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What makes an effective presentation?

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Because of the nature of my job, I have been regularly attending lots of technical presentations given by different parties, including students, professional researchers, faculty members, and university administrators. Also, I regularly teach classes and present technical information in other settings. When sitting in the audience for as little as 5-10 mins, I can usually say with a high degree of certainty “this is a good talk–the presenter is a pro.” But what exactly impels the listener to form such an impression? What makes an effective presentation?

In summary, presenting effectively entails achieving harmony between the presenter, the audience, and the content.

Let’s go over each of these components of an effective presentation.

1.) The Presenter
They say that one cannot separate the message from the messenger, and the presenter is indeed the most important part of any presentation. Presenters posses various level of authority, expertise, eloquence, charisma, language mastery, sense of humor, etc. An effective presenter knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

For example, making funny jokes on the fly requires that the presenter have a natural affinity for humor, which is rare. I would rather listen to a no frills presentation that gets the point across than suffering through the presenter’s continuous failure to be funny.

An effective presenter should be able to effectively compensate for his or her weaknesses. Not everyone is endowed with natural eloquence. But one can always give a fluent technical presentation by using the appropriate technical terms and grammatical sentences.

It is even possible to compensate for not possessing sufficient technical expertise. Once I was invited to present in front of an audience whose research area was completely different from mine. I made it clear up front that I was coming from a different research community, and was not well informed about their research area. Then I presented the material from my own research perspective, and later was told that my presentation was well-received. Thus, I was able to successfully compensate for my lack of expertise by admitting it up front and not setting any false expectations.

2.) The Audience
An amusing philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” has a clear answer with respect to presentations. There is no presentation without an audience. An effective presentation must be tailored to a specific audience that can posses various levels of interest, expertise, friendliness, respect, etc.

Once I attended a technical talk that I thought was very interesting. After the talk, I asked a new international student what he thought. His answer was: “The presenter was talking too fast, and I found it very difficult to understand.”

Although it can be quite difficult to control one’s presentation style, an effective presenter is always mindful of his or her audience. For example, if the audience contains many people for whom English is not their first language, a slower presentation pace and avoidance of big words can improve comprehension significantly. However, it takes real mastery of the material to be able to steer one’s presentation like that.

When it is difficult to predict what kind of audience is expected at a presentation, it is always a good idea to simply to ask the host.

3.) Content
Although oftentimes we do not have much control over which content we get to present, in many instances we can choose the technical depth and breadth of the content to be presented.

An effective presenter always carefully controls the level of sophistication of the presented content. The same technical material can be described at different levels of abstraction. The presented content should be appropriate for both the presenter and the audience. Nothing can be worse than completely losing your audience, as your content is completely above their heads. At the same time, sophisticated audiences can be offended when the presenter does not provide sufficient technical detail.

A really difficult problem is to be able to accommodate an audience possessing vastly different levels of expertise in the subject matter. In that case, a good strategy is to accept that not everyone would be able to keep up with the presentation all the time. Then the content can be presented at a higher abstraction level in the beginning making it accessible to everyone and then some low level details can be presented to the expert part of the audience. As long as the conclusion is accessible to everyone again, it is quite likely that the majority of the audience will be sufficiently accommodated.

Thus, an effective presentation achieves harmony between the presenter, the audience, and the content. The difference between excellent and mediocre presenters is that the former can easily adjust their presentation style and content for a given audience. Few presenters naturally posses this gift. For the rest of us, it is still possible to achieve such harmony through lots and lots of practice.

Categories: academic enterprise

Organizing a workshop

January 29, 2011 1 comment

Today, I have finally submitted the foreword and table of contents documents for one of the workshops that I co-organized to be published in the ACM Digital Library. If the ACM accepts our submission without any changes, it means that my job as a workshop co-organizer is officially over. Thus, now is a good time to reflect on the issues pertaining to organizing a workshop.

Although I helped organize other workshops in the past, for this one I was the primary organizer. I want to share some of my experiences of organizing a workshop in the hope of helping others decide whether they want to get involved with organizing a workshop in the future.

I will list the organizational activities that I enjoyed and those that I found not as satisfying. For each activity, I explain why I felt this way and also, where appropriate, recommend the practices I found effective.

The positives:
+Collaborating with my co-organizer
I was lucky to have a great co-organizer with whom I shared a perfect rapport. We collaborated effectively and were able to find creative solutions to some difficult problems. I also feel that in the process I have learned valuable knowledge and skills from my co-organizer.
Recommendation: Choose a co-organizer whom you respect as a researcher, as you are likely to share an understanding about the important issues, which will simplify the organization process.

+Choosing the Program Committee
I found the experience of choosing the PC and inviting fellow researchers to serve on it quite enjoyable. Discussing the potential PC members with my co-organizer helped me understand better the international landscape of my research area. Because we needed to cover a broad spectrum of research areas, we had to carefully consider our entire research community, also taking the issues of academia/industry, geographic, and gender diversity into consideration.
Recommendation: No guts, no glory. There is no harm in asking any researcher to serve on the PC. I was surprised that we were able to assemble such a high quality PC, all comprised of stellar researchers. We received very few rejections.

