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Interview with Mike Smith – Part Four

Part Four:  Interview with Mike Smith – Associate Professor of Information Systems and Marketing, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

This interview began in part one discussing Dr. Smith’s graduate student experience and job search and continued in part two discussing Dr. Smith’s experience and advice as a faculty member.  In part three Dr. Smith explained some of his perspectives on research.  In this session we will discuss his perspectives on teaching and his overall thoughts on Information Systems as a discipline.

Perspectives on Teaching

You’ve received many teaching awards and honors during your time at the Heinz school.  Have you always been a strong teacher, or is that something you’ve had to work on?

I have gotten better over time because I think I’ve come to understand what the students are looking for.  Again, it’s just really hard the first couple of years to know what the students are looking to get out of the class.  It is important to recognize you will not get tenure by being a good teacher. At the same time I really enjoy teaching, and I probably spend too much time on it from a purely rational perspective.  Faculty members really do have a privileged position, this notion that you get to stand up in front of people and talk about the research you’re doing and how that might matter to their careers is a really privileged position.  It is an opportunity that I really cherish, even though it has very little impact on job advancement.

Some strategies you can use are to try to keep your teaching as closely aligned as you can to your research as possible.  Try to teach as much of your research as possible, as much as you can get away with.  I have had a couple of classes where there were topics that I was intellectually interested in that I put in as a course module to force myself to learn something about it.  So this semester one of the modules we’re doing is on disruptive innovation, Clay Christianson’s work at Harvard, and it was something that I wanted to learn that I thought would also be interesting to students. And typically if you are interested in the subject that will come across in your teaching.

Is there any advice you could give for PhD students as they prepare to teach for the first time?

Teaching for the first time is just hard.  On one hand, if English is not your native language, I think it is a good signal to the market to say, “I taught this master’s level course as a PhD student, and I didn’t get killed,” but other than that I try to advise my students to teach as little as possible during your PhD because it is really all about the research.  When you do have to teach, start with a really detailed and clear syllabus. This will guide both you and the students. In the syllabus, lay out what you’re going to cover, how the topics relate to each other, and then lay out the class-by-class structure of the course. This is the right way to go because planning the course as you go along is really miserable.

Perspectives on the IS Discipline

You’ve been very involved in the IS discipline through your involvement in as an editor for Information Systems Research, Decision Support Systems, and Management Science, and your involvement in many conferences.  What do you see as the defining characteristics of the IS discipline?

I would like to see IS as a discipline be kind of like Marketing, in the sense that I see Marketing is very focused on consumer behavior, but willing to look at that consumer behavior from a bunch of different lenses.  I would really like for the IS discipline to be focused on how information technology changes things, where things can be organizations, things can be markets, things can be governments and societies, but how does IT matter.  Then, we need to see the benefit of looking at that from a bunch of different perspectives:  not just economics, not just technology, not just behavioral, but we benefit from looking at this phenomenon from a bunch of different perspectives.  I think that is a winning combination for the discipline, because technology is going to continue to evolve, I’m not in the Nick Carr camp that says technology is going to become a commodity.  I really think the technology curve is going to be a series of small “S” curves on different technologies and it’s going to continue to grow, and it’s going to continue to impact the structures it comes into contact with: whether that’s small organizations, or governments, or societies, or markets. And I think that as a discipline we can carve out a piece of that development that says our core competency is looking at that change from a bunch of different viewpoints.

Where do you see the field of IS heading in the next five to ten years?

One of the things technology gets us in addition to changing things is it gets us the ability to collect, process, and analyze large datasets.  Bringing in the Machine Learning discipline to our discipline and figuring out how you can analyze these masses of data to draw out the technological change piece is going to be important.  Daniel Neill on the Heinz faculty is exactly that sort of person. We brought him over from computer science and machine learning and he’s looking at how you take massive amounts of data and pinpoint things like bioterrorism. These are the sorts of questions that we as a discipline should be looking at, technology has changed our capabilities and we ought to be at the forefront of figuring out what that means for structuring policy decisions, organizations, and groups.

Do you have any other thoughts or advice for PhD students in the OCIS community?

Get as well trained as possible, and pay attention to your advisor.  One of the things Erik taught me, if not explicitly then implicitly, is to never start working on a project if it doesn’t have a chance at an “A” publication.  At the top research schools, “A” publications are really all that matters.  There’s no mapping function from “B” publications to “A” publications:  there’s no sense in which five B’s equals one A.

