Protect the Mad Scientist

I first heard the term “mad scientist” used to describe a colleague when I was working in visual effects; it was however, not the first time I had seen the concept in practice.

Right after college I got a job at a medical software company so that I could save up money to move to Los Angeles. The company had been around for a long time and was run by smart people who valued loyalty (aside from the fact that it felt borderline cultish to work there). The longer you worked there, the bigger your yearly bonus. My issues with that particular incentive system overlooked, they also valued loyalty with promotions.

The workplace has changed so much in recent times, but organizational structures have been resistant to this change. We all know the traditional career path usually involves gaining more responsibility that typically consists of more people working for/under you the higher you climb. The problem with this singular path is that exceptionally talented people that may otherwise have either no interest or no skill at leading others are hit with a premature ceiling.

If you run a company, how do you then reward the “crazy ones” that give you the very edge that brings you success as a business? Sometimes you ignore the lack of interest in leadership and you make them CTO; sometimes this works out fine, often times not so much.

The medical software company I worked at out of college solved this in a particularly interesting way; they created a new position, literally dubbed “scientist,” that carried the same compensation package as a Vice President with almost none of the managerial responsibilities.

There is also a solve for this in VFX, although given the uncertainty of the industry, maybe less prevalent in recent times. When an artist is really good, they sometimes become a lead, and then sometimes a CG Supervisor, then perhaps a DFX Supervisor, and then just maybe, a VFX Supervisor.

A funny thing happens at the CG Supervisor level though; the artist is “taken off the box” or ceases to create imagery so much as they manage others creating imagery. This is also the point at which, at least in the studios I worked at, an artist’s compensation switches from hourly (with overtime eligibility) to a salary (which is fixed regardless of hours, but also includes a hefty yearly bonus if lucky). It’s not uncommon that a shot-lead working hourly/overtime would take home more cash than a newly anointed CG Supervisor on the same show. It also makes sense that awarding someone with this promotion tends to require more negotiation than would be normally expected.

So what happens to the ones that eschew the traditional path to fame and glory but achieve it nonetheless by virtue of skill? We would always fondly refer to them as our “mad scientists.” They were problem solvers to the kinds of problems that would make other minds explode. They were nomadic, sometimes staying on a show for the duration, but usually jumping from problem to problem rather than project to project. They were also hourly and hopefully compensated well all the while maintaining the coveted advantage of overtime pay. Of course no one really wants to work 70–80hrs a week, but it does go down a bit easier at 1.5–2x your hourly rate.

There are of course exceptions to all of this, supervisors that make and makers that supervise. Rarer though is a company that employs an incentive system to cover both traditional and non-traditional excellence. Truly the saddest thing I have witnessed, more times than once, is the disgruntled mad scientist in a company that lacks the structure to incentivize them.

Protect the mad scientist.