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.
What was the job search experience like when you came on the market?
I came out right at the height of the dot.com 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.