Today, after 2 years, I am moving on from Gemini Observatory, where I worked as a Senior Software Engineer. Unlike most departures, this one comes with very little drama; it’s more a case of wistful “well, that didn’t work out.” This is the second time in my life that I have worked for a few years in a scientific operation and the second time that I’ve walked away.
Scientific organizations, I’ve come to learn, tend to be very conservative in their organizations and processes, as their funding is, at best, fixed and, more commonly, forever under a cloud of looming budget cuts. Also, they have byzantine governance structures and audits and restrictions: at Gemini there was a foo-faraw because they bought a few automated coffee machines with government funds and we had to switch to a $5-per-month coffee club to pay for the same. Yeah, that’s where the waste in government is: astronomers drinking coffee. (I’m sure the cost of the bureaucrats reviewing, chastising, and correcting this egregious waste was many multiples of the yearly coffee costs of the entire observatory.)
It’s not that the structure is egregiously wrong or stupid: it’s perfectly logical. But after spending most of my career in the world of startups and entrepreneurs, it’s an irritant to see an organization that spends effort perpetuating the status quo. And it’s a shame when an organization full of brilliant people spends their intellectual capital on incremental improvements and not on higher-risk, high-payoff ventures. The Big Island of Hawaii is home to 13 observatories and the amount of code shared between them is virtually zero: there’s no Open Source initiative between the observatories. On “astronomy row” in Hilo, I imagine that I had three or four colleagues working on the exact same problems that I was solving. Oh well.
I loved the people here: my team-mates were smart and engaged and it seemed like the right group to pull off a transformation, but it didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, I learned that astronomers, as a rule, like to stay up late: an after-hours bar in Hilo would probably do great business. Also, more people on the island play board games than I dreamt possible and if there’s one thing I’ll miss, it’ll be Tuesday night Battlestar Galactica / Civilization / Pandemic, etc.
So now I’m returning to the West Side of the island, Kona, and sunnier and dryer days. My relationship to astronomy will return to its old mode: hauling my 4″ refractor up to 9000′ on Mauna Kea on dark Saturday nights and staring at the rings of Saturn. But I’ll be looking wistfully at the Adaptive Optics lasers piercing the sky at the summit and wondering what they’re seeing next.
I’m insanely excited about my next position (details to come) but for the next 2 weeks I’ll be traveling to the mainland to visit relatives and relax.