Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekend Reading: Assorted Things about Work Edition

Before I launch into the links, I have to tell you a story.... Tuesday was my birthday. My kids got me a scooter. They both have one, and so does Mr. Snarky. I was excited to get one, too, so that we can go on family scooting outings. But when I set mine up, I discovered that Mr. Snarky and the kids had selected solely on color (blue, which Petunia has declared is my favorite) and missed the bit about it being a child sized scooter. Oops.

Later that night, I tried on the new shirt Mr. Snarky got me. It is a pretty color, the right style, and has the logo of my "usual" local beer (Coronado Brewing Company's Mermaid Red) on it. It said it was my size. But when I tried it on, it was clearly sized for teenagers. Oops again. (And WTF, CBC, making shirts for teenagers?!?!?!) I told Mr. Snarky not to feel too bad, that I would just interpret the gifts as a statement on how youthful I seem.

OK, on to the links, which are an assorted collection of things related to work.

First, Joan Williams had an interesting HBR article about why men work so many hours. She pins it at least in part on a culture that has linked long hours with masculinity and status.

"Workplace norms cement felt truths that link long hours with manliness, moral stature, and elite status. If work-family advocates think they can dislodge these "truths" with documentation of business benefits, they are sorely mistaken."

It is an interesting article, but a bit depressing. I joked on twitter that we should start a "real men are efficient at work" campaign.

That HBR article mentions Results Only Work Environments, or ROWEs. I first heard about these when Hubert Joly, Best Buy's new CEO, decided to scrap his company's ROWE, even though objective measures indicate that it increases work performance. The story first caught my eye because it happened at about the same time as Marissa Mayer decided to eliminate telework at Yahoo, and I was struck by the fact that mainstream media was very, very attentive to Mayer's decision but essentially ignored Joly's decision. But I got interested in the ROWE concept, and I am now reading the book Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It: A Results-Only Guide to Taking Control of Work, Not People, by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, who pioneered the approach at Best Buy. I'm only about half way through, so I won't write a full review yet. It is giving me some interesting ideas to try to use at my job, even though my company is not a ROWE.

Moving on... @codinghorror tweeted a link to a really good essay by Alex Payne on startups, written as a letter to a young programmer just starting out.  It really resonated with me, even though I've spent my time in biotech startups not high tech ones. I think anyone considering a move to a startup should read it and think about the work environment they are about to join. As the author notes, not all startups have an "eat you alive" environment- it is worth taking the time to evaluate whether the one you are about to join does.

I found this post by Elaine Wherry about what she learned during a stint in a startup chocolate shop via Boing Boing. If you haven't seen it yet, it is well worth a read. She makes some interesting points about what is easier and harder in a tech startup versus a "physical goods" startup.

Dr. Isis has closed up shop at her blog, but seems to be writing occasionally in the ladybits section on Medium. She has a new post about mentorship that is a thought-provoking read.

And finally, Anandi from House of Peanut sent me this article by C. Z. Nnaemeka on the markets and problems not addressed by the current startup culture. My final opinion on the author's arguments is still forming, but they are certainly very interesting and thought-provoking for anyone who has considered entrepreneurship.

That's all I have. Feel free to suggest more things to read in the comments!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Timetracking and Too Much of a Good Thing

I am a huge fan of timetracking as a tool to help you improve how you use your time. To me, the results of a timetracking exercise are to time usage what an expense log is to spending money- you can have the best intentions (or budget) in the world, but what really matters is how you actually use your limited resources of time and money.  I've done several different timetracking exercises in recent years, and doing a timetracking exercise is a key recommendation in Taming the Work Week.

I have a heap of data accumulated from two recent extended stints of timetracking, and I swear that one of these days, I will carefully analyze it and write up some posts about what I learn. The exercises accomplished their goals at the time I did them, namely to help me tune up my use of time at work. I find that this is something I need to do periodically, because if I'm not paying attention, meetings and the minutiae of management will expand to fill the available space. I'll notice that I'm not doing anything fun at work anymore, and I'll do a timetracking exercise to see where the time is going as a first step to figuring out how to fix the problem.

