It started when I arrived in the parking lot at 7:45 am. I parked next to a guy in a suit and tie, just what I was wearing, and we walked to the front door together. It was locked, but was soon opened by a woman who didn't expect us or know why we were there. I said I was here for an interview, and he admitted that he was too!, Soon we were joined by a woman who was also interviewing! They had all 3 finalists in on the same day, and the format called for 2 of us to hang out while the other of us made our presentations to the group! I've never seen anything like it. It gave me a chance to meet the others, of course, and through the guarded conversations and expressions of confusion about the format, we found each other interesting, I guess. Ralph is a about 60 years old, from Montana, and drove over for the interview. Cynthia is a 40's woman who works for the Dept. of Energy in Golden, Colorado, and she flew in on Thursday.
We met the Team during the coffee session from 8 to 8:30. The group was composed of the 2 PhD members of the Team, the one support staff person, the Principal Investigator on the Extension side (I'll call him the PI), and some administration staff people from Extension and from Pullman who are involved in the evaluation and hiring process. It was an awkward situation from the start, with everyone sort of limited to quick answers and somewhat vague questions. The applicants didn't know what to make of the format, and having what could only be described as you competitor standing next to you created awkward silences. We were all thinking, "Should I take charge now, or wait for my 1-on-1 time with the committees that will come in a few minutes?" It was weird. We all waited.
Ralph went first, while Cynthia and I waited in the small conference room. She told me she was a chemical engineer working for the DOE, was single, and liked the PNW. We steered our conversations away from things that might relate to the position, and I think she was particularly uncomfortable with the format. I was second, and Cynthia was last. The order was set alphabetically by last name. When I was done Ralph and I had an hour to kill so we jumped into the Prius and went out for coffee and a little drive around. He and I hit it off pretty well. We had a group lunch with everyone involved, and then individual meetings with the Search Committee as one group, and the PI and the WSU HR guy in another group. We ended the day visiting the office space they have rented a short distance away for the project people, which was just a large corner room on the second floor of a generic office building just off of I-5 at 128th St.
The contact the applicants made with the WSU people was stilted, guarded, and guided by a playbook that had been explained to them by the HR people and which they carefully followed. Certain sorts of questions could not be asked. All the applicants were to be asked the exactly same questions by the same committee people, with everyone taking notes and filling out forms on each candidate. The opportunity I felt I had to make individual contact was limited in time and space, in the sense that the Team members all deferred to each other, and they were generally aloof. Also, the times where it might have been possible to get 1-on-1 contact time were the morning meet and greet, the lunch, and the brief office visit, but with all the candidates present all the time, this was quite awkward. I did send some time with the PI, who would be the person to whom I would report, but that was about it.
So, all this description pertains to the process and not to the content of the interview. I don't know what I should really say here, other than to point out a few of the key issues and ideas I gave and received, and the impression they made on me (and maybe the impression I made on them). I'll break these down the way I see them:
- The $40 million grant was for 5 years, and started in August, 2011. It ends in August, 2016. Today is the end of September, 2013, which means that any participation any new person can have in the original grant activity is possibly limited to 2 years and 10 months. I say possibly because the grant might be extended, or another grant obtained to continue on with the work that has been started, but this is not secure at this point so it is speculation.
- The position of Director for this part of the grant is really just a worker in a group, but one with administrative responsibilities as well as creative and educational ones. This is not a real faculty appointment to WSU, but is a term appointment with a sort of figurehead title of Asst. Professor that goes with it. There is no clear path to a regular academic appointment when the grant ends, other than the Director becoming known to the academic folks at WSU and UW, and beyond, and possibly finding a way to leverage those contacts into favorable consideration at a later date.
- The point of the grant is to support the national Renewable Fuels Standard, version 2 (RFS2) through the development of plantations of Poplar trees to serve as feedstock for a new conversion process being developed jointly by UW and a company called ZeaChem. The conversion process turns Poplar trees, grown and harvested sustainably, into ethanol, jet fuel, and diesel fuels. The success of the grant will lie first in the success of the conversion technology, which is in pilot plant phase in Boardman, OR, but has not been accepted to the point where a proper production facility has been commissioned. Once that happens then everything has to happen pretty fast: contracts with growers to plant Poplar trees, supply chain logistics have to be worked out for harvesting, storage, and delivery of the chips produced, then the downstream off-take agreements for the liquid fuels produced. At the tail end are the Education and Extension portions that have public interface and information dissemination responsibilities for the overall project. The conversion process is the dog, and the rest of the activities are the tails. If the dog does not survive, then the tails are meaningless.
- In the offices of the Everett Extension people there were piles of files stacked on desks, everywhere. The offices were a mess. The career WSU Extension people give off an impression of endemic Academic Clutter. The Biomass Team was completely different. The desks were clean and things were put away, but of course there was a tour planned. I didn't like the clutter.
- The PI and I didn't hit it off great. He sat at the back of the room during my presentation, away from all the Team members. He kept himself isolated all day. I found him to be officious, and he was protective of what he considered to be His Team. At one point he asked me, "How will you keep from screwing up my Team?" I can only suppose he asked the others that same question. I think he is competent, and probably a good administrator. I'm not sure how he is as a leader.
- The Team members sat close to the front and asked questions about my presentation. They are both 30-somethings. One is an Indian man whose English I have to listen to carefully to understand. The other is woman who seems a bit too bright to be in this sort of program. They both were the most engaging of all the people I met, and I did have a very limited sort of chance to connect with them on a personal level during one set of interviews, and while on the tour of the office space. I think I could work with them easily and well. The woman who is the admin. for the group is early 30's (?), and seems very competent. We also seemed to get along.
- The HR and Senior WSU staff people, both 50-somthing men, were neutrally friendly and professional. I got no feedback from them, and didn't really expect to.
- There was one guy from an outside cooperator company called Greenwood Resources which is responsible for the Poplar plantations that exist currently. He and I hit it off well, and he sat next to me at lunch. He is also on the Search Committee.
- My assessment is that I fit their needs the best of the three candidates. They need someone that has direct experience with biomass projects and understands the process flow. They need a leader. They need someone who can direct the development of marketing materials, educational pamphlets, presentation materials, and can organize trade show activities. In all these respects I think I had the best qualifications.
- There is a problem with the relationship between the Biomass Extension Team and the regular Everett Extension Office, and for that matter, the WSU Extension office in Pullman. The temporary nature of the Team's existence is something that the rest of the Extension organization can't really get invested in. The regular Everett Extension office is staffed with overweight ladies that answer the public's questions about whatever they may call about. The Biomass Team is focused in an entirely different way. They see themselves as professionals on a mission to save the world, and in a way, that is their Charter. Being a Master Gardner or identifying garden pests is not relevant to their goals. The PI has a regular appointment in the Everett office and has a day job as an Extension Forester doing specific sorts of work. Managing the Biomass Team is layered on top of his regular responsibilities. This diluted his focus. Maybe this is the source of the tension I felt about his protection about His Team.
- The structural problems are real, and don't fit in well with my personal plans. If I were 63 and applying, then having the project end when I was 66 might work out fine. As it is, the timing is not good.
- For the 2 Team Members, this has to be seen as a sort of post-doc assignment. I mentioned to them specifically that one of my goals would be to look for opportunities to add to their professional resumes so that they might leverage their time with the project in a positive way with respect to their careers. I think I can help them do that, but this is peripheral to the goal of the grant. It dilutes the effort.