Friday, June 29, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Periphery of the Work-Life Discussion Edition

It has been a bruiser of a week- intense week hosting training (and vendor to provide said training) at work, an almost-sick toddler, a trip to the San Diego County Fair, and preschool graduation. It seems a bit ironic to put up links about work-life balance, since my work and life are perfectly balanced and both killing me right now. But I've come across some interesting posts that resonate with me in light of the work-life balance discussion-fest that Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic piece kicked off last week, and I just have to share!

First, a post from Dorie Clark at the Harvard Business Review about how success doesn't always come early- and that's OK. One of Slaughter's suggestions for improving the situation for mothers in the workforce is to change how we judge careers, and expect peaks, valleys, and plateaus instead of just a steady upward climb.  I agree- but wonder how much of the judgement about the valleys and plateaus comes from within us. This post is a nice reminder that not everyone reaches success in the same way. I'd add: each of us can define our own meaning of success.

Next, I clicked on this Slate article about what people really do when they are working from home expecting to hate it, but ended up liking it a lot. It captures some of the things I like about working from home- namely the chance to optimize my overall use of time. I do have one quibble, though- he mentions the fact that people confess to watching TV when working from home. From my time working in IT, I can tell you that people watch TV shows at work, too- they just stream them on their computer. We actually have seen people streaming entire feature movies, too. My opinion is that if people are not engaged by their work and want to waste time, they will find a way to do so, wherever they are.

Finally, Oil and Garlic had a nice post about accepting your life how it is, not how you imagined it would be when you were young. I think that accepting what won't be a part of your life and being honest with yourself about the type of parent you really are is a big step towards being happy with your work/home arrangement. For instance, even if I stayed home with my kids all day every day, I would never be the type of mom that comes up with cool crafts to do together. That's just not me. So there is no point feeling like I don't have time to do that sort of thing. The fact is, all the time in the world would not make crafts happen in our house. This is not to say that we shouldn't strive to achieve the thing we want. We should just be sure that we really, truly want them, and aren't just striving for a false ideal.

There were a lot of good posts directly responding to Slaughter's piece, too. I'll just call out a couple that were posted by the Harvard Business Review, as evidence that this is becoming part of the mainstream discussion in the business world: Stew Friedman writes about how work-life balance is a business performance issue, not a "women's issue", and Tony Schwartz provides some interesting historical perspective, writing about his mother's reception when she made arguments similar to Slaughter's.

Let's end with some funny stuff: The Slate DoubleX department, which I'll confess normally makes me a little annoyed, had a funny infographic of the advice from the Atlantic to women.  And this xkcd cartoon is awesome. Be sure to read the mouseover tool tip- it is the best part.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Academia to Industry Transition: Some Basic Advice

In the comments on my post about getting your first industry job, Dr. Confused asked for some advice for people who have landed the job, and are now facing the transition from an academic workplace to one in industry. I don't have a great deal of advice, and of course different types of jobs in industry will have different requirements. But I think I do have a few things that are generally applicable.

1. Get a non-work email address
A lot of academics seem to use their work address for personal email, too. This is not done nearly so often in industry. Very few companies forbid it outright, but it isn't seen as a professional thing to do. Also, you have no expectation of privacy in your work email. Yes, your boss can legally read your email. So keep the personal stuff out of it.

2. Get your own computer
A lot of companies provide their employees with laptops, and some people then treat those laptops as their own. They are not. They belong to the company. Again, you have no expectation of privacy. You may also have signed something that implies that any work you do on that laptop belongs to your employer. I've heard differing opinions about whether or not that would actually hold, but... why try? Get your own computer for your non-work use.

3. Expect a lot more meetings
A lot of grad students and postdocs are used to working on their own project in near isolation. They might have a lab meeting to attend, but no need for weekly meetings to organize project work, since the vast majority of the work is going to be done by one person. Most industry projects involve collaborating with multiple people, and that leads to meetings. If you're coming in at a PhD level, you may find that people expect you to actually run the meeting, too. Learn how to do that effectively. It isn't too hard- the key things are to have an agenda and to write down decisions and email them out after the meeting. As you get more experienced, you'll probably learn how to steer conversation and cut off time-wasting dead ends. But maybe not. I am continually surprised by the number of people who don't know how to run a meeting. If you learn how to run a meeting, you will stand out and people will be impressed. Really.

4. Expect more attention to timelines
This is not a universal thing, but it should be! Start up companies have a limited runway. They need their projects to follow timelines, because if they run out of money before the project finishes, they fail. Bigger companies are often trying to push a drug into the clinic before some deadline- again, projects need to follow timelines. This can be a really, really hard transition for academic scientists, who are often under the erroneous impression that you can't have firm timelines for research projects. You can- you just manage towards decision points rather than end points. The fact that this is such an issue sort of puzzles me, since grants have limited duration and specific aims, but I have watched many, many scientists come in and stumble on this point, so I think it is worth mentioning.

5. Respect other people's time
Show up to meetings on time. If you say you'll do something by a certain date, do it, or at least tell people ahead of time if you discover that you cannot. Since projects are collaborative, other people are organizing their work around you. Don't be a jerk and screw up their plans. This will get you a bad reputation and make it harder to find the next industry job. And yes, this may mean that you'll need to get better at estimating how long it will take you to do something. This is a skill that improves with practice, but you can also try finding someone who does similar work and is good at making estimates and asking how they do it.

6. Assume Everyone Knows Everyone
I don't know about other industries, but biotech is a small, small world. Since companies go through boom/bust cycles, people move around a lot, and meet lots of people. Even if you think there is no way that Jill Chemist would know Joe Biologist, it is an extremely bad idea to say anything negative about Joe unless you want to put your reputation behind that assessment.

Those are the big things that come to mind. If I think of anything else, I'll come add it. Readers with industry experience- what would you add?

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Peek into the Stream of Consciousness of a Working Mom

I have a half-finished post in my drafts, called "Working Motherhood, Warts and All." I have been struck by the number of places where I've come across references to the idea that some young women think women like me are selling them a false promise of happily "having it all" (there's that phrase I hate again). So, I started a post about the good and the bad in my life, with the intent of examining how much of the bad I would blame on the fact that I am a mother in the workplace.

But I don't feel like writing that post tonight. Instead, I give you a portrait of my parents, as drawn by Petunia.

Boppa is on the left, Mimi on the right. Which is obvious, of course.

And then I realized that the story of my day today and my upcoming week illustrates the points I was going to make, perhaps better than the carefully thought out post I was writing.

So I poured myself a beer, and here goes.

I woke up hard this morning. I usually wake up before the music that our alarm plays starts, and roll over effortlessly and turn off the alarm before it wakes Petunia (who is inevitably in our bed by morning these days) or Hubby. But last night was a rough night, with Petunia waking up about 45 minutes after I fell asleep, and wandering the halls a bit because Hubby, who was still awake, was completely unaware that she was up, thanks to the excellent headphones he uses when he plays his computer games.

I am always disoriented if I get woken up within an hour of going to sleep, but I did eventually realize what I was hearing, and go out and retrieve Petunia. We were both more awake than I would have liked at that point, and it took 15-30 minutes before we went back to sleep. During that time, Hubby came in and joined us, and rolled over and fell asleep within seconds. I do not think I get enough credit for not pummeling him awake at times like this.

