UCAR Communications


staff notes monthly

September 2003

Recollections and "gratuitous advice" from a man of numbers

Steve Dickson, who oversaw numerous projects at UCAR and NCAR during his three-decade career, gets ready for retirement

Like any good accountant, Steve Dickson keeps track of numbers, and the stats for his own career are pretty impressive. In 31 years, Steve has gone through 10 positions, 15 offices, and 16 bosses at UCAR and NCAR. He’s worked directly for seven of NCAR’s eight directors (all except Walt Roberts), four of the five UCAR presidents (again, excepting Walt), and five of six UCAR vice presidents (all except for Jack Fellows).

What the numbers don’t capture is Steve’s dry wit and understated manner, not to mention his analytical skills and broad knowledge of the organization. These made him the ideal point person for some of UCAR’s most difficult administrative challenges. In a talk for the Coaching Peers (CoPs) series on
31 July, Steve—who is retiring from his position as UCAR director of special projects—shared some of what he’s learned along the way about the institution and about careers here.

Steve Dickson

The roots of Steve’s peripatetic UCAR life may have been laid in college. After growing up in Denver (where he attended the same high school as Finance & Administration’s Betty Valent), Steve attended the University of Denver. By the first day of school, he had already changed his major from music to advertising. Later on, as a history major, Steve lasted “one summer—I think.” He ended up graduating with a bachelor’s in business administration. Steve then tried out the master’s of business administration program at CU, but as he jokingly recalled, “They couldn’t teach me anything. I was untrainable.”

During the 1960s, Steve worked his way through a variety of business-related jobs from cashier to general accountant to finance director. “I learned I didn’t want to be a general accountant, but it taught me how to do it and to have respect for it.” Also, “I learned that I didn’t want to supervise 10 or 20 people.”

Steve came to NCAR in 1972 and soon became the deputy to Bill Rawson, NCAR’s budget director at the time. In the late 1970s, Steve left for what ended up being a three-year hiatus. He was still a consultant for NCAR, though, which allowed him to see if the grass was greener on the freelance side of the fence. “You get to pick your anxiety. You can be dissatisfied with your job and well off, or satisfied and starving.”

Steve returned in 1980 as NCAR budget and planning director under Bill Hess. Since then, he’s taken on various roles within UCAR and NCAR management, including a spell in the mid-1990s managing the former Corporate Affiliates Program and a two-year stint as NCAR associate director, completed last year. Among his other major projects:

• In 1972, Steve had to tackle the first-ever NCAR budget cut. “I could still tell you the names of the people we laid off that summer.”

• After UCAR acquired the Foothills Lab complex in 1990 from NBI, Steve participated in the massive three-year remodeling effort, although, he recalls, “I couldn’t figure out what to call this project.” Informally called NCAR North for awhile, the complex was dubbed Foothills by UCAR management following an all-staff poll.

• In the late 1970s, “I gave birth to the infamous cost allocation system”—a process to allocate total costs of direct programs and a precursor to the current overhead system.

• Steve oversaw UCAR’s preparations for the happily anticlimactic arrival of Y2K. Although some worried that computer systems would melt down when the calendar moved from 1999 to 2000, Steve recalled, “We had a very UCAR-ish way of running this program: don’t take [the threat] too seriously, but don’t blow it off, either.”

• Most recently, Steve worked closely with Finance and Administration and the Atmospheric Technology Division on negotiations for the High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research. The funding for this new NSF/NCAR jet is $81 million through this fiscal year. Despite the vast complexities of HIAPER, Steve said it was the “funnest” project he’s worked on. “It was a chance to gently exert influence on the process, to work with some great people, and to get to actually see something coming out the other end: the Gulfstream aircraft.

In his closing comments—which he labeled “gratuitous advice”—Steve stressed the importance of staying flexible, speaking your mind (but not while you’re angry), and learning as much as possible (“knowledge in this organization means a lot”). Steve also urged the listeners to “accept at least your share of responsibility” and to connect with higher-ups as much as possible: “Be as close as you can to where decisions are being made.”

With more and more research hopping over disciplinary and programmatic fences, the need for good project management will only grow, Steve said. Learn it well, he stressed, and “keep learning it till you’ve got it. It’s going to be the most important skill you’ll have in the next ten years.” Steve’s own project du jour is his retirement, which begins this month. •Bob Henson

Steve Dickson in a contemplative moment in the 1970s (Photo by Ardie Dickson).

Also in this issue...

In the thick of climate change

UCAR quilters stitch for babies

Up-the-Hill 2003

Time for a Realignment

Random Profile: Michelle Travis

Will tomorrow's cities have clean air?

Delphi Question: Nap room


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