Alumni Profiles Series: Maria Bezaitis (Part 1)
As Senior Principal Engineer, Maria Bezaitis leads the Market Pathfinding team on Intel’s Next Generation Standards Group. Her team is responsible for identifying key shifts in the social and ecosystem landscapes as a basis for new business models and technologies in an era of ubiquitous connectivity, smart devices and networks. Maria’s own research has focused on the changing nature of the smart technology landscape and the rise of technologies that augment human skill. Following her Ph.D. in French Literature at Duke in 1994, Maria began her post-academic career at E-Lab, a firm that pioneered the use of ethnography and design planning for product development, where she became Managing Partner. Before coming to Intel, she was a Vice President at Sapient and co-led its global Experience Research organization, the first of its kind in the technology industry. Maria is the president of the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference. To learn more, you can view her TED talk on the importance of strangeness in digital relations.
How did you move from academia to Intel?
I took a long and circuitous path, and it was certainly not one I had sorted out in advance. I had a wonderful graduate career at Duke. I thoroughly enjoyed my studies and I thoroughly enjoyed the dissertation research. I went on the market dragging my heels the first year. At that point I had decided I wasn’t going to stay in academia, but I felt a sense of obligation to go through the process once. I interviewed and nothing worked out, so I promptly moved back to Chicago. I made my way through local networks to a small company called E-Lab, which was founded in part by people with academic backgrounds in the social sciences. They understood my reference points; I didn’t sound alien to them. We were working in an informal way for companies that were trying to understand their consumers. Eventually we sold the company to a tech consultancy firm that was based on the East Coast. That’s what moved me into tech. At that point in the late 1990s, the work I had been doing was commonly known by the design community as “experience work.” At the new company, Sapient, we became the “experience modeling” discipline.
I spent a few more years at Sapient as a consultant, but after eight years I was done with that line of work. That’s when I joined Intel to run a group on the R&D side called “People and Practices Research.” You have to understand that this whole space was about applied ethnographic work. As a Humanities researcher, ethnography was not a methodology I used often in my professional toolkit, but I had been exposed to it simply as a function of doing my dissertation work. Ethnography was the point of continuity from the consultancy up through Intel, and the applied community that was doing this work in the mid-90s was pretty small—you knew of everyone who was doing that work. A lot of this at the beginning relied on networking, being open to possibilities and then landing in the right place with the right people. I’ve been at Intel since 2006, having spent a handful of years in the labs in R&D, and about 50% of my time overall on the business side of operations.
To what extent do you find yourself drawing on your graduate education on a day-to-day basis? Is your work now divorced from what you did before?
I see it as less divorced than I used to. I was trained in close reading, understanding and applying theoretical models, bringing organizational frameworks to complex issues, and understanding text as a system that communicates certain values and assumptions. That’s something that I’m still doing, but my texts have changed. Sometimes the texts I work with are the product roadmaps of a particular business group; sometimes they are the ways in which people use WeChat in China. Although the nature of the texts vary, they are still fundamentally texts, and my job is to understand them, to understand their underlying structure, and to understand what sort of hierarchies those structures resonate with and how we unpack that. That allows us to say, “Here are some ways to enter this market, and here are the ways to think about people as we design these technologies.” The same logic applies in reverse; if we are going to design X, Y, and Z, we have to make them resonate with the people who are ultimately going to be using them.
Can you compare how your skills were put to use in academia vs. in the applied world?
Even in the academic world, there is a tremendous amount of diversity. I’m thinking of departments like Information Sciences, which tend to draw together people from hybridized backgrounds and tend to be closer to the applied world. But what the applied world ends up offering, I think, is more outlets for discussion. The challenge that has stuck with me over the course of my career—and it’s one that is more easily handled or more challenging as a function of where technology is, and what kinds of problems it’s addressing—is translation. Even if you recognize things in ways that you know how to unpack, talk about, and analyze, you still have to figure out how to translate those things. In my case, I need to communicate clearly with companies that are used to certain kinds of formats, discussions, and principles. I need to cultivate fluency in unique corporate languages in order to effectively work with clients and collaborators. Translation remains a career-long challenge.
What kind of person might be drawn to the path you took? What kinds of skills and qualities should they have?
You have to be open to change, reasonably resilient, and you have to enjoy working with people who are completely different from you. Those are the key qualities. I’ve always wanted to know what happens “over there.” In other words, I’ve always wanted to defamiliarize my life and put myself in new contexts. It’s what I enjoy. If you’re someone who knows that the university is the setting you love, and if you’re comfortable producing the artifact that it values, then you’re not going to make these kinds of changes. It is one thing to imagine a future in tech or industry, and it is quite another to deal with what it takes to go and find those opportunities over the course of a career. The job market in industry is such that you are always looking for new opportunities, opportunities for innovation, and catalysts for self-reinvention. As opposed to the tenure-track model of academia, you do not proceed along a path in your career until you have a job for life; it’s much more dynamic. You have to thrive on that dynamism.
What advice do you give to someone finishing their Ph.D.?
Follow your intuition about what will make you happy. You have to be passionate about your work, and you have to trust your instincts more than the instincts of the institution that has shaped you. There are infinite opportunities out there, but you have to be willing to pursue them, find them, and deal with the dry periods. There’s no lack of really amazing things to do in the world. I have zero regrets. I think sometimes what keeps people trapped in a particular place is the question of whether or not they should or shouldn’t, and that’s just not the right frame of mind. You don’t have to know exactly where you are going to go. You have to get started, and then look for the right cues. If you’re lucky, you find good people who help open doors and create opportunities. I am personally still sorting out my career trajectory. It’s still an evolving story for me, a puzzle coming together, and that’s what keeps it interesting. I don’t always know why I am here, or how all the pieces connect, but I like the challenge of having to figure that out.
Editor's note: The interview with Dr. Bezaitis continues in Part II.
Ph.D. candidate, English
Davide Carozza is a Graduate School Administrative Intern and is preparing to defend his dissertation on risk management and British literature in the eighteenth century. He studies the role the early English novel played in shaping and disseminating a discourse of risk that marks the beginning of the modern era. Novels and political philosophy that presented the world as a sequence of dangers that one must learn to navigate, he argues, made possible the conception of the autonomous individual that is now embedded in all aspects of modern society.