How did you get a job working for SETI?


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Profile Matt Lebofsky
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Message 511853 - Posted: 1 Feb 2007, 23:45:59 UTC

A common question I get is: "How did you get a job working for SETI?" The presumption, of course, is that working for SETI is some kind of elite, exciting, glamorous job for which only the most brilliant nerds qualify and requires some kind of rigorous security clearance, or mental stability test, or whatever. This isn't the case at all - it's just a garden-variety data analysis project just like any of the zillions at universities all over the world. Maybe there's some glamor (let's face it - aliens are cool), but maybe like 1% more than some other job. The music stuff I do is more glamorous, I guess, but even still I think more people in your town recognize the cashier at the local supermarket than people on the whole planet recognize me. Anyway.. maybe this will clear things up.

First off, people wonder why if I'm such a genius why I didn't go work for some silicon valley dot-com back in the day. In short, blame post-college technology burnout. I already spent 10 years being a geek by the time I was 18, and killing time getting a token degree made it worse. Anyway, that's a rant for another time. Basically after graduating I moved to California with absolutely no friends, no money, and no plans whatsoever. I'm a huge proponent of "making your luck," i.e. throwing myself head first into random, difficult situations and seeing what happens.

I applied as a temporary employee at Berkeley. I never heard back, so I followed up with a call two weeks later. I mistakenly ended up not calling the main line but the director of temporary services, and he actually answered his phone (I found out later this *never* happens). Luckily he was friendly, and he looked up my application. Seeing I had computer skills, he said a position just opened at the Space Science Lab that morning. I lied and said I knew troff/LaTeX. I went to work the following Monday. Moral of the story: it's easy to get your foot in the door as a temporary employee, especially if you accidentally call the wrong number and then exaggerate about your skills.

I was a new member of the Space Astrophysics Group (a.k.a SAG) which was a set of disparate projects that shared scientists and staff. The main projects at the time were EUVE, EUVIP, ORFEUS, and SERENDIP (a.k.a SETI). It was mainly an administrative role - I helped format papers and proposals, monitor/database purchasing and accounts, and help one completely computer illiterate scientist send/receive e-mails. Not very exciting, but it was work. This was February 1994.

A mere few months later my supervisor up and quit one day. It's a long story - let's just say the circumstances were unusual, and these circumstances include the words "Venezuela," "surgery," and "ten thousand dollars." I was asked to take her place, and changed my status from temp to full-time employee. I also got her office. Sweet.

One day was particularly dull so I started snooping around the network - nothing malicious, just curiosity. Jeff Cobb (SERENDIP programmer and SAG systems administrator at the time) immediately noticed me issuing random "sudo" commands on his servers. Oops. He asked if I knew what I was doing, and once aware of my former life as a computer geek he asked for my assistance doing network backups and software installs. I even helped plot SERENDIP analysis data. Moral of the story: unprovoked hacking of your own network is a great way to flaunt your abilities and interests to your supervisors.

Due to a huge oversight I managed to have one of the best offices in the lab for over a year. That is, until the director of the ORFEUS project (Dr. Mark Hurwitz) came in one day with measuring tape saying, "don't mind me." He then proceeded to take notes about the room's dimensions. Within a couple weeks I found myself displaced into the carrels next to the printer and fax machine. Mark is a really nice and brilliant guy, so I didn't begrudge him his own office. However, I was perfectly healthy for years up to this point. My new desk was under a giant vent. Over the next six months I got an equal number of nasty sinus infections.

I demanded a building inspector come and check out this vent. Despite my recent health record and the layers of dust and dead flies on my desk, the inspector insisted my chronic sinus infections must be due to something else. I was sufficiently annoyed by this and the lack of career advancement opportunities so I quit. That was December 1996.

I enjoyed a half year off working on music, touring the country, and slowly draining my bank account. During that time I offered infrequent yet free tech support to my former lab workmates. Right around the time I ran out of money they called asking me to come back. I said I would if I could be rehired as a Programmer/Analyst and work flexible hours. They agreed. Moral of the story: quitting a job is a great way to get a long vacation, followed by a handsome raise and promotion.

Now that I was doing more systems stuff, I was working directly with Jeff, sharing lab space with him and SERENDIP director Dan Werthimer. Due to proximity I ended up also working on SETI, helping to wrap up the final data analysis of the SERENDIP III project and ramp up SERENDIP IV. Meanwhile SETI@home was coming into being (Summer 1997). The remaining SAG projects were waning, so they didn't mind so much that all of my time was being spent on SETI. By the end of 1998, the SETI@home buzz generated enough funding to hire me full time, and that's basically the whole story.

