This summer, I worked as a graduate student intern at Time Inc. in New York City. When I got there, I was assigned to the IT department to pursue a 3 month research project on unstable user behavior, specifically in regards to reading habits and preference for digital versus print magazines. The governing provocation was how to get millennials to subscribe to digital products while simultaneously not alienating older generations of readers. Before undertaking the project, 3 months seemed too short from my academic experience, but this span is actually 4 or 5 times longer than Time Inc. spends on most background research projects dedicated to user experience during the product ideation process. Ideation here was the key– how does the company decide what digital products to build? Someone in the company (usually from one of the brands) has a great idea, asks a few people if they would use it, then persuades an executive it is a great idea. Shortly thereafter, the idea goes into the design and building stages. When these great ideas did not succeed in the marketplace, the secondary approach is to buy or build products that mimic other companies’ success: most recently this includes news aggregators (such as News 360) and digital magazine experiences (such as Flipboard). Unsurprisingly, the second approach usually places digital products behind the curve in an already saturated marketplace, while the first approach tends to produce products that are not appealing for a large group of consumers.
So what did I discover during my research? Many things… that I can’t share! This internship is also my first experience with proprietary information. But I can and will share some of the professional lessons I took away from the experience.
10 Things I Learned From My Internship at Time Inc:
1. Rebranding Hurdles: “Information Technology” versus “Technology and Product Engineering”
While I was there, Time Inc.’s IT department was rebranded as TaPE (Technology and Product Engineering). The goal was to more closely approximate the department’s role in the company and disassociate it away from the “less sexy” stereotypes of IT (watch The IT Crowd if you don’t know what that means). Turns out that rebranding takes a LOT of effort, and it isn’t as simple as making a new logo and masthead. I will be cautious about name and logo changes in the future because successfully associating the new appearance with a brand is a massive investment.
2. Value of Diverse Mentors
During the few months I was at Time, I had more mentors than I have ever had as an undergraduate or graduate student. These were people who would take a few minutes out of their busy day to answer a question I had or who would schedule meetings to talk about my progress. And it was fantastic. I received great advice from experts in their very specific fields and made long lasting connections. This article is spot on: The Benefits of Multiple Mentors. It makes me question the academic advisor- mentee relationship that places a single person as the driver behind a student’s career. Not only is that a significant amount of pressure on the advisor, as academics are increasingly tasked with larger workloads (administrative, service, research, and teaching), but it also doesn’t let the mentee take advantage of multiple areas of expertise. (Another good article on the topic from Tenure She Wrote.) My past experience with mentors/ advisors is also partially my own fault: I had a mental block to taking advantage of regular office hours unless I had a very specific question. Just going to chat with a professor always felt like I was wasting their time. My experience at Time helped me “get over” that view. If people are busy, the worst that will happen is they ask you to come back later. The only way to gather implicit and invaluable knowledge is to frequently talk to those in-the-know!
3. Presentations in a Corporate Space
At RPI we are taught that power points are a backdrop, not a crutch for your presentation. While presenting, you should maximize visuals and speak to your audience, not read lines off a slide. At Time, slidedecks (also the first time in my life I have ever heard a .ppt called anything else) are essentially picture books. Executives should be able to get the gist of the presentation WITHOUT the presenter being present. That meant I had to make several major changes to my MO.
- Call outs: the inclusion of a highlighted box with the most significant take-away from the slide.
- More slides: The constant emphasis on “why does this matter?” and “what do we do with it?” easily triples the length of every presentation.
- Lead the Audience: There is nothing subtle about these presentations. The conclusion should be said at the beginning, after every point, and then circled and repeated at the end.
- Three Second Legibility: It should take your audience less than 3 seconds to hone in on the most important part of a chart or graph, which often means creative manipulation and highlighting. Remember how annoying you found Broken Axis Lines the first time you realized you mis-read a graph because someone distorted the information? While that sort of manipulation normally would be labelled “misleading,” in this context it is cherished as “leading” and the only way to do things.
4. Written Documents for Executives
No one has time to read extensive documents. The most important part is the 1 page executive summary on the top. After that, the writer gets (perhaps) 5 pages to flush it out and the rest (including analysis and evidence) goes in an appendix. I *hate* coming up with introductions for academic papers, and I usually end up making terrible jokes, so this difference made me so happy! You just start talking and bulleting out the main points, no fluff. However, once you reach the bottom of that first page, it takes creative formatting and editing to fit everything in those rapidly disappearing 9 inches. This also provided great practice for writing appealing abstracts. I am used to considering abstracts as a device to entice readers to download a paper, but it may be more appropriate to front load the conclusions in the abstract since it is the only part of the entire document many people read.