+Managing the reviewing process
Because we had a sufficiently large PC, we could focus exclusively on organizing the reviewing process. I enjoyed tackling the intellectual challenge of assigning the submissions to the reviewers, trying to find a perfect expertise match. Trying to reconcile divergent opinions was challenging, but quite rewarding in the end when reasonable compromises were found. Even making the final decisions regarding which submissions should be accepted was a great example of teamwork. I felt fortunate that I did not have to make these decisions alone, and was impressed with my co-organizer’s insights throughout the process. Overall, I felt that overall the reviewing process was a great learning experience.
Recommendation: Put a lot of thinking into reviewing assignments, trying to match the submission with the reviewers’ expertise and research interests; this initial investment will make the reviewing process smoother

+Inviting keynote speakers
Deciding who should be asked to give keynote presentations was a positive experience. We have managed to invite two highly respected researchers whose work we admired and who really helped us kick off the workshop with their fascinating presentations.

+Scheduling the workshop
Planning and scheduling the workshop activities was an interesting challenge, when we had to squeeze in numerous events into a very tight time frame. What helped is that we had a competent Webmaster who was able to promptly update the Website with any scheduling changes.
Recommendation: Make sure to choose a competent Webmaster who can promptly update the Website, making sure it reflects up-to-date information. A professionally looking Website can even help attract submissions and boost general participation.

+Running the worskhop
Running the workshop was definitely the highlight of the entire experience. Seeing how our plans ended up working out as we had hoped was quite satisfying indeed.

+Working with the workshops’ coordinator
We were fortunate to have a very competent workshop coordinator at our umbrella conference who did an excellent job handling all the administrative issues.

The negatives:
-Advertising the workshop and soliciting submissions
Because our submission date was in the summer, we had to overcome some hurdles trying to get enough submissions. We ended up postponing the deadline to receive enough submissions.
Recommendation: Try to schedule your workshop (it is not always possible), so that the submission deadline would not coincide with popular vacation periods.

-Publishing workshop papers
This experience proved to be somewhat tedious, and it took us three months after the end of the workshop to submit all the papers to the publisher. This stage involved obtaining the required information from the publisher and making sure that the authors follow the necessary steps, including copyright submission and paper formatting. I am not sure whether anything can be done to streamline the process, as coordinating multiple parties is always difficult. One just needs to be prepared for this and have a lot of patience.

Overall, I felt that co-organizing a workshop was a great learning experience. It must be noticed that we co-organized this particular workshop for the first time, and I suspect that established workshops may be easier to organize.

Would I recommend a junior faculty to organize a workshop? Probably not in the first three years of their tenure clock. It is probably easier to put together PCs when more fellow researchers have known you as a faculty member.

Would I be involved in organizing another workshop again in the near future? That remains to be seen.

Categories: academic enterprise

Irreplaceable academics?

January 27, 2011 2 comments

While observing the temporary plunge of Apple stock in response to Steve Jobs’ announcement regarding his planned medical leave of absence, I was wondering whether academic researchers can be deemed similarly irreplaceable by their universities.

Few would doubt that Steve Jobs has played a pivotal role in the success of Apple as a technological leader. The history of computing shows that individual technologists often play decisive roles, making innovative products really happen. Furthermore, founders of some of the most successful IT companies have been known to approach the technologists they wanted to hire in person, ask them what it would take to hire them, and then meet their demands. For example, Windows NT may not have happened if Bill Gates had not approached David Cutler in person asking him to join Microsoft. According to this book, Gates met all of Cutler’s demands, one of which included constructing a new building for the NT team.

At the same time, team work is what we teach our undergraduate students. Even in the introductory courses, we ask our students to perform lab assignments in pair programming teams, and both team members  receive the same grade. In more advanced classes, we encourage our students to work on programming projects in teams of two or more. Interestingly, I have observed how some Ph.D. students groomed in a similar manner had difficulties adjusting to the solitude of Ph.D. level research, where eventually one has write an individual dissertation.

Due to the emphasis on team work in modern society, I wonder if the role of an individual in academic work is being unduly diminished. Particularly due to the shortage of academic positions and the glut of Ph.D. level scientists, can universities assume that professors are dispensable? How hard should academic departments work trying to recruit and retain their faculty?

In CS, I have observed a noticeable inflation in that every year, on average, fresh Ph.D. graduates have more and better publications. So one strategy an academic department can follow is not to try to retain any faculty. If a faculty member becomes dissatisfied with some aspect of his or her job, make no accommodation and just let them leave. Due to the inflation in the quality of fresh Ph.D.s, the department is likely to hire a more accomplished replacement.

Nevertheless, I do not think that such a strategy is sustainable, particularly with respect to senior faculty. While unlike a company an academic department does not have a specific production goal, academic productivity is a tangible commodity. Furthermore, if senior faculty are generous about sharing their experience, they can be extremely conducive to the success of junior faculty. How many junior people have written their first successful grant proposal as a co-PI with a more senior colleague?