These two recent timetracking exercises taught me something else, though, and it surprised me. They

taught me that there is such a thing as too much timetracking- at least for me. Timetracking immediately makes me more efficient in how I use my time. There is an old adage that you get what you measure, and I think that is very true. When I am doing a timetracking exercise, I am effectively measuring my efficiency, and so I get more efficient. It is not just that I see where my time is going when I look at the summaries for the weeks. I become very aware of wasted minutes as they are happening and I tend to eliminate the waste. I know this sounds like a good thing, and for the most part it is. However, even though optimization comes fairly easily to me, it is still work. Therefore, the effect of doing an extended 24/7 timetracking exercise is that I'm always working on some level- and that burns me out and causes me to spin into a week or two of extreme inefficiency.

The first time it happened, I thought I was just working too hard- it was in the midst of a very busy time at work. The second time it happened, I got the hint. I'm still tracking my time, but only at work and when I work on my non-work projects (like the next kids' book I'm writing). I learned enough about how I spend the rest of my time in previous exercises. I know my kids are getting plenty of attention, and that I should always be on the lookout for ways to optimize chores. I am aware of the fact that my weekend time tends to get fragmented, and I watch out for that now. I like the immediate efficiency boost timetracking at work gives me, so I'm hoping that by easing up at home, I can keep up my work time logs. I suspect this will be fine, since I've done it before: I was a contractor who had to charge time in 15 minute increments for more than five years. I may come back and do a week or two of 24/7 tracking every year, just to check in and see that I'm still using my non-work time on the things that matter most to me, but for now, extended stretches of 24/7 timetracking are definitely too much of a good thing.


Anytime I write about timetracking, people ask me what tool I use to do it. Originally, I used a spreadsheet I devised (and have described previously). I started wanting to track more metrics, though- I wanted to indicate when work was growth work and I wanted to track what I call my "total work hours," which are the hours I am at work or at my computer working at home, including breaks (planned or otherwise). My spreadsheet wasn't up to the task, so I went searching for a timetracking app. I found Toggl, which I love. It is free unless you want some professional features that I don't need. There is an app that I never use since I decided I will only track work time, a website that I use every work day, and a "work offline" option that I haven't explored. So far, it has done everything I have wanted it to do. It has some built in graphs and an export to Excel function that I can use when I get around to analyzing the data. There are other apps available, too, and I'm sure some are also awesome. If you're looking to do timetracking and don't want to spend a lot of time figuring out how to do it, consider just setting up a Toggl account and giving it a try.


Have you ever done a timetracking exercise? Did it have immediate effect, or did you need to analyze the data first? Also please feel free to leave other timetracking tool suggestions in the comments!

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Rambling Collection of Happiness

I fully intended to sit down and write one of the many serious posts I have on my "to write" list. But it is a long weekend, and tomorrow is my birthday, and I just had a margarita... so nothing serious is likely to come out very well.

So let's talk about some assorted good things instead.

I don't know if you've noticed this, but right after a post goes up the "You might also like" links are basically random. It takes awhile for the service to get around to indexing the new post, and until it does, the algorithm picks random posts, with a bias towards ones with photos. On my blog, this bias means there is a bias towards posts about my kids. Last week, I followed one of those random links and got sucked into reading a bunch of old posts about my kids. I really enjoyed them. It was fun to get little glimpses back into our lives at various times. So much of it disappears from my active memory within months, if not weeks.

I don't write about my kids as much as I used to. This is partially because as they get older, their stories feel less like they are mine to tell, and it is partially because my blog readership has grown and changed, and it feels a little less natural to put up a post bragging about my kid or moaning about our latest potty training problem* when I suspect that most people come here for other things.

But I'm going to write a bit about my kids, anyway, because in two years I will appreciate stumbling across this post as much as I appreciated stumbling across those old posts last week.

Petunia is getting more interested in letters and the sounds they make. She's started putting the magnetic fridge letters together in configurations that seem to her like they should mean something, and then asking her what that says. We'll usually tell her that "zumpf" is not a word, but them spell "jump" or something else somewhat similar to the "word" she spelled and show her how to sound it out. It will be interesting to see how long this phase lasts and if it proceeds directly to the next phase of pre-reading (whatever that is), or if she, like her older sister, then gets completely uninterested in letters for awhile before coming back for the next step up in skills.

