Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekend Reading: Building Better Companies Edition

Both the tech-centric and my science-centric portions of my Twitter feed were aflame with gender-related issues today, and so I have been skimming it even more lightly than usual, because I have decided that I need to spend a few weeks in an artificial happy place on women in tech/science as I work to make "what's next" happen.

I can't write too many details now, but I can say that I will be setting up as an independent consultant, initially with about 20 hours per week of work. Assuming all goes as planned, that 20 hours will pay almost as well as my current full time job- but without benefits. And no, that isn't because I was underpaid before or am fleecing anyone now. It is because benefits are far more valuable than most people realize and because if you're going to set up as a consultant with an eye to having it be a long term thing, you have to have a rate that covers the inevitable gaps in work. Maybe I'll write a post about this at some point, when I've got more experience on this side of the consulting gig (I've hired scores of consultants and contractors over the years, so have quite a bit of experience on the other side of it).

Anyhow, I am feeling unbelievably lucky that my unexpected act a week ago is turning out so well, but also more than a little stressed by the number of things I need to do to get set up the way I want to be and by the strangeness of my new work paradigm. Looking at that, and also the fact that I know I face some unique challenges as a consultant/contractor who is female and offering services in a very male-dominated space... I've decided that for my own sanity, I need to metaphorically put my fingers in my ears and pretend that the world is a better place than I know it to be, at least until I've got myself set up.

That was a long-winded introduction to this week's links, and explanation for why they are ignoring some things I might usually be expected to include. Instead, I've got some great links about management and other things that make a company better.

Robert Sutton wrote an interesting article about one aspect of his and Huggy Rao's work on scaling up enterprises- Sutton covered the team dynamic. Everything I've read about Sutton and Rao's book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Lessmakes me think it would be interesting, so I've added it to my list of management books to read during lunchtime.

Scott Berkun (whose book The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Workwas one of my previous lunchtime management books) wrote a downright awesome post about company culture.

This is a great tweet:

Having been the recipient of an attempted diving save earlier this week, I think Rands' post on the topic is pretty good. And the timing of it made me laugh- it literally came up in my reader when I clicked over for a break after telling my boss that no, I wouldn't reconsider my decision.

This post by Felix Salmon is some of the clearest writing about why you might NOT want to go work at a start up I've ever read. When I decided to go work at a start up after graduate school, I got some sage advice from someone who'd worked in a start up prior to coming to graduate school: make sure you get a good salary and treat stock options like the lottery tickets they are.

I will say, though, that I don't think that starting a company has to be something that eats your life. That is just the culture that has evolved around venture backed start ups. It would be at least theoretically possible construct a venture-backed system that had healthier expectations of founders. And of course, there is bootstrapping as an option. Our assumption that the only way to succeed at something is to dedicate yourself 100% to it at the expense of all else in your life is a little weird, really, but it is so engrained that I rarely see it challenged.

I really like the Ann Patchett quote I posted on Tungsten Hippo this week, and think it is somewhat related. Until next Friday, you can see it on the Tungsten Hippo site. Or you can see it on this Tungsten Hippo tumblr post whenever you want. It is about forgiving yourself as the key to success and happiness, and I have been thinking about it a lot as I think about how I'm going to approach this next phase in my career.

One of the things I'll need to do is get a computer I can take out in public that isn't embarrassing. So, not the super cheap, rather clunky refurbished PC I bought for my side projects and not my Mac that is older than Petunia. Which means I'm contemplating an upgrade of one or the other and since my old Mac feels super slow and cannot have a modern browser... it will probably go. It has the majority of my files on it, which means that probably have something like this xkcd cartoon in my future:

Happy weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More Than a Feeling

I've been surprised by how much my decision to quit my job has felt like a failure on my part.

This is, frankly, rather silly. The pieces I unleashed when I took my professional life and shook it up and threw it into the air are still settling, but the early signs are that they will settle in a way that is rather eerily aligned with exactly what I've wanted to do for quite sometime. So, rationally, I cannot call this a failure.

I quit for a complex mix of reasons, and even now, almost a week after I did it, I can't really explain what made me do it on that exact day, in that exact way.

I can say that as I looked ahead to how we were going to make our summer logistics work out, when Pumpkin is in summer camp a 15 minute drive from our house instead of school a 5 minute walk from our house, I could see that we would not be able to make it work without more help. But we have the resources to hire more help, so I had started looking into nannies and mother's helpers and the like. Then, one day it struck me that I was going to be spending money to sacrifice a part of the day I actually like for a job that I knew I didn't really want to keep.

That seemed crazy. That IS crazy, particularly since I also have the resources to make a different choice. So I started a job search, and was diligently working to find my next job.

Until Friday, when suddenly, I decided not to do it that way. As I say, I still can't fully explain why.

