazine. The pros included "Steady influx of young educated workers, business-friendly banking community, local sports entertainment", as well as the proximity of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus, while the main con was the increase in housing costs due to the influx of new residents. (Charlotte's fortune as a banking center originated in new laws passed in the 1980s lifting restrictions about banks operating in multiple states, which explains it only rose to prominence relatively recently. For an article explaining Charlotte's trajectory, I recommend the article "How Charlotte became a banking giant, outpacing Pittsburgh's banks" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 2006.)

The appeal of Charlotte - a vibrant city that is also an airline hub in a sunny climate with great opportunities both job-wise and leisure-wise - has also brought its share of challenges during the economic crisis. Many people moved to Charlotte in the hope to find a job but were unable to gain employment, leading to an unemployment rate of 12% in 2009, according to this Washington Post article.  I find it striking that in 2008 Money magazine put Charlotte's population at just below 600,000, and only 2 years later the population had increased by over 20%. Such an increase would be difficult to absorb seamlessly in the best of situations, and the financial crisis certainly did not help.

The Washington Post article "Hard times in Charlotte, a city depending on the banking industry", published in October 2009, paints a rather sad picture of Charlotte at the time, and its high hopes of becoming a national powerhouse dashed by the economy. For instance: "In Charlotte, the number of people served by the soup kitchen at Urban Ministry, a local charity, has increased 22 percent since August 2007, while the number of private airplanes arriving and departing from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport has dropped by 38 percent."

Even in 2009, many people remained optimistic about the future of Charlotte. "This is a great city with a deep talent pool", said the CEO of GMAC Financial. Also, the journalist wrote: "Some local leaders have suggested that Charlotte diversify its economy. But it is much more common to find people who say the city's destiny as a financial center has simply been postponed."

Two years later, we can better judge the future of Charlotte, and it is looking up. In fact, in September the Washington Post published another article about Charlotte, this one entitled: "Charlotte looks beyond financial sector in effort to become energy capital." It starts as follows: "

By the end of this year, a tower built as a home for Wachovia will be the new headquarters of Duke Energy... While the tidy North Carolina city of 730,000 people still counts itself as the nation’s No. 2 financial center and is looking to expand in a number of arenas — including health, motor sports and defense — the area’s energy sector is showing particular promise." Charlotte has ambitious plans, in areas that should be of interest to many operations researchers: "In addition to luring energy firms, the city is expanding recycling, “smart” grid projects and public transit, with plans to add 10 miles of light rail and a commuter line in years to come." Leaders in the Charlotte community also aim at making the city “the most energy-efficient in the world.” The article also provides a long list of energy-related companies adding jobs to the area, from Siemens to ABB Group to Celgard and SPX. The renewed ascent of Charlotte as a national economic powerhouse should be fascinating to watch!

On Arts Education

Since my previous post had an art theme, I figured I might as well continue on this path for today's post, on arts education and the funding cuts it is experiencing. For starters, I'll mention a great post by Angie Villa on her artwork blog. Angie, an artist and public school teacher, provides a lesson plan for elementary-school students based on the book Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, and makes a strong case for the use of art as a way to teach across the curriculum. For instance, young children drawing a cityscape learn about math (2D vs 3D, proportions), architecture/geography (because of the buildings in the Ringgold book and similar buildings in the children's environment that they can relate to), history (because the Ringgold book is set in the late 1930s), and many other concepts. 

Because of the economic situation, funding for arts education has come under increased scrutiny for decision-makers looking for budget cuts. As an example, last May "the PA House of Representatives passed its version of the budget bill with a 70% cut to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA), reducing the PCA's grants to the arts budget down from $8.4 million in FY2010-2011 to $2.5 million in FY2011-2012."

The Americans for the Arts blog provides information for the funding situation at the federal level, for instance about the amendment sponsored by Rep Tim Walberg to reduce the NEA's endowment to its lowest level in 16 years - this amendment was thankfully defeated in July - and about the "Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act" (HR 1891), which "was introduced for the purpose of eliminating 43 existing federal education programs" and on which a vote is expected by Thanksgiving.

Although times of fiscal difficulty certainly call for sacrifices, it is not clear cutting art by such a large amount is the right way to proceed, especially when school administrators continue to be hired at a significantly higher salary than a lowly art teacher. While art education is a "nice thing to have" for children in middle- or upper-middle-class families whose parents can expose them to art outside school, it is important for schools serving mostly underprivileged students to offer their charges an education in art so that they can find their own voice and express themselves while learning about creativity and discipline.

While it is hard for late-bloomers in science, math or English to catch up, students can take up art at any age. It is also an egalitarian field, where the honor's roll students who shine in traditional courses might struggle with art, trying to find the exactly right answer when there is none. Art, one might argue, is an excellent way to counterbalance the tendencies to teach to the test and to produce students who ace the SATs and crumble when they have to show independent thinking. It can also help disenfranchised members of society feel less alienated and express their "outsider-ness" in a productive fashion.

I would argue that many professional artists feel like outsiders in some way. (If you are happy with the mainstream, you rarely feel the urge to give it your own personal twist.) They - especially through the program Arts in Education, which has recently come under threat - can thus serve as role models for struggling students who would otherwise retreat from school. Of course, not all underprivileged students will become artists, but art teaches skills such as patience and planning (through visualizing and creating a painting) that are useful in a wide range of career paths. In addition, art is a good way to engage at-risk students who would otherwise feel left behind and might then slide into a life of petty crime.