She definitely enjoys being read to. During her last trip to the library, she got a book called What Happens on Wednesdays, by Emily Jenkins, with illustrations by Lauren Castillo. The story takes us through a little girl's Wednesday routine, from the little girl's point of view. When we get to the part where she walks past the day care she used to go to when she was little, Petunia always stops me and says "like me! I go to day care, because I little." And when we get to the page with a picture of a park, complete with the characteristic green sign that marks New York City parks, she tells me that it is set in the same city where Knuffle Bunny lives, and where her aunt used to live. This blew me away the first time she did it, because she's right. The author and illustrator of this book live in Brooklyn, and that is also where Knuffle Bunny lives (as we discover in Knuffle Bunny Too) and where my sister used to live. I keep meaning to ask Mr. Snarky if he told her that or if she figured it out on her own.

And she came home from day care last week with this beautiful picture of a guitar. I think someone should make a guitar like this:

A rockin' guitar
Pumpkin, meanwhile, comes home from school with entire stories written in Spanish. Her teacher started printing lines on the back of the pages they use for Spanish vocabulary practice, and telling Pumpkin she should write some sentences on them. Here is a recent effort:

Before I know it, she's going to be blogging

It is the story of our trip to Disneyland. Here is the transcript:

Me gusta Disneylandia.
Mi paseo favorito era es un mundo pequeno.
Cuando era mi cumpleanos mi hermana era triste
Mi comida favorita era helado. You vi los fuegos artificiales.
Al final del dia Yo estaba consada."

She said she had to as he teacher how to say "fireworks" but that she knew the other words.

She's getting so big and grown up that sometimes it takes my breath away. But then she does something really, really child-like and I remember that she is still pretty little, in the grand scheme of things.

So far, I'm happy with how their relationship as sisters seems to be developing. Sometimes, they play together really well, disappearing into Pumpkin's room for ages (OK, probably 30 minutes, but that seems like a lot of time with no child asking me to do anything). Sometimes, Pumpkin gets too assertive and Petunia protests. Sometimes, they fight over toys. But Pumpkin is always excited to see her little sister when we pick her up from after care, and Petunia will sometimes agree to snuggle Pumpkin instead of me when she wants snuggles on the sofa.

It will be interesting to see what they think of each other when they're older. I hope they'll still be excited to see each other at the end of the day, even when they no longer want to snuggle on the sofa.


In book news... my one piece of project work this weekend was to get Taming the Work Week added to GoodReads. If you're a GoodRead user and want to mark this book as read, to read, or whatnot... now you can!


* My completely potty trained 3.5 year old has suddenly decided she doesn't "like" to go potty anymore- to which my internal snarky voice says "hey kid, I didn't make this rule. I agree it is a bit of a design flaw, but you'll have to take it up with someone higher up the payscale..." but my responsible parenting out loud voice generally sympathizes and offers gummy bears or to get the little potty in from the garage or something... and if we're lucky, after a few minutes of this standoff, she stamps her foot, heaves an enormous exasperated sigh, and yells "Oh, FINE!" and stomps off to go potty.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Mostly Science Edition

I don't know whether the story of this week is one of an unusually hectic week kicking my butt or one of me rising to the challenge and (mostly) getting the most important things done. It is probably somewhere in between. However, it meant that I didn't do as much in support of the release of Taming the Work Week as I wanted.

Luckily, my awesome blog friends have come to my rescue. Academic Jungle posted a very nice and thorough review of the book. Laura Vanderkam wrote a post and interviewed me for her CBS MoneyWatch column. And Zenmoo posted the first review on the Amazon page. Thank you, all! More posts will come along later, and I'll post links when they come out. Amazon reviews are also greatly appreciated- my publisher tells me that they really help to sell the book.

But enough about me. Let's talk about science! I have several science and math related things for your this week:

First, an old Boing Boing article from Maggie Koerth-Baker about poison potatoes and how conventional breeding techniques can have unintended consequences.