But, tired or no, I still got up and went for my morning run. I am finding my relatively new routine surprisingly easy to stick to. I think that is because the reward was immediate. I had thought the reward would be better fitting clothes and a trimmer figure- and indeed, my pants are fitting better now, even if the number on the scale has barely budged. But actually, the real reward is that I get 20-30 minutes of quiet. One of the things that I find most lacking in my life is quiet time, when no one wants anything from me. My kids want something from me from the moment they wake up. I occasionally get some solid, uninterrupted quiet work time at work, but not much- that is not the nature of my job. I am a project manager, not a tech lead. I coordinate and communicate more than I sit in my office and work out technical problems. (Although I did solve a major technical problem last week, in a stroke of insight so sudden that I almost saw a light bulb turning on over my head. I felt smart for days.) Once the kids are in bed, my husband usually wants some time with me, and I with him. But at 6 a.m.- no one wants anything, as long as I manage to get out of the house before Petunia wakes up.

I came back from my run to find Petunia awake, whiny, and disturbingly warm. She has a history of running frequent, unexplained fevers, which usually require 2-3 days home from day care. Her temperature registered below 100 when we took it, and, thanks to a special arrangement we have with our day care, we decided to give tylenol and send her in. (While no one knows what is causing the fevers, the evidence indicates that they are not contagious.) We were convinced that we'd get a call after naptime, though, telling us that Petunia had a high fever and was miserable- when those calls come, we always go and get her and take her home, and then keep her there until the fever clears.

Unfortunately, all time off with Petunia was going to fall to Hubby- I have a packed week of user training with a vendor in town. Petunia has an uncanny knack of picking the least opportune times to get sick. I could have worked from home/taken time off with no problem last week. It honestly feels sometimes like it isn't so much that my work and my home life are in conflict as that they are ganging up on me.

But, amazingly, the call never came. I picked a happy Petunia up (along with Pumpkin) at our usual time. She was still a smidge warm tonight, and not showing much interest in eating, but she played happily- in addition to drawing chalk portraits of her entire family, she insisted on taking her push bike out for a walk, and then she helped Pumpkin and Hubby trim some flowers from our front garden.

The rest of the picture is even cuter.

Petunia and Pumpkin presenting them to me, which is sweet even though I am desperately allergic to them. I put them in my preferred child safe vase, which the observant among you will recognize as a bottle from my pumping days.

They are truly versatile little bottles!

Anyway, back to the morning. Petunia was clingy in the morning, and wanted "Mommy get me dressed. Mommy do hair. Mommy brush teeth. Mommy do su'sceen." She got 50% of her demands met, and I rushed out the door 10 minutes late. And then I got caught by the #&@%$! train at my freeway exit, and was about 15 minutes late to meet our vendor.

I had an intense day at work- good, but intense. As I mentioned, it was the first day of a week long training course that I had organized for a large group of employees who are getting some new software. We have several open items to discuss with the vendor, mostly relating to how other groups are using the same software. So, I had to get to work early (to help the vendor set up for the training), and then stay focused through an entire day of training, and then cram in some discussion of our other issues. And I get to do it all again tomorrow, with the addition of staying late and then going out to dinner with the vendor and a couple of other people. (DAMN! I forgot to make reservations. Luckily, we should be OK, since the place we're going should not be overrun on a Tuesday night. Still, I must remember to do that tomorrow.) I probably won't be home before my kids are in bed. That is a rare occurrence, so I don't mind that much, other than the fact that this probably also means that I'll get to bed late, and I am foolishly staying up late tonight, typing this post.

And we have a super busy week. (See- home and work are ganging up on me.) The San Diego County Fair ends next week, and we like to go once each year, and not on a weekend. So we're planning to leave work early on Wednesday and take the kids up to the fair. Then my parents arrive on Thursday, an event Pumpkin and Petunia have been asking about since they last left. They are coming into town because Friday, Pumpkin graduates from preschool. (I know, we all rolled out eyes at such things back before we had kids. But shut up. I suspect I'll cry.) Preschool graduation also requires leaving a little early, so between two early days and an entire week spent watching training, I'll probably need to do some work this weekend to catch up.  Plus, we'll want to take advantage of the extra (and frankly, preferred) adults to entertain the kids and get some big chores done, like going to Ikea to get the new furniture that will allow us to set up a computer in Pumpkin's room. The computer that was part of her 5th birthday gifts back in April.

So yeah, it is a crazy week, but honestly- crazy in a good way. I love my kids and I love having my career. I wouldn't want to give either of those things up. I look at all the craziness I just typed out, and the thing that actually bothers me the most is the fact that I have to get up at 6 a.m. to get some quiet time. I don't think being a stay at home parent would fix that. Quite the opposite, actually. I don't like the worries about Petunia getting sent home from day care with a fever, or the rushing off to work when she wants me to help get her ready, but to me, those are part of the price of having the life I want, and since I see no evidence that these trade offs are doing my kids any harm, I no longer feel guilt about them. I am genuinely happy with my life.

Which is not to say that I don't wish for structural changes to our society that would make life a little easier for two career families. Take one example: I was talking to one of the other moms at our soccer lesson last week, who has two daughters roughly the same age as ours. She mentioned that when her younger daughter turns 3, she will move to the preschool at the same location as the older daughter's (public) elementary school, so they'll only have to do the dreaded separate drop offs and pick ups for a few months, not the three years we are facing. And I thought, hey why can't our school have that? I know the answer, of course. She lives in a wealthy suburban school district, and I live in the city. And my state is busy decimating all levels of public education for a variety of depressing reasons. I suspect that preschool is actually funded by fees from the parents, and they aren't done in my school district because most parents couldn't afford it. God forbid the rest of society help pay for that sort of thing. I wouldn't want to ask anyone to subsidize my choice to have children, after all. (Whenever I hear that argument I want to ask the person making it to guarantee that he- and it usually is a he- will not allow my children to subsidize his retirement, not even by funding the roads and the police in the city, and certainly not by providing any income support to buy food or medicine... but then I think, I don't want to live in that type of society, one where we'd let an old man starve just because he made obnoxious arguments in his youth, so I let it go.) Then I think about how much Petunia loves her current day care and realize that we probably wouldn't want to move her, anyway. So nevermind.

And yes, I know I am incredibly lucky to have the work and life that I have. The stars have aligned for me. And I know that some people will read this post and think "and that is exactly why I decided to stay home with the kids/cut back my hours to part time/not have kids/whatever." I think those two things explain why there is an undercurrent of angst about this whole working mom thing amongst young feminists. You can't guarantee your luck, although you can make decisions that try to increase the odds of getting lucky. And no matter how much you think you know how you'll feel once you have kids, you also know deep down that you won't actually know anything at all until you're holding your first born in your arms- and maybe not even then.

Frankly, I don't know what I will want to do as my kids get older. I hear that things get harder in some ways as the kids get older, and I can believe that.  My opinion so far is that babyhood/toddlerhood is physically more demanding, both in small ways (I was struck while doing dishes tonight that I didn't have to wash any stupid little plastic parts from sippy cups, because Petunia mostly drinks from real cups now) and large ways (there was a time when getting woken once and getting back to sleep within 30 minutes would have been a very good night), but that as the kids get older, parenting gets more mentally challenging. If and when I think that I need to change how I'm running my life, I'll do that. I'd promise to come back here and tell all... but who knows if I'll still be blogging by then?

