You might know of some “open-house” events hosted by universities to get kids interested in math and science. I volunteered as a guest presenter once because I thought the idea was really cool.
The event is run by a few professors, many student teachers, and several guests like me. There were 2 volunteer coordinators and nearly 100 volunteers. Some of these volunteers set up activity booths so families can do STEM (science / technology / engineering / mathematics) related activities. Other volunteers were not stationed at a particular booth; these teacher candidates’ roles were to go to booths that needed more people and to help out while learning how to teach kids.
Now let me tell you how the event was actually managed: one volunteer coordinator had all the information and there was no task delegation. Nearly 100 volunteers and 300 families had to go through that one person to get any sort of information about the event (where a certain activity was held at, which booths had too many or too few people, where the coat/bag storage room is, etc.). There was no communication going on between the volunteers because nobody had any idea what was going on (they all had to ask that one person and it takes so long to get the answer that many people give up).
My activity station was in a room that didn’t have any signage so I suspect that most families had no idea that there were activities going on in this room. Furthermore, the room started to get used as a coat/bag storage space and there was nobody designated to monitor the space. When the event was over and I had to leave, there was nobody I could hand over the task to. Meanwhile, there were volunteers who clearly looked bored and clueless wandering in other rooms and hallways. Apparently they didn’t know that the room I was in had activities going on, or that the room was also used as a storage space.
Let’s think about the opportunity cost for a moment: the professors, student teachers, and guest volunteers are literally volunteering their time on a Saturday where they could be doing something else instead. Students have assignments and projects to work on. Professors typically have research projects and/or courses to run. I could’ve spent my time preparing for my workshops for the upcoming week. We’re all busy. How many people were overwhelmed that day? One, certainly. How many volunteers ended up wasting their time? Probably many.
This isn’t new, and this isn’t even the thing I’m upset about. There are plenty of events that have really good intentions that end up not running so well due to the lack of proper event coordination.
So the other day, I addressed the event coordination issue for this event to someone who knew about this event, and was involved in it in previous years. The response was:
“At the end of the day, as long as we get more kids interested in pursuing math and science, the goal has been accomplished.”
While I agree with the main goal… this statement suggests that as long as the main goal is accomplished, the means used for accomplishing that goal does not matter. In this school open-house case, it implies that having one colossal information bottleneck and a 400-person queue does not matter. …Really?
My concern is that people who think using this structure might think the same way in other contexts too. Let’s say the school was a company, the volunteers are the employees, and the families are customers: At the end of the day, as long as we get more customers to buy our product, the goal has been accomplished. It doesn’t matter if one manager is clearly overworked and is consequentially really slow at getting things done, 100 employees have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing, and the 300 customers are getting frustrated because they can’t get the support they need.
It is important to have an overarching goal, but it doesn’t make sense to fixate only on that because events, organizations, and pretty much everything that we do have people running it (let’s put aside the robots for now). And if the people who make up the event or organization aren’t doing well (overworked or bored out of their minds), I’m not convinced that the event is well-run or that the organization is doing well. (Note: Conversely, if the people in an organization or event are doing fine but if their efforts are not contributing to achieving the overarching goal at all, that is also definitely a problem.)
Going back to the school open-house case, people may argue that chaos is to be expected because it’s not a business. But doing things like event logistics and team management isn’t about running a business. It’s about respect. It’s about respecting people and the time and effort they put into their work.
For me, good management is the behavioral instantiation of the respect you have for yourself and others. So when I see an event that severely lacks good management (and therefore the apparent lack of consideration for the people involved), I cannot help but question the actual success of that event. This is not to say that the event was bad, period. I just separate the concept and execution when I think about it. So for that event I attended, the execution was sub-optimal but the concept is still a great one. In conclusion, I think it is worth doing more of – and additionally refining how it is managed so that the people involved in it can get the most out of it too.
In my last post I wrote about where I came from. In this post I write about where I want to go, and what I aspire to do.
My goal is to help organizations that are...
