Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ask Cloud: Have Kids, Will Travel, Want Career

A long time reader has sent me a question for my occasional Ask Cloud series. Here is the question, edited lightly to preserve anonymity:

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I've been following your blog since grad school (7+ years) and have really enjoyed seeing into the future as I'm probably 5 years behind you kids and career-wise. I'm struggling with what to do next and since your career has taken a few twists and turns, I'm wondering if you have any insights.

Short summary is that I have a life science PhD and have been working at a small company in a related field for 6 years.  It's great for flexibility as I've built up my career capital there but not so much for career (or salary) development. 

I am currently on a maternity leave and the odds are 50/50 whether my company will exist a year from now.  This has let me dream about the future a bit - my husband and I have decided we want to make travel with our kids a priority and have started on a 5 year plan. We realize taking a full year off could be difficult career wise, but working remotely is definitely a possibility. We'll be traveling a lot this year so we know we'll learn a lot from this experience!

I'm in a long scanner phase trying to figure out where the next career move is - do I: 

1. move to a bigger company, develop my career more and salary more? 
2. go back to my company (if it exists) as the flex work opportunities would be high
3. Work towards a travel friendly career (I was taking some programming courses before pregnancy brain made it too difficult. I've decided to start a blog/twitter travel account and experiment with social media this year (@raisingtravelrs). I've considered a teaching English to adults certification, and I've picked up crocheting, which maybe could support a small business if we lived in a low-cost country, who knows!)

As you can see I don't need traditional resume help, I'm more focused on how I want my resume to look in 5 years.

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First of all, wow! Someone who has been reading my blog for 7+ years has essentially been reading from the start. I am truly honored to have someone who has stuck with me that long.

Now, on to an attempt to answer your question.

There is a lot to think about in there. I can certainly sympathize with wanting a career that is more conducive to a travel-heavy lifestyle. That is in fact one of the things that pushed me to make a change in my own career.

I'll give you my thoughts on your options one ant a time:

Option 1: Move to a bigger company

There can be a surprising amount of flexibility in a big company, but I think a lot depends on your boss and how invested he/she is in having you stay. I think this is true even in companies that have great flex work policies- the culture of your particular team will determine whether or not using those policies will be possible without stalling your career.

My gut instinct on this option is that you'd need a couple of years of standard work hours to build up the credibility and track record that would make an average boss willing to stick his or her neck out for you and fight for the flexibility that you really want. You could get lucky and get a better than average boss, or land in a better than average corporate culture- but that is very hard to suss out ahead of time, so my opinion is that if you go with this option, you should be mentally prepared for it to be a couple of years before you can really get much flexibility

However, the better money is definitely something to consider. My current work arrangement was made possible by the large buffer of savings we'd built up. Money really can buy career freedom, and it might make sense to have a long term strategy that includes time spent just accumulating money.

Option 2: Return to your current company

This is certainly an appealing option, since you've already got the credibility there to get the flexibility you want. I'd think about a couple of things when considering this option: the extent to which your lack of career growth will bother you and whether the uncertainty about the company continuing to exist would hinder you in taking some of the "big" flexibility you want. There is no right answer to either of those questions- it is a matter of knowing how you (and your husband) react to different types of risk.

Option 3: Change to a more travel friendly career

I think this is the hardest option on your list- even though it is the option I've decided to go with myself. Sure, coding and writing (for instance) are both careers that can be quite travel friendly, but getting to the point where you can actually make that work is tough.

Most of the coders I know who manage this are quite experienced. This helps both because they are great developers (practice improves performance, for sure!) and because they have a deep network of potential clients. Their high hourly rate and large network make it easier for them to turn work down when it doesn't suit them, secure in the knowledge that they'll be able to survive until the next job becomes available.

Writing as a full time career option is tough for different reasons, mostly around the fact that the supply side of that market is quite full. I fantasized about quitting my job and becoming a full time writer for quite awhile, and then I came across an old post of John Scalzi's in which he laid out some details about his finances. At this point, he was a NY Times bestselling author with a solid collection of books, and he was still making roughly what I was as a middle manager. Now, neither of us were hurting for money (and I'm almost certain he now makes far more money than I do, given how his career has taken off) but it gave me a shot of realism, which changed how I thought about that career option.

Now, I don't want to say you wouldn't succeed in either of those careers! Obviously, people do. I am just explaining why I consider this such a difficult option.

