and "gratuitous advice" from a man of numbers
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.
Hes worked directly for seven of NCARs 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 dont capture is Steves 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 UCARs
most difficult administrative challenges. In a talk for the Coaching Peers
(CoPs) series on
31 July, Stevewho is retiring from his position as UCAR director
of special projectsshared some of what hes learned along the
way about the institution and about careers here.
The roots of Steves peripatetic UCAR life may have been laid in
college. After growing up in Denver (where he attended the same high school
as Finance & Administrations 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 summerI think. He ended up graduating with
a bachelors in business administration. Steve then tried out the
masters of business administration program at CU, but as he jokingly
recalled, They couldnt 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 didnt 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 didnt
want to supervise 10 or 20 people.
Steve came to NCAR in 1972 and soon became the deputy to Bill Rawson,
NCARs 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, hes 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
After UCAR acquired the Foothills Lab complex in 1990 from NBI,
Steve participated in the massive three-year remodeling effort, although,
he recalls, I couldnt 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
systema process to allocate total costs of direct programs
and a precursor to the current overhead system.
Steve oversaw UCARs 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: dont take [the
threat] too seriously, but dont 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 hes 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 commentswhich he labeled gratuitous adviceSteve
stressed the importance of staying flexible, speaking your mind (but not
while youre 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 youve
got it. Its going to be the most important skill youll have
in the next ten years. Steves own project du jour is his retirement,
which begins this month. Bob Henson
in a contemplative moment in the 1970s (Photo by Ardie Dickson).
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