As the pieces start to settle and I can see what my next phase might look like, it looks good to me. So why does it also feel like I've failed? Like I have somehow let the side down by admitting that no, this job just isn't working for me, for reasons related to my family and to my inability to flourish in the culture at this particular company?

Rationally, I know this is wrong, but that doesn't make the emotion less real. I am fascinating by what it might say about my cultural baggage about careers and families and how they interact, but I can't quite put my finger on what is going on in my own head.

Perhaps there is an implicit assumption that this one job is a representative of all jobs in my field, and if I can't make it work perhaps there really is an unresolvable conflict between career and family after all? Again, this is clearly nonsense. The bit that I can't make work is the commute plus the 40 hours. If the company hadn't moved or had agreed to my query about dropping to 32 hours per week, I might have chosen to continue to overlook the feeling that I don't really fit the culture, and not have resigned. If the company had evolved a different culture, I might have decided to go ahead and hire a nanny and not resigned.

The company created the conditions that made me decide to leave, not me, and yet the little voice in my head is telling me I should have tried X, or done Y, or blah blah blah. And some of its suggestions contain some good lessons for me to learn about addressing conflict more directly and earlier- but I suspect that ultimately, none of the X's and Y's would have changed the outcome.

I know this move is not a failure on my part. I am looking forward to the time when I feel that, too.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Diversions, Unexpected and Otherwise

When I wrote my last post, I had every intention of finding a way to make my current job work out, at least until I could find someplace else to go.

But today, I resigned.

There was no blaze of glory, just a letter of resignation. I will not be going into the gory details here. I will say that I have a great deal of respect for my soon to be former colleagues, and will be leaving bearing only good will towards them and the company.

But I just do not fit into the culture that has evolved there, and it is time to go while I can still do so gracefully and hopefully leave them with good will towards me, too.

I have neither a transition plan at my current job nor any firm plans for what I'll be doing next. So there's a lot to figure out.

I have a lot of reflecting to do, too. This is a scary move- I've been laid off before, and I've resigned to go to another job before, but I've never quit without my next step lined up. It feels so... I am not sure what- arrogant, maybe?- to be quitting a job with nothing else lined up.

However, Mr. Snarky and I have a fairly large buffer of money in the bank. It is there to buffer against lay offs, but also to buffer our lives against our jobs.

So, I took the leap. I am a bit excited, too. I am trying to give myself the pep talk I need to trust that I can aim for my biggest ambitions and be OK, while also being realistic about probabilities of success and our mortgage.

Once I figure out more details, maybe I'll be able to post more of them here.

I think I will hold off on the very good but rather depressing links I had been gathering for my links post. I'll post those next week.

This week, let's have a lot of good news and happy things from various people.

Jim C. Hines has gathered up essays on representation and inclusion in science fiction that appeared as guest posts his blog and has published them as an ebook. I read the essays on his blog, and they were quite good.

The Toast is an awesome site- check it out if you haven't already. And it is profitable after just 9 months!

My publisher got some nice local press:

Slomo is a familiar and popular figure on the boardwalk in Pacific Beach- Mr. Snarky and I saw him skate by many, many times when we used to live in that neighborhood and take frequent walks along the boardwalk. I never knew his backstory- but now I do.

There was also a guy who liked to skate around in nothing except thong underwear, often with his butt cheeks painted to celebrate the nearest holiday. The very first time I saw him, it was Memorial Day weekend and he had an American flag flying from his backside. I haven't seen a documentary with his story... yet.

This is a really sweet short film.

This blog of really bad real estate photos is making me giggle.

Share any good news of your own or the things that made you smile this week in the comments!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Surviving as a Woman in a Very Male World

I don't think I'm giving anything away if I say that I've been struggling a bit at work lately. Some of that has nothing to do with my gender, and some of it has everything to do with my gender. And some of it, its hard to say. I should also say: some of it is probably my own damn fault. I'm not perfect, by any stretch.

A lot of the part that has to do with my gender is due to cracks in the plasterwork I've put up to cover the disconnect between me and the male work culture I inhabit. The cracks have been growing lately, and I'm at a bit of a loss as to why. The particular guys I'm working with now aren't unusually sexist or obnoxious. In fact, I rather like them all. I've got some women on my team (I hired most of them) and there are other women at the company. It is, in other words, about as good as things are likely to get, at least on paper. Still, something is... not right for me. I suspect it is something about the company culture, but haven't pinned it down, and even if I had, I would not blog about it at this point.

It may also just be timing. Maybe I'm running out of my patience for trying to gracefully handle sexism in the workplace, and am coming up to the time when I'm going to going to go out in a blaze of glory...

But I'd rather not.

Still, the cracks are showing, and even growing, and I have been thinking a lot about what I can do about that. I need to up my sanity maintenance game, which has got me thinking about how I've survived (and even occasionally thrived) in my very male dominated work world. Here are my top three sanity saving techniques:

1. Maintain perspective

Even when my work is at its crappiest, I live a pretty great life. This is not to say that I'm going to stop trying to fix the crap, just that I won't let the crap obscure the awesome things in my life. I am (mostly) healthy. I have a great family, I live in a great place, I have enough money to go on great vacations... Etc., etc.

