Running a business is a PhD

I used to teach a PhD seminar for new students. I would tell them: the work you do in a PhD is not necessarily harder, more technical, or even more groundbreaking than what you have done before; the principal characteristic of a PhD is the magnitude of the project and the breadth and depth of understanding you illuminate it with.

PhD students learn unique skills in order to pass their doctoral thesis: they have to understand the detailed technical machinations of their topic, place it in the context of a bigger picture, embrace simple common sense, and learn to defend against every kind of criticism. To succeed they have to learn time management, task prioritization, collaboration and communication. These are exactly the skills needed to run a business. Why is it then that business and academia are such unwilling bed-fellows?

In 2006, a new branch of the IT-management conference NOMS began a workshop on Business-Driven IT Management (BDIM 2006). This has become a regular event, and I was intruiged to be a part of this. It made perfect sense that IT system administration services should be there to support the main activity of a business -- and it struck a chord inside a weary college teacher (where teaching staff are more often than not there at the pleasure of the administration rather than the other way around). I was intruiged by the idea of BDIM, but to understand what it could mean I needed experience of running a business myself.

Discuss this at the BDIM workshop, LISA 09.

So the time was right for a new challenge. I began planning the Cfengine company a year later, and it was registered a year after that in June 2008. Since then, I have met and talked to business savvy people from Europe and the US, as the company grows with a rocket on its back. I have recognized my own limitations, and seen what it takes to get a business off the ground. I am struck by a simple conclusion: it is really not that different to what I have done before in academia.

Awareness, adaptability and diligence are the keys. PhD students don't write a thesis by being stubbornly self-centred and lazy. They cannot afford to think of any problem as insurmountable. As in most areas, getting through the process is a case of hard work and good personal management skills. A vast repertoire of knowledge is useful, but not essential. It is not the most encyclopaedic that get PhDs, it is the most pragmatic. In short, it is a combination of `kinds of intelligence' from reasoning skills to social intelligence. What subject should they study? I am not sure it matters as much as some think. The main point is that PhDs have the wherewithall to learn, see different viewpoints, adapt, and succeed at getting things done.

With few exceptions (mostly in giants like IBM and Google), business and academia are self-proclaimed oil and water. Both profess a lack of understanding of the other -- but this is only on a self-styled cultural level. My academic colleagues expect me to be hopeless at business, just as they expect business people to be rather shallow. Business people tend to assume that academics are high flying, incomprehensible, isolated from reality and irrelevant to the real issues, and that education is mainly for obtaining specific hands-on skills.

My experience is very different. I believe we just speak the same language with different accents. I find it easy to understand my business colleagues, and recognize both sound common sense and an intuitive ability for abstraction and modelling in them. This should not be a surprise: the key to success lies in exploring possibilities, requiring (no suprise) intellectual honesty, i.e. a frank and pragmatic approach to getting things done.

If there is a difference between business and university it is a cultural one. Businesses focus, naturally, on the monetization of effort. How do we create opportunities and urge people to pay? Two classic ways that trip off the tongue: the lure of saving people from something they loathe (services), and exploiting people's eagerness for future wealth (gambling or investment). Some businesses take money directly from the beneficiary (shops, services), others get a third party to finance a service to the beneficiary (e.g. magazine advertising, Google, etc). It sounds simple, but there is nothing superficial about this game of cat and mouse.

Businesses, like academics, also struggle for attention ("market share") in a world of noise. Both need clarity of message (a surprisingly difficult skill). How do you tell-it-like-it-is, without over-simplifying and selling yourself short, and without lying? Communication is the backbone of science and business -- because both are cultural phenomena. Both are economic phenomena, just with different currencies.

Why not just train managers directly for business (MBAs)? Because the real skills of human and intellectual interaction cannot be taught, they have to be learned through trial and error. Schools can teach you to press buttons, or fill out forms, but that is a tiny part of a complex process. And a PhD is a training ground for that level of complexity. A successful business leader who masters all the right skills would impress any PhD student.

Knowing this, why do `business' and `academica' maintain these ethnic tensions? As humans, we persist in that inenviable trait of casting aspersions about one anothers' moral character rather than seeking out a shared pragmatism. I don't really know how to get around that. For my part, I enjoy both worlds.