Interview with Mike Smith – Part Three

Part Three:  Interview with Mike Smith – Associate Professor of Information Systems and Marketing, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

This interview began in part one discussing Dr. Smith’s graduate student experience and job search and continued in part two discussing Dr. Smith’s experience and advice as a faculty member.  In this session we will discuss his perspectives on research.

Perspectives on Research

What is the “secret” of your productivity?

I’m a firm believer in treating this as a job.  Our undergrad days have led us to believe you can work a twenty-hour day and that has to be twice as good as a ten-hour day.  At least for me I’m not productive for more than ten hours a day.  I think it helps to recognize that I only have ten hours to get a certain amount of work done and I need to intentional about keeping track of what time I am goofing off and what time I am working on the things I should be working on.

How would you describe the process from start to finish of one of your “typical” papers?

I tend to get the ideas that I’m most fond of from the press and the media.  I tend to advise my students to look to questions the media is asking, as opposed to the two paragraphs at the end of somebody else’s paper where they talk about future work.  You can be sure, that if someone tells you at the end of their paper that “future work should do” this list of things it means one of two things:  either some referee asked them to do it but it was too hard, or it is a problem they are already working on.

Most of the topics that I have found most interesting have come from quotes in the industry that say “we think this is happening but we’re not entirely sure,” so start with that.  For me it is about finding the right data to ask that question, and then trying to look at that data pretty quickly to see if it has any hope of saying something that is going to be interesting.  We’re working right now on a project where we’re thinking about the question “if you take content off a legitimate digital distribution channel does that influence piracy.”  The first thing I asked my student to do was take two or three popular pieces of content and just graph what piracy looks like, and if we see a spike the day after something goes off this channel we’ve probably got something we can publish.

I’ve really enjoyed some of the economics papers that start from just the pure descriptive statistics.  Austan Goolsbee is extraordinarily good at this, if you read one of his papers it will say “Here is an interesting question, we got some data, we ran the simplest possible test on it to see what’s going on and it sure looks like something is happening.  Of course that is a very unsophisticated test so we’re going to need to go and do X, Y, and Z.  When we do X we see it, when we do X and Y we see it, and when we do X, Y, and Z we see it.”  Building up from the simplest possible test suggests that there is something interesting going on here, and then you bring in the more sophisticated econometrics to tease that out.

I have gotten in the habit of starting to write my papers earlier as opposed to later.  Once you found that there is something going on in the data, start writing the paper.  I’m not averse to writing an abstract before I write the paper.  I think that keeps me focused on what this paper is doing and what I expect to find.  You’re obviously going to change that abstract a lot, but having that abstract in mind from day one is a helpful discipline.  I frequently tell my students to go write an abstract of what they think this paper is about when they start a project.

All your papers seem use very sophisticated Econometric methods.  How did develop your research methods’ skills, and how do you keep up on them?

It’s an important lesson for students to get as tooled up as possible during your course work, those are the skills that are going to carry you through to tenure.  You can keep building on those skills but if you don’t have a decent foundation you’re dead.  MIT forces you to do this, so I can’t attribute this to anything other than being forced to do it, but I’m glad I took some pretty tough classes because it brought me out with a set of skills that I could then build on.  If you don’t have those skills to start there’s no way you can generate them “on the job” while trying to get tenure.

Many of your papers have become influential in policy decisions.  Could you discuss the ways your research has been applied in the real world?

Again, the joy of this job is that you get to work on problems you find interesting.  I have tended to gravitate towards problems that are talked about in industry journals.  We had some influence on policy associated with peer-to-peer networks and that was just because I thought there were a bunch of interesting questions on how these networks should be arranged and organized and we went out and looked at those.  I think we’ve had some influence on whether legitimate digital distribution channels cannibalize your physical sales or cannibalize piracy.  I started off that paper comparing a quote from Steve Jobs who said, “You’ll never be able to stop piracy, what you have to do is compete with it”, with another person in the industry who said, “You can’t compete with free, that’s an economic paradigm that doesn’t work.”  So here we have these two very bright, very prominent people saying completely different things.  The question is what really happens in the world and those are the sort of topics I find fun.  I also think they end up being more broadly influential.

In addition to your many journal publications, I counted about 5 or 6 pages of conference publications as well.  Some professors seem to encourage heavy conference submission/presentations, and others shy away.  What is your philosophy on the benefits of conferences, and what advice can you give on how to get the most out of conference attendance/presentations?