This is not feel-good fantasy: the impact of arts education on criminality was analyzed in "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Arts Education for At-Risk Youth" by Tony Silbert and Lawana Welch, who argue that "by implementing strong arts programs for at-risk 4th to 12th graders, the state [of California] can recover one and a half times its investment through savings to the criminal justice system and increased tax revenue", in a report they wrote for their Master of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Because the report dates back from 2001, it would be interesting to see if these numbers can be updated, and also if similar numbers also apply to other states. Those numbers do suggest arts education deserves far greater respect and support from legislators than it has been getting so far in this budget cycle.

Painting: Lehigh-IE316-Fa10

Above is a thumbnail of a small painting (6x8 on canvas) I made during Snowtoberfest 2011, aka the most severe power outage I hope to ever witness. Since I didn't have electricity and the battery of my laptop stopped working a long time ago from overuse, I painted and graded exams until it became too cold for me to stay. I got the idea for the painting from strolling through the de Kooning retrospective at MoMA, especially his black-and-white work in the 1940s - because of the curved shapes, not because of the colors, obviously. I've also always very much loved Map by Jasper Johns, in MoMA's collections, and Report from Rockport by Stuart Davis at the Metropolitan Museum for its bright colors - generally speaking, I like abstract expressionism, fauvism, post-impressionism the most.

So, putting everything together, I came up with the idea of making a painting about last year's IE 316 class (Fall 2010) in the form of a puzzle, where everybody would fit in his or her own particular way. I'm at the bottom right corner (AT) with IE316-10 written beneath (10 is for 2010); the Teaching Assistant is to my left (RD). Then the 40 students are listed according to their initials. When two students had the same initials, I also included the second letter of the last name to distinguish them. 

I've got to take a better-quality picture of the painting but the lighting was awful so I thought I'd just post a thumbnail until I'm happy with the photograph. That makes the letters harder to read than they are in reality. Here is the name plan (I tried to group students who sat/worked together but that was not always possible... sorry to the alumni who are not next to their friends):

From top to bottom and left to right:


Initially I wanted to color the pieces in such a way that two pieces of the same color never touched each other, even by a corner. I had found several ways to achieve that goal, which I had saved in Excel on my computer. Of course when the power outage happened I couldn't look up the file anymore and although no two pieces of the same color never touch each other along their sides, there are a few orange pieces that do touch by a corner. I view it as a lesson on not trying to control things too much.  

HBR November issue

The November issue of Harvard Business Review is devoted to "What great companies do differently." My favorite article by far was "How to win investors over", by Baruch Lev. He argues that companies should not stop providing earnings guidance to Wall Street analysts, but instead be smarter about how they communicate information. He points out that: "Would you buy a house if you were denied inspection, termite and ground-pollution reports? Corporate managers who don't share relevant information face a substantial share price discount." A theme that underlies his article is the issue of repeated interactions: people who don't interact truthfully with analysts are eventually found out. 

Lev focuses on three ways in which managers can provide useful information to investors: earnings guidance, pro forma earnings releases and soft information (what he calls "narrative and tone" in conference calls).

Another outstanding article was "The For-Benefit Enterprise" by Heerad Sabeti, who describes how to navigate the world of for-profit vs non-profit by exploring the concept of for-benefit companies, which "operat[e] like a traditional business in many ways, but is founded primarily to provide social benefits rather than to maximize financial returns." Although I wish there had been a more thorough discussion on legislation that will make "for-benefits" legal, overall the article was truly fascinating.

But if you only read one article in this issue, I recommend it be "Social strategies that work" by Mikotaj Jan Piskorski, who is on the faculty at Harvard Business School. In Piskorski's words, "successful social strategies (1) reduce costs or increase customers' willingness to pay (2) by helping people establish or strengthen relationships (3) if they do free work on a company's behalf." Do yourself a favor and re-read the previous sentence, slowly. Piskorski builds a very strong case in his article that this is the "secret sauce" that distinguishes winning social media strategies from failed ones, by describing several real-life initiatives in well-known companies, from Yelp to AmericanExpress. Once potential social media initiatives have been identified, Piskorski provides three tests to help companies determine whether to give the go-ahead - but you'll have to pick up a copy of the HBR issue in newsstands to learn what they are.

I'll end with what puzzled me most in this issue (although the article on cloud-computing warrants a mention too). If you flip to the end of the magazine you will find an interview with world-famous architect Frank Gehry, who - among many other things - designed the MIT Stata Center, in which I spent 2 months immediately after it opened in 2004. (Then I graduated.) Being a visual person, I loved the odd shapes and the bright colors, but I was told back then that the building suffered from a number of engineering flaws, which resulted in water leaks and other problems.

In 2007, MIT sued Frank Gehry because of the leaks in the $300m building, as reported for instance in the Boston Globe. The article starts as follows: "The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has filed a negligence suit against world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, charging that flaws in his design of the $300 million Stata Center in Cambridge, one of the most celebrated works of architecture unveiled in years, caused leaks to spring, masonry to crack, mold to grow, and drainage to back up." In March 2010, it was announced that the lawsuit had been settled. Several websites also mention significant cost overruns; see for instance this article.

So imagine my surprise when I read statements in HBR such as: (about Gehry starting his own firm as a young man) "[Experienced people] didn't want to work with a struggling architect... Buildings leak when you don't have enough construction experience." (It seems they also leak when you do, don't they?)  Also: "Cost control is a big deal for me... And once you've set a real budget, it behooves you to stay there." I wonder what MIT would want to reply to that. My favorite quote: "When I reached my sixties, I separated my fee from the office fee so the office would grow up with a culture of working within a normal fee range." His associates must be glad.

I love the Stata Center, but I was puzzled by how much the facts pertaining to the Stata Center appear to contradict Gehry's statements to the HBR journalist. Maybe he has changed since 2004 when the building opened - and a whole lot at that. On the other hand, the Stata Center, flawed and all, truly is magnificent.