Wipe Off that Grin

I had just finished leading a project that turned into a product of its first kind for the Business. It had taken me two years from the time that the idea was seeded to refining, honing, pitching and re-pitching until I got the funding to proceed. We hired three bright young men in the newly minted project. The algorithms were built, tested and fortified to perform against variability over the next three years. This was at a time when algorithms were still driving solutions because data was sparse and not yet the king. A lot of my own time was spent in sourcing the data, categorizing it in ways so that representativeness of the domain could be captured, interpreting them in a manner that could be incorporated into the algorithmic framework. The rest of the time, I was the inveterate optimist, focusing on camaraderie, energy and enthusiasm in the team, setting up mock trials to perform validations and selling our work to the business leaders.

I was forty-eight when the project came to a close. We won a nice recognition as a team, more funding flew in for further work in the same domain, two of my colleagues got promoted; I was pleased as punch, until …

It occurred to me that I had been passed up for promotion. My new boss who was unfamiliar with what had gone into making the project a success told me that the general opinion was that while I had done a great job in leading the project, they (read ‘the algorithms’) were not mine.

I turned to one of my trusted senior colleagues for advice. “Wipe that grin off your face” was his first reaction. I was stunned. He proceeded to tell me that I smile too much and that gives the impression of not being nerdy enough. I would be given a more serious consideration if I maintained a relatively impassive expression. I liked and respected him and knew he meant well.

For some time after that I did try to smile less in the hope that the organization saw me adapting to a call for change. I got promoted over the next couple of years. By then my smile was back; so I don’t know what part the grin had played in the decision.

This episode reminded me of another one that happened I was in the university. I was twenty then, studying for a Masters degree in Physics, a subject of my choice, a subject that I loved. I was part of a gang of women and men who were evidently interested in trooping together to go for concerts, participate in singing and dramatics, read, write, debate, argue and generally “hang-around”. Much later a good friend from those years told me that Prof. M, one of our teacher’s of impeccable reputation had serious misgivings about my intent and capability as a Physicist and thought I would perhaps make a good writer of popular science articles.

Prof. M was correct on one of those counts – never in the more than three decades since then have I paused writing. Diary, poetry, essays, travelogues, and, also, research papers!

Kajoli is a Physicist by training. After a 29-year stint in industry, she is now reading, writing and consulting.