I started my management career in a place where people would probably not expect – a vision science research lab. (No, not the one in the picture... but I must say that my research supervisor does have a lot of plants. Plants rock.) I haven’t had ‘formal’ education in management, but learned entirely through practice. (So if someone tells you that you must go to school before becoming a manager, that's false by the way.)
In university, one of the requirements of my undergraduate program was to do directed studies at a real research lab (to gain research experience) so I was looking for potential labs I could volunteer at in my 3rd year. I found two labs that were interesting to me, mainly because I was starstruck by the professors (I am still starstruck by those people). One was a neuroimaging lab and I did my directed studies there. The other one was the vision science lab that I didn’t end up doing directed studies in, but stayed for much longer because I fell in love with the lab’s culture there.
The thing that I liked about the vision science lab was that it struck a neat balance between order and chaos. The way things were run was organized and orderly, yet there was a lot of autonomy and flexibility. Another thing I liked about the lab was that the people there were fun to work together and hang out together. As I was working on projects with these great, scary-intelligent people, I started thinking of little ways that I can help these people do even better. And I started doing little things (that consisted of mainly organizing) that would save people a little bit of time and labor here and there. Apparently that was one of the things my manager liked about me, and I was appointed as successor.
So what does a lab manager do? I suspect there's high variance among different labs, but some of the things I did were: counting money and refilling the safe (so that we can pay people who participated in our experiments), organizing the lab space, organizing lab meetings and socials, and bringing the right talent in as volunteers and directed studies students.
The most important thing I learned about management from this lab was management is not about telling people what to do; it’s supporting the great people that you’ve brought into your organization and creating an environment that enables them to do even better. It’s freaking magical. Here's what prominent figures have to say about this matter:
"It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."
"I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way."
The other important lesson I learned was that hiring is vitally important. You need to make sure that the people you bring into the organization are the ones that fit the way the organization runs (i.e. the ones that flourish when you get out of the way, because not everyone works like that).
...Of course, I learned it the hard way! (I should elaborate on this in a later post.) But those mistakes didn't happen for nothing. Based on the lessons learned, I created the lab’s hiring guidebook which is still used by the lab managers today.
“COGS 402 – Research in Cognitive Systems” is one of the weirdest courses I took in university. Instead of learning from lectures, you learn from apprenticeship. In other words, it’s a glimpse of real life disguised as a course.
Here’s the official description of what COGS 402 is: Students in this course must pursue a supervised, collaborative research project in a laboratory or research environment relevant to your interests. Students are expected to independently seek out a laboratory in which to volunteer, and contribute to the ongoing research or to instigate a project that integrates with the research goals of the supervisor/laboratory.
From the outline, you’ll see that you get assessed on:
After doing COGS 402 myself and supervising students on their COGS 402’s, I might be able to give a bit more guidance…
Officially, the only prerequisite is COGS 300. COGS 401 is recommended because it prepares you to form research ideas and create projects. I also recommend doing COGS 303 before you do your 402 because 303 prepares you to evaluate and critique your own methodology as well as established methodologies.
1. Don't limit yourself when selecting projects
This is one of the things you don’t want to wait till the last minute. At least start thinking about it in your 3rd year. I was looking for potential places I might want to do my 402 in back in 3rd year, and joined two labs when I entered 4th year (I ended up doing my 402 in one of them).
Some people did their 402 project portion (the actual working-for-12-weeks part) a term or two before they officially took 402. (I mention this because COGS 402 class sizes are growing rapidly and sometimes not everyone fits in a section).
What kind of place would you like to volunteer in? Explore your own interests – what would you want to fully nerd out on for three (or more) months? Figure out what kind of people who you like to work with. Different labs have very different personalities, management styles, and working environments. For example, some labs have established projects, and might be prescriptive in the way they assign you tasks (run and analyze conditions X Y Z). Other labs might have projects that are just starting up and you might get involved in creating a larger-scale plan. And finally, there are some labs that can help make your own project idea become a reality (I went down that path). Established projects are tempting to do because you don’t have to do the work of coming up with a project from scratch – but you might find the final presentation & deliverable more difficult. This will be addressed in my fourth point. In any case, make sure you work in an environment you feel comfortable in because you’re staying there for a while!