But for now, I like my life how it is. I don't pretend for a minute that life like mine is for everyone, but it is for me. I'm sorry that some people don't believe me when I say that. I also don't think that someone who chooses differently is selling out the sisterhood. It actually really annoys me when people imply that- no woman should be required to make herself unhappy just to advance the greater good. Screw that. We all deserve the chance to live the life that will make us most happy.

Which is exactly what I'm doing.

Wow, that god long and ranty. Good on you if you made it all the way through! Feel free to respond to any or all of the random things I discussed in the comments. But I'll be in that training thing all day again, and then out to dinner at night... so don't expect responses from me until later.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Bad and The Good of the Internet Edition

Let's take a break from mommy wars and whether or not women can "have it all" and talk about the crap that flows our way via the internet, shall we?
A reader sent me this excellent post about the incredibly misogynistic response to a woman's Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a look at how women are portrayed in videogames. And yes, there is a happy-ish ending- she gets lots of money. But really, the abuse she had to put up with is disgusting.

Which reminded me of that awesome video about trolls that was all over the place recently. If you somehow missed it, here it is:

Of course, the internet isn't just good for being vile to women. It also lets you steal stuff! Here is a really thoughtful response to that. And yeah, I know. Music companies and musicians need to find new business models. But that doesn't mean you should steal from them. If you don't like their current business model, the ethical response, in my opinion, is to just do without their product.

Ah, but the internet is not all bad. It gave us Dancing Matt. Here's his latest video:

His videos always make me smile, and then wish I could go traveling. I love the whole thing, but especially the ending.

But, you know, if you do want to read more about whether or not we can have it all, here are some good posts on the topic:
Add links to your favorite reactions to the Slaughter piece in the comments. Or post your favorite things that suck and rule about the internet. Or just enjoy the links and have a nice weekend!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Maybe It Would Help If We Called It Having a Life Instead of "It All"

I wasn't going to read Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can't Have It All, because the combination of the headline and the cover image made me think that this would be a continuation in the "print media flings crap at mothers and inflames another round of "mommy wars" in order to drive sales"  game that seems to be popular right now, and I wanted no part in that.

Then a reader sent me the link with a recommendation that I read it, and I'm so glad she did. I still hate the headline, because I think that to the extent that women can't "have it all" (whatever "it all" is), neither can men. When men (or women) choose to work really long hours, they are missing out on something real, too, something that could be considered part of "it all", even if they don't have kids. Life necessarily involves making choices, and when you choose options A,B, and C, you are implicitly acknowledging that options D and E aren't going to happen for you.

But I also think that people should be able to choose "be an involved parent" and "have a stellar career" as two of their options, and I agree with Slaughter's argument that there is a lot in how we organize our work lives right now that makes that harder than it needs to be- in some types of careers, far harder than it needs to be. As Slaughter points out, when this unnecessarily high difficulty level leads some good, talented, and ambitious people to decide that they can not have those two options at once, we should not blame the people forced to make such a difficult choice, but instead look at what is wrong with a system that is forcing that choice upon them in the first place.

If Slaughter stopped there, I'd say it was an interesting essay but incomplete, because it would again ignore women who have found ways to include both involved parenting and striving for a "big" career in their lives. And as long time readers of this blog know, it really annoys me when people tell me that I'm living an impossible life. To be fair, my career is nothing like Slaughter's, so I'd probably have been inclined to let that go with a shrug, not a rant. 
However, as this piece in Slate points out... most of us would consider Slaughter's career to be pretty "big". True, she felt the need to curtail it in favor of the needs of her family, but the point at which she had to curtail it is far beyond what most of us will achieve. I am not sure how much that should scare ambitious young women looking ahead to their own years of balancing career and family, since most of them will not be faced with a situation as difficult as she was. But I also know that my view on that is not only not one that all women hold, but also one that infuriates some women, so I think there is something interesting to be explored here. Unfortunately, the current "mommy wars" climate is probably not all that conducive to exploring this topic.

Anyway, Slaughter goes on and takes on the reasons for the conflict between career and family, and in my view, she gets that largely right. This is why I think you should go read the article, even if it feels like rewarding the editors of The Atlantic for their mother-baiting. The quality of the article makes up for the obnoxiousness of its presentation. It is long, but it is worth the time.
I liked seeing someone in a mainstream venue look at the work vs. family issues and conclude that the problem is with the work place, not the women. If there is anything I hate more than writing that inflames the "mommy wars" it is writing that refuses to contemplate the possibility that a work environment that is currently unfriendly to people who want a life outside of work could change without undermining the company involved. (This, by the way, is why I can't stand reading most of what Penelope Trunk writes on careers- her insistence that women, and in particular mothers, don't belong in venture-backed start ups makes me want to scream at her to go take some remedial logic training. And yes, I have worked in venture-backed start ups. Three of the five companies for which I've worked have been venture-backed. But that is a rant for a different day.)

I particularly liked a couple of quotes. Discussing the way that people subtly judge mothers in the work place, Slaughter makes a comparison between the responses to an employee who runs marathons as a hobby and to a mother :

"The discipline, organization, and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20 to 40 miles a week. But that’s rarely how employers see things, not only when making allowances, but when making promotions. Perhaps because people choose to have children? People also choose to run marathons. "

I suspect that part of the difference is that employers think that when push came to shove, the marathoner would give up running, but the mother would always prioritize her kids. That doesn't detract from her point, though, especially since I suspect employers are probably wrong about the marathoner.

Towards the end of the article, Slaughter talks briefly about what we might do to change this situation:

"If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us."

Of course, that is not very concrete. How, exactly, am I to insist that work place norms change? I don't know, and she doesn't say. But I do have some ideas about how I can help make them change, albeit in a small way. I have started being more vocal about my opinions on the importance of good planning at work. I cannot speak to government jobs, particularly at the level Slaughter was working, but in my science/tech world, 90% of the work-life balance issues I see employees suffer through are caused by bad management.* No one I know really minds having work take over their life for the rare true emergency. We resent the steady encroachment that we can see buys no real value for our employers, but that management nonetheless insists is necessary to compete. I am not yet senior enough (or obnoxious enough) to point out the bad management when I see it. But I have started talking more openly about good management practices. My team is demonstrably performing well right now- we're hitting our goals on time and within budget, and we're getting a lot done. People are noticing and asking me how we do that. I of course credit my wonderful employees, who are truly talented. However, I also say that we plan our projects out ahead of time, and that doing this makes us all more efficient. Furthermore, I have gotten more willing to speak up about work limits, and how I think regularly pushing employees to work long hours is an entirely avoidable risk to projects and often backfires. And not only has nothing bad happened to me, it seems people are listening to me, perhaps because I have a track record of bringing my projects in on time.

This favorable reception is leading me to get more serious about the idea of writing a book on project management. For the most part, scientists and engineers are not trained in how to manage projects, and the training that is out there is largely aimed at different types of projects that need far more heavy-handed management than your average scientific research project or limited scope software development project. What I do to manage projects seems obvious to me- identify tasks and dependencies, think about risks, estimate durations, allow some reserve for risk, etc.- but it is just as obvious from talking to the scientists and engineers with whom I work that it is not common in the field. Perhaps I will eventually try to help change that. 