Towards the end of your description of this option is a potential way to mitigate this risk, though- which you could actually use to mitigate the risks in any of the options. I'll call it option 4.

Option 4: Build multiple income streams

There is no natural law of the universe that says you have to have a single career. There is a lot of advice out there claiming that you HAVE to focus on one and only one thing to be successful, but I think that is not universally true. Some people really do best when they focus, but others do better when they have multiple things going at once, some folks like to do different things in succession. It might help to read (or re-read?) one of the books I referenced in my old post about being a "scanner" with special focus on figuring out what approach seems most natural to you.

Also, consider that you have skills that you've already built up over the years that you can use to contribute an income stream. You mention crocheting, for instance.

I think the key to using this option is to be clear about how much money you're likely to garner from each stream, and to pick realistic projects given your skill level. For instance, I have an idea for some apps that I think could do pretty well. But I don't have anywhere near the skill level required to write those apps. In fact, I don't even feel like I could do a good job specifying the apps right now. So, instead of jumping straight in on those apps, I have a couple of easier projects to do first, to help me build the skills I'd need to tackle the more complicated apps. (And I have other income streams that can keep me fed in the meantime.)

Once you start thinking about income streams, you can get quite creative in building a work life that will really work for you. For instance- my recent decision to become a publisher wouldn't have occurred to me before I switched to an "income stream" mindset. In this mindset, I don't have to make heaps of money as a publisher. I just have to do well enough to make it worth my time (and to convince authors to publish with me). Only time will tell whether or not this approach works for me, but I am loving this new mindset right now. It is helping me take risks that I wouldn't have had the courage to take when I was in my "build a single career" mindset.

That brings me to my final thoughts on this. I think one of the hardest things about making this sort of change is that regardless of which option you take, you're stepping off the usual path. A lot of people will express incredulity at your plans. You'll probably have an internal critic that expresses incredulity at your plans! Also, like most changes, it will take time to execute. You can be executing your five year plan flawlessly and still look a bit scattered or lost in year two, and people won't necessarily keep their opinion on that to themselves. So, if you do this, you have to have some method for keeping your final goal in sight, and you need to develop a way to get a realistic (i.e., not overly pessimistic OR overly optimistic) gauge of your progress.  I'm still working on that part, but I'm far enough into my own career change to know that these things will be important for my long term success.

That's all I have. Any readers want to weigh in with ideas and/or advice?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On Fitting In

I am having professional head shots taken next week, because I need some appropriate photos to use for LinkedIn and other places where I post under my real name and not as a mass of condensed water vapor floating in the sky. Basically, if I'm going to set myself up as a consultant who should be taken seriously, I can't keep using the head shot I cropped out of a family vacation photo taken in 2008.

So I got my haircut (I really like the new style, too, so BONUS). And this weekend, I spent a total of 5 hours looking for a god damn blazer. Men, you have no idea how fraught shopping for something like this is when you have breasts. My old go-to blazer dates from my pre-child days, and no longer fits properly, because HA HA HA breasts. Now I am awkwardly between two standard sizes, and since I put this shopping trip off too long, I didn't have time to wait for alterations. Also, it pisses me off to pay over $100 for a jacket and then turn around and pay more money to make it actually fit. To make matters worse, I live in Southern California and work primarily with scientists and techies who tend to be suspicious of anyone wearing an actual suit, but the aforementioned breasts make the "dressy button down shirt and trousers" look not really an option, unless I want to pay to have the shirt tailored. GAH. I hate getting dressed.

Let's just cut this rant short and say the blazer I needed was not an easy item to find, as much as you think it would be.

I also needed a new pair of jeans, so really the only way I could have made this weekends' shopping trips less fun would have been to try to buy a swimsuit, too.

I stopped for lunch part way through today's shopping excursion (I had to split the shopping fun across two days because... oh god I can't go there. Let's just say KIDS.)  While I was eating my pretzel bits and slurping my diet Coke (I am a paragon of healthy eating when the kids can't see) I scrolled through twitter, and I saw a tweet that made me want to cry. It was from a feminist I admire, making light of the reaction to Matt Taylor's questionable shirt choice for the comet landing. And because I am an idiot, I expanded the conversation and then I really wanted to cry. Basically, people were likening the response to the shirt choice to an internet mob, and saying "come on, there are real problems for women and this isn't one" and "he's just some dorky scientist dude." Most strange was the tweet saying that the people who object to his shirt should spend their time doing something to support women in science. That one bends my brain because the vast majority of the objections I've seen have come from women in science or science communication. I guess we aren't adequately supporting ourselves. (More charitably, I am assuming that the person who tweeted that simply follows a very different group of people than I do, and is unaware of the fact that the initial objections were from the people watching the landing live, who were by and large STEM people.)