Lastly, note that the research doesn’t have to be at UBC (although it can be riskier - if your supervisor has no idea how a 402 runs, there will be a higher likelihood of your project not being scoped properly). I know some people who did projects with industry and that worked out well. The main point of 402 is to get experience doing research on something (the domain isn’t as critical as the activity itself).
2. Document your journey so you can refer to it later
Try to document everything that’s relevant, which may include (and are definitely not limited to):
3. During your stay... clarify, clarify, clarify
Don’t hesitate to ask questions – especially methodology and analysis-related questions. Even if this endeavor is for a course and even if you’re volunteering, you’re still involved in research, and it is your duty as a researcher to make sure that things are done right. You are responsible for the work you put into the world.
If you suspect that you might’ve found a bug in the code or errors in the analysis (e.g. a good friend of mine was working as a lab technician at a microbiology lab and stomped a bunch of Excel bugs), clarify with your supervisor or research assistant.
4. Evaluate your own work in the final deliverable
In addition to:
*If your project doesn’t reach a result or closure at the end (mine didn’t!), don’t worry about it because it’s how your journey unfolds that’s important.
Now after all this rambling, here’s a disclaimer – I took 402 back in the Spring of 2011, so some of the things I’m saying might be obsolete. Get a second opinion from someone who took it more recently!
I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.A. in Cognitive Systems (COGS), Cognition and Brain stream in 2011. Here are some questions that people ask me often:
Q. What is Cognitive Systems (COGS)?
A. I’m taking this from the COGS website because I can’t articulate it better:
“The Cognitive Systems Program (COGS) is a multi-disciplinary undergraduate program involving four departments: Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology … Through our study of computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, we aim to gain a comprehensive understanding of human cognition, and to apply this knowledge to create intelligent artificial systems.”
Q. What got you into COGS?
A. During my first year in university (I was in Boston University as a biology major at the time), I watched Ghost in the Shell for the first time. I was mind-blown. I grew fascinated by philosophy and the relationship between the human and the machine. At the end of my first year, I had to return to my home town (Tokyo, Japan) and stay there for two years because of a family emergency. The situation forced me into thinking about what I wanted to pursue if there ever was a chance for me to go back to university. So one day I was browsing schools and courses online and I just happened to stumble upon UBC’s COGS program. I fell in love at first sight.
Q. What did you do after graduation?
A. While I was still in school, I started volunteering at the UBC Visual Cognition Lab (VCL). I became a research assistant and lab manager there, and realized: hey, this “management” business is actually quite fun. After working at the VCL for a few years, I joined the Vancouver Institute for Visual Analytics (VIVA) in the fall of 2013 and taught, developed courses, managed programs and built communities. In 2017 I joined the Regional Animal Protection Society (RAPS) originally as a data / social media person, and then my role rapidly expanded into event coordination, fundraising, marketing, and veterinary practice management. And now, I'm back in COGS as Program Coordinator :D
Q. Did COGS help you in your career?
A. Not only my career, but also for personal development. Why? COGS boosted my critical thinking and communication (both oral and written) skills. These skills are useful everywhere.
Q. What do COGS grads typically do?
A. Off the top of my head, I know alumni who went into the following fields: academic research, accounting, analytics, artificial intelligence, banking, entrepreneurship, farming, fundraising, journalism, law, marketing, management, medicine, music, outdoor education, software development, teaching, and UX design. Some people wear many hats (e.g. AI/patent law startup founder, accounting professor/startup founder/researcher/magician).
Q. I don’t know whether or not I’m fit for COGS.
A. Let me start with a metaphor: Imagine there’s a road; a highway or something that goes somewhere. You know where the destination is. Off the highway, you see a little trail that looks like it was made by wildlife. If you follow that trail, you'll end up in a dense forest. You don’t know where the destination is. You might end up at someone’s cabin. It might lead to a rocky beach. There might be a lake you can swim in. You might end up on top of a hill and find a marvelous view. Or… the trail might end in the middle of nowhere. What would you do: taking the highway to your destination or the trail that you have no idea where it will take you?
