Cambridge stories from the past and future

I’m sitting at gate B6 at the Pearson Airport in Toronto, waiting for my
flight to Boston. In a few hours, I’ll be at the IBM Cambridge research
lab to help facilitate a client workshop. No visit to the lab is
complete without connecting with the Collaborative User Experience
group, and I’ve carefully stashed cookies in my carry-on bag to share
with them.

I get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever I think of CUE. They’ve created
some of my favourite systems in IBM–social tools that have transformed
the way I experience work. Their questions and analyses help us explore
the effects of social computing and collaboration in the enterprise. And
they’re wonderful people, too.

I first got to meet them after convincing my research supervisor that
the graduate research I was doing at the University of Toronto would
benefit from a face-to-face meeting with the authors of the major papers
in my area of study. They could point me to interesting questions and
resources. Although travel funds were limited (aren’t they always?), I
finagled approval after showing that I could stay with a family friend
and taking public transportation. Taking a page out of my sister’s
playbook (and borrowing her “secret recipe”, too), I baked oatmeal
cookies for gifts.

Meeting the researchers in person was my first experience of how
powerful the social intranet could be. I felt I already knew them
because of their blog posts and papers. After a quick look at my
bookmarks and blog posts, they knew me too. Conversation was
surprisingly easy.

I kept in touch with the Cambridge lab as I continued to explore my
thesis topic. As an avid user of the social networking tools within IBM,
I was frequently involved in their studies. They published papers that I
cited, and commented on my blog posts with additional resources I should
check out. I flew down to speak at one of their get-togethers and learn
from the other sessions there. I was just dipping my toes in with my
research. It was fascinating to learn from people who were immersed in
the field. Through IBM’s Web 2.0 tools, I got to know them further, and
I also connected with lots of people all over the world.

That’s what made a real difference for me. I got to see a side of IBM
that few other graduate students or interns experienced. I met all these
amazing people throughout the organization. I learned so much from them,
and I was surprised to find that they were learning from me as well.

I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather work or anyone else I’d
rather work with. I joined IBM’s application development and consulting
group in October 2007.

A year later, I visited the Cambridge lab again–this time as an
IT specialist facilitating a workshop on Generation Y. I made sure my
trip included an extra day for just meeting up with people, and I asked
one of my mentors to help me figure out how to make the most of that
day. He did more than that. He orchestrated this amazing insight-packed
day of meetings with different researchers who were passionate about
social networking and collaboration. An entire day! I felt like a
visiting dignitary instead of a newbie who was just starting out in the
organization. =) I took as many notes as I could, and I wished I could
make even better use of the ideas they shared.

I even got to sit in one of the research group meetings as they bounced
ideas around for the next year. I brought oatmeal cookies. When he saw
the cookies, the research group leader smiled and said it was just like
before. I had brought cookies when I visited them as a student shortly
after starting my thesis. Even though it was a small gesture, he
remembered it. That made me smile.

Later that day, I was walking through the corridors with the mentor
who’d arranged all of those meetings. He pointed out someone we’d just
passed, and whispered that that was Benoit Mandelbrot. It took me a lot
of resolve not to fangirl then and there. I nearly turned around and
asked for an autograph. ;) I had been fascinated by fractals in high
school, and there was the person who’d kicked it all off. Isn’t it
amazing, the kind of talent the world has?

Not all of us will invent new fields or open vast new vistas of
knowledge, but we’re all working on making the world a little better.
I’m deeply appreciative of the researchers at Cambridge and my other
colleagues around the world. They ask interesting questions. They build
our knowledge of how the world not only works, but how it _can_ work.
And they’re willing to reach out and take the time to help this novice
learn as much as she can from as many people as she can… Isn’t that

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ve only been at IBM for two years,
officially. I’ve been on the network for four years. I feel at home in
our communities and on our networks. It’s also hard to believe that this
is really only my third year of “real” work experience: one year as a
teacher, and now two years at IBM. There are many, many things I’m
figuring out for the first time. But the social networks I can reach are
disproportionately bigger than my tenure, and the insights and
opportunities that people have shared with me mean that I sometimes now
find myself with the answers to questions people ask.

What amazes me most about all of this is:

If I can connect like this, work like this, and love like this even as a
recent hire who’s figuring lots of things out, imagine what else is
possible. Imagine what I could do ten years from now. Imagine what more
experienced people could do right now. Imagine what new hires could do
if they got off to an even faster start. Imagine what the enterprise
could do if this was part of the culture.

I sometimes wonder why people are so generous with their insights and
energy, why they share so much with me. Perhaps part of it is paying
their own mentors back. Perhaps part of it is that my questions help
them further understand their answers. And perhaps part of it is that I
help them see the difference they’ve made and imagine the future they’re
helping create.

This is a future worth building, and I can’t wait to see what we can do