Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bill Carroll: "to get the sharp corners knocked off you"

I have thrown a fair bit of criticism at ACS director-at-large Bill Carroll's way over the years. 

That said, like every experienced industrial chemist (even the ones who have left the lab), he has good tales to tell. He's starting a blog over at the ACS Network. I thought his first post was a good one, where he talks about his first years in industry: 
When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl.  Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles.  But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped.  The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley.  I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow. 
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly.  But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast.  I wanted to make a difference in a hurry. 
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix.  I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about. 
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military.  After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion. 
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up. 
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths.  I couldn’t help but laugh.”  He was right.   He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you.“

So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress.  No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1.  Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can.  The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed...
I'd like to think I've had my sharp corners knocked off, but it's hard to say, maybe I have a few more that I don't know about. Folks like Tom Loughlin are truly great and they have a lot of smart things to say.

In regards to "an area that's... reasonably mature", there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, I feel. Truly low-hanging fruit doesn't happen very often - and when it occurs to the novice chemist (like myself), I always wonder "I am sure this has been considered before -- I wonder why it was rejected?"

Either way, I really enjoyed the piece and I hope to see more like it. 


  1. Idiotically-confident newcomer is painful to watch, but one just cannot go about a research project with the attitude "every damn thing in this field worth finding got found out already" or "it is hopeless because if there was any easy way to solve this problem someone would have done it already".

    As always, it to helps to find out what was tried already, and talking to veteran technicians and engineers on the project - sitting with them over cafeteria lunch or few beers - might give you a great starting point: you learn things that you even did not think of asking. Also, just a minor improvement could become hugely important. For example if you succeed in bringing a price of a basic commodity chemical from 38 down to 36 cents per pound, without having to build a new plant, your company stands to make oodles of money on your invention.

  2. Technician jobs used to be a reward for a good plant floor employee - I'm guessing that's probably how Tom Loughlin made his way to the lab. Today, a lot of companies require a 4-year degree even for technicians, so these jobs are now filled with bored, bitter B.S. chemists doing a job that doesn't fully utilize their skills - you know all those Kelly and Aerotek ads offering $10 an hour to run routine HPLC's?

    There used to be a lot of Tom Loughlins at the companies that became mine through acquisitions over the years. The bean counters never understood their importance, and I often struggle with problems that could have been solved much more quickly with a conversation with the guy who developed a product or understands an application area.