I know some people who were in the program who weren't actually fit for it because their expectations didn't match up with reality. COGS is not a program that automatically grants you success in life (although there are many successful COGS grads out there). It's about putting all the pieces together in a way that makes sense for YOU, and it's not easy because you need to do all the work!
One thing to try out to see if you might like the content discussed in COGS: check out "They're Made Out of Meat" by Terry Bisson. To me, this is the spirit of COGS. What is a cognitive system? (Turns out meat can be! ;D) If you're fascinated by this idea, you might feel like COGS is your home.
Q. What’s the difference between B.A. Cognition and Brain stream and B.Sc. Cognition and Brain stream?
A. Let me start off with similarities first: you will take all the COGS core courses (200, 300, 303, 401, 402). You will also have some degree of freedom with your module courses (off the top of my head I think it was 2 PSYC courses, 2 non-PSYC courses, and 2 any as long as it's in the module list). The difference is in the FACULTY requirements. It's actually quite different so I recommend you compare (BA brain stream vs. BSc brain stream) and see for yourself. Satisfying the program requirements is important, but so is satisfying the faculty requirements. If you forget to satisfy the faculty requirements that will stop you from graduating.
Q. What was your favorite course?
A. COGS303: Research Methods in Cognitive Systems. It was terrifying when I took it but the value I got from it triumphs the terror. I can ramble on forever, but to keep it short, COGS303 gave me two vitally important things: 1) the bullshit detector and 2) argument etiquette.
Q. What is COGS for you?
A. I’m in concordance with Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson (founding COGS Director)’s definition: “It’s what you want it to be.” Since COGS isn’t straightforward in terms of what career paths are available afterwards (because people go all over the place afterwards), it forces you to take ownership of your degree and spin it your way, instead of the other way around (imagine your degree dictating the way you live your life – that would be really sad). Tuum est.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who just joined COGS?
A. Get to know your people. Befriend them. Nerd out with them. One of the many things I love about COGS is the people: students, TAs, profs, alumni… they’re awesome. Most importantly, have fun. If you're not having tons of fun, COGS is probably not the right place for you. And that's okay because you need to find what's the best for you.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who is about to graduate from COGS?
A. If you still feel murky about where this COGS-coaster is going to take you…
In the past, I've experienced quite a few times where I'm anxiety-stricken because someone else is getting punished. There's stress coming from all directions - frustrations and fear from both the punisher and the punished, and those emotions are very sticky. It's like having paint splattered everywhere, and once it gets onto me it takes a lot of time and effort to wash away.
Usually, when people notice that I'm anxious, they say the following:
"You're doing well."
Although I believe the people who say this mean well, it doesn't improve my anxiety at all. What am I being compared against? The person who just got yelled at?
To me, even if I'm performing "well" if the rest of the organization is shaken - if employees are getting fired, if the employees who didn't are quivering thinking "am I next?" and if everyone is frustrated and fearful, I can't separate myself from that. I am part of the organization after all, and I care about the wellness of the organization as a whole compared to myself only. Are we doing well?
"You need to compartmentalize" is also something people told me in the past. After giving this some thought for a few years though, I have decided to not follow this suggestion. Yes, it will be emotionally overwhelming. But the connection between the self and the organization is something that feels natural to me.
It's like looking at a biological organism. Sure, you can look at each organ as its own separate entity - the brain, the heart, the lungs, the liver... but they're all part of the same organism. And when one organ is unhappy that could very well affect all the other organs because they can talk to each other. Even if the system is not biological, like a machine or a program, I think the same thing still holds. If one part of the machine is damaged, or if one part of the program has a bug, that's probably going to affect the output.
I'm not saying that the notion to separate the self from the organization is wrong. It's merely not my cup of tea. I do find the differences in the way we think interesting though, and I am curious to know how the differences emerge through the different experiences that shape us. (For me, I suspect that the COGS program played an instrumental role.)
I'm Candice and I doodle with the intensity of the doomguy.