Lately, I've been consciously reminding myself of this as I turn the corner towards Pumpkin's school in the afternoon, and see this:

Seriously. I can't complain.

 Which brings me to my second technique...

2. Use mindfulness

I've written before about how I use mindfulness to maintain my equilibrium at work. In that earlier post, I mostly wrote about using a mindfulness practice to build my reserves of patience. I also use mindfulness techniques to fight the tendency to be derailed by BS at work. When someone does something that is BS, I try to recognize it for what it is, name it as BS, and then consciously put it aside.

This works for egregiously sexist things, but it also works for what I call the "accidental gaslighting" that pervades work places that are lacking in diversity. Since everyone (or at least everyone with the power, authority, and automatic respect) is of the same basic type, a lazy assumption that their way of thinking and responding is the one and only "right" way can take hold. If you respond differently to something, it is a problem with you, not with the thing to which you responded. This happens even when everyone thinks they respect you and value your input. They will in fact tell you that they respect you and value your input, but that you just have to learn to handle X or not be so sensitive about Y or what not.

And that is BS. Because often the X and Y are things like a confrontational discussion style ("it is the only way to make sure we don't succumb to group think!"), a tendency to talk over you ("you just need to talk louder!"), a tendency to make everyone earn respect ("but we do that to everyone!" ), and so on. Somehow they miss that their confrontational discussion style silences some group members, leaving only the ones who tend to think alike feeling comfortable speaking up. They miss that they don't talk over everyone equally as often, or in the same way. They do not realize that in fact, they do NOT make everyone earn their respect in the same way. Some people start with more baseline respect than others.

And they have never considered that their "male" way isn't the default "right" way. Of course, everyone should adopt their way!

Basically, they're Henry Higgins:

In fact, our entire culture is Henry Higgins. We have to have entire books written about What Works for Women at Work and how we can successfully be just the perfect amount more like men. Where are the books telling the men not to be such insensitive asses?

(No, I haven't read that book yet. I'm sure it is very good and helpful, but I'm not in a mood that would be receptive to its advice right now.)

All of this cruft tends to accumulate in my brain until I start believing that there is something wrong with me, too.

And that is the biggest BS of them all.

I fight it with the mindfulness trick of observing the BS thought, labeling it, and putting it aside. I imagine a big, sturdy box in my mind. I shove the BS thought in that box and lock it up. This works until something breaks the box open.

I also use side projects to help me remember that I've got some strong skills, and when I do come up against something I don't know or can't do right, I consciously put myself in a growth mindset by reminding myself that I can get better at anything if I work at it. (If you aren't familiar with the idea of growth vs. fixed mindset, check out Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

3. I only fight the battles I choose

I realized early on that if I fought every single sexist thing, I would wear myself out from fighting and not have any energy left to do the actual things I want to do. And by early on, I mean roughly half-way through college. Here is a tweet that sums this up well:

Not only does each battle exhaust some of my energy, but each battle damages me. Being a geek, I imagine this like the health points in a videogame. Each time I fight sexism in the workplace, I pick up negative health points, in the form of people perceiving me as a "complainer" or "not a team player" or what not. If I deplete my health points too much, I'll be out of the game.

The insistence that I'll only fight the battles I choose annoys some other women, who want me to fight the battles that matter to them, particularly when they perceive me as being in a more powerful place than they are. I understand this, and I am sorry. But I can't fight them all. I will not let anyone- not even myself!- guilt me into fighting every battle. I fight some of them, but I have to pick the ones that matter the most. I try to be cognizant of the need to help the women coming up behind me, and I will almost always make the time to give advice to a younger woman who asks for my help. I try to help as much as I can, but I cannot promise to fight all of their battles. I have to choose strategically. I get to decide when I fight, and when I walk away so that I can be there to fight another day.*

Those are my tricks. Does anyone have any others they want to share?

*Interestingly, calling out racism, homophobia, or ableism does not seem to deplete my health points as much as calling out sexism. Also, since I am in the privileged group in all of those cases, I feel it is my responsibility to speak up when I see these issues in the workplace, so I almost never walk away from those battles.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Random Thoughts

I have a bunch of  random thoughts, and can't be bothered stringing them together into a cohesive post. Perhaps they can't be strung together into a cohesive post. Either way, I'm posting them as little short independent sections.


I wrote a Tungsten Hippo post this week! It is about how I don't think the answers to all of our problems will come from STEM, and how that  factors into my decision to start the Tungsten Hippo site.

Also, I posted a couple of great recommendations this week: Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman, is a great book of essays for anyone who loves to read, and Why We Fly, by Evan Rails is a fun short ebook for anyone who likes to travel and wonders why.


