A Technology Consultant in the Telecommunication Industry

Yihsiu Chen, PhD
AT&T Labs

One of the hardest questions that I ever had to answer was, “What’s a Psychology PhD like you doing in AT&T Labs?” The question may be easy for many of my colleagues who specialize in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), a field in which I also proclaim to have a good deal of knowledge and experience. HCI happens to be the favorite part of my job description, although system engineering, market research and even advertising share the crowded space of my daily work as a technology consultant. As much as I draw upon my academic training to do my job, the corporate wonderland never ceases to amaze me with what I need to do on my next assignment.

I would like to say that the whole transition was made when I took this job after graduate school, but a part of me wonders if I always liked to cross the line and play outside the box. Growing up in Taiwan, a society rooted in Chinese culture but also infused with Japanese and Western influence, I watched Three’s Company (farewell, John Ritter) and read manga while I was not studying Confucius. It was an easy decision for me to come to the U.S. to pursue a postgraduate education. I completed my degree at Columbia University, studying social psychology of human communications. Where else but New York City could satiate my appetite for multicultural fulfillment?

Throughout my education, I always enjoyed teaching and research, and believed that I would one day become a professor who writes journal articles rather than multimedia simulation programs (which I did as a graduate student just to put the experiment together). Little did I know that I was preparing myself for an alternative line of work. When I started to look beyond my dissertation and into the job market, a friend of mine invited me to visit her lab of HCI at Bellcore (now Telcordia). I fell in love with the multidisciplinary field immediately and accepted an offer from AT&T Labs to be a user interface engineer. My first project was a multimedia CD ROM, not that different from the program I did for my dissertation experiment, and it came with a real salary too. The only hard part was that I had to leave academia. The decision had an impact on my identity, and my career objective that was once as clear as daylight suddenly became dim and fuzzy — where was the tenure?

Come to think of it, defining a career objective was the most challenging thing that I have ever had to do for myself. In my effort to do so, I had the pleasure to observe the careers of many colleagues. Many were able to maintain their identity and academic interests as a psychologist with an expertise in HCI; others had redefined their careers into one of a system engineer, a project manager, or even a director of large organizations. The common theme behind all of their experiences is that it really is a balancing act; in a non-academic environment, there are non-academic considerations.

The fact of the matter is: today’s R&D environment in the telecomm industry is tightly aligned with the corporate business, and I was able to align my skills and contributions tightly with my job requirements. Surprisingly, there never seemed to be a shortage of what a Psychology PhD could do to make a contribution. My career started as a user experience engineer who designed and evaluated user interfaces (UI) of software applications. My knowledge in cognitive psychology and scientific training made it easy for me to identify potential problems in UI and to conduct field experiments and usability testing. A year later I became a member of a small team dedicated to prototype innovative communication services. I got to design the “out-of-package” customer experience for trial users who test our services, which involves software, web and system designs. The size of the team allowed it to move fast and turn around features in short time frames; it also demanded multiple skills from each member, as there were more tasks to perform than team members to perform them. I became the interface to our customers through many PR activities such as producing demo videos. On top of my academic training, I learned new skills and knowledge on every assignment.

In recent years my work has shifted toward market research and something I call “market intelligence”. As the technological landscape shifts, many of our customers are trying to understand the new technologies we need to understand the marketplace of technological innovations. My training in psychology comes in handy. I have designed and conducted large-scale surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews to understand business customers’ view on Voice-over-IP technologies and their future infrastructure. My ability to analyze these findings along with secondary market research reports has helped me ‘gist’ this information into knowledge that helps other team members. In the mean time, part of my job continues to be UI design and usability. Talk about a multicultural environment.

I wish I could say that I’ve got this game all figured out, but truth be told, my career path has not fully unfolded, and my next job may really surprise me. Although the academic in me doesn’t always make it easy to be in a corporate environment, it is a defining element of who I am and what I do. Even Alice could use a campus in wonderland.

(Originally published in the November 2003 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)