- Matt

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Message 511858 - Posted: 1 Feb 2007, 23:53:39 UTC - in response to Message 511853.

They could make a movie out of that!

A cool bit of "The History Of SETI@Home".

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Message 511897 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 0:53:18 UTC - in response to Message 511853.


> Matt - now that's quite interesting and a great story line (as kinhull states) . . . really appreciated this Post and i am sure others will find it the same - Thank You Sir . . .

A common question I get is: "How did you get a job working for SETI?" The presumption, of course, is that working for SETI is some kind of elite, exciting, glamorous job for which only the most brilliant nerds qualify and requires some kind of rigorous security clearance, or mental stability test, or whatever. This isn't the case at all - it's just a garden-variety data analysis project just like any of the zillions at universities all over the world. Maybe there's some glamor (let's face it - aliens are cool), but maybe like 1% more than some other job. The music stuff I do is more glamorous, I guess, but even still I think more people in your town recognize the cashier at the local supermarket than people on the whole planet recognize me. Anyway.. maybe this will clear things up.

First off, people wonder why if I'm such a genius why I didn't go work for some silicon valley dot-com back in the day. In short, blame post-college technology burnout. I already spent 10 years being a geek by the time I was 18, and killing time getting a token degree made it worse. Anyway, that's a rant for another time. Basically after graduating I moved to California with absolutely no friends, no money, and no plans whatsoever. I'm a huge proponent of "making your luck," i.e. throwing myself head first into random, difficult situations and seeing what happens.

I applied as a temporary employee at Berkeley. I never heard back, so I followed up with a call two weeks later. I mistakenly ended up not calling the main line but the director of temporary services, and he actually answered his phone (I found out later this *never* happens). Luckily he was friendly, and he looked up my application. Seeing I had computer skills, he said a position just opened at the Space Science Lab that morning. I lied and said I knew troff/LaTeX. I went to work the following Monday. Moral of the story: it's easy to get your foot in the door as a temporary employee, especially if you accidentally call the wrong number and then exaggerate about your skills.

I was a new member of the Space Astrophysics Group (a.k.a SAG) which was a set of disparate projects that shared scientists and staff. The main projects at the time were EUVE, EUVIP, ORFEUS, and SERENDIP (a.k.a SETI). It was mainly an administrative role - I helped format papers and proposals, monitor/database purchasing and accounts, and help one completely computer illiterate scientist send/receive e-mails. Not very exciting, but it was work. This was February 1994.

A mere few months later my supervisor up and quit one day. It's a long story - let's just say the circumstances were unusual, and these circumstances include the words "Venezuela," "surgery," and "ten thousand dollars." I was asked to take her place, and changed my status from temp to full-time employee. I also got her office. Sweet.

One day was particularly dull so I started snooping around the network - nothing malicious, just curiosity. Jeff Cobb (SERENDIP programmer and SAG systems administrator at the time) immediately noticed me issuing random "sudo" commands on his servers. Oops. He asked if I knew what I was doing, and once aware of my former life as a computer geek he asked for my assistance doing network backups and software installs. I even helped plot SERENDIP analysis data. Moral of the story: unprovoked hacking of your own network is a great way to flaunt your abilities and interests to your supervisors.

Due to a huge oversight I managed to have one of the best offices in the lab for over a year. That is, until the director of the ORFEUS project (Dr. Mark Hurwitz) came in one day with measuring tape saying, "don't mind me." He then proceeded to take notes about the room's dimensions. Within a couple weeks I found myself displaced into the carrels next to the printer and fax machine. Mark is a really nice and brilliant guy, so I didn't begrudge him his own office. However, I was perfectly healthy for years up to this point. My new desk was under a giant vent. Over the next six months I got an equal number of nasty sinus infections.

I demanded a building inspector come and check out this vent. Despite my recent health record and the layers of dust and dead flies on my desk, the inspector insisted my chronic sinus infections must be due to something else. I was sufficiently annoyed by this and the lack of career advancement opportunities so I quit. That was December 1996.