Human Resources: the first hurdle on the way in and the last hurdle on the way out. I cannot stress how important it was to figure out what HR does, how to make connections in the department, and the appropriate way to address issues with this group. I personally am used to asking questions and making self-deprecating jokes when I first meet people to establish rapport. With HR this is a VERY BAD IDEA. HR is not there to be your friend, they are there to protect the company. Bring your serious face and A-game to any interactions with HR. In the worst case, you come off as a little stiff, but in the best case, you aren’t written off as unprofessional, inexperienced, or a liability to the corporation. Why is this important to me as an academic? When applying for faculty positions, we have our very own versions of HR at academic institutions. I am going to have to remind myself repeatedly to not confuse the administrators screening my application with potential colleagues I want to befriend.
6. Check-in Meetings, Stand-ups and Gantt Charts
One of the executives described Time Inc. as a place you go for “death by meetings”. While the line is a bit hyperbolic, it isn’t far off the mark. Check-ins, stand-ups, and Gantt charts are all used to plan, document, and deadline projects and work effort. Never before in my life have I spent so much time re-organizing and planning my plans. Through this experience, I discovered that if a manager can find a way to get product teams to stay on deadline without them noticing they are being managed or burdened with these check-ins, that person will excel and very quickly be promoted with both happy clients and happy workers. For my own purposes, I will use the Gantt chart for my dissertation research and writing: They are pretty awesome.
7. Assumptions behind User Research
The most frustrating part of my own research was the implicit assumptions people brought into the product idea stage about their intended audience. Much of Time Inc. is older, so listening to descriptions of the Millennial Generation as some alien, unknowable mass became painful. One part of this was the idea that social media data provides a complete and holistic depiction of the millennial’s vapid, superficial lives. The assumptions did not end there. I can recall a few examples of disparaging remarks about poor people or the use of biological binaries to support treating women and men differently. Regardless, I had to learn: 1. consistently have sources for things that usually go without saying in my corner of Academia: ‘biological determinism is bad’, ‘millennials are people too’, and ‘poor people spend money on things other than cigarettes and beer’, and 2. Do NOT laugh when someone says something that is shockingly incorrect to you. Of course, I did consider the standard, “what if I am making assumptions myself and am simply unaware of it?” The best reflexive strategy for this is the use of personas to verify and validate any ideas about users prior to starting a design/ build.
8. S.W.O.T. and Business Models
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats is an approach to answering specific business related questions about competitors and their products. While it may be a bit teleological for many academic uses, it can help with professional decisions or even scoping out future research projects. Strengths (what are my skills as an academic?), Weaknesses (what areas am I unprepared to address?), Opportunities (is there an emerging area that has little published on it?), and Threats (who are your direct competitors for publishing slots? What is the time-table for completing the research?). I especially like this cartesian approach because in the past when I have been considering a new research direction, I only considered my strengths and opportunities and then wasted effort on something that I was unprepared to manage or on a topic that was very shortly covered by a well established scholar (Thanks danah boyd!).
My internship at Time also taught me to value the academic separation between “church” (content) and “state” (business). The constantly looming question of “how will this investment make money?” can be soul crushing. I hope the money question doesn’t overwhelm academic efforts across the board.
9. Duplicate Effort
Time has ~10 corporate departments and over a hundred brands (magazine properties). In that mixture, there are hundreds of people that share similar job titles and roles. Despite the potential overlap and benefits of sharing information, there is next to zero communication about what research or production efforts have been made on other floors. This is a quintessential example of the “silo effect“. After a few weeks of trying to find other research at Time, I now appreciate the graduate community I work within. Students share literature, class papers, syllabi, and ideas willingly and openly, not to mention the various research networks available and Google Scholar. And I now better understand the need for organizations like the Research Data Alliance where I will be working as a research assistant in the coming year.
10. Programming Literacy
While it may be dubious to generalize out from an internship on a technology floor, I am convinced it is increasingly important to have basic programming literacy as a human-centric researcher, especially for social issues that cross between digital and corporeal boundaries. This 2008 article by Marc Prensky talks about programming as the “new literacy”, and it summarizes my thoughts fairly well.