I can make a difference as a line manager, too. We arrange our work in my group so that everyone can have a life outside of work- that is our explicit culture, I have made it that way, and I will defend it up the chain as needed. Of course, as long as we're hitting our goals, not much defense is needed. My impact is not just limited to my team, though. I speak up about the requirements for a good lactation room when necessary- and find that I am usually the only person in the room who has any idea about what those might be. Twice, I have acted as a manager to correct actions I have seen other people take that could be seen as discriminatory on the basis of an employee's status as a mother. In hiring meetings, I speak up in defense of women who have a "motherhood gap" on their resume- and yes, I'd do the same for a man with a "fatherhood gap" if the opportunity ever presented itself. These examples have convinced me of the value of having more mothers in management. To put it bluntly, I notice the problems that the men I work with are mostly clueless about. It is not my unique responsibility as a woman in management to fix those problems, but my presence in the room can help ensure that they aren't just overlooked.

But even if I never write that project management book, and even if I had no management authority whatsoever, I think I could still help change the culture of our workplaces. When someone gossips to me about how Judy is slacking off because she has a baby now, I could observe that while she may have trimmed her hours, she seems to be getting the same amount of work done, so she must have gotten more efficient. When someone tells me that Bob is always taking long lunch hours to go for a run, I could mention how it seems that getting out for a little exercise helps me find solutions to problems that were otherwise stumping me. When someone rolls their eyes when Alice joins the team after 5 years off to care for her kids, and complains about how we'll have to train her on the latest technology, I could point out that she can probably teach us a thing or two about handling competing priorities and dealing with conflict between coworkers. I am not arguing that we can fix the problems in our current work environment just by vocally giving our coworkers the benefit of the doubt. Not at all. I think most of the change needs to come down from management, and I suspect that there is a role for some government regulation (or at least leadership) in there, too. But we all contribute to the "face time" culture, and we all have at least a little bit of a role to play in bringing it to an end.  We control how we judge our colleagues. Let's start judging them on their productivity, not their presence. Who knows? Maybe management will get the hint.

*Edited to add: bad management does not mean "bad managers" and most certainly doesn't mean "bad people doing the managing." We all make mistakes sometimes. I recently made a project management mistake that led to a developer working really long hours for roughly six weeks. I felt terrible about it, and have apologized. And learned from it. But the fact remains that he had crappy work-life balance for those weeks, and it was due to bad management.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Trip Story: San Antonio to Houston

Back when we were in the early planning stages of our Big Texas Trip, we considered visiting the cities in different orders. I had initially thought we would fly into or out of Houston, just to decrease the amount of driving a little bit. But then I did some searching for flights and cars, and I discovered we could save a non-trivial amount of money by visiting the cities in the order in which we did. And then Hubby discovered that if we drove from San Antonio to Houston we could drive through Shiner, and the decision was made.

For those not in the know, Shiner is the home to the Spoetzel Brewery, which makes (among other beers) Shiner Bock, an entirely drinkable beer that a friend of Hubby's had introduced him to not long after he arrived in San Diego. The fact that this particular friend was originally from India, not Texas, and didn't actually like beer much just adds a touch of the surreal to the story.

And so, when it came time to head for Houston from San Antonio, we only took I-10 as far as Seguin. We stopped for a snack and some playtime at a park in Seguin, and then headed to Gonzales for lunch. Our guidebook promised us that its courthouse was pretty. It was. But it was hot and my mosquito bites itched and we weren't in the mood to stop and take a picture, so you'll just have to take my word for that.

We had an immensely successful if uninspiring lunch at a Pizza Hut- the girls were delighted to get pizza, and ate really well. And then we drove on to Shiner.

Shiner is a really small town, and yet it still took us several tries to find the brewery. We kept turning around near a pretty church with a large steeple. Petunia kept asking to stop there, whether due to the fact that she was tied of her car seat, the fact that the building looked interesting, or some innate religiosity, I do not know. Regardless, being the heathens that we are, we pressed on and found the brewery.

We had originally intended just to get some tasters and maybe buy some souvenirs, but we got convinced to go on the tour as well. It was not too long and reasonably interesting for everyone except Petunia, who passed the time by winning over all the older women on the tour with her big eyes and irresistible dimples.

And then we loaded everyone back into the car and drove to Houston. Our trusty GPS had its worse fail of the trip, as it directed us onto a toll road that accepted only EZ Pass. Luckily, we figured this out quickly and drove only one exit before getting off the toll road. No ticket has yet arrived in the mail. And we still managed to make it to our hotel in reasonable time. So all and all, not a bad day's drive.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Breaking into Industry

There's been a lot of talk on chemistry blogs lately about what it takes to make the transition from academia to industry. Derek Lowe has a really strong advice post, and Chemjobber has a post reacting to an article that summarized some hiring manager's reasons for preferring to hire people with industrial experience.

I went into industry directly after graduate school, so I have been asked for advice on this topic quite a bit- people who know they want to go into industry want to know how to skip doing an academic postdoc, people who are already doing a postdoc want to know how to translate that experience into industrial job offers, etc.

I never feel like I have particularly good advice to give, since my path into industry was largely paved by luck- I happened to be finishing my PhD with experience in informatics at a time when biotech was booming and informatics was a hot field. It is a very different environment now. But I do have some recommendations, based primarily on my experience as a hiring manager:

1. Network like crazy
As I said in my comment over on Chemjobber's post, the one thing that is guaranteed to make me read a resume (as opposed to just skimming it) is a personal recommendation from someone I trust. It is even better if I know the applicant personally! This is not because I am lazy or evil and don't want to give new people a chance. It is because I am busy, and if I have an open position, I have more work than people right now. I need someone who can come in and make a difference right now. I don't mind training employees- I actually expect that I'll be doing some training for all positions, since even my most senior people usually want to learn whatever skills they need to get to the next level. But I can't afford to hire someone who isn't going to be able to hit the ground running. Sadly, it is very hard to determine whether or not you are someone who can do that from your resume, or even from interviews. A recommendation from someone I trust is the best indicator there is.

Given this, I think that if I were coming out of graduate school right now, sure that I wanted to go into industry but unable to get an industry job, I would NOT do what I almost did back in the day- i.e., take a postdoc that would be prestigious to academics, but in a location without much industry. I'd take a postdoc in a location with a lot of industry, and then network. Of course, back when I was making my decision about what to do after graduate school, I was not initially certain that I wanted to go into industry. If I had ended up at that postdoc, maybe I'd still be in academia today! Also, I want to be clear that I am basing this on wild conjecture- I have no data at all on whether or not a decent postdoc in a town full of industry is more likely to land you an industrial job than an extremely prestigious postdoc in a relatively industry-free location. However, given the role networking has played in my career and the role it plays in the hiring I do and see other people do, and given the fact that it is easier to network with  people in the same geographic area as you are... I think the postdoc in the industry-rich area is the way to go if you want to eventually be in industry.

Of course, there are now more and better electronic ways to network than ever before, so please don't take that last paragraph as iron-clad "you must do this or you'll never get a job" advice, and certainly don't lapse into despair if you are currently doing a postdoc in a city with no industry. But the basic advice to network is as close to iron-clad advice as you can get. You really need to network if you want to get into industry. If you don't know how to network, there is a lot of advice about how to do it available online- including an old post of mine with some tips on how to start.

