Academic Rotation

17 December 2008

A while ago I was chatting with a post-doc on his way to an academic career. He was asking me about research topics wanting my input as he felt I could inform him on what would be research of practical use. I wasn't very helpful, but I did mention that the best way to do this would be to spend some time in industry to get a feel of how software development works in the wild and what problems could do with some research effort. His answer to this thought was very troubling.

He said he'd be up to do that, but if he spent time in industry that would ruin his chances of getting a job in academia. Competition for academic jobs is high, and what they look it is your publication history. A year or two in industry would create a gap in your publication history that would be lethal to your job prospects.

The divide between academia and industry has always been an awkward one for software (as indeed for other professions). My contacts with academia have been stilted at best. The academics I respect are, I'm told, not highly regarded within academia because the things that I count as useful are usually dismissed by the academic community.

A good example of where this came to a head is the patterns community. Those involved in the patterns world were keen to look at practice to discover, package, and document techniques that had been proved through experience. But this is in direct opposition to academic standards which consider value to lie in novel things. My work, for example, is generally dismissed because all I do is write about stuff that is old hat (at least to some).

I think this is a terrible shame, not because I'm looking for an academic post, but because I think there is huge value in mining effective techniques from the experience of software development. To me it seems that trying to draw lessons from our experience is a very worthwhile academic activity. By devaluing it the academic world is ignoring a fruitful avenue to improve the capabilities of our profession.

If my opinion counted, I'd argue that any academic department worthy of note should include a group of faculty with a long experience of the day-to-day of industrial software development. They would be valued on how they had reflected on this experience and drew from the lessons to inform their teaching and research. I'd like to see a regular rotation of people from the academic to the industrial world, where it's common to see people spend several years in industry, then academia, then industry again, and so on.

This problem isn't only in software. A friend of mine had the chief engineer role in one of the most challenging engineering projects in the world. He fancied a stint in academia, but was only able to get a second-class position reserved for people who weren't considered to be real academics, certainly not something that was tenured or would lead to tenure. I find it hard to believe that students wouldn't gain an enormous amount from being taught by people with a long and thoughtful experience in the profession they are entering.

It's always frustrating to see communication gaps between different groups within the same profession. I've become a big fan using Rotation to help open up communication channels, as people are the key to good knowledge transfer. Being tolerant of academic rotation, indeed encouraging it, could do a great deal to make academia more aware of where industry needs help and industry more aware of where academics can improve practice.