At the same time, the question remains whether individuals are appreciated more in industry or academia. Do college administrators go to the same lengths to convince star academics to join and stay in their universities as CEOs do with star technologists? I am not sure.

Categories: careers

What makes a good workshop paper

January 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been actively involved as a reviewer for both workshops and conferences. Although the end goal of any reviewing exercise is to recommend the submissions for acceptance or rejection, I notice that I tend to apply vastly different acceptance criteria to workshops and conferences. For a workshop paper, my primary acceptance criteria is whether the paper presents new ideas that can spark discussions at the workshop. I tend to consider the issues of how complete the implementation and validation are as secondary for a workshop paper.

In deciding whether to recommend a workshop submission for acceptance, I ask myself the following question: how likely would pursuing the ideas outlined in this paper lead to solid conference publications in the future, once all the required implementation and validation have been properly carried out? In my book, meeting this criteria is what makes a successful workshop submission.

Fueling a furnace with banknotes?

January 25, 2011 2 comments

Today, I have found out that yet another of my academic friends accepted a position with Google and will join the company after completing his teaching assignment this semester. Because his current position is visiting and non-tenure track, the Google job will offer him permanent employment with much needed job security in this volatile job market. That’s why I heartily congratulated my friend.

Nevertheless, by accepting this position, my friend has essentially dropped out of the academic game. Because I know him as a capable researcher with interesting ideas and insights, I wonder if working as a programmer for Google is the best application of his abilities and training.

There is a Russian saying that can be roughly translated as “to fuel a furnace with banknotes” (топить печку облигациями), which refers to wasting valuable resources, particularly those capable of yielding tangible future benefits. Of course one can fuel a furnace with banknotes, but scrap paper will do just fine. Training a Ph.D. level scientist incurs enormous financial and human costs, both for the individual and the society at large. I would like to hope that Google will provide a challenging and nurturing environment to fully leverage my friend’s superior Computer Science expertise and abilities. And indeed many prominent researchers feel completely fulfilled having left academia for Google (e.g., see Matt Welsh’s reflections on the subject). Nevertheless, I wonder if all developer jobs even in Google can truly justify the investment of a Ph.D. degree.

As recently as three years ago, my friend was adamantly committed to pursuing an academic career. He accepted a postdoc position and was working diligently on strengthening his CV to compete on the academic job market. What was it that convinced him to leave the world of academic research? I can only guess. But I am sure that observing the realities of modern day academia (a shortage of open academic positions, the very tight federal research dollar, the immense hurdles one must overcome to build a successful tenure case, all come to mind)  must have played a role .

Once again I do hope that things work out well for my friend, and that he finds his Google job as fulfilling as many former academic researchers do. However, I see Ph.D. level scientists accepting programming jobs as a general trend on which I would like to comment. I believe that in hiring a Ph.D. in Computer Science to work as a coder would be indeed like fueling a furnace with banknotes. By a coder I mean a person who primarily writes computer code for a living. Such an arrangement is a great deal for the programming shops that hire Ph.D.s–a person who has spent 5-9 years building complex research artifacts and delving into the complexities of CS theory in most cases is a competent programmer. (Another question altogether is whether Ph.D. training can adequately prepare one for the challenges of day-to-day Software Engineering)

Of course not all industry jobs involve programming only. Ph.D. training does prepare people to tackle complex problems that require systematic and multifaceted problem-solving skills and enormous perseverance.  But does the previous sentence reflect the reality of most modern software development jobs often claimed by Ph.D. level computer scientists? I would like to hope so, but I am not sure.

Besides what is the impact on fundamental research and the overall competitiveness of this country of all these highly training scientists choosing not to pursue a research career? Do we have a glut of Ph.D. level scientists in computing to afford not to care about this issue? If this is the case, isn’t overproduction of Ph.D.s is a good use of this country’s limited basic research budgets?

Categories: careers

Hello blogging!

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, I have resisted as long as I could, but today I have decided to start blogging. Due to the nature of my job as a college professor, I get to talk to a lot of people every day: students, fellow faculty members, researchers in other institutions, friends outside of academia, etc. Several of my daily acquaintances have pointed out that they find my observations and insights amusing and suggested that I start blogging.

The purpose of this blog is to share some my random thoughts and observations. I do research in software systems and enjoy discussing ideas, related to software system research or anything else. Thus, the title of this blog: SSS: Software, Systems, and Solipsism.

Why solipsism? One of the definitions of the word is “a perspective based on one’s own individual situation rather than a multiperson perspective.” In that sense, the views expressed here are mine alone and not those of my employer or any other party.

I would not want anyone to take my opinions and thoughts too seriously–they are just ramblings of a struggling academic. Why struggling? For an academic insider, the answer is obvious. For outsiders, let me point out that research is one of the most intellectually challenging human endeavors. Furthermore, the current research funding climate in this country complicates the pursuit of an academic research career even further. I hope to be able to share my further thoughts on this and other subjects in this blog.


Categories: Uncategorized