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Working at IBM

Dr Martyn Spink discusses his work as Programme Director at IBM UK Research Team.

  • Name: Martyn Spink
  • Current position: Programme Director
  • Organisation: IBM UK Research Team, Daresbury Labs
  • Date of interview: May 2020
Headshot of Martin Spink.

Can you tell us a little about your organisation?

IBM Research employs approximately 3000 people worldwide and about 60 of those are based in the UK split across two physical locations: Daresbury in the North and Hursley in the South. 

Broadly, we work on a wide range of research areas, e.g artificial intelligence (AI), security, modelling & simulation, primarily focused on challenges that are brought to us by industry. 

A company will come with a challenge – where research is needed to solve a particular business problem – and we’ll perform the research and produce a proof of concept or a report that demonstrates to them that they can get business value from applying a technology, such as AI or the use of high performance computers.

What are the values of your organisation?

To be part of IBM, people have to be willing to learn and to work outside their comfort zone. You can’t say, “I’m a biologist and an expert in X, and that’s all I want to work on.” You won’t grow, develop and have a good career in IBM if that’s your fundamental attitude. 

Openness and honesty are some of IBM’s key values. We encourage people to report good and bad news. The other thing to be aware of in joining a company like IBM is that the clients are the number one priority. So if we need to change priorities to meet a client’s need – and it means putting certain projects on hold that’s what has to happen and the team has to accept that. 

In IBM, everyone is encouraged to have a mentor or two to help them grow their career. A mentor who isn’t in the management chain, so they’re getting independent advice from an experienced IBMer or non-IBMer. Manages are charged with helping people to find Mentors. 

What type of people do you employ? 

The team at Daresbury are primarily researchers, we have chemists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, genomicists, mathematicians – we have the lot really! 

All the researchers at Daresbury have a PhD, and many of them have done some form of postdoctoral research or other work before joining IBM. 

The team in Hursley has a similar set of skills but also have Research Software Engineers who are great at turning proof of concepts into prototype tools that clients can evaluate. 

How do you develop your staff? 

We give people the opportunities to do something they’ve never done before and develop in new areas. 

You have to give people the opportunity to lead. For example, people with PhDs may never been given the opportunity to lead and take the initiative. Giving them the opportunity to lead a team of people or solve a specific problem that involves taking responsibility and leading is valuable. 

So even if it’s artificial – you might just ask someone to organise the team website or a social event – it’s about gathering a group of people together, and solving a problem through their leadership. Even leading a team to redesign the website is an opportunity for leadership experience. So it’s those kinds of opportunities to lead that are important. 

Specific skills development: It’s also about identifying areas for development in your team and providing opportunities to develop new skills. I realised that a common thread in the team was a need to develop the skill of presenting to people who don’t share their specialist knowledge. 

So about 24 of them went on a training course. Presenting in this context is different: you can’t talk as if you’re presenting at a conference, to a roomful of people who understand the language you’re speaking. You need to think about the audience and who you are presenting to and what they understand and what they what to hear. 

There’s also learning the politics of communication. So when a Senior VP is visiting, there are usually lots of other people in the room – Senior VPs attract crowds! – but people needed to understand that they were only really presenting to the Senior VP and no-one else: it’s that awareness of who you’re talking to and then, of course, adapting what you are doing for that person. 

What skills and experience have postdocs brought to your organisation, above that of a PhD graduate? 

Mainly their experience. If someone comes straight from a PhD, they may have no experience of a work environment, and it’s a longer job to move them from being PhD students to being IBM Researchers – getting them engaged in being employees as well as researchers. 

If somebody’s been a postdoc, they’ve been employed before, whether that’s at university, or a research institute, hence they have an idea about the ‘world of work’. 

In addition to research skills, postdocs also come with other abilities, such as planning their time around doing multiple projects. A PhD is very focused: you’re aiming to do this one big piece of research and while you have to plan your time, you’re only planning it for yourself. 

I appreciate that some PhD students get teaching responsibilities, but planning multiple projects and putting in bids for funding – postdocs have more to do. Writing the impact case, i.e. explaining the impact of the research to, say, the UK economy is also really valuable. 

Postdocs will have also done a little bit of supervision of other people, they may have had a PhD or MSc student working for them, or co-ordinating others, so that’s also valuable experience. 

Some postdocs have supervisory skills, they’ve done some planning of their own time around multiple projects and broadly have more interpersonal skills. 

The other key skill is being able to communicate to a varied audience, verbally and on paper. You obtain some of this from writing impact statements (where it might be read by someone outside of your specialism), or from putting in funding bids where there’s a section to explain your research to a lay audience.

Would a postdoc progress more quickly through the organisation? 

It’s difficult to generalise, because some of it is about personality. You might have someone come in straight from their PhD who just has that natural ability to pick all of those things up and moves up very quickly. 

However, I would say that – as a generalisation – a postdoc would be better equipped to progress more quickly. So if I took a PhD student joining today and a postdoc joining today, in two years’ time I would expect the postdoc to be further in their career at IBM than the PhD student. [I would also say this is probably universally true for other organisations]. 

In general, you have to show leadership qualities and lead people who are not physically located where you are. For example, someone in the UK may find researchers in several other Labs who are interested in the same research as them. 