If I ever get really, stupidly rich, I have two projects I want to do:

1. I will buy a big empty lot, put down the squishy composite stuff from playgrounds, and then commission a bunch of sculptures of animals and other things that kids can climb on. Then I will put coffee carts and benches around for the parents. Probably with free wi-fi.

This idea comes from taking my kids to the zoo last week and spending at least half of the time watching them climb on statues of animals. The new koala tree at the San Diego Zoo is particularly attractive to children. It usually has several kids climbing on it and several grown ups standing near it saying "do you want to go look at some animals now?"

I no longer fight this, and just accept that seeing some animals is only a small part of what we'll do at the zoo, but I can't stop thinking that a sculpture climbing park would be much more efficient.

2. I will fund a study to find out whether or not just giving struggling people money is a more effective solution to a range of problems than our usual interventions.

This idea comes from watching people go into the paycheck lending place near my house and being tempted to just go over and hand them $500 instead. I could not currently afford to do this for more than one or two people, and just walking up to someone and handing them a significant sum of money would be weird. But if I could do it as part of a study, then it wouldn't be weird. And if I were stupidly rich, I could afford to do this for a significant sample size.


I find myself wondering about sexism, racism, and other exclusionary behaviors in different fields. I wonder if it really is worse in tech than in other fields, or if the fact that people in tech are more likely to be active on social media and have a way to tell the world about the crap that happens.

I do not think tech is worse than science, but that is a personal impression, and I'd love to see some data. Does anyone know of data on this?


I follow a few conservative pundit-types on Twitter. The idea was to keep myself from living in the inverse bubble from the Fox news people. I can't stand any of the Fox news people, though, so I follow David Frum and Ross Douthat. Generally, they do the job of informing me what conservatives are thinking about the news of the day without making me want to reach through my computer screen and strangle them.

Last week, though Ross Douthat got in a discussion with Matt Yglesias about the gender wage gap and since I follow Matt Yglesias, too, I saw the entire exchange. And I wanted to reach through my computer screen and if not strangle Douthat, at least shake him a little. He was spouting the line about how women just choose to work fewer hours in less well-paid fields and really, what could we do about that? If he had ever considered what factors drive those choices, he gave no hint of that.

This prompted a mini-rant from me on Twitter, but also made me wonder: are there any conservatives who have really examined their own privilege and come away still conservative? It seems like this is at least theoretically possible, but I cannot come up with anyone who would fit this bill. I'd actually be really curious to read what a conservative who recognizes the full inequalities of our society proposes to do about them- so if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.


In fact, leave me comments on any of the above!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Weekend Reading: The Completely Lacking in a Theme Edition

I've got no theme for my links this week. But I have some good links!

First up, Andie Fox, who writes the Blue Milk blog, had a beautiful article about grief, uncertainty, parenting, and facing your fears.

On a more prosaic but still quite important topic: if you haven't seen this post on tipping yet, you should check it out.

I love this answer to the ever popular "why do we menstruate?" question.

Somewhat related (really, it is)... cows on the internet!

There's been a lot of discussion recently about whether or not a PhD is useful if you aren't going into academia (or another field where it is generally required). Nicoleandmaggie have discussed this a couple of times recently. I came across this post from someone who left a lectureship to go into the software industry, and I think it makes a lot of good points about some of the "transferable skills" you gain in academia.

I know that my own experiences are not generalizable, since I am in a STEM field in an industry in which PhDs are fairly common. I have held jobs that require a PhD and others that do not, and I have a mix of PhDs and non-PhDs in my current group.  Still, I agree strongly with the skills that are highlighted in that post. Maybe no one's experiences are generalizable once we leave the standard career paths for our fields, because all of these "alternative" careers are so different. And maybe that is one of the things that makes transitioning out of academia and/or off the beaten path so hard- all of your life you've been following a fairly well-defined map, and now you don't have a map to use at all, and that is scary, particularly early in your career when you don't have a large network of professional contacts to help you plot a new course and a large buffer of savings to keep you in supplies while you do so.

In one of the posts over at Nicoleandmaggie's place, they replied to my comment asking what fields I'd tell a non-STEM PhD to consider. I've been thinking about that, and will include some thoughts on how to find new career options in the book I'm writing now. Some concrete ideas I've had are: People in history, classics and other fields that have probably exposed them to a lot of interesting stories could consider game design (computer or tabletop). Probably any PhD would have the basic skills needed to do technical writing. I know that there are more options out there for non-STEM PhDs wanting a non-academic career, but I haven't tried to think of them before. I'll keep thinking!