Next, an old Science news article about the physics of the combination of corn starch and water.

This story about a big advance made by a previously obscure mathematician is nice. This should finally kill off the misconception that failing to land a tenure track job is an indication of lack of intellectual capabilities. It should, but it won't...

Finally, this story about the use of a 3D printer to save a baby's life is awesome.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ask Cloud: Exploring Industry Options and Informational Interviews

I'm stretching the original definition of the "Ask Cloud" series a bit with this post, but since it was my own arbitrary definition to begin with, I think that's OK. I have found myself typing out advice about how to look into different industry options and related advice about how to organize and conduct informational interviews several times recently, so I thought I'd combine it all into one post. I don't have a single query email to include, but roughly speaking, here is a composite question:

"I'm finishing up graduate school/my postdoc and am considering going into industry. I don't really know what options are out there in industry for someone with my background. What do I do?"

It probably won't surprise you that the short version of my answer is "network!"

But there is more to it than that.

The first step is to make sure that you can rattle off a compelling summary of your research without trouble. This is the famed "elevator talk" that networking gurus tell you to have, with the exception that you don't have to pitch it to a non-scientist. Instead, come up with a summary that is appropriate for a general science audience. This means that you can assume familiarity with basic scientific concepts (evolution, tectonic plates, the fact that proteins aren't just something in bodybuilding drinks, etc.) but you don't assume familiarity with the details and jargon of your specific field (the role of a specific protein in the cell cycle, the importance of the spotted owl in the ecology of your state, etc). Make sure you include some idea of why we should care about your research. This is usually in the first paragraph of any journal article your lab has ever published, so it should be easy to find.

Do not start networking until you can give your research summary smoothly and succinctly! Doing so may actually hurt your chances to get a job if you get incredibly lucky and stumble upon a hiring manager with an appropriate open position within the first few times you try to network. If you are now feeling terrible because you have started networking and cannot succinctly summarize your research, don't get too despondent. It is extremely unlikely that you stumbled upon a hiring manager with an appropriate open position.

The next step is to figure out what specific types of industry jobs are interesting to you. I know it is tempting to say- "I'll take any job!" but that won't help you do a search. You need to narrow it to at most 4-5 specific fields you might like to try to get into. If you don't know what someone with your degree might do in industry, you can start with some very general research. Try to find professional societies that include people with your background and read their websites. Go on LinkedIn and try searching for relevant keywords. If there are any industry networking events in your local area, go to them. Talk to people and see what they do. Do a Google search and see if you turn up any blogs- however, you'll probably notice that there are far more academic science bloggers than industry science bloggers.

Once you know what fields you are interested in pursuing, work on a short summary of those fields and why you are interested in them. This should be just a few sentences long, because you'll often want to combine it with your summary of your research, and you don't want to feel like you're telling someone your life story just to find out if they know someone who can help you.

Now you are ready to start networking in earnest. You are not at this point networking to get a job. In fact, you should never network specifically "to get a job." You are networking to plant seeds that might grow to help you get a job at some point in your career. Right now, your main interest in networking is to learn about career options in industry and to start accumulating some contacts in industry who will be able to say to a hiring manager with an appropriate job "Hey, you should check out Josephina Bloggs. I can't vouch for her science, but I had lunch with her and she seems sharp."

Representation of the industrial contacts
of the average grad student
Of course, chances are high that your current circle of friends and acquaintances are all also in academia and probably don't seem like much help. But you might be surprised. Let people know what you're interested in learning about, and they might have leads for you. Get on LinkedIn, build a network of your friends, and then search your 2nd level connections for anyone in industry. Ask your direct connection to please introduce you (via email) to this 2nd level connection, and then ask that 2nd level connection for an informational interview.

This is the step where 90% (or more) of your peers will drop out. It feels weird to reach out to someone you do not know and ask them to meet you to answer your questions. Why in the world would that person agree to do this? But I swear to you, most people in industry will say yes. Most of us remember how hard it was to make that transition from academia to industry, and are willing to help out.  Also, people like to talk about themselves. And people love to feel like an expert giving advice.

And if they don't say yes, or they blow you off, don't worry about it. Just move on to the next person. There are a lot of people working in industry, you'll find someone to talk to you.

