Margaret “Peggy” Szymanski

Career Profile: Corporate Research at IBM

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Image result for peggy szymanskiMargaret “Peggy” Szymanski, is a conversation analyst and ethnographer doing research at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. Before that she spent 16 years at Xerox PARC and her resume is an impressive amalgam of different projects exploring human interaction and technology. This includes work on channel blending (e.g. organizing coherent conversations over different media/channels) and integrating conversation analysis in the iterative design process. Although she sees her journey as 50% good timing, it’s clear she believes that creating the kind of opportunity you want is often a better choice than searching for one to which you can conform.  Her most important piece of advice: “Be what you are. Don’t sell yourself as something else.” Her experiences using conversation analysis in the tech industry and working in cross-disciplinary teams is a testament to this mantra.

Conversation Analysis and design

Just as ethnography and design anthropology has picked up momentum, Peggy has found that there is a growing need for conversation analysis as more technology companies look to developing conversational interfaces (e.g. Siri, Cortana).  Despite the fact that many companies involved in the development of conversational interfaces are looking for speech software engineers and computational linguists, she believes that conversation analytic principles play an important role in how humans interact with machines. In her own work with IBM she uses a natural conversational framework to design agent-based dialog and to create systems to analyze multi-party interaction. As she explains, the way that specific sequences or episodes unfold can be pivotal in understanding which actions are relevant.  This, in turn, informs how developers can make system improvements.

Finding the Right Fit

Finding the right fit to do this sort of work is not always easy. In Peggy’s experience there will be plenty of people who find the method too work intensive, but having a productive cross-disciplinary team requires people who have a broader interest in creating for real people and are open to understanding a conversation analytic perspective. Once you are working with the “right” people, it is your responsibility to be intentional about what pieces of data you share and to create a common focus to provide inspiration for the design process. When Dr. Szymanski works in cross-disciplinary teams she carefully chooses episodes that illustrate how people produce dialogue in specific “scenarios” and closely works with a design team to abstract the conversational mechanisms in those scenarios to make very precise improvements to tech products.

Strategies for Creating Opportunities

Opportunities to be a part of the design process as a conversation analyst are not easy to come by. As mentioned earlier, most companies who have a need for conversation analysts are looking for speech software engineers. As such, Peggy finds that traditional avenues (e.g. finding a job posting and conforming your application materials to the job posting) are oftentimes less fruitful than job search approaches that require a lot of initiative (e.g. applying to positions that don’t exist yet).  She mentions a number of ways to build your network and strengthen your clout as you work toward creating an opportunity to directly apply your linguistic training.

Grow & Strengthen Your Network One of the best ways to find jobs in the hidden job market is to meet (and stay connected to) people making decisions and innovating in the industry you are interested in. Don’t treat your contacts as “one and done.” Rather, nurture those relationships and use them to help you know where there are opportunities to use your skills.
  • Informational Interviews
  • Follow up with contacts
  • “Get to know you” talks (e.g. invited talks)
  • Participation in industry conferences and groups (AnthroDesign, Epic, CHI, IEEE)
Create ways for people to find examples of your interests and work It’s hard to communicate all that you want about your skills and abilities in a single page (e.g. resume, cover letter), but creating a body of work that people can access gives potential employers a deeper way of getting to you and your work.
  • Published work
  • Contributions to blogs
  • Maintaining your own blog
  • LinkedIn Profile


Revising your professional documents These may be the traditional ways of communicating with potential employers, but approaching them differently can go a long way in creating the opportunity you want. Traditionally, job seekers look for key descriptions in job announcements and align their documents with those descriptions. If you don’t match those descriptions, your job is to communicate how the skills you do have (that they did not mention) are better suited to accomplish their institutional objectives.
  • Resume
  • Cover letter
  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Professional Profiles

All of these strategies are emblematic of Peggy’s advice, “Be what you are. Don’t sell yourself as something else.” It may be tempting (and a whole lot easier) to try to conform your skills and abilities to match a potential employer’s exact idea of the perfect candidate, but practicing your discipline and exercising your theoretical perspective requires a more creative approach to your job search and a lot more elbow grease.

More about the guest blogger:

Holly Lopez Long is a sociolinguist and conversation analyst based out of Denver, Colorado. She has a love and interest in the application sociolinguistic principles in the world of technology and new media. Currently, she is working in the field of educational research and helps the Title I department at Jeffco Public Schools to develop programs for at-risk students.

Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing, Naming, Tech, User Experience Research.

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