Lots of people were talking this week about the French rule against answering emails after 6 p.m. (which turned out to be a false rumor). My own husband sent an article about this to me with a note about wanting to move to France. I wrote back that he could implement that rule all on his own, no help from the government required. I was only half joking. I do not routinely check work emails after I get home. I do so when I have something specific to check on- and then I look for those emails and only those emails. Even when I was in charge of IT at a small biotech, I only checked my work emails twice per night. Granted, my IT administrator checked his more often. He and I were working on a plan to set up a rotation for who needed to be checking emails after hours when I was laid off. The plan was that we would alternate weeks, and even on our "on" weeks, we would only be expected to respond to true emergencies. (No, I don't think this plan had anything to do with my being laid off.)

Those of us in knowledge work jobs usually have more power to set boundaries on when we do our work than we think- and if you think there will be negative repercussions to setting some reasonable boundaries on after hours work in your current position, I suggest thinking about finding another position. Really! There are healthier workplaces out there. I'm not saying that we don't have a cultural problem with overwork- I'm just saying that we can usually say no more than we think we can and put at least some boundaries in place.

Which brings me to an interesting podcast I listened to about women, obligations, and our sex lives. I don't agree with everything in that podcast, but there are certainly some interesting things to think about, and I completely agree that it is OK to say "no" to work to have time for relationships. (That podcast is from the Broad Experience podcasts that Ashley Milne-Tyte puts out, and I have enjoyed several of them- I think this will be one of my "regular" podcasts. I'm finding enough interesting podcast series in my searches that I think I'll eventually do a "my favorite podcast series" post- but please do keep leaving recommendations for new podcasts in my comments!)

Let's end with a couple of lolsob comics:

xkcd explains the heartbleed bug in its usual clear and amusing style

Listen to Me and "Not All Man".

And a fun performance:

Happy weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Ask Cloud: Interviewing

Last week, I posted a wrap up of my non-academic job search posts, and asked if anyone had any topics they thought I'd missed.

One of you pointed out that I hadn't written about interviews yet. There are two reasons for this, one good and one not-so-good. The not-so-good reason is that I feel much less confident in my own interviewing abilities than in my resume and cover letter writing abilities. However, I've seen enough bad interviews to have some ideas about what usually doesn't work, so perhaps I can distill some tips out of that.

The good reason is that the details of interviewing vary widely in different industries and jobs. If none of my other arguments have convinced you that you should be networking and doing informational interviews, maybe this will. The only way to find out what is expected in an interview in the industry you're trying to enter is to ask someone in that industry. Even within an industry, there is a fair amount of variation from company to company. I think the best advice I can give on preparing for an interview is to try to be well-rested and ready to think on your feet!

Still, here are some pointers that might be useful:

1. Be prepared to demonstrate that you know what you say you know

If you are applying for a hands on technical job, you might be asked to demonstrate those technical skills. It is particularly common to be asked to take a code test if you are applying for a job that
involves coding.

Even if there is no actual test, you will probably be asked questions that attempt to confirm that you know the things your resume says you know. Never try to fake your way through a technical answer. If you do not know the answer, just say so, and say how you'd go about learning that information if you needed it on the job. Also never inflate your role in a project when asked for details about something on your resume. It is dishonest to do so, and you never know who the person asking the questions knows. I once interviewed with the wife of one of the collaborators on one of my graduate school rotation projects. I'd never met her, and she had not changed her name when she got married, so I had no idea who she was when I was interviewing. However, she'd asked her husband about the project before the interview, and would have caught me in an instant if I'd tried to pretend my role had been bigger than it was. I didn't inflate my role, and she told me who she was. We had a laugh about the smallness of the science world. I got the job, and look back on that job as one of my favorite jobs ever. It is a good thing I didn't let a mistaken need to look more important on a project than I was short circuit that interview!

2. Know the basics about the company but come prepared to ask questions to learn more

Make sure you've read the company's website and know the basics about what the company does. Do a web search, too, and see if you can find any articles or other information about the company.

Come prepared with 3-5 questions to ask during the course of the interview. You want to have good, interesting questions for two reasons:
(1) It shows curiosity and engagement, which is a good thing to show in an interview
(2) You should be using the interview to determine whether or not the job is a good fit for you, and the best way to do this is to ask some questions.

You need to do the work to figure out what you want to know about each company. However, you can always ask your interviewer to tell you about the company culture. I particularly like to ask multiple interviewers this question and compare their answers (interviews in my industry are usually a string of 1:1 meetings).

3. Think about how you handle the "soft skills" and be ready to talk about it

I hate the term "soft skills," but I can't think of a less annoying catch-all for the work skills that involve interpersonal interactions. If you are interviewing for a position that involves management of people or projects, you will almost certainly get a lot of these sorts of questions. In fact, I would be nervous about a company that didn't ask any questions about management style and methods for a managerial position. Unless it is a former colleague who knows me well, the failure to ask me about this would be a huge red flag to me, possibly indicating that the company doesn't know what management is and why they need someone who knows how to do it.