2. Consider diverse potential roles, but understand the job for which you are applying
One of the other things I mentioned in my comments over on Chemjobber's post is that it might be easier to catch a break in an industrial field that does not have a direct academic equivalent. This is again my own conjecture based on what I've seen of hiring in industry rather than hard data, so you should also take that advice with a grain of salt. However, I have seen hiring managers in fields with direct academic equivalents (e.g., medicinal chemistry, computational chemistry) get flooded with applicants while hiring managers in fields that are only loosely related to things in which you can get a degree (e.g., enterprise informatics, process development) get very few applicants, or get applicants that clearly have no idea what the job to which they are applying entails. I have myself received an unbelievable number of applications with cover letters that make it clear the applicant really wants to be working in a related field that has an academic equivalent. Needless to say, I didn't interview those applicants. Maybe they would turn out to be good at what I do, but why would I want to hire someone who says right in his cover letter that he wants to be doing something else?

How do you learn about the fields that do not have academic equivalents, and how do you figure out what to put in the cover letter so as not to have your application immediately shunted into the garbage? Conduct informational interviews! Really. If you don't have anyone close by to ask, do it via email. If you can't find anyone in your extended network to interview, check your alumni associations. I am continually surprised by how few inquiries I get from mine given the fact that I've indicated my willingness to field such inquiries. I have received a grand total of three requests from my undergraduate alumni association and one from my graduate alumni association. I graduated from college in 1994 and got my PhD in 1999. I think it is safe to say that I am an underutilized resource for the recent graduates of my college and graduate program.

3. Know the professional version of your field
Even when there is a direct equivalent of your academic field in industry, there are often differences in how that field is practiced. In most cases, the industrial version probably focuses more on reliability and less on bleeding edge innovation.  Industrial scientists don't expect new hires coming from academia to know all the ins and outs of how the field is practiced in industry- we remember the different motivations and constraints of academia, after all. But we are always pleasantly surprised when someone interviewing out of academia demonstrates that he or she understands that there is a difference, and why that difference exists. Conversely, we are deeply annoyed when an interviewee tries to tell us that we're doing it all wrong, and if we would just apply the latest techniques from academia all of our problems would be solved. Here's a hint: we do keep up on our fields. If we aren't applying the latest techniques it could be because we're lazy or uninformed. It could also be because the latest techniques do not translate well to our industrial setting- at least not yet. Regardless of the actual reason, it would be best if you assumed the latter. Insulting your interviewer is never a good interview technique.
If you are working in a field that is a hybrid between science and technology, it would be a very, very good idea to learn what non-scientist professionals in the relevant technology field consider to be good practices. For instance, if you are a programmer, learn what patterns are and how they can be used. If you are a data geek, understand the theory behind relational databases. Not all industrial positions will require this knowledge of you, but having it will open up additional opportunities for you. I am much more willing to train on specific tools and the processes required for doing my kind of work in industry than I am willing to teach the basic tenets of the "tech" side of my work. I know that most relevant academic positions neither teach them nor require their use, but they are not hidden, arcane knowledge- a simple web search would turn up many resources for anyone who wants to learn them.

4. Don't dismiss contract work
Contract and temp work can seem like a bad option, with their lack of security and lack of benefits. However, they can also be an excellent way to get your foot in the door and prove your value to a company and to build a network of people who can vouch for the quality of your work in an industrial setting.  I've personally hired several former contractors, because it provides a great way to see if someone is going to be good at the work I have and is going to fit in with the team. I am more likely to take a risk on a contractor than a full time hire, too, because if he or she doesn't work out, I can just not renew the contract as opposed to jumping through the 18 different hoops required to actually fire someone.

(Incidentally, contract work also does not have to be a financially bad choice. It should pay a higher hourly rate than a salaried full time position would, because the company is not also paying benefits. In the US, one useful rule of thumb for figuring out what you should expect as a contract rate is to figure out what your annual salary would be in thousands of dollars, and then take that same base amount in hundreds of dollars for an hourly rate. For instance, if your salary would be $75,000/year, you should make roughly $75/hour as a contractor. Of course, you may find you need to accept a little less, particularly since you don't have any industrial experience. But that calculation will at least get you into the right neighborhood. You can now do the math and understand why some people, particularly people with large networks that make it easy to find work and working spouses or other means of securing benefits, prefer contract work to full time employment. If you can get steady contracts, you can make far more money than you make as an employee. But that is a big if! And it is not likely to happen when you are just starting out.)

Of course, right now, you could do all of these things and still have a hard time finding a job in industry. I have noticed an improvement in the biotech/pharma jobs situation, but it is still a much, much tighter market than it was when I got my first industry job. That is unfortunate and unfair, and as much as I'd like to say that every industrial scientist of my generation is aware of how much harder it is for people starting out now, that would be a lie. Within any group of people there are some who are unwilling to acknowledge the role of random luck in their success, and industrial scientists are no exception.  But most of us know that it is harder now, and will try to help out when we can.


The posts I linked to at the top were quite chemistry-centric, but still contained some advice that was useful for other fields. Similarly, my advice is slanted towards computational fields, but I hope that it also contains some generally useful advice. I'm sure I'm overlooking some good advice. If I think of more, I'll post again. And if you have any ideas and/or specific questions, leave them in the comments. I can't usually reply during the work day, but I will reply eventually.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Short eBook Edition

Long time readers will probably not be surprised to hear that I have an interest in the changes underway right now in how we access written information and stories, and in how the people who write the things we read get paid. I choose to distribute most of what I write for free, but then, most of what I write is relatively quickly written and lightly edited, at best. I value the work of the professional writers who take the time to craft their words, and of the editors who help ensure it is polished and presented well. I want these people to get paid, so that they can keep doing what they are doing.

One of the interesting things about that the new electronic reading environment is the fact that it makes it easier for writers to sell short pieces of their work directly to readers, without first having to find a magazine or other publication into which it fits. Don't get me wrong- I think there is a place for magazines, too. As aggregators of interesting writing they provide me a way to judge whether or not something is worth my time, particularly if it is written by someone I haven't read before. But I also like the idea of a more direct marketplace for short works, a way for authors (and their editors and publishers) to sell things that I want to read to me directly.

So, this week, I have some short eBooks for you. They all cost money, but none of them cost very much!

First, I already mentioned Laura Vanderkam's What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfastin Tuesday's post. If you are on the fence about whether or not you want to try the "get up earlier and do something useful" routine, it might get you off the fence. But more interesting, at least to me, was the discussion of research about how mornings are a special time in terms of productivity, and why that might be. It made me rethink my morning work routine. Laura was kind enough to send me my copy for free, but I do not think I would have felt cheated if I had paid the $2.99 she and her publisher are asking for it.

Next, I downloaded The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland--For a Little While, by Catherynne Valente, before our Texas vacation, thinking that maybe I would have a little bit of time to read during naptimes. And I did! It is a delightful story, which drew me in with its almost lyrical tone. I enjoyed it far more than most things I drop a buck on. And a buck is all it will cost you.

Then, @zenmoo retweeted a tweet from the author Nick Earls, offering free downloads of his story Problems With a Girl & a Unicorn. I couldn't resist, so I grabbed it. It was an unusual story. I didn't finish it and think "wow! I loved that!" but I didn't dislike it, either. It was just... unusual. It has also stayed with me, and I've found myself thinking about it and what it means several times. This probably means that it was a better story than I initially thought. Anyway, if you're intrigued by that description, it will only cost you $0.99 to read it for yourself. If you do, come back and tell me what you think!

Finally, while I was trying to resist buying Scalzi's latest book, Redshirts, I bought an old short story of his called How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story. It was a really fun story to read. I recommend it wholeheartedly, particularly since it, too, will only cost you $0.99.

