Letter from Cambridge, Massachusetts

Regional ReviewQuarter 2, 2001
by Donna Beers

It's September 1, 1999, and for the first time since I was six years old, I'm not going back to school. Instead, I'm at MathSoft Engineering & Education, Inc., on the sixteenth floor of a high-rise in Technology Square, staring at a 23-inch monitor and wondering: What have I gotten myself into? I'm waiting to meet my manager, Laurie Chidester, to find out what I will be doing in

MathSoft's R & D division for the next thirteen weeks. What on earth can I contribute? I've been a mathematics professor for twenty years. I teach, advise, write articles, attend conferences, and edit submissions to The American Mathematical Monthly. I already miss my spacious office at the Simmons' Park Science Center, its scuffed linoleum floors and the familiar sight of all my calculus and linear algebra books lined up, side by side, in wall-length shelves behind my desk. And especially my enormous window that looks out on tree-lined Avenue Louis Pasteur.

A little over a year ago, I began to think about my sabbatical. Every seven years, college faculty are eligible for a paid leave to pursue scholarly and professional development. Like most professors, I'd spent previous sabbaticals reading, writing, traveling, and attending research seminars. This time, though, I wanted to do something different. Finishing my sixth year as department chair, I had just led a program review of our faculty, students, and curriculum. We'd even held focus groups with alumnae to assess the quality and effectiveness of the major.

A topic of great interest was student internships; alumnae felt they were of enormous value in providing undergraduates with real-world, practical experience and stepping stones to jobs after graduation. I had supervised many internships over the years and noticed that undergraduates often find the transition from college student to business professional difficult to negotiate. It occurred to me that some firsthand experience might help me advise students facing this challenge.

So for my sabbatical application, I proposed working as an intern for a software company. At the midpoint in my career, I also wanted to throw myself into a different environment and see if I could "cut the mustard." Colleagues, though supportive, were slightly incredulous: Why put yourself through that?

Now I find myself asking that same question, as I sit in my Dilbert cubicle, about eight feet long and eight feet wide. Without door or window, it is sparely furnished with a chair, computer, and telephone, but has lots of workspace. The floor is a bit like a maze, with no windows except in offices located on the outer perimeter; there's definitely a class system here-the have-windows vs. the have-nots! Mostly, I see cubicles, each occupied by a single individual whose back is to me, peering into his or her computer monitor.

Things start off well enough. My boss for the semester, a slender and soft-spoken woman who, unlike me, is an outdoor enthusiast who loves camping, skiing, running, and boating, told me they were very happy to have me aboard. Because she was calm and matter-of-fact about everything, I was able to relax. My job was to learn and beta test their award-winning software. No problem, I thought, as I proceeded to pore through 6,000 pages of documentation. Laurie also suggested that, for a break, I might start playing with an HTML tool that would be used to create MathSoft's new learning site. I felt like a kid in a candy store.

On the second day, a fire drill emptied all eighteen floors of 101 Main Street onto the sidewalk. It confirmed my impression that the software industry is youthful; almost everyone looked twenty- or thirty-something, which was a bit unnerving. Would I be able to keep up with these twenty-first century techies? I might have continued to worry but, luckily, there was too much work to do.

Shortly after that, I learned my first lesson: Deadlines really matter. Unlike school, where professors can be persuaded to extend the deadline for a paper or an exam, once the company's marketing department has announced a launch date, you may be asked to switch off your regular project to help meet the deadline. In my case, because the learning site was about to go online, I was asked to help finish writing content for its first course. I was a little anxious, because I had to come up to speed quickly with a product that I was just learning, but also thrilled to be part of e-enterprise! And, unlike in a math course, this was not a homework assignment, where the answers are located at the back of a book. Work projects may be broadly, even fuzzily, defined and you-and your team-have to figure out how to go about solving them.

Working so closely with colleagues was also a new experience. College students, and college faculty, mostly fly solo, but the rest of the world operates by teamwork. With the launch date for the learning site approaching, I realized that each of us on my three-person team was playing a vital role on which the others depended: Laurie was setting up the server and handling all network and technical aspects; our colleague, Bill Mueller, who writes brilliantly and is an ace HTML programmer, was finalizing the lessons for its first course; and I was editing lessons Bill had completed, plus writing new lesson content which Bill then transformed into web-ready pages.

But the people you work with also become your second family; you spend most of your waking hours with coworkers, in close proximity. Together, you face the pressures of meeting deadlines and doing high-quality work. And since it's hard not to hear conversations in adjoining cubicles, you sometimes learn more about your colleagues than you necessarily want to know.

Yet, unlike college classmates who have been your friends for four years, professional colleagues come and go. You may eat pizza and cake on Friday to wish a friend well as he or she goes off to a new career, and then go out for lunch on Monday to welcome a new employee to the company. A reality of the workplace is that in order to seize new opportunities, you need to move on.

As the semester progressed, I began to realize that in addition to learning things to help students, I was also making discoveries about myself. To my great surprise, I was surviving, even thriving in my new environment. I enjoyed switching off from one project to another-it kept my interest. And working with state-of-the-art technology was great fun.

I also realized that office walls can be isolating, and that the 'window' to the outside world that I mostly use is my computer monitor, whether at MathSoft or Simmons. I saw much more of my colleagues at MathSoft than at Simmons. Being on one floor was one reason; having a kitchen amply stocked with Green Mountain coffee was another.

Meeting deadlines proved very satisfying. When we successfully launched MathSoft's online learning site, there was celebration on all sides. Our vice president sent congrats via e-mail, cc-ing all our colleagues, and another team feted us with lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. On my last day, my manager held a "graduation" party for me, complete with diploma that certified that I had successfully survived cubicle life!

What started as a way to help students make the transition from school to the workplace ended by encouraging me to make one of my own. Upon leaving MathSoft, I was elected to the Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America, the largest professional society of college and university mathematics teachers in the world. A few months later, I was offered the position of Director of the Honors Program at Simmons. More recently, friends have been urging me to apply for a deanship.

Instead of heralding the end of my search for new challenges, my sabbatical internship at MathSoft has marked a new beginning.


Donna Beers teaches mathematics at Simmons College.

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