Even if you are interviewing for a non-managerial role, you will probably get asked a couple of these questions, particularly about how you handle conflict at work. Examples of these questions are:
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult colleague
  • How would you handle it if you had a disagreement on technical approach with a coworker?
You can find example questions online, but I think the best preparation is just to think about how you handle conflict, and how you want to handle conflict, and be ready to talk about this, with a couple of examples in mind. Then you can react to any version of this question. In my experience, most of the "soft skills" questions boil down to how you handle conflict. 

And of course, there is the every popular "tell me about your biggest weakness" question. You might as well practice an answer to that one now, because you'll almost certainly run into it. Pick something that is actually a weakness but not an irredeemable one and talk about how you mitigate its impact on your work. I never ask this question myself, but I've been in panel interviews where it has been used. I've seen perfectionism and difficulty letting go of a project used as weaknesses to good effect. In recent interviews, I have used my tendency to get buried in operational details, and I talk about how I specifically set aside time on my calendar to come up for air and think about broader, more strategic issues. Note the form of that answer: I'm a middle manager- I'm supposed to be buried in operational details, but I should also be working on thinking strategically as I look ahead to future growth and I am most effective at my job when I have a clear view of the bigger picture of what my department and company are trying to do. I've picked a real trait of mine that has aspects that make it a weakness, but that has positive aspects, too. And I've said how I mitigate the weakness aspects. You'll need to think hard about what trait you can use- this is an answer you won't be able to crib from anyone else.

4. Know what you want in a job and be ready to talk about it

You will probably be asked to describe your perfect job, or where you want to be in 5 years, or some other nonsense. These are hard questions, since you want to sound ambitious, but not so ambitious that you sound like you view the current job as nothing more than a stepping stone. Also, I always think in my head that it is none of the interviewer's business what I want to be doing in 5 years- they can't guarantee me a job in 5 years, after all!

I usually answer these questions by talking about the main qualities that make me happy in a job: to feel like I am learning new things and to feel like I am making a valuable contribution. These are my happiness criteria- you should think about what yours are.

My third big criteria, by the way, is that I strongly dislike a confrontational/adversarial/overtly competitive environment, even one in which the confrontation is not meant to imply disrespect- but I don't usually talk about that in an interview. I try to suss out their culture, and if pushed about what I like in a culture, I talk about valuing strong teamwork, which is the positive corollary of my dislike of an adversarial environment.

5. Dress appropriately but in something in which you feel comfortable and confident

Dress expectations vary widely by industry (another reason to find a contact within your target industry!) but in general, you can't go wrong by dressing more formally. I personally always wear a jacket, because I think a well-tailored jacket is flattering on me, so it allows me to not worry about whether my stomach bulge is showing. I'm in a somewhat casual industry, so I don't always wear a full suit- but I have on occasion.

I think it is unfortunate that we judge people on their attire and I try to fight that tendency in myself, but it is reality, and not everyone even fights the tendency. So it is worth spending some effort to get your attire "right." In general, that means that women have to worry more than we'd like about the length of skirt and the cut of shirt (another reason I wear a jacket- I am large-busted, and the jacket keeps that from being an issue). I think nice trousers are fine, and I've interviewed in them. In some industries, though, the more conservative older men will frown on trousers on a woman. You have to decide for yourself if you care about that.

Men generally have an easier time. They can almost always do fine by wearing a nice suit, or a dress shirt and nice trousers. They are not completely off the hook on attire, though. They need to make sure their suit actually fits- particularly if they are going with a double-breasted style of jacket. An ill-fitting suit is noticeable and distracting at best.

6. Decide ahead of time how you'll handle inappropriate questions

Note that this answer, more than any other, is strongly geared towards the American job market. I've never worked anywhere else, and while I know there are different laws and norms, I don't know enough about them to comment on them.  Any readers who do should feel free to chime in on this in the comments.

If you are in a protected class (as defined by anti-discrimination law) you'll probably get an inappropriate question or two over the course of a job search. Actually, I think that if you are anything but a white American man, you'll get an inappropriate question or two. Well, maybe white male Canadians will get a pass- but the rest of us will get asked things that the interviewer shouldn't ask. Unless the only people interviewing you are human resources staff, you will probably run into at least one interviewer who doesn't know the rules and that one interviewer will always be curious about something he or she shouldn't ask about.

Over the course of my career, I've been asked about my marriage plans, my plans to have children, and how I handle child care arrangements. There was also one memorable interview where the guy asked me if I'd gone into my field to meet men. (I answered "No" and then said nothing more and waited for the next question.)

There are also well-intentioned questions that stray into difficult territory- when I was interviewing when Pumpkin was still a baby, one person asked me what I did for fun. The honest answer right then was that I slept for fun. (I stammered a minute, then answered that I spent my free time with my child, but also enjoyed playing music and reading. I got that job.)