I enjoyed a half year off working on music, touring the country, and slowly draining my bank account. During that time I offered infrequent yet free tech support to my former lab workmates. Right around the time I ran out of money they called asking me to come back. I said I would if I could be rehired as a Programmer/Analyst and work flexible hours. They agreed. Moral of the story: quitting a job is a great way to get a long vacation, followed by a handsome raise and promotion.

Now that I was doing more systems stuff, I was working directly with Jeff, sharing lab space with him and SERENDIP director Dan Werthimer. Due to proximity I ended up also working on SETI, helping to wrap up the final data analysis of the SERENDIP III project and ramp up SERENDIP IV. Meanwhile SETI@home was coming into being (Summer 1997). The remaining SAG projects were waning, so they didn't mind so much that all of my time was being spent on SETI. By the end of 1998, the SETI@home buzz generated enough funding to hire me full time, and that's basically the whole story.

- Matt

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Message 511917 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 1:27:57 UTC - in response to Message 511858.

They could make a movie out of that!
A cool bit of "The History Of SETI@Home".

I'm working on a way to fit a "blame Misfit" into that story.
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Message 511919 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 1:30:26 UTC

Thanks Matt, good read. It's fun to know how you came to the S@h project.
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Message 511924 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 1:39:57 UTC - in response to Message 511917.

I'm working on a way to fit a "blame Misfit" into that story.


Well I was just wondering... If we follow these "morals of the story" in our own lives and end up an unemployed bum on the streets, can we blame Matt? But perhaps we can blame Misfit instead...
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Message 511929 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 1:55:20 UTC - in response to Message 511924.

But perhaps we can blame Misfit instead...

It's its own duality. The cause of and solution to all problems.
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Message 512028 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 5:26:05 UTC
Last modified: 2 Feb 2007, 6:05:22 UTC

Thanks for the story, maybe it is giving us more chance to understand the project life and its future.

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Message 512262 - Posted: 2 Feb 2007, 19:54:12 UTC - in response to Message 511858.
Last modified: 2 Feb 2007, 19:54:27 UTC

They could make a movie out of that!

A cool bit of "The History Of SETI@Home".

Yes...and Matt could write the theme tune, and sing the theme tune...

(actually..a lot of these stories about the life of your average poorly paid, over worked research scientist make me feel better about going into teaching)
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Message 514416 - Posted: 7 Feb 2007, 3:42:06 UTC

nice read matt,thanks
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Message 515730 - Posted: 10 Feb 2007, 14:00:14 UTC

Hi! I'm new here. my English is bad

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Message 515770 - Posted: 10 Feb 2007, 16:24:10 UTC - in response to Message 515730.
Last modified: 10 Feb 2007, 16:26:59 UTC


Hi! I'm new here. my English is bad


'ello Che - Welcome to the Boards - 'ere's letting you know that the

likelyhood of meeting ET in your lifetime is very good ;)

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Message 516033 - Posted: 11 Feb 2007, 2:31:52 UTC - in response to Message 515770.


Hi! I'm new here. my English is bad


'ello Che - Welcome to the Boards - 'ere's letting you know that the

likelyhood of meeting ET in your lifetime is very good ;)


hello! nobody nice to meet you.

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Message 516038 - Posted: 11 Feb 2007, 2:36:54 UTC - in response to Message 515770.


Hi! I'm new here. my English is bad


'ello Che - Welcome to the Boards - 'ere's letting you know that the

likelyhood of meeting ET in your lifetime is very good ;)


I mean nobody, I am glad to meet you :)

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Message 516166 - Posted: 11 Feb 2007, 11:55:38 UTC - in response to Message 516038.


Hi! I'm new here. my English is bad


'ello Che - Welcome to the Boards - 'ere's letting you know that the

likelyhood of meeting ET in your lifetime is very good ;)


I mean nobody, I am glad to meet you :)


< pleasure, Che - i didn't know which <Post> to respond 2 ;)

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Message 516974 - Posted: 13 Feb 2007, 13:23:56 UTC

Just choose one.



-The reason i'vr replied two is that I am not sure how to express,I dont want to be misunderstood.
I started to learn ENG almost 6 years ago in school.
I can handle the exam but it is stil hard for me to use it freely.

So see you around

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Message 523417 - Posted: 26 Feb 2007, 0:01:55 UTC

Great story Matt. I'm sure I can exagerate my experience. Actually, that wouldn't take much to do :) Hey, you need an assistant in Phoenix, we have clear sky's here, better to find dem dar saucers!!!

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