Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.
Tell me about your career in anthropology and business.
I’ve had a long and curious career path, mostly characterized by seizing opportunities to learn and travel. I’ve always been willing to give away everything I own and leave everything that’s familiar at a moment’s notice. As a result, I’ve been able to do some really interesting work in places like Thailand, Malaysia, Poland, Estonia, Romania, South Africa, and all over the US. Currently, I’m in Poland because ten years ago my boss told me it would be great if our software company (Lunar Logic, based in Eugene, Oregon) had an offshore branch.
I had things in motion within a week, and six months later my wife and I were living in Poland, starting up the software company I thereafter ran for eight years and for which I continue to consult. I only just left Lunar Logic in very capable hands to pursue a new career in design anthropology. Having built hundreds of web applications and watched most of them fail, I’d like to spend more time helping startups succeed.
Describe your most recent role.
Most recently I was a member of lean and agile software teams, assisting product owners to discover their needs and express them in ways that allowed the team to creatively solve problems rather than just follow directions. I coached the teams I worked with in agile and lean thinking and practices.
Tell me about your anthropology background and your decision to get an MBA with a concentration anthropology.
I got my first degree in anthropology from the University of North Texas because of a woman named Alice. She was just so cool I had to take some classes with her. The appeal of anthropology outlasted the attraction to Alice, and I changed majors and never regretted it. At the time, no one was talking about business anthropology and UNT hadn’t yet established its reputation as a center of excellence in applied anthropology. The department was just starting to talk about launching a masters program (which has since become one of the most respected applied anthropology degree programs in America).
It was also the opening days of the dotcom boom and established companies were struggling to adapt. I saw an opportunity for applied anthropology in business settings assisting with directed organizational culture change. Fearing that social scientists wouldn’t get a fair hearing in a boardroom, I choose to do an MBA next to help establish my credentials. The University of Illinois, which also has an excellent anthropology program, allowed me to design my own specialization and so I did my MBA jointly between the business school and the anthropology department. I had to sell the dean of the MBA program on each non-business course and I remember with some humor the day he approved “economic anthropology” but was leery about letting me take “qualitative research methods.” I told him that basically the latter was what McKinsey & Company does, and the former was about how to negotiate a bride price in goats. He let me take both and stopped asking so many questions. My plan was to work abroad for a year after getting my MBA and then come back for a PhD in anthropology, but that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been having too much fun in the work I do.
What was one of the most interesting experiences you had as an anthropology student?
That’s going back a long, long way. Certainly the most interesting and frightening project I conducted as a student was a study of the Dallas/Fort Worth Khmer immigrant community. I interviewed many wonderful people who shared both horrific and heartwarming stories of the experience of living in and escaping from Cambodia during the war and the terrible years that followed. The reason that project was so interesting to me is that these were among the first immigrants resettled by the United Nations under what had been called the “Cluster Project.” Rather than scattering the immigrants far and wide to force them to adapt to (adopt) American culture, they were settled in a few communities so that they could support each other.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?
We are creating our world faster and more invasively than ever before. Corporations as well as small start-ups are defining how we interact with the world. From the design of appliances and buildings to the communication, networking, collaboration, and support solutions that are emerging, it’s tragic how poorly adapted so many of them are to the needs of humans.
At the same time, and at the other end of the value chain, the rise of service industries in the west are similarly creating opportunities for creative people which fail to either maximize their potential or to serve their needs as creative, thinking individuals. The result is more and more people spending more and more time working at jobs that don’t satisfy them to create things that don’t satisfy the people who use them. Anthropologists are working on this problem from both ends and while the effort may rarely qualify as proper academic anthropological research, the efforts of applied anthropologists in these areas are heroic in their own right because they’re making life better for us all.
How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your career?
My anthropology training has helped me to understand what’s happening in my head as I try to make sense of some of the very unusual places I’ve found myself working. Whether I was working in a prison or a foreign country or a new industry, the psychological pressures would have been extraordinary if I hadn’t learned to be humble, curious, and non-judgmental (or at least, consciously reflexive) during the acculturation phase of each new challenge my career presented to me.
Another result of my early focus on anthropology is that when faced with challenges, regardless of the nature of the problem, my first instinct has always been to talk to people. It’s amazing to me how often people I’ve worked with try to solve problems alone by brainstorming or intuition, whether it’s something big like “how do we deal with the emotional backlash of this round of layoffs?” or something small like “what color should we make the button?”
Do you plan to continue your anthropology education in the future?
I am considering going back to school for a masters degree. I’m not attracted to academia and so I’m unlikely to ever get a PhD, but now that the discipline of applied anthropology in business and design is so well established, I would love to take a few years and just study with other practitioners so I don’t have to re-invent any wheels.
You attended EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry) Conference this year – what was it like?
EPIC was terrific. The people were all so nice. It was much more social than the tech conferences I usually attend. I was excited to learn that the crazy ideas I’d had twenty years ago of applying ethnographic research to business challenges have been realized, but saddened to find that anthropologists are not in the role that I’d expected. With some very notable exceptions, most of the people I met were not reporting to boards and CEOs, but were feeding data into marketing teams who took it or left it or mangled it as office politics.
What advice do you have for anthropology students for marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?
I’ve never done the job I was hired for. It’s taken me many jobs in several careers to admit this to myself and to others. It was a long time ago that I last interviewed for a job, but I told the interviewer that she should just hire me, ostensibly for some existing position, but that all my experience suggested that within a few months of getting to know each others skills, interests, experience and needs, we’d find that I could add more value in some other role that she hadn’t even considered hiring for. I got the job, amazingly.
I wish all new job seekers were confident enough to realize that they are each unique, and if they have a background in the social sciences, they bring even more diverse problem-solving perspectives to jobs that might not normally be filled by social scientists. The value they bring to an employer stems far more from their unique thinking style, personality, and creativity than it does from any degree or formal skill they think they possess. Trying to match a skill to a job is a tragic waste of human potential, and both job seekers and hiring managers need to be aware of that.
Editor’s Note: Paul is also a consultant/trainer in Agile methodologies. Check out his website here.