There is no great way to handle these questions, and I think everyone has to figure out their own boundaries. Many men have no idea that women generally try not to talk about family when interviewing- they are completely unaware of the fact that research shows that there is a motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus. They have never experienced any negative impact from discussing their family at work, so they don't think these are potentially harmful questions for a woman. Some people are just bigoted jerks, and are trying to trip you up. Some people view themselves as strictly fair and honestly think that these questions are relevant and that they need to know the answers to be "fair." The optimal answer will depend on which category the interviewer is in, and of course you have no way of knowing that.

Personally, I generally answer honestly but briefly and with as little detail as I can. If I am then hired into the company, one of the first things I tell HR is that they need some more interview training. If I know the HR person, I might tell him or her at the time of the interview, but this can be awkward because it introduces the risk of a lawsuit if the company fails to hire me.

Other people might prefer to decline to answer- but be aware that the more clueless interviewers might be very confused by this and you might find yourself in the awkward position of explaining why those questions aren't appropriate, so include that in what you practice ahead of time.

Those are the tips I can think of. Any specific questions you wish I'd covered? Other advice you'd like to offer? Leave me a comment!

Monday, April 07, 2014


Pumpkin turned seven on Saturday. We had a nice, small family celebration on Saturday, and then a party at an indoor jumpy place with her friends on Sunday. The party with her friends included five of her friends from school and four of her friends from day care, plus a couple of Petunia's friends because the party price was a flat rate up to 25 kids so why not. Also, it kept Petunia from bothering Pumpkin at her party.
Jumping with her sister

It is always a bit breathtaking to see the former day care buddies together- I remember three of those four from the baby room, and the fourth joined when she turned two. They are so big now, but I can still see the babies that they were. I struggle to believe that these kids are really seven.

Pumpkin is amazing me in so many ways these days. She works hard at gymnastics and has gotten quite strong, and overcome earlier fears about the high bars and the climbing rope. Her gymnastics gym has closed due to a zoning dispute- I am working on finding a new one, and quickly. She says she doesn't want to lose the strength she's built up.

She is fluent in Spanish now, with such a large vocabulary and strong reading skills that her teacher lobbied the principal and got a special dispensation for Pumpkin to visit a second grade classroom for reading. They don't usually start grade-swapping until third grade, I think. Pumpkin's teacher said that she is so far ahead of her classmates that she was unconsciously intimidating them, so it is better for everyone to have her visit the second grade classroom.

We're a bit nervous about what the future holds for us, as it is becoming increasingly clear that Pumpkin is really quite academically gifted. We're encouraged that the school is willing to try things to help her stay challenged, but we are also thinking about what else we might do. We don't really care if she is pushed as far as possible as quickly as possible academically, as long as she is still learning things at school and is not bored. But we also don't want to waste her capacity to learn, not because we want her to get "ahead" (whatever that might mean) but because she loves to learn. Honestly, so do I. I get that knowledge is power and all of that- but knowledge is also fun and I want to indulge that.

So we're doing more science things at home, and are expanding Pumpkin's computer use. The computer thing wasn't completely on purpose- we accidentally left the USB network dongle in after a software update, and she discovered that she could open a browser and search for things. I only found out because she told me about how she looked up what her little sister's name means. I guess she'd been paying attention when we Googled things for her. Then, a couple of days later, she figured out how to check the weather forecast for herself. I guess she'd been paying attention when we checked the temperature for the day, too. So we checked that parental controls were on, and we've left the internet active. We'll see how that goes. So far, she's mostly gone to Nick Jr's website to play games. I'm OK with that. Perhaps after a few months playing games, she'll be interested in trying out some of the computer languages geared at kids to make her own games. I think it helps to use a computer for awhile to see what it can do before you try to program it. Perhaps my opinion on that is skewed by my own childhood experience, though- I received a hand-me-down computer when I was in the eighth grade. I wrote a program to make it play "Ode to Joy" and then lost interest in it, because I didn't really know what else to do with it.

Speaking of music... we're also thinking about starting music lessons, but we haven't figured out the logistics of that yet. Between that and the fact that our summer commute is looking rough, it may be time to get a sitter instead of just relying on the YMCA program. The sitter could help with the after work crunch time and also perhaps be present for music lessons. We are fortunate enough to have the money to spend to make things easier, but we still have to find the time to figure out how to spend it, and that is not trivial.

But I was supposed to be writing about Pumpkin. She is still shy about speaking Spanish in front of us, but we saw her use it on our recent trip to Catalina. We were all out for Mexican food, and Mr. Snarky found himself missing a place setting. He flagged down the waiter and asked for some cutlery, but between his accent, his tendency to speak without moving his lips (also a Kiwi trait, I think), and perhaps his unusual (for America) word choice, the waiter was flummoxed. Someone else quickly supplied that he wanted silverware, but I heard Pumpkin supply that, too... in Spanish. She wasn't tentative or unsure, just quieter than the adults, so her offering was missed.