I'm not going to identify the people or post the tweets. I have hopefully paraphrased enough that you can't go search and find them and I honestly hope you won't even try, because you know what? It doesn't matter. The point of this post is not to argue with the women making those tweets and it certainly isn't to start an internet fight. I'd lose it, and I know that. They are entitled to their opinions, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are more right than I am. I truly don't know, because I haven't been able to get emotional distance from this event. Or maybe I'm more right, and they just hadn't really thought about how that stupid shirt might be part of a larger pattern making life harder than it has to be for women in science. Perhaps they hadn't thought about the fact that this was a huge, huge event in the science world, and Matt Taylor knew he'd be on camera and beamed into classrooms live... and chose a very strange shirt and no one else stopped him. I can get how for someone outside of science it could look different than it looks to me, and hey, we can't all think deeply about everything. I get that, really, I do.

But damn, I wish that the big names with the big follower counts had taken the time to look around for what actual women in science were saying before just laughing the whole thing off and, worse, calling people who criticized that shirt an internet mob. (In the unlikely event that any such person lands on this post: Dr. Jen Gunter does a good job summarizing how most of the women in science I read and follow have reacted.)

It took me a few hours, but I finally figured out that the reason finding those tweets made me want to cry was that last bit. I was sad because it reminded me that being a woman in STEM can be a lonely thing, and not just because I don't always fit in with the other people in STEM. It is also lonely because the things I care about are often so far removed from what other women care about that we can have a hard time connecting. To be honest, at times I think other women overlook the fact that women in STEM actually exist as more than hypotheticals.

I tweeted about that and I can share those tweets:
















Maybe the reason that this whole event is annoying me so much is that I am just sick and tired of seeing women of all sorts get death threats and rape threats. But I think it is also that I am sick and tired of seeing the voices of the women I want to look up to and learn from disappear from the only place where I have been able to find a community of people who "get" me. Maybe we should all open Ello accounts and see how long it would take for the trolls to find us there. Sadly, I don't think it would be long. Our community is so dispersed that we need open settings on social media to find each other, but then the trolls can find us, too.

Whenever something on the internet makes me sad, my husband asks me why I don't just quit the internet. Shut down my blog and twitter account, and find a different way to build the business I want to build. Perhaps I could do that, but I would lose something real and important, too. Humans are social animals. There are all sorts of studies showing that we are happier and healthier when we have a peer group in which we are comfortable. Our need to "fit in" goes deep, and honestly, the only place I've been able to find a community in which I truly fit in is here, online.

On Wednesday, Matt Taylor chose a shirt that reminded me that I don't really fit in the STEM world. But that is old news. I've been getting reminders of that for most of my life. Today, some other women on the internet reminded me that I don't really fit in with most other women, either, not even the feminists. That should be old news, too, but for some reason, it stung more.

I've debated whether to go ahead and post this or not, because it feels a bit whiny. But I'm going to post, because I need to say it. I apologize for the whine. I know that me getting my feelings hurt was far from the worst thing that happened today.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Weekend Reading: The I'm Not Going to Talk about That Shirt Edition

I have spent the last couple of hours working on setting up my development environment so that I can try my hand at app development, and I am well and truly blocked. So I think it is time to look away for awhile and do something else. Like write my weekend reading post!

My links are completely lacking in theme this week, so I won't try to pretend otherwise. Pretty much the only theme is I'm not going to talk about that damn shirt. If you wonder what shirt I mean, search Twitter for #ShirtStorm. I just don't have the energy to really engage with that level of cluelessness, either in the wearing of the shirt or in the over the top response to the initially fairly lighthearted critiques of the shirt.

So, what will I talk about? LOTS of things.

First of all, Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess is featured in Laura Vanderkam's latest newsletter.

Here's a nice post from Kristina Halvorson on (not) doing it all and being yourself.

Andie from Blue Milk wrote a nice article about (among other things) the way caring work gets hidden from view and the costs associated with that.