They could contact the researchers in those Labs, agree an area of research to work on together and end up leading a new initiative at IBM where they have pulled a team together from across the globe including multiple researchers from multiple Labs. 

This has happened to a number of the team at Daresbury and in the space of 8 weeks they’ve gone from a group of people who knew they were all interested in the same thing to a fully-formed global team working on an initiative that is being recognised at the highest level and included a presentations to the Head of IBM Research. 

Which skills are vital to your future success? 

Technical Skills: 

AI and Machine Learning, Modelling & Simulation but also domain expertise so we can communicate with our clients. Increasingly, companies come to us with big data sets that need cleaning, so people who can clean data – understanding which bits of the data they can trust, and which bits have come from less solid sources – are really valuable. 

Social scientists, data scientists, come with those kinds of skills. And then there’s all the AI knowledge on top of that – both experience with software and being able to use High Performance Computers (HPC). 

Those are the things that are going to be of interest to us in the next 5 years or so. Having people that have got AI, Machine Learning experience in a particular area – so they might be chemists, or physicists – but also having additional skills in those areas. 

If someone is the world’s leading authority on something and they’ve no AI, or software, or HPC skills, but we can see that we could train them, then we’ll bring them in. That said, it’s more likely that we will start having an expectation that people come in having done some of these things and have some experience in these areas.

Soft skills: 

The kinds of softer skills would be presentation skills, communication skills (including awareness of audience) and leadership skills. 

When I say leadership I don’t necessarily mean people who can or do manage/lead a team, manage people. It’s about taking a problem, taking ownership and responsibility for that problem, and getting done whatever needs to be done in order to solve that problem (whether it’s by your own efforts or by delegating to other people, delegation up or down). It’s about taking ownership. 

If you’ve done a PhD, you’ve kind of led yourself – which books to read, what you need to reference – you’ve pulled together a large piece of work and delivered it. However, a work project is much bigger and you couldn’t do it by yourself: it’s about how you can pull it together with other people. 

IBM is great on giveback, both internally and giving back to community. The number of IBMers around the world who volunteer is astonishing. So another string to your bow is what you do for the community or for other people either in University or School. 

Could you describe your typical recruitment process?  

Personally, I ask candidates to tell me about themselves, because yes I have their CV, but I want to hear them communicate that in their own words. I’m always interested in which bits they pick out as important. 

I’ll ask “what’s your biggest ever achievement?” or “what are you most proud of?” I always say “tell me about something you’ve led.” If you’ve not led anything, that makes me a bit nervous. It might be outside of work, for example we had a candidate who had organised her orchestra’s tour around Europe – that’s leadership! 

After the telephone interview, if it seems like a good fit, we’ll invite them in for an interview. An approach that has worked for me is to arrange for different members of my team to talk to candidates, from a cross-section of different backgrounds, and not necessarily the team they’d end up working with. 

Some people with lots of interviewing experience, some with very little. The candidate will have lunch with some of the team, a bit of a team interview – so by the end of the day, they’ve met about 15-20 members of the team, and the team has met them. It’s about natural fit as well as skill-set. 

What makes an application stand out to you? 

The first page of a CV needs to have all of the key information up front. List your main achievements in each role you’ve held. Some people insist on having a covering letter (with the idea that it shows more interest in the job), but for me personally, as long as the CV covers the main criteria I’m happy with that. 

What is the job you’re going for, and what are the half-a-dozen things you can demonstrate on the front of your CV (or covering letter) that say you’ve covered all the things that are must-have criteria? 

Not simply listing all of your publications or conference papers. If you’ve been invited to give a keynote at a conference, or something – that’s clearly a big achievement. It’s about being judicious with your academic-specific information. 

What are the common errors you see throughout the recruitment process? 

Skills are important, but as long as they’ve applied it. Not just have read a book on Python, for instance. One of the traps that people fall into is they’ll write ‘experienced Python programmer’ and one of my team will ask them a question about Python and they won’t be able to answer. And as soon as that level of trust is gone, people think “ok, so that bit of the CV is an exaggeration, what else is an exaggeration?” 

I don’t like any gaps in the CV. I always want to ask “what did you do between [date] and [date]?” They might say “I went travelling”, and I’ll say “well why didn’t you put it on the CV, then? There’s nothing wrong with that!”.

How can postdocs find out more about your organisation? 

If you’re going to apply to a company, you should at least know something about it. It’s quite easy now to find out a lot about a company online. The killer question really is “what do you think you bring to this organisation?” or “why did you apply for this job?”. If you don’t have answers to those fundamental questions, you’ll struggle. 

At an interview, someone might ask you, for instance, “what’s IBM’s view on COVID-19? What are we doing in response?” If you can’t tell us one thing, then it looks a bit like you haven’t tried. Go and find out a bit about what the company is doing. 

Any final advice to postdocs? 

Take a really good look at what you’ve achieved: think about what you’ve done in your lives and where you are. One of the things postdocs forget is that academically they’re at the top of the tree. A very small percentage of people receive PhDs in this country – it’s tiny! To have done that, and then gone on and done post-doctoral research, delivered more publications and/or patents, done more ground breaking research, is a real achievement. 

It’s about what you have done, not what you haven’t done, really. And then what else have you done in your lives that would be of value to accompany your qualifications? Things that show leadership, initiative etc. – what are you proud of?


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