In fact... I later stumbled across an old blog post of his in which he tries out the shareware model with this story. So you could download it for free from there, and pay him whatever you think it is worth after the fact, if the payment mechanisms he references are still functioning. But personally, I think just paying $0.99 upfront is the way to go.

That blog post led me to do a little searching on his site, and I found another blog post talking about the financial side of short fiction. It is worth a read, as is Cat Valente's different take on the subject (linked from Scalzi's post). If you enjoy short fiction as much as I do, those two posts may make you search it out in your preferred electronic bookstore more often, as a way to encourage writers to make more of it. Anyway, I've started to do that.

Oh, and Redshirts? I caved and bought it at the hardcover price (Sci Fi ebooks usually come down in price when the paperback comes out). It is a great read, particularly if you are a fan of Sci Fi shows like Star Trek. The main book is fun, and surprisingly thought-provoking if you let it be. The codas are something special, and frankly I think it'd be worth reading the main story just to appreciate them.

What about you? Do you like reading short fiction and/or non-fiction? Do you have any recommendations for me?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Weekends

I intend to finish posting trip stories about our Texas vacation, for myself and the three or four other people who like those sorts of posts. But first, I have to tell you about two recent weekends, both of which involved me untethering from the network.

Weekend #1: I turned 40. To celebrate, my husband and I took two whole nights away from our (delightful, adorable, but energy-sucking) children, courtesy of my parents. We drove up to Newport Beach. The location was picked via a link @Calee sent to me after my crowdsourcing my travel plans post. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency. We had a bit of a rough start to our weekend, as there were three or four weddings being held at the hotel or nearby, and all the guests were trying to check in just as we arrived.  We had to wait for our room- luckily, the bar was fairly nice. However, the lobby was frankly not up to that level of chaos, and I was frankly not up to the required level of "being happy for others" as once I was called to come collect our room keys, I lost my place in line three times to a swarm of happy relatives all kissing the cheeks of the one relative standing in line to the left of me. To the woman who was offended by my exasperation: I'm sorry. My reaction had nothing to do with your ancestry (Middle Eastern? Armenian? I didn't know and only noticed after you got offended.) It had everything to do with the fact that I was tired of waiting for my room and desperately wanted to start my short and infrequent romantic weekend away with my husband. Also, I respond poorly to people who disrupt queues. Ask the people of Rome, if you want verification on that.
Anyway. We did eventually get into our room, and get settled in and changed for dinner. We walked to dinner at 3 Thirty 3, which satisfied my requirement of providing drinks (and dinner!) with a nice view. 
The view from our table
The next day, we had a leisurely and large breakfast at The Back Bay Bistro, which is truly right on the water- and just across a parking lot from our hotel. Then we changed into our water gear and headed across the parking lot again and around to a kayak rental place. We paddled out through the bay and up the estuary. As we paddled out past the moored boats, we indulged in a favorite kayaking activity of ours- checking out the puns in the boat names. Our favorite from this paddle was "floating point"- in Courier font, of course. Hubby spotted it first, and laughed, saying "spot the boat owned by a geek." 

Once we got into the estuary, motorized boats were banned, and it was a wonderfully peaceful paddle. There were lots of birds to watch, and also quite a few jumping fish. We had decided to go out for a paddle for old times' sake- we used to kayak quite a bit before we had kids. The beauty of the paddle was a nice bonus.

We kayaked up there!
We'd had such a large and late breakfast that we weren't really hungry for a big lunch, so after we cleaned up, we decided to just walk over to Balboa Island and have a couple of Balboa Bars for lunch. Last time I had one, it had been built up to be an amazing treat, and I was disappointed. This time I went in with realistic expectations, and was very happy with my yummy ice cream bar.

We strolled around Balboa Island a bit, and bought some "surprises" for our kids. Then we headed back to the mainland and the margaritas with a view that I wanted for my birthday. We ended up at Sol, a Mexican restaurant that is right next door to the place we'd had dinner the night before. Because of the "old Mexico" styling of the restaurant, the view wasn't as good as the night before, but that stopped mattering after a very large, very good margarita! The chips and salsa were good, too. So I was happy.

We had dinner over on Balboa Island, and ended the day with a soak in the hot tub. We had another late and leisurely breakfast the next morning (at Plum's Cafe- I can't believe we used to think there were no good breakfast places in the OC!), and then we headed south on the Coast Highway, towards home. We stopped for a light lunchtime snack and a beer at the bar that overlooks Doheny State Beach. Sitting there, it occurred to me that this spot better fit what I had said I'd wanted for my birthday- that bar has an amazing view. You sit on the patio or in one of the window tables, and look out across the coast road and the train tracks to a beautiful beach. We've driven along that stretch of road many times, and even stopped in at the bar in an earlier incarnation as a British pub once or twice. But I'd forgotten about it. Maybe next time!

We got home to a house that had been decorated for my 40th birthday party, which was great. 

All in all, a great birthday weekend.


Weekend #2: We took the kids on their first camping trip. The parents of one of Pumpkin's day care friends organized a big group of us to go camping at Dos Picos Park, near Ramona. This is a great campground if you have kids. If you don't have kids... well, you'd better like kids. They run all over the place, riding bikes and scooters around the loop road, chasing each other and laughing. There were at least two other large groups of kids there. None of them were obnoxious, but if you had booked into the campground hoping to commune with nature, you were going to be disappointed. Of course, if you booked into a campground this close to civilization hoping to commune with nature, you're a bit insane.

Don't be fooled by the trees. You won't be communing with nature here.
Anyway, Pumpkin and Petunia both loved camping. Hubby and I had fun, too, although I was very grumpy Friday night when I discovered that Hubby (who was in charge of this trip, since I'd organized almost all of our Texas vacation) had not brought pillows. I can see making do with a rolled up sweatshirt if you're backpacking. But we were car camping. We should have brought pillows. On Saturday, I drove into Ramona and bought two pillows at the Kmart. And I slept much better for it.

Other than that, it was fun. They had all sorts of activities for the kids- a nature talk (which I missed due to the need to go buy pillows), a bat hike (which I skipped out of because Petunia was tired and needed to go to bed), crafts time...

What? Don't you wear a bicycle helmet when you do crafts?
...and the Earth Ball.

Mommy and Daughter Earth Ball Time! I'm in the red shirt.
Once I relaxed into the spirit of the place, it was great to let Pumpkin run around on her own with her friends, secure in the knowledge that she was always within sight of one of the parents in the group. Petunia needed a little more supervision, but she was also doted upon by many of the parents who do not have a second kid and therefore miss the toddler phase. To be fair, she is almost criminally cute right now, with her big eyes, cute dimples, and almost there toddler speech patterns. On the first night, she and Hubby roasted marshmallows while the adults sat around drinking their adult beverage of choice and chatting and the bigger kids watched a show in someone's RV (yeah, whatever- we can worry about instilling the proper camping ethic later). Petunia passed out marshmallows to all the grown ups, and charmed everyone. During the day, she conned shoulder rides from several Daddies, who all swore they were happy to do it. I didn't quiz them too hard, though, because she is heavy and Hubby kept disappearing whenever a hike was starting, and my arms were getting tired!

Pumpkin, meantime, spent as much time as she could on a borrowed Razor scooter. She had a blast, and desperately wants one of her own. We may oblige, with a rule that the scooter only gets used at the park until she gets good at braking.

