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My partner and I have worked as software engineers in academia for several years in multiple very different schools & departments. However every job has been very independent. I have a boss and coworkers but I end up working mostly independently and on very different projects than my coworkers.

My partner recently left academia and took a job as a software engineer at a startup. Instantly he has found himself in an extremely collaborative environment. He is regularly programming with another person and in close daily contact with several colleagues. I've heard things are similar from other people I know who work at startups.

Why is the culture at startups so collaborative and the culture in academia so independent? Is there a way I could influence the culture in my academia-based workplace to be more collaborative?

For context:

I am currently a staff data scientist at a large university medical school. In the past I've been a research programmer for a psychology lab and a web developer at a business school. I've been at the same university for 11 years.

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    The purpose of the built software is different. In academia you are either a CS teacher, or lab assistant building educational software, a researcher, someone who maintains software solutions of the school/department, etc. These solutions are narrow in their functionality and achieve a specific task needed. They don't need large teams of people. A startup is usually trying to go for innovative solutions that target many users using many heterogeneous technologies. You need teams to build this kind of software with different skills. A collaborative environment is now a must.
    – Bogdan
    Oct 14 at 18:40
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    Very related to Bogdan's comment: what problem in your current workplace are you trying to fix? "Be more collaborative" is just buzzwork speak. Oct 14 at 19:05
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    Collaboration is pretty natural (necessary, even) when everyone is working on the same thing. Startups usually only have one product and/or a narrow focus with multiple people contributing to it. What does your academic job have you working on?
    – Seth R
    Oct 14 at 20:30
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    It may be easier to move to a collaborative workplace than attempt to manufacture one. Oct 14 at 21:33
  • "Well said, Gregory!" My very first job out of college was working for the University that I'd just graduated from, and after a couple years my brand-new wife and I said, "enough of that!" 🤡 (P.S.: Many decades later now, "She's still here!") Oct 15 at 0:08
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What leads to a collaborative software development workplace?

The need to collaborate. It makes no difference if it's a startup or not.

Businesses tend to be more focused on production, they have time constraints that directly affect their revenue stream or issues with staff retention, task tracking or a number of other things that do not affect academia as much. And they're run by businessmen.

Academia can be more like govt work in some locales, where there is no real focus on performance.

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  • Although, most corporate work is not like this. Hiring policy is more often about preserving budget renewal, and productivity is largely meaningless, especially in dinosaur institutions like legacy banks.
    – Frank
    Oct 19 at 10:36
  • @Frank fair point, some businesses are more like institutions than businesses.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 19 at 18:51
  • The "time constraints" part sounds really relevant in my situation. The projects I've been involved with rarely have need for the tight turnaround time that I see at my husband's company.
    – Selah
    Oct 20 at 16:43
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I'm currently working (as software engineer) in an academia-based workplace and have previously worked for a mid-sized company. In the commercial company we collaborated a lot, while in my current job I'm mostly working on my own. The difference is the type of projects.

The commercial company was very focused on a certain area, so naturally we developed software for that specific area. The main focus was on 2 or 3 large projects, with some smaller projects. Because of this, most of the team was working on the large projects, with occasionally someone getting to work on something smaller on their own (but usually not for a long time).

In my current job (academia-based) however, it's mostly smaller independent projects. While some could certainly benefit from having 2 people working on it instead of 1, they're usually small enough that 1 developer suffices.

So:

Why is the culture at startups so collaborative and the culture in academia so independent?

In my experience it's mainly due to the type of projects. Large projects usually require more people to work at it at the same time, while smaller projects only require a single developer (even if it could take that single developer several months).

Is there a way I could influence the culture in my academia-based workplace to be more collaborative?

That's hard to say without knowing your specific workplace. You could propose a more collaborative way of working (and make sure to mention why you think it's beneficial) to your supervisor/manager. However, if the current way of working has worked for them so far, they may not want to change it up. Or there may not be any projects that would really benefit from it.