If your immediate network turns up no leads whatsoever, try going to industry networking events, events sponsored by the relevant professional societies, or Women in Science events. Yes, you can go to most Women in Science events even if you're a man- just don't hit on anyone there. That is skeevy. Talk to the other attendees and give them your spiel about what you're interested in doing. You might meet someone who knows someone who can help- and chances are, the person you meet will offer to introduce you. If one of the speakers seems to be in a relevant field or had good advice, try to talk to him or her. The speaker may be mobbed after the talk, though, so it is often easier to talk to other attendees, and they are just as likely to be nice people with useful information or contacts.

Once you've got an informational interview set up, spend some time preparing. Do some research online so that you know the basic jargon of the field, and can ask some questions that make you sound smart. Prepare a list of questions and take it with you to the interview. You don't need an extensive list- just a few to get the conversation started. You can also always ask someone to tell you about their career path, and to describe a day in the life of someone in their job. Then let the conversation evolve and you'll probably come up with more questions on the spot.

I personally don't judge people who ask really basic questions in an informational interview. I cannot tell you the number of times I have given a basic summary of the drug discovery process, for instance. However, some people look a little askance at questions that could have been answered with a quick Google search, so do a quick Google search on the field you're interested in before the interview.

You absolutely must be prepared to give your research summary and the summary of what sorts of industry jobs you're considering. If you can't give a good research summary, your interviewee is unlikely to want to stick her neck out and tell a potential hiring manager that she thinks you are sharp. If you can't describe the information and advice you're looking for, the interviewee can't search her network for someone who can help you.

After the interview is over, you should follow up with a thank you email. If the interviewee offered to put you in touch with some other people, this is a good chance to say something like "I look forward to talking to you friends Joe Jackson and Annie Hall about opportunities in industrial underwater basketweaving." Usually, this is enough of a reminder to get someone to follow through on their offer of help. If a couple of weeks pass and you never get that introduction, though, you can reach out again with a gentle reminder. I'd say something like "I know you're very busy. I just wanted to check if you've had a chance to contact Joe Jackson, in case I missed an email." I would generally only remind someone once unless they have specifically told me to pester them until they follow through. If they don't follow through, heave a big sigh and move on to the next contact. Unless you can arrange to bump into them at an industry event, in which case your very presence is likely to remind them and trigger immense feelings of guilt in them, resulting in a belated email introduction.

You should also ask your interviewee if you can connect on LinkedIn. This will let you search their network for help in answering future questions, and may also help you out if a potential future boss is searching her LinkedIn network to see if she knows anyone who knows Josephina Bloggs, the candidate she is considering interviewing.

Those are the basic steps. I think Twitter and blogs offer some new ways to connect with people, but I also think they take more time to work. Some people (and I am one of them) will try to respond helpfully to complete strangers who send emails to their blog addresses. Other people will not, and will only respond to regular commenters. One thing I suspect might work would be to search Twitter for topics you're interested in and see if you find anyone to follow. Follow them, and maybe reply to a few tweets when you have something relevant to say. And see if that leads to a connection. I think the direct networking approach is more likely to work quickly, but if you're a year or two out from needing the connections, the Twitter approach might be worth trying.

OK, wise readers- what would you add to my advice?


There is so much more to discuss about transitioning from academia to industry. Maybe I'll write more posts in the future. But for now, here are some relevant old posts:

If you read through all of those and still have questions you'd like to ask, leave them in the comments or send me an email. I'll try to get to them in future posts.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Taming the Work Week: Out Today!

I am happy to announce that my second book is out today! Taming the Work Week: Work Smarter Not Longer is now available for the Kindle. Other formats will follow along soon.

The book had its genesis in several blog posts I wrote about productivity- most notably my post on having a work limit- and a somewhat insane decision to write a book while also working full time and parenting two children.

Taming the Work Week is a short eBook about getting the most from your time at work, so that you can also have a life outside work... and, I don't know, write a book or something. Although I used pieces of some blog posts, I also wrote quite a bit of text specifically for this book, so even long time readers of this blog will find something new.