I look forward to hearing Pumpkin use her Spanish more in the future, as she gets more confident in her speaking abilities. I suspect that she'll be quick to use it when she thinks it will help. She loves to help- almost to a fault. At her recent "end of session" cheer performance, she was very concerned to help the other kids get into their correct positions. She truly just wants to help, but I confess that I cringed a bit at that. Luckily, that didn't last long, and I beamed with pride watching her do her jumps and kicks.

At her birthday party, she requested that her school friends sing her Happy Birthday in Spanish after we all sang in English. They agreed, and those girls belted out the song without hesitation. It was awesome.

But my favorite thing from this weekend was this: after the party, we came home to open gifts. Pumpkin liked everything she received- but she was particularly excited to open a toy horse. Petunia was very excited by that gift, too. Pumpkin held it close for a minute or so, and then she told us to get it out of its packaging so that Petunia could play with it. She is a wonderful big sister, and a wonderful kid. I'm looking forward to seeing what this year holds.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Weekend Links: Good Blog Posts Edition

We spent the first part of the week in Catalina with my family, having a very nice, relaxing time. We rented a house in Avalon and... didn't do much. We took the kids on a semi-submersible boat trip to see the fish. We sat at the bar on Descanso Beach and drank pina coladas while the kids (and Mr. Snarky) played in the sand. We played mini golf with the kids on the delightfully cramped course in the middle of Avalon. We ate ice cream. The kids invented a game called "beach ball," which involved my mom pitching a small, soft yellow ball (that for some reason had eyes) to Petunia, who hit it with a paddle. When it flew into the bushes or whatnot, Petunia would holler "ball girl!" and Pumpkin would retrieve the ball.

I also read two short ebooks and slept in a lot. I occasionally read some tweets, but I didn't read much else online. So I only have a few links for you this week, all from some of my favorite blogs.

Tragic Sandwich wrote about her current normal.

Bad Mom, Good Mom wrote about the power of math and data analysis.

Nicole and Maggie wrote about the power of small changes.

And now, I'm going to unplug again. Pumpkin turns 7 tomorrow and her party is Sunday. My parents are here until Monday.

Don't forget to tell me what job search questions I haven't answered and to volunteer as a beta tester or reviewer if you are so inclined! I will come answer the questions this weekend or early next week.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Job Search Tips: A Wrap Up and a Call for Volunteers

I think I've come to the end of my occasional series of posts about the mechanics of a non-academic job search. Here is the complete list of my job search posts:
If there are any topics that you really wish I'd covered and I did not, leave them in the comments. I will either answer in the comments or write another post, depending on how much I have to say on the topic.

I realized that I never told you why you should listen to my opinions about such a job search. So, belatedly, here are my bona fides:

I have been a hiring manager for more than 10 years, in small biotech, mid-size biotech, and a large contracting/consulting company. I've hired roughly a dozen people over the course of my career, into a range of positions, from entry-level to senior individual contributor. I've sat on dozens more hiring committees. And I've run several successful job searches of my own. I've also been laid off twice, and each time was sent to an outplacement service that included job searching advice.

While my own experience is all in STEM fields, the outplacement services were general, and my cohort both times included people from a range of fields. Much of the advice I give in my series of posts is similar to advice I heard in those outplacement classes, so I suspect the advice is useful beyond my specific field. I'd be interested to hear from any readers in other fields about how general you think my advice is.

I am also in the process of converting these posts to a short eBook to self-publish, partly because I think it might be useful to people to have this information organized into a logical flow with some of the points amplified, and partly because I've been looking for a project to use to try out self-publishing. I will be adding some thoughts about how to identify relevant transferable skills, and may also add in info based on comments on this post, so don't be shy about telling me what you think I've missed! You'll be doing me a favor.

I've given myself a short deadline for this project- I hope to have the book written and ready for review by some beta testers by the beginning of May, and then to get it published in early June. Yes, I know that is insane. However, I think that I need the short deadline to make sure I get this done and don't talk myself out of it.

I'm looking for a few volunteers to help me with this project. I need to find some beta testers- people who would be willing to read the book and offer feedback before publication. I also need some reviewers- people who would be willing to read the book and post a review either on their own websites or on Amazon. I will provide a PDF version of the book to both groups of people, and also my eternal gratitude.

So... if you want to volunteer for either of those roles, please do so on this handy form I set up. I won't share your email address with anyone, and I won't spam you with anything except an email with the PDF and one email reminding you of the due date for feedback or the publication date (depending on which option you choose). The book will be short- I'm aiming for about 30-40 pages in PDF format. However, I'll probably only be able to give beta testers a couple of weeks to get me feedback. Reviewers, of course, can post their reviews at anytime, but you'll do me the most good if you post near my launch date.

Want to help and don't have time to read the book right now? Well, as we all know, I suck at naming things, so you could suggest names for my book in the comments. Also, as mentioned above, pointing out missing topics and providing your thoughts on the applicability of my advice outside of STEM fields would also be helpful. Or, you can just cheer me on!


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