Now that I'm not just a working mom but an entrepreneur mom, I find myself paying more attention to stories about being a mom and an entrepreneur. There were two in my Twitter feed this week, and they both strike me as fairly honest reports of what it is like to be leading a venture-backed start up as a mom.  Jeni Axline is a cofounder of Parenthoods, and Kristy Sammis is a cofounder of the Clever Girls social media agency.

Both of their articles are worth your time. Neither of them describe anything like what my current life looks like. There are a lot of possible reasons for that. I'm just now really starting to push on the non-contracting part of my company, after all, and I can't really tell yet what kind of work schedule I'll end up with as I start to try to make my Big Ideas happen. But I suspect on of the big reasons for the difference is that I'm not trying to be a venture capital-backed entrepreneur. When you bring in venture capital, you sign on to a different sort of timeline. This is not necessarily because it HAS to be that way, but because the venture capitalists MAKE it that way. They have timelines on which they want their investments to pay out, and that creates time pressure that may or may not need to be there for other business reasons.

I've chosen a less hectic approach. Only time will tell if my way works, too.

Mr. Snarky sent me a link to a pretty decent post about how if you want to follow your dreams, you have to not pursue other things. It has some good points, but I think it suffers from the common problem of taking what works for the author and over-generalizing. Sure, you need to focus. But I don't think there is some natural law that says you have to focus on only one thing. I prefer a different approach, to spread my financial risk around a bit so that I can have time to play a longer game on some of my goals.

Again, only time will tell if my way works, too. If it does, I'll have to come up with some cute illustrations for my approach and try to market it as The One True Way. Or not.

I cannot decribe how much I love this quote from Anne Lamott. So much that I'm not going to try to summarize it, and will just tell you to go read the whole thing.

Women in tech: Cindy Alvarez is collecting stories about the nice things people said or did that made you stay. I'm sure I have some of these, but I can't come up with any, and that is making me a bit sad.

Speaking about things that make you want to stay in tech... or actually, about their exact polar opposite: It turns out Twitter can silence the trolls if it wants to. Of course, there are worries about Twitter using this capability to impinge on free speech. And you know what? I actually sort of agree. Not that there is any right to say vile and threatening things to people on the internet, but that the decisions about what constitutes protected speech don't really belong with the tech companies. It would be far, far better, in my opinion, if we simply enforced the laws we already have against threatening people. But we don't do that. I think this snippet is very telling:

"Last week, Wu put up $11,000 as a reward for information leading to the identification of a perpetrator. Since then the threats have nearly stopped.

Wu says the proliferation of online threats and harassment will continue unless people think there are consequences and there is a real likelihood of getting caught."

On a happier note... sort of: here is an article from Ashoka Mukpo about getting and surviving Ebola. I started following him on Twitter when he started tweeting again during his recovery. He is trying very hard to get people to focus on the suffering this disease is bringing to the people in West Africa.

On a definitely happier note: check out this interview with a guy who designed a font to help dyslexics read more easily. Also check out his font: dyslexie.

And of course, we have to end with some fun.

I think this may be my next hoodie.

Mr. Snarky sent me this picture:



I went searching for the source, and it showed up on a bunch of tumblrs, never really well attributed. Here's one possible source. But, go do a Google image search for "tumblr cat in superman costume" and enjoy what you find. You're welcome.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Doing What I Want, Because I Can

I've had some nice responses to my last post and my somewhat crazy decision to become a publisher. Thank you!

I mentioned that I was doing this to someone I know offline, and their response was essentially: why in the world are you doing that?

The short answer is: because I want to. The slightly longer answer is: because I want to and I can. So why wouldn't I?

One of things that deciding to just quit my job has made me realize is that I am a lot freer than I was acting. I spent a lot of time thinking "I can't do that!" when in fact, I could.

So now, I am.

I still struggle with self-doubt and imposter syndrome and all that. I doubt I'll ever really conquer those demons. In fact, I'm reading Playing Big,by Tara Mohr, to help me keep them at bay. I'm only a few chapters in, but already I've taken some good ideas from the book. (Fair warning: if you are annoyed by things like guided meditations and discussions of your spirtual purpose, you might not like this book. I tend to just skip the parts that feel like mumbo-jumbo to me and focus on the ideas and messages I find useful.)

I just finished reading the chapter about handling fear, and it made me realize I've recently come up with a new way to handle some of my worries. I remind myself that as long as my kids are clothed and fed and we can pay our mortgage, it doesn't really matter if some endeavor I undertake fails.