The book is not specifically about working motherhood. In fact, I argue in it that it is best to keep the effort to bring our work weeks under control separate from parenting. My initial realizations about having a work limit occurred long before I had children. However, if you've ever wondered how I combine motherhood with having large career ambitions, this book is the answer. And it is not just me: I was at a conference for women in science on Saturday, and attended a session on entrepreneurship. The two entrepreneurs speaking both had kids, and one was a single mother. They were asked how they combined entrepreneurship and motherhood, and their answers echoed a lot of the techniques I discuss in the book.

This book has been a long time coming. I'm excited to have you all read it. I hope you'll get a copy, and most importantly, I hope that if you read it, you find it helpful.

Laura Vanderkam has a nice post about the book up today, if you'd like to read more about it. I'll post links to other reviews as they become available.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Surprisingly Profound Kid's Art: Portrait of the Artist's Mother

I think the artist is making a statement about the many different strands in her mother's life and what a beautiful picture they combine to make.

Either that, or she really likes drawing straight lines right now.

My Mommy
Artist: Petunia, age 3.5

The artist's big sister, meanwhile, was hard at work preparing for her first poster session. She's presenting her research on cheetahs. Her research supervisors are quite proud.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Weekend Reading: The More Problems Than Solutions Edition

This week's links are mostly about problems that I don't really know how to solve. That's sort of depressing, isn't it? But they're all interesting.

First: the problem of having to cook dinner every night. I used to like to cook, but I don't enjoy cooking in the incarnation in which it currently exists in my life: crammed into 30 minutes after a long day at work and a walk across Pumpkin's school in which I probably asked Petunia to please keep going at least 5 times, and with the knowledge that either it will be one of the same boring things I usually cook or two of the four people at the table will have a 90% probability of wrinkling their noses and refusing to eat it. (But oh, that 10% of the time when I make something new and one of them eats it! That's awesome.)

Let's just say that I don't find cooking for my family to be the fulfilling experience celebrated in our current cultural narrative. For me, right now, cooking is a chore that needs to be done, and not much more. So I rather enjoyed Maggie Koerth-Baker's short post "You Don't Have a Moral Obligation to Cook" and the podcast that it references, particularly this line from the podcast: "Dysfunction doesn't disappear if you cook."

Second: the problem of being judgy and/or being on the receiving end of judgy. I've made an uneasy peace with the judgmental streak that runs through our public discourse. I think that sometimes judgement is warranted, useful, and perhaps even necessary, and other times it is obviously harmful. The problem lies in the vast middle ground. I prefer to err on the side of not judging, at least partially because of the reasons Liz describes in this post about The Prada Moms and the judgment she used to aim at them.

Next: the problem of emerging diseases. I came across a story about superspreaders and their role in the SARS outbreak. It was fascinating, if it a little scary. I once worked on a biodefense project and found myself immersed in the world of emerging diseases and early detection of outbreaks. That was also fascinating and a little scary.

And then there is the problem of how to price drugs. My friend Stevil had a good "what would you do?" post on the question of drug pricing awhile back, when there was an uproar about the pricing of a new drug for multiple sclerosis. Like me, Steve works in drug discovery, and so knows something about the things that make drug discovery so expensive. Unlike me, he is the founder of a small start up, so he has even more direct experience with the expense- part of his job is to raise the funds to keep his company in business. I am also very sympathetic to the concerns of patients, so I can understand the outrage. But I think the public in general has no idea how complicated and risky drug discovery and development is, and how many aspects of it are basically never done anywhere except for at a company. Heck, even some highly educated academics think that drug companies are just doing the easy bit after public funded research does the hard part (this is not even remotely close to being true- but that is a rant for another day).

Of course, I am also a bit biased by my status as a drug company insider and the fact that this industry pays my salary. I don't really want to get into all of that (see, more problems than solutions), but I will just mention that I could probably increase my salary by ~50% if I switched to working in eCommerce and used my data management and analysis skills to help maximize your shopping experience.