So all and all, a fun weekend. But an exhausting one. If I'm honest, I preferred weekend #1... but only because I know that I can have a weekend like weekend #2 whenever I want it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A New Routine

This is an unusual blog post for me, not for the content, but for the time of day at which I am writing it. It is 6 a.m. I would not normally be up until 6:40, unless Petunia woke up and insisted otherwise.

I don't have insomnia, or anything like that. I set my alarm and got up at 5:55. I've been doing that for almost a week (not counting the weekend).

It all started a week ago. Tuesdays are my workout days. I left work just a little later than usual- maybe 4:40 instead of 4:30. I headed towards the freeway with music on, in a good mood. But then I turned onto one of the main roads in the area in which I work, and came screeching to a halt. Traffic was unusually bad. It was early on a sunny afternoon, but the traffic looked like 5 p.m. on a rainy day. I inched along for awhile, hoping for a miracle. And then I gave up and called my husband. I'd go get the kids, I said. There was no way I'd get home in time for a full workout. I'd try for the workout again tomorrow.

I actually did get the workout the next day. But I also made a decision on the drive home to change my morning routine.

Laura Vanderkam had sent me an advance copy of her new short eBook What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Mornings--and Life. I'd read it thinking that maybe I'd pick up some ideas for what to do with my mornings once Petunia started sleeping through the night. Back in graduate school, I had once had a routine of getting up for an early morning walk (although early in those days was 7 a.m.), so I wasn't adverse to the idea of doing something other than sleeping before breakfast. However, in my mind, I couldn't do that until Petunia stopped waking up and coming to join us in the middle of the night. She'd wake up when I got up. I'd be too tired.

But the combination of my frustration at missing my workout last Tuesday and the inspiration from Laura's book changed my mind. I realized that mornings are the only time of day I control. That control is tenuous, since my kids are still young enough to need company when they wake up in the morning, but it is more than I have at any other time of the day. There is no traffic, or chief science officer wanting a late meeting, or crisis with the databases. There is just me, the crisp morning air, and whatever I want to do with the time.

So I've been getting up at 5:55. My current plan is to go for a short run on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, to do yoga on Thursdays, and to write on Tuesdays. I'll tweak that until I find the right combination of activities for me. But I think I'll keep getting up. I like having the time, my husband likes getting some snuggle time with Petunia, and the new routine is actually getting me ready for work earlier, not later.

I can't quite believe I'm getting up before 6 a.m., though. Younger me would be flabbergasted. I always thought those people who got up at the crack of dawn and didn't have to were crazy. But from where I sit now, it is the sanest decision about time I've made in a while.

What about you? What do you do in the mornings? Would younger you be surprised by what you do now?

Friday, June 08, 2012

Weekend Reading: The No Fear Edition

This week, I came across two posts about the value of resisting/overcoming the effect of fear, and a related post about what makes people aim for more impact in their work:

First, Anandi and House of Peanut was inspired by my post about how work-life balance isn't just for parents to write about how letting go of fear was instrumental in helping her achieve the work-life balance. She has a part time schedule in an industry known for long hours (technology). How did she get that? Well, for one thing she asked for it. Go read her post to learn more.

Next, Coding Horror wrote about a presentation he gave called How to Stop Sucking and Be Awesome Instead. He's got some good points. If you're intrigued by the post, I recommend downloading the full presentation, too- there's more good stuff in there.

Although they don't focus on this point, I think both writers are well aware of the role of money in supporting their "fear-free" lifestyle: if you genuinely NEED that job to put food on your table next week, it is hard to be fearless. This was sort of the point I was trying to get across in my post on buying happiness, which annoyed so many people. I may come back and try to discuss this again at some point, because I truly think that one of the best things I do with my money is save it so that I don't have that fear at work.

Finally, Cal Newport had a really interesting post comparing himself to another mathematician who has published similar, but higher impact papers. He hones in on why the other guy might be better equipped to produce papers worthy of high impact journals, but I wonder if there is also a fear component- i.e., that some people aim for a lower impact journal because they fear rejection from the high impact ones.

So what do you think? Are you fearless? Do you think that conquering fear is as important as Anandi and Coding Horror argue that it is? Is fear related to whether or not you aim high in your professional life?

I'm going to be busy and unable to check in on comments on this post much this weekend- I don't usually get a lot of comments on my Weekend Reading posts, so that probably won't be an issue. Of course, you guys will all be nice to each other discussing things in my absence! But if something weird happens and a flotilla of trolls shows up or something... I'll squash them when I can, I promise.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

More of an Explanation Than an Excuse

I want to apologize to the anonymous poster whose comment rubbed me the wrong way last night, sparking a little more snark that I usually use in my comments here. It turns out he/she did not mean the comment the way I took it, and therefore didn't deserve my snark. It was your standard case of someone misunderstanding something on the internet. I should have applied my general rule about assuming the best, not the worst, and I did not.

So, Anonymous: I'm sorry. And anonymous commenters, in general- you are welcome to comment here. Unless you're the spambot that is currently hitting a lot of my old posts (and getting caught by the spam filters). In that case, please move on. I get all the spam comments in my email inbox, and I'm tiring of them.

Also, to all my lovely academic readers: I am glad you're here, and your perspectives are always welcome. I am gratified that you find my musings interesting/helpful/diverting/whatever makes you read them. It has been roughly 13 years since I was in academia, and I do not necessarily expect my thoughts on work, life, the universe, and everything to seem relevant to people who are working in such a different environment. Please don't take my snark last night as an indication that I do not welcome you on this blog. If anything, just take it as a reminder that I am not writing primarily about academia.

And now, for the reason I was so short-tempered last night: I had to throw away a bunch of books. Not give away. Throw away. Why? Because they were so covered in mold that I did not think they were salvageable. I have another bag of slightly molded books to give away and another two bags that I desperately want to save. So if you have tips for de-molding books (mostly paperbacks- the hardcovers seemed to have been more resistant), leave them in the comments. Right now, my plan is to put them out in the sun for a while, and then try to vacuum and brush the mold off.

The mold came about because my house lacks insulation. It was built in the 50s, and apparently the consensus back then was that San Diego houses didn't need to be insulated. But, we have a heater which we use in the winter to keep the house at a pleasant 68 or 70 degrees, depending on whether I'm in one of my periodic delusions about how a warmer house will help my children sleep better. I confess: I would heat my house to 90 degrees if I thought it would make my children sleep better. Sorry, planet. I'm tired. 
Anyway, when the warm inside air hits the cold wall* moisture forms on the wall and mold grows. We've known about the mold for a few years, and I've known the solution for well over a year. We needed to add insulation to our walls. But we are only now doing that, which is pretty pathetic when you consider the fact that I have mild asthma and am allergic to many molds. In our defense, the mold only grows for a few months of the year, and it is easy to clean off the walls. Also, a borax wash seemed to be doing a hafway decent job of keeping it from coming back. (Feel free to laugh at my stupidity now as you see the weakness in this approach.) 
Still, I was tired of cleaning mold off walls once a year, and wanted it fixed for good, so I finally got around to finding someone to add insulation to our house. The insulation guys have been at our house for the past two days drilling little holes in our walls, blowing insulation into the holes, then patching the holes and painting them to match the walls. Last night, we prepped our office/guest room for the work, and my husband decided to get ambitious and go ahead and pull the CD and bookshelves away from the wall. The amount of mold on the back of the shelves was horrifying. So horrifying that we decided it would be easier to just buy a new Billy shelf from IKEA rather than clean the one we have. I decided to pull my books off the shelves and store them until we could get to IKEA. And then I discovered that there was also mold on the front of the backing to the bottom two shelves of books, and many of my books were moldy.