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  • "The commercial company was very focused on a certain area" this is a really useful point for me. Things tend to be a lot less "focused" at my workplace. There are infinity possible research directions and this lends itself to "not focus"
    – Selah
    Oct 20 at 16:47
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Collaboration is driven by a need for collaboration, bottom line. In academia, collaboration often manifests itself in mentor-mentee relationships or in co-writing papers. In software, collaboration manifests in terms of large projects and separation of responsibilities, but also in mentor-mentee relationships.

If you, as an academic, want to have more collaboration, try taking on some students and mentoring them, or try finding a research project that you can collaborate on with a colleague. Not having an academic background myself, I can't suggest what something like that might look like, but there are some ideas for you.

Another thing to be aware of is that academia often focuses on personal worth; how many papers one authors, how many journals one publishes, how many conferences one attends or contributes to or speaks at. Therefore, there is added pressure to be competitive; if someone else authors a paper, that's a paper that you didn't author, so therefore you have to be the one to write that paper. If someone else publishes in a journal, that's a journal article slot that you didn't get, so that means you have to be competitive for that journal slot. And so on. Companies don't really work like that: it's rare for individuals to be unduly given credit for the work of their team; usually, when a project is delivered, the whole team gets credit, and only truly outstanding efforts are mentioned individually. Of course, promotions and raises happen on a by-person basis, but when one person shows advanced skill to get a promotion, that's (usually) not taking the promotion away from someone else (not in software, at least; it happens in other fields more). Therefore, there's really no competition in software in the same way as academia and people are more open to collaboration.

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  • "If you, as an academic" It sounds like the OP isn't an actual academic, but someone employed in a supportive role to assist the actual academics.
    – nick012000
    Oct 21 at 7:40
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The size of the project leads to collaboration. Thus, the Large Hadron Collider has thousands of people from academia working together. Numerous space projects have an academic as lead scientist with hundreds of other people spread around the world collaborating. These projects often take decades with multiple rounds of proposals, redesigning, and finally building them before running them.

If you want to be in more collaborative environment in academia, get the funding for a larger project.

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  • I've been involved in several large and well funded projects. Even in larger projects everyone ends up getting their set of sub tasks and works on them with minimal interaction. Usually a weekly meeting and aside from that, minimal interaction.
    – Selah
    Oct 20 at 16:21
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In a small startup, roles are not yet separated There is a lot of overlap, and individuals may act in multiple roles. The way things get done is through acting like a collective mind. There is a lot of continuous conversation, meandering of aims, and evolving concepts.

This may or may not be the desired situation. Often it is not, so as things mature order evolves out of chaos, more people get hired, silos form, things go into maintenance mode, creative conversation dies down.

Fundamentally the need for collaboration is a result of the need for creativity in an environment where everyone contributes to the object under development.

The above refers to that conversational style of collaboration. In very large organisations collaboration may be more formally managed, through strict process with well maintained artifacts. But this is still creative collaboration, just the scale of it requires less egalitarian structure. In that stricter collaborative environment one may even feel independent, so it is important to recognise if by collaborative you are really thinking more of "social" or not.

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In the real world, companies fight each other. If a company does not deliver, its employee will soon need to find themselves a new working place.

So, usually, in companies, the main goal is the success of the company.

So people will, usually, cooperate in order to deliver faster and better products for the overall good of the company, that will result in better working place for themselves

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  • In academia we are competing for grants. And when we have grants, we need to deliver on what we said we'd do or we lower our chances of getting future grants. That said "delivering on a grant" can be pretty open ended.
    – Selah
    Oct 20 at 16:56
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It's unlikely you can.

You're being employed in a support role, not a research role. Without transitioning to a research role yourself, so that you could personally pursue collaborative work, or open up a research lab for the purpose of fostering those collaborations, it's unlikely that you'll be able to influence collaborations in your organisation in any significant way.

Maybe you could keep track of what all the different scientists are studying so that you could offer advice on who they could work with when they bring up research ideas in conversation with you, but that seems like about the extent of what you'd be able to do.

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