Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Working for the U, Working for Me

September 2006

By Mike Gould

Note: the following is a collection of observations and opinions that are mine alone and may in no way reflect the opinions and observations of my semi-employer, the University of Michigan.

Since this is the annual University of Michigan (UM) issue, I cleared my mind and did a quick word association exercise and came up with the following:

University…School…Class…Exam…Essay Question…Compare and Contrast…

That's the ticket - compare and contrast the UM work experience with that of the business world. See how easy writing is? None of this fishing for a topic jazz, you just let your mind drift…

Being amphibious, that is, working part time for the UM (on land) and part time for me in my small businesses (in over my head under various fluid circumstances), I decided to assess the pluses and minuses for both working environments.

Alma Mater
I didn't attend the UM (I went to Kalamazoo College), but I have worked there for the last 18 years. I started out as a Computer Systems Consultant I at the Psychiatry Dept. at the UM Hospitals, moved to the School of Music, thence to the Engineering School Administration Dept., finally moving across campus to the School of Education, where I have toiled these last 8 years.

This is sort of like moving through various divisions in corporate America, except I didn't have to move every 2 years. In doing so you get a deeper understanding of the overall enterprise while acquainting yourself with the different sub-cultures that grow there. The attitudes and missions of the various units I have worked with have varied greatly: working in a psychiatric unit, supporting doctors and nurses, has a different feel from working in a music school, supporting maestros and musicians. I suspect similar differences exist when working in plant management vs. managing a marketing division.

But the University gives greater autonomy to its schools and colleges than your average corporation gives to its subsidiaries, I think. All the entities are free to set up their requirements and procedures within very loose guidelines. Those guidelines are outlined in the Standard Practice Guide, and deal with employee dos and don'ts, for the most part. There are also policies for websites hosted on UM servers - no commercial use for instance. But each unit is free to set up its own web look and feel, largely free from UM oversight.

Support and Control
One nice benefit of being under the UM umbrella is that your computers are supplied to you and are supported by a cadre of experts. In the small biz world, you are likely to support yourself or hire out the support to various other small businesses (such as mine), or rely on the Geek Squad from some chain store. Having support at beck and call in your own building is an expected perk when you work for the UM.

Network management has similarities in both environments; somebody has to mind the servers and keep the users from breaking them (and hackers from breaking in). Somebody has to change the tapes on the backup drives, and set and enforce connectivity rules. The main difference between town and gown in the computer arena is the issue of diversity; a lot of the units allow a much wider range of supported platforms and equipment. The Ross School of Business, not surprisingly, has a much tighter, buttoned-down view of computers: everybody buys a PC. Period. No Macs. At the most of the other units, including the School of Ed where I work, we support PCs and Macs. At the Ford plant where a friend of mine works, his computers (HPs, all) are completely locked down; he can't add software or mess with any of the settings. We are a lot more flexible than that where I work; the PCs are locked down to a certain extent, but we will install a variety custom software with varying degrees of support when asked. The Macs are currently pretty open, aside from security requirements regarding passwords and such. That may change if attacks on Macs become prevalent.

The trade-off on locked-down vs open systems is an issue of support. It is easier to support a homogenous environment (all-Mac or all-PC) than a mixed one, though there are lots of data to support the contention that the more Macs you have, the less support you need. But that is an issue for another article.

Dress for Success
One big difference between the academic and business worlds is dress code. There isn't one at most units of the University. I think "Look Nice" is the prevailing attitude; casual day every day is the rule of thumb, especially in the support areas. There are occasional grumbles about this from higher-ups, who sometimes have difficulty telling the professors from their students (hint: the students are generally the ones with the clothes with holes in them, the professors usually have better haircuts.) I generally wear the same clothes I wear to work at the UM to house calls and other MondoDyne business. Clean shorts in the summer, shoes and socks, and tie-dye shirts: that's the Mondo dress code.

Show Me the Money
Working for the UM is great if you appreciate a steady paycheck. Week in, week out, cha-ching every two weeks. Benefits are good too; for every dollar you pay into the retirement fund (TIAA-CREF), the UM kicks in two. UM healthcare is second to none, and a $15 co-pay seems a reasonable fee for a trip to the doctor.

Working for myself, I never know how much I'll make in a given month. But, sometimes that's a good thing because it means if I am able to put in a lot of hours, I can make more than usual. With a steady UM income, there are no surprises, good or bad.

And that, I think, is why we become entrepreneurs, why we go into business for ourselves: that opportunity to escape the known and dare to make a fortune, or at least, a living on our own terms.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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