I still worry about the contracting work that is funding my more ambitious ideas drying up... so I'm motivated to try to make things succeed. But if they don't? Well, for right now, at least, I've got enough money coming in from contracting to keep us all fed, clothed, and housed. And that's all I really need.

(I'll spare you all the Raffi song that just started playing in my head.)

I've also gotten a lot better at filtering advice I come across (or that is shoved at me). What worked for someone else may not be the right approach for me. I know how I work best, and what I want most, and I can chart my own course. And so I am. It may or may not work out the way I hope, but I'm having a great time trying.

Ah hell, I'll go ahead and play you the Frank Sinatra song that just displaced Raffi:



What about you? Are you doing it your way? What tricks do you use to shut down the voice of self-doubt?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Calling All Writers, Current and Future

I decided to self-publish a short ebook about job searching for two reasons: the first was that I wanted to do something with what I learned about searching for a job from the 10+ years I spent as a hiring manager. The second was that I needed a test case to find out how much money, time, and effort it takes to publish and promote a short ebook once it is written.

I wanted that data because I'd been toying with the idea of publishing other people's books. After more than a year running Tungsten Hippo, my short ebook review site, I have gotten much better at finding interesting ebooks to read, even when they aren't high in the Amazon search results. However, I still see a hole in what is available. I want more short science ebooks, and more short ebooks about social science topics, and more short ebooks telling interesting historical stories, and more short fiction ebooks that really make me think. There are some of all of those types of short ebooks, but I think there should be more. I love finding a short ebook that can teach me something worthwhile in an evening or two, and I want there to more of them.

At the same time, I have been wondering whether short ebooks could help fill some of the gap left as traditional media downsizes and online media struggles to find a business model that supports in depth writing. I wonder if a revenue stream from a few short ebooks could help buffer writers against the rough economic tides, whether those writers are earning a living primarily from their writing or from something else.

So I've decided to go for it. I will take some of the money I make from the profitable part of my business (i.e., the consulting work) and invest it in publishing short ebooks. And by invest, I mean: I will pay the upfront costs (cover art, editing, ISBNs, etc) AND I will offer authors a modest advance. I will also give authors the option of choosing a higher initial royalty rate over an advance- for some types of authors, this will be a better deal. For others, the advance with an earn-out period will be a better deal. I think most authors will be able to figure out for themselves which model is better for them, so I'll let them choose. I'll also invest my time by doing a kickass job formatting the book for publication and by working on promoting the book. Authors will still need to do some promotion, too, but I will help line up reviewers and will be experimenting like crazy to figure out how best to market the sorts of books I want to publish.

I want to focus on pieces that are 30-160 pages in length (7000 - 40,000 words). Those are guidelines not firm rules. They are based on the definition of a novelette and a novella. I want fiction and non-fiction. For fiction, I am not picky about genre, but it has to be the sort of story that has interesting themes and makes me think. For non-fiction, I truly am interested in the "meatier" topics. I think there are several other companies publishing things like true crime stories now, and want to instead focus on books that make me learn something new and worth knowing. I would be absolutely thrilled to see people submit a short ebook about their research, as long as it is aimed at a general audience. I don't just mean science research, either- one of my favorite short ebooks is The Heart of Haiku. Science, social science, humanities... I'll consider it all, as long as it engages me and makes me learn.

In all cases, the writing has to be good. Since it is my money, I get to decide what good means, but the shorthand version is "well-written and compelling."

I know that short ebooks are a tough market, and I'm prepared for it to take a little time to make this profitable. But I do intend to make it profitable, which means that I intend for the authors to earn more than their advances. I have some (I think) cool ideas for new things to try to increase the market for the books I'd publish, and some even cooler long term ideas I can try once my basic ideas are working and I have a bit of a catalog built up.

But... none of this can happen if I can't find compelling stories to publish. That's where I need your help. I am looking for three things:

1. If you are already sold on my idea and want to submit your writing for me to consider, hooray! Please do. My email address is wandsci at gmail dot com.

2. If you're not sure, or even sure that you're not interested in submitting your writing, but would like to help out: I'd really like to talk over the terms I'll be offering with an experienced author or two, to make sure they are fair to both the authors and my business. Again my email address is wandsci at gmail dot com.

3. If neither of the above applies to you, you can still help by spreading this post far and wide.

Thank you!
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