There’s obviously a balance.  Getting more conference publications is not going to get you tenure, at least in IS, computer science is a little bit different.  Going to a conference for me is either (A) there is a paper I want to work on and this is going to force me to work on it or (B) this is an important and influential conference and I want to make sure I’m getting my work in front of important and influential people. I’ve tried to be intentional about cultivating a set of people who are in the IS/Economics community so I go to the Workshop on Information Systems and Economics (WISE) every year, I go to the International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS) every year, and then I’ve tried to go to other disciplinary conferences where there is some intersection.  For example conferences like Marketing Science, or the International Industrial Organization Conference where there are people interested in work at the interface with IS who I can get my work in front of. But you need to recognize that going to more conferences, at least in IS, is not going to get you tenure, it’s all about “A” publications.

What research are you working on currently?

Right now we are looking at whether digital distribution channels cannibalize sales in traditional retail channels and whether digital distribution reduces piracy. The conventional wisdom today is that digital channels are going to cannibalize physical sales, but you are never going to recover from pirated products.  We’ve tried to look for opportunities to study this phenomenon.
We started by collecting data on piracy, and collecting data on DVD sales at Amazon and waiting for an appropriate event.  The event we used was NBC taking all of their content off of iTunes, which offers a great natural experiment.  We have all these people who are cheerfully buying on iTunes and now we can see where they go.

The short answer is statistically none of them go buy DVD’s at, and a whole bunch of them go to piracy.  There is about an 11.5% increase in piracy which is about twice as large as the number of sales that NBC was getting on iTunes.  You can start to play around with a bunch of interesting questions such as why is it the case that consumers seem to choose between legitimate digital purchases and illegitimate digital downloads and not between legitimate digital purchases and legitimate physical purchases.  We’re playing around with a bunch of topics that come out of those questions such as what other settings in which this might this be true, and other setting in which might this not be true, and what types of content are you most likely to buy vs. pirate.

Check back for part four of this interview. Dr. Smith will discuss his perspective on teaching and his thoughts on Information Systems as a discipline.

Interview with Mike Smith – Part Two

Part Two:  Interview with Mike Smith – Associate Professor of Information Systems and Marketing, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

This interview began in part one discussing Dr. Smith’s graduate student experience and job search.  In this session we will continue where we left off with Dr. Smith, and discuss his experience as a faculty member.

Faculty Experience

What was your experience like as a new faculty member?  Would you do anything differently?

The hardest thing to learn I think is balancing your time, especially balancing your time between research and teaching.  In particular, teaching a class for the first time is just brutal.  It is very hard to learn how much material you need to bring to class to get through an hour-and-a-half.  I would tend to bring about five hours of material for an hour-and-a-half class.  I think a much better approach is to ask questions of the class to get discussions going.  I think the students will enjoy it more, and paradoxically it is easier to teach that way.  Learning how to teach is really hard, and there is no substitute for experience.  If I could go back and do it all over again with what I know now, I’d have more time for doing research.

How did you balance your new teaching responsibilities with research early in your career?

I took a strategy from my consulting days. As a consultant you have to fill out a time card that says “what did I do today” and “which client gets charged for those hours.” To this day I keep a time card of the time I spend on classes and on research and on administrative tasks, and I try to be honest with myself that I can’t bill “goof off” time to anyone.

In the consulting world, partners frequently limit the number of hours you can bill to a client and I try to limit the number of hours I spend on administrative tasks per week to less than 4 and try to get in a certain number of research hours each week. The result is that you need to get your class planned in a limited amount of time — which is good because teaching can suck up all of your time. This is because it is frequently easier to plan classes than to write papers and we have a tendency to focus on what is easiest on our “to do” list instead of the “hard/painful” things. This strategy also gives me some accountability at the end of the day/week to look back on what I have done and evaluate how focused I was relative to my goals.

Congratulations on your recent tenure!  Do you have any advice on thinking preparing for the tenure review now that you’re on the other side?

The letters are more important than you think.  When you put your tenure case forward the Dean will send out letters to prominent people working in areas aligned with yours and ask them for their opinion about whether you should be granted tenure.  Having those people be familiar with your work turns out to be pretty important.  One of the things I was very intentional about almost from the first day on campus was having a list of potential letter writers and making sure that I met them at conferences and making sure that they were familiar with my work.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sending prominent faculty members who are interested in your work your paper and saying “I’ve just finished this paper, and it’s on a topic related to your research and I thought you might find it interesting.  Here’s a two sentence summary of what I do, feedback is appreciated.”  Ninety-nine percent of the time they won’t read the paper, but usually they will read the email, and recognize that it looks like you are doing interesting work in your area.  I think it is also the case that you need to go out and shake hands at conferences.  In a polite but intentional way, make sure that the prominent people in the field know who you are and know what you’re doing.

