Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Work Time Scales

This article was written on my iPhone. Start time: 3:10pm


One of my favorite but also most challenging parts of my new job as a junior academic researcher is getting to work on vastly different time scales. At any moment, my task might be something that spans:

  • minutes - handling logistical emails, scheduling meetings, making micro-decisions about project or people management
  • hours - implementing or debugging one particular feature in my code, writing a section of a paper, reviewing papers, doing other one-off errands that require concentration but no longer-term planning
  • days - a focused coding sprint to get a major feature implemented
  • weeks - grinding for a paper submission deadline (usually a three-week sprint), where I put on blinders and solely optimize for just those submissions
  • months - the steady-state grind of making progress on a small set of research projects, the semester-long cycle of teaching
  • years - grant writing; obviously it doesn't take years to actually write a grant (I hope not!), but the act of grant writing forces me to think about my broader research agenda that extends beyond just individual projects

It often takes some startup time to switch into a certain "time horizon mode." For instance, I'm not in the mood to "think big" when I'm busy debugging nasty C code or getting Linux permissions to work for my web app deployment. But I appreciate the opportunity and challenge to work at different time scales.

In my half dozen or so software engineering jobs in the past, I mostly worked only up until days or weeks. The higher-level planning and project direction was usually set by product/project/middle-managers, not by the junior engineers at the leaf nodes of the org chart. Mentors encouraged me to "think bigger," which sounded good in theory, but I didn't have the clout to actually implement longer-term initiatives since that was usually the prerogative of the management layer.

On the other extreme are influential senior people I know in both academia and industry -- they mostly work on high-level plans on months to years of scale. But they aren't directly in touch with the day-to-day grind. A lot of subtleties get lost in translation, even across as few as just one or two people layers between the planner and implementer(s). These senior people have grand big ideas but not the direct ability to implement them by themselves (either due to lack of technical expertise or lack of TIME).

I know a few people who hit the sweet spot in the middle -- for instance, when I briefly worked with Jeff Heer at Stanford (who later co-founded www.trifacta.com with our other project collaborators Sean Kandel and Joe Hellerstein), sometimes he'd talk big (like the most inspiring and least bullshit of TED talks) about the future of data visualization and other times he'd be so excited to show Sean and me how he hacked some crazy-ass JS optimizations the past weekend to drastically speed up his d3 visualization.

So I'm looking forward to the next few years when I can work all across the spectrum of time scales. It's kind of daunting but also really exciting.


Finished writing at 3:33pm (23 total minutes of writing. I did about 3 minutes of jotting down a brief outline on paper before getting inspired to write. Ha I was reading a paper and thought about this topic randomly and wrote to procrastinate. See pic below)

Created: 2013-12-30
Last modified: 2013-12-30
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