As I said, I'm hoping to save some of them. I hope I can, because while I enjoy owning de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Darwin's On the Origin of Species (artifacts from my college days), I can't really justify going out and buying new copies, particularly when I can get them on the Kindle for free. Sniff.

Add to that the fact that I have a bunch of interesting (at least to me) posts that I want to write and another writing project I want to work on, but was instead spending the evening shoving my increasingly stuffy nose into books to try to determine how moldy they were... and you can probably appreciate why I was grumpy. In general, the "chores" part of my life is crowding the "fun" part a little too much these days, and the "kids" part is squeezing out the "me" part more than I'd like. Neer mind work-life balance, maybe I need to write a post on life-life balance, because honestly, that is where my issues seem to lie right now.

*Overnight temperatures go down into the low 50s in the winter- I know. Frigid. San Diegans are completely climate spoiled. We think it is our right to have the temperature be between 68 and 78 degrees Farenheit (roughly 20-26 degrees Celsius) AT ALL TIMES. And when it is not, we complain bitterly of the hot/cold.When you first move to San Diego, you laugh at this, and swear you will not do that. Until you do. It takes about five years, I think.

Monday, June 04, 2012

A Project Manager's View of Long Hours

The comments thread on my recent work-life balance post and Nicoleandmaggie's recent post about productivity have me thinking about the extent to which my experience as a project manager informs my opinions about work hours and work-life balance. The answer is: a lot.

As a project manager, I view long hours by my team (and, by extension, by myself) as both a risk and a failure.

Long hours are a risk because of the issues I discuss in my work limit post. To put it simply, longer hours correlate strongly with more mistakes. I primarily manage software and other technology projects, and I would argue that mistakes (in the form of bugs) can be the biggest risk to those projects. They are certainly one of the hardest risks to manage. There is no point in the project at which we can consider ourselves past the risk caused by bugs, and there is almost no limit to the schedule and budget damage they can do. At any point, we might uncover a new bug. Most bugs are easily tracked down and resolved. But some are hard to find, and I have seen projects put months behind schedule by particularly nasty ones.

I firmly believe that an exhausted, over-stressed programmer is much more likely to make a mistake that introduces a bug than a well-rested, happy one. I know, I know. You're different. You can work long hours and stay productive! I have worked with many, many people in my 10+ years as a project manager. A lot of them thought they were the exception to the work limit rule. None were. I have never worked with anyone whose work quality didn't drop off as the hours crept up over extended periods of time.

The only exception I've seen to the work limit rule is a partial one: if you have two sets of tasks that are significantly different from each other, sometimes one can serve as a "refresher" for the other. This probably works best if one of the two sets of tasks is fairly mindless, but I've seen it work for two sets of "intense" tasks, too, if they are sufficiently different. So, if you have to both write code and produce status reports, time spent filling in the status reports may help refresh you to write more code. I don't think it refreshes you anywhere near as much as going to a movie or going home and playing with your kids would, though.

I've actually been thinking about this "two types of tasks" effect quite a bit, in relationship to writing and my job. Writing uses a very different set of skills than my day job, and I do, in fact, find that it "refreshes" me for my work. However, writing is seen as work by a lot of people, and rightfully so. So when I put in a 40-45 hour work week and another 5-10 hours writing, am I really working a 45-55 hour week? I don't think so, because for me, writing is a hobby. It is not what I depend on to feed my family or pay our bills. I might set deadlines and goals for myself (and I do!) but there is no real pressure on me. If a blog post sucks and no one likes it, no big deal. If I decide I'd rather catch up on the episodes of Sherlock we have recorded than write a new post, so what? Still, this potential issue is one of the things I'm cognizant of as I think about doing more and more formal types of writing. I can't let it start contributing to my work limit, because I use all of that on my day job. So I'm proceeding carefully.

Anyway, because I believe strongly that all people have work limits, that working past these limits leads to an increase in errors, and that those errors have the potential to delay or otherwise hurt my project, I think of long hours as a risk to be avoided. Incidentally, I'm not the only one who thinks this. And, while I've written primarily about software projects, I think other types of work have the same issues. In fact, the most spectacular demonstration of this effect I've ever seen was on a science project at a biotech company. A project needed a certain amount of purified protein by a given date, in order to supply crucial assays. Protein production was laborious and time-consuming, for both the usual reasons and more specialized reasons that I cannot discuss. A prep came ready for purification late in the day, and a lab tech was pressured by his boss to stay late and start the purification going. This lab tech was chronically overworked, partly because he had a bit of a hero complex, but mostly because his boss was a jerk and/or was clueless about how to actually manage. He was well past his work limit, and had been for weeks, possibly months. But he stayed late, and started the prep. When the rest of the team came in the next morning, they discovered that he'd put the prep on the wrong column, and essentially destroyed it. Meanwhile, the team that made the source material had to move on to another project or risk missing a contractual deadline worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and therefore couldn't produce more protein for this project right away. When all was said and done, the first project took an approximately three month delay because of this one mistake.

Now, that is an extreme example. But I actually think the more usual case is worse. Usually, small errors just get absorbed by the team, silently adding to the workload, and putting everyone under more stress. They might start working longer hours to deal with the extra work, and then more mistakes happen, and the cycle repeats. Before you know it, the project is three weeks behind schedule and you have no idea why. Ask yourself: is this sort of delay a risk you need to take?

One of the key parts of a project manager's job is the management of risk. We think about likely issues and try to put controls in place to eliminate them or at least mitigate the damage they can do. I think long hours are a risk, and luckily, there is a fairly straightforward mitigation: proper planning. When I am planning out a project (or set of projects using the same resources), I do so with the assumption that everyone is working their usual 40 hour work week- or less for the part time contractors. I plan in buffer ("slop", or to use the fancy term "risk reserve") so that little issues do not immediately send us into long hours mode. I carefully identify dependent tasks, so that unforeseen dependencies do not bounce us into long hours mode. I try to think of other potential risks and manage those. In short, I do everything I can to make sure that my team has the time and money it needs to complete the work without resorting to insane hours. While the project is running, I keep an eye on all of these things, and I actively manage communications both within my team and with other stakeholders, all with a goal of keeping us on schedule, under budget, and out of long hours mode.

Of course, I can't control for the work habits of my team members. For instance, a chronic procrastinator will often bump him or herself into long hours mode. But, as a project manager, I can recognize this work trait and try to set up intermediate deadlines so that this behavior doesn't spill over onto the rest of the team.

So when something happens, and my team ends up working long hours for more than the crunch in the last couple of weeks before release? I consider that a failure. I missed something or misplanned something, because otherwise, the extra hours would not be needed. I try to figure out what went wrong and learn from it, so that I can do a better job on future projects.

All of this means that I do not view people who routinely work long hours as heroes, or a standard by which we should all measure ourselves.If they are doing it to themselves, I think they are risks to their projects and I try to keep them off projects I run. If they are working the hours because they "have" to, I think they have crappy managers. Why would anyone aspire to either condition?