For the Dean to promote you to associate professor they will probably want to ask for letters from full professors, and to promote you to full will probably ask for letters from chaired professors.  So that’s not a bad starting point to think about who are the full professors and who are the chaired professors who might be interested in your work and who might be able to say that you are doing outstanding work in this area.  You should also cover both your core discipline and any relevant reference disciplines. In my case my work sits at the interface between the interface between information technology (IT), economics, and marketing, so I wanted to have a core group of IT faculty, a core group of economists, and a core group from marketing who were familiar with my work.

Check back for part three  of this interview.
Dr. Smith will discuss his perspective on research.

Interview with Mike Smith

Interview with Mike Smith – Associate Professor of Information Systems and Marketing, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

Michael D. Smith is an Associate Professor of Information Systems and Marketing and co-director of the Center for Digital Media Research at Carnegie Mellon University, with appointments at the Heinz College’s School of Information Systems and Management and the Tepper School of Business. He received his Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering (summa cum laude) and his Masters of Science in Telecommunications Science from the University of Maryland, and received his Ph.D. in Management Science and Information Technology from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Dr. Smith’s research relates to analyzing structure and competition in online markets and substitution effects between legitimate digital distribution channels, piracy channels, and physical channels for media products. His research in this area has been published in leading Management Science, Economics, and Marketing journals and covered by popular outlets including The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Sloan Management Review, The New York Times, Wired Magazine, Time Magazine and Business Week. He also jointly conducted some of the first academic research into the social welfare impact of increased product variety in Internet markets. This work was cited in Chris Anderson’s bestselling, and artfully titled, book “The Long Tail.”  (more bio)

We had a chance to interview Professor Smith about (1) his graduate student experience and job search, and (2) his faculty experience, as well as (3) his perspectives on research and (4) his perspectives on teaching and the field of Information Systems as a discipline.  We will be breaking this interview into these 4 sections to give readers a chance to read and discuss them in smaller chunks.

Warm Up:  5 Fun Facts

What do you do in your free time?

I used to like to read, now the little free time I have, I enjoy spending with my wife and my kids.

How old are your children?

I have two boys, ages eight and ten, and a little girl who’s five, or five-and-a-half as she would point out.

What paper are you most proud of?

Probably a paper I co-authored with Erik Brynjolfsson and Jeffrey Hu called “Consumer Surplus in the Digital Economy.” When we wrote the paper, most of the discussion about the Internet focused on how consumers benefitted from the lower prices they could find online. We estimated the value consumers receive from being able to find products that aren’t stocked in brick-and-mortar stores, and found that the consumer surplus gains from increased product variety are about 10 times higher than the consumer surplus gains from lower prices on the Internet. Chris Anderson picked up on this idea in his “Long Tail” article and book.
I like the paper because it is rigorous, but it is also relevant in the sense that it is making an important point about the value consumers receive from Internet access.

What is your most memorable experience as a graduate student?

It might be getting the phone call that I had passed the general exam. I was pretty sure I had failed.

What times of the day are most productive for you?

I’m most productive early in the morning.  I try to keep the thinking tasks for the morning, and the answering email tasks for the afternoon and evening.

Graduate Student Experience

Can describe what the process was like for you in your decision to get your PhD, and what lead you to come to academia?

Out of my undergraduate degree I went into a rotational job with GTE, it was sort of a management training program where they give you three different six-month assignments.  In my third assignment we were trying to sell telecommunications products to large businesses.  One of clients was the local school system, and we did some technology training for them.  I led up the training, and after the training my boss said, “You’re missing your true calling, you really need to go back into academia.” I hope he was saying that because he saw something light up in my eyes when I got to teach, and then do detailed research.  I’m forever grateful to him, because I continue to love academia in a way that I was not enjoying the work world.  I was being successful and rising up, but I wasn’t really passionate about it.  Being a professor is a job that I really love.

What was your experience like going through your PhD at MIT?  How did you go about finding your strengths and weaknesses, and differentiating your research from other research on the market?

I went to MIT to interview and talk with the faculty and to get a feel for what the environment was like and had a chance to sit down with Erik Brynjolfsson who ultimately became my advisor. Erik has a famous paper called “Bundling Information Goods” that at the time was still just a early draft. During our meeting, he sketched the model on the board and explained what he was trying to do with it and I just fell in love with that type of research.  It was one of those “wow, I really want to do that” type of experiences.

