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Bridging Cultures For Collaboration

Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

Several years ago, I was invited to give the welcome address to the extended community participants in a new computational science project. The meeting was being held at a facility a few blocks from the nearest hotel, which happened to be very near the ocean. On the first day of the meeting, I made my way downstairs from my hotel room, only to encounter an unexpected sight.

 It seemed there were two major groups staying at the hotel, in addition to those I expected to attend the computational science meeting. One group was dressed in t-shirts, shorts and sandals and would have blended nicely with the nearby beachgoers. The second group was dressed in conservative business suits that would not have drawn a second glance in the corporate world. 

Both groups streamed from the hotel, seemingly bound for recreation and business, respectively. Imagine my surprise when I saw members of both groups entering the building where I was scheduled to speak! One was a group of engineers; the other, not surprisingly, was a group of computer scientists.  (Full disclosure: I am proud to say that all of my degrees are from engineering schools, and I spent twenty years in a computer science department located in a college of engineering.)

As I stepped to the podium to begin my remarks, I glanced down at my own attire: dress shoes, pants, button down shirt, and a blazer, but no tie. Recognizing the humor of the situation, I began by saying that I was a community bridge builder, the statistical mean of the audience’s sartorial distribution. I continued by recommending that those wearing ties get better acquainted with those wearing sandals, as that was precisely the cross-cultural engagement necessary to ensure the success of a computational science or engineering project.

The point of this anecdote is the importance of cultural flexibility and willingness to understand the diversity of reward metrics and expectations across disciplines. Only in so doing can we realize the true power of computational science and engineering, or more broadly, of computing plus X, where X is any of the possible domains of computing applicability, from the humanities, arts and social sciences, through government, business and consumer products, to science and engineering.

All too often, our technical curricula fail to focus on the human aspect of cross-domain collaboration. Technical skills are necessary, but not sufficient. One must also understand and meld the disparate motivations of the collaborative team in a positive and productive way to achieve success.


Fred Schrader

Hi Daniel,

thanks for the article. It was a fantastic read, great anecdote.

Dress codes are a very interesting topic. Since your article is 7 years old, do you think that things have changed in the meantime? I made the experience, that in the last few years, things have become a little bit more casual and informal.

My theory is, that this is connected with the triumphal march of the Home Office or Intranet Solutions (just think of!). The more time we spend in an informal environment, the less important the outfit will become.

If our perception of work changes, I guess that our culture of collaboration will change, too.

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