I realize I’m not going to get a lot of pity, but starting a blog is just tough. In the old days, we used to say that getting started meant you just sit over the typewriter until droplets of blood form on your forehead and then drop onto the paper.
Well, all that sweating blood does now is short out the keyboard, so a different method is called for.
First, let me introduce myself.
My name is Bill Carroll, and I’ve worked in industry for coming up on 37 years; virtually all of that with Occidental Chemical Corporation, known as OxyChem. In that time, I’ve had jobs working in and managing research and customer service; had a startup business in the company; spent time in Washington DC as an industry advocate; and have been involved in numerous multi-stakeholder environmental policy groups, housed at the UN, EPA and various state and consensus organizations.
I came to ACS governance late in life, but made up for it in recent years. I was President in 2005, on the Board of Directors 2004-2006 and 2009 to the present. I was Chair of the Board 2012-2014. There’s more incriminating material on my website, www.billcarroll.org.
I tell you this so you can understand the context of my comments over the next few months. I’ve had one of those “nontraditional” careers that seem to be getting more and more common. Maybe you’d like to talk about that sort of thing. My goal for this blog is to tell a few arcane stories—everyone loves to pontificate--but maybe also to engage you in conversation about getting a job, starting a career, managing a transition, handling challenging people and circumstances, and staying in the game until you decide it’s time to hang ‘em up. Or other stuff if it strikes your fancy or mine.
I wanted to start by talking about how my career started, in Bristol PA at Rohm and Haas Company, now part of Dow. I wanted to work in a consumer-facing product area so I could talk about it with friends. (When I talked about my grad school work, it gave people concussions.) Even though I didn’t study polymers in grad school, I decided that’s what I wanted to do, and I signed on for what I thought was a very sexy job at R&H, developing a new high-performance material.
I spent the summer teaching myself the basics, and when I moved from Indiana University to Philadelphia, I was raring to go. Just one little thing…..
When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl. Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles. But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped. The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley. I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow.
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly. But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast. I wanted to make a difference in a hurry.
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix. I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about.
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military. After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion.
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up.
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths. I couldn’t help but laugh.” He was right. He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you. “
So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress. No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1. Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can. The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed.
Actually, two truths. Don’t limit yourself to the professionals. Sometimes the most valuable relationships you’ll develop in industry are with the other people who really make the place work. Tom became like a father to me for the time I was at Rohm and Haas. He’s in his mid-80s now and we still correspond.
He gave me a piece of advice that served me well when I left at the ripe old age of 27 for a manager’s position at what was then Firestone Plastics Company. Yes, making PVC. A commodity and not a sexy new polymer. Turns out, commodities can be sexy, but that’s another blog post.
Tom said, “When you’re the new boss, someone who’s there already and didn’t get the job will challenge you from day 1. Go right for him.” There was, and I did.
My e-mail address is email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you.
Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.