In terms of strengths and weaknesses, a colleague commented that I have “good taste in research questions.” I think this comes from wanting to do relevant research and working hard to keep up with both the academic and practitioner literatures. In fact, most of my research starts with a quote or a question from a practitioner outlet or the popular press.

What was your experience like with your advisor?  Do you have any advice on getting the most from the advisee/advisor relationship?

The advising process is supposed to be a mentorship, or “learning a trade” type of experience.  I would encourage students to pay attention to what their advisor does that’s gotten them to the place they are.  Ask questions, and watch carefully.  One of the many things Erik is good at is being very focused on “what question is this paper trying to answer” — and then staying focused on answering that question in the paper.  He’s also fantastic at presenting his work, and I learned a lot from him that I still use today.

Job Search

What was the job search experience like when you came on the market?

I came out right at the height of the bubble, so it was a very good job market, and obviously that’s not what students are facing today.  The one thing I didn’t realize about the job market is that although it is mostly about finding a job, it is partly about publicizing your work to the market that will be evaluating your work six to nine years after that when you’re up for tenure.  It’s partially about getting your work in front of the important people in your discipline so they can see it, and hopefully hire you.  There were a couple fly-outs that I turned down that if I could go back again I would have taken.  They were jobs that for location reasons I was not going to take, but in hindsight there was probably some benefit to going out and presenting my work to those folks.

How did you ultimately choose Carnegie Mellon over other opportunities that you had?

I was really compelled by Ramayya Krishnan’s vision for this place and his passion for Carnegie Mellon.  I was fortunate enough to have offers from other great places, but I was really inspired by what Krishnan wanted to do here in terms of building a department that could work at this interface between business and public policy on technology problems.  I have not regretted one bit of it.  Carnegie Mellon has lived up to all of my expectations in terms of being an intellectually stimulating environment and in terms of being a great opportunity to teach really bright students, and Pittsburgh also has been a very good location for my family.

What advice would you give for students now heading out into a difficult job market?

Network. Faculty are busy. They will be getting hundreds of applications and you want yours to rise to the top. A conversation at a conference between you and someone on the faculty or a call from your advisor to someone on the faculty can make that happen.

You’ve also got to differentiate your work, and your passion for your research topic has got to come across in your job talk.  I think it’s also important that your job talk be both rigorous and relevant. About 30% of the audience in your talk will appreciate the rigor — and using the right methods is a must to convince these folks that you belong at their University. The other 70% will mostly evaluate your presentation on whether the question is interesting and a useful contribution to the literature.

Obviously it’s a hard job market, but in selecting you should still place a high premium on a place that is going to let you do your research, and a place that is going to keep your teaching load as low as possible.  But again, I don’t envy folks going out on the job market now; it’s a tough job market.

Check back for part two of this interview.
Dr. Smith will discuss his experience as new faculty member and his
thoughts on the tenure process.

OCIS PhD Consortium Announcement

The OCIS division of the Academy of Management is pleased to announce the 2010 Doctoral Consortium, to be held in Montreal Canada, August 6-7, 2010.  The consortium will provide an opportunity for doctoral students to network, receive feedback on their research, and discuss career issues. PhD students working on research in the areas of Organizational Communication and Information Systems are invited to apply.  The deadline for applications is May 15th, 2010.

Doctoral Consortium Dates and Times

Friday, August 6, 2010      8:00 am – 9:00 pm (including dinner with faculty)

Saturday, August 7, 2010  9:00 am – 5:00 pm OCIS Professional Development Workshops;  6:30 pm – 8:00 pm doctoral reception with  OCIS members

Faculty Advisors for the Doctoral Consortium

Elizabeth Davidson, University of Hawaii (Chair of Consortium program)

Mike Chiasson, Lancaster University

Noshir Contractor, Northwestern University

Andrea Hollingshead, University of Southern California

Natalia Levina, New York University

Dan Robey, Georgia State University

Application Process

Please submit the following materials via email to Elizabeth Davidson ( by May 15, 2010 (decision by June 20, 2010):

  1. Completed application form (download the form at
  2. 5-page, double-spaced summary of proposed dissertation research
  3. Letter of recommendation from dissertation chair/advisor
  4. Curriculum vita

Limited travel fund might be available for attendees of U.S. PhD institutions, via a National Science Foundation workshop grant now under review.  (Due to NSF restrictions, funding for students outside the US will not be available.)

Looking for a Teaching and/or Research Position in the IS Field?

Then you’ve arrived at the right location! The 5 most recent IS teaching/research job positions are now displayed on the right-hand column of our site. This information is regularly updated, so keep checking back to see if there’s a job for you!