The next problem is also in the drug industry, but I don't know how to label it. The problem of unfettered greed and callousness? The Fortune article about the fraud at Ranbaxy, a large generic drugs manufacturer, is so sickening that it took me three tries to actually read the entire thing. Like a lot of people in the industry, I'd heard that Ranbaxy had some problems and was under FDA supervision. But I had no idea how blatant and extensive the fraud was. If the allegations in this article are true, I think executives at Ranbaxy should go to jail. Fabricating data for FDA applications is reprehensible.

Also, I think I'll choose not to take any Ranbaxy generics.

This is a telling quote from the article:

"It is not a tale of cutting corners or lax manufacturing practices but one of outright fraud, in which the company knowingly sold substandard drugs around the world -- including in the U.S. -- while working to deceive regulators."

But even more sickening is the quote from one of the whistleblowers about how executives didn't care about selling substandard AIDS drugs in South Africa because "it was just blacks dying." That was the part where I had to stop on my second attempt to read the article.

Speaking of the problem of racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good article up about the social construction of race. The article was precipitated by the recent discussions about race and IQ.  I am so tired of earnest white researchers claiming that the data shows IQ differences based on race, so there must be in born race-based differences in intelligence. First of all, IQ is not a perfect measure of intelligence. Second, any measure that depends on test-taking is highly susceptible to stereotype threat effects. Third, the estimates I've seen by people who study brain development indicate that intelligence is probably only about 50% genetic.

All of this means that I think this is just the wrong conversation to be having about race. Let's talk about the structural things that are holding back people who aren't white in America. That is far more important than a questionable difference in a questionable measure of a complex trait that is probably only half-controlled by genetics.

This reminds me of a tweet I thought was great:

Since I'm a white woman, I am the inverse, of course. And this realization is why I'm fairly willing to forgive people who get it wrong, as long as I think they're trying to learn and get better. None of us controls the situation of our birth, and recognizing the structural things that benefit you is hard. It is hard to see past the way things have always been for you.

Let's end the links with a solution- or a partial one. I want to see more diversity in STEM fields. How to make that happen? I don't know, but I suspect that supporting all sorts of kids who want to go to science camp is a good start. I can't send every interested kid to camp, but this fundraiser for a kid in New Jersey came across my Twitter stream, and I could help him. Maybe you want to, too?

And finally, some shameless self promotion: Taming the Work Week, my short ebook on productivity, is now available for pre-order! It will be out next week.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dear Cloud: Handling Salary Negotiations

It is time for the next installment of my occasional "Ask Cloud" series.  This question is about a tough issue that I struggle with as well, so I really hope you guys weigh in with more advice for my correspondent.

Here is the question:

"Many people in industry, including the people with whom I did the contract work, and some family members, have told me that I should "always ask for more money". What is your perspective on this? And if you agree, do you have advice about how to do this? Does asking for more money impact your working relationship with the manager? And does one have to have a competing offer in order for asking for a higher salary?

I got my PhD in December and I just accepted a position as an industry postdoc. I didn't end up asking for more money, but immediately after pushing accept I felt like a bit of a sucker and thinking that maybe I should have. "
As I said, I struggle with this. It is very, very tangled up in gender- women in general don't ask for more money or ask for less than the men do. We are conditioned to try to make people happy, etc., etc. But- as I discuss (OK, rant about) in this old post- this is not an area in which women can just "be more like men" and expect to get the same results. We are penalized when we are seen as too aggressive.

But it is also true that the fact that we don't negotiate as much on our starting salaries contributes to the pay gap. Raises are almost uniformly given as a percentage of your pay, so if you start at a lower number than a male peer, you'll still end up making less money even if you get the exact same merit increases. Also, it is true that everyone expects people to negotiate when they are being hired, so it is your best opportunity to try to directly maximize your pay.

What to do? Well, I haven't really figured that one out. One piece of advice I picked up in Lean In was to frame the negotiation as a problem you need to work together to solve, thereby neatly sidestepping the perception of being aggressive. That strikes me as a good strategy, but I have not yet had the opportunity to try it out. 

Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, by Lois Frankel, also has some good tips on handling negotiations- along with a lot of other good tips and things to think about for ambitious women, so it is definitely worth a read.

But... you've already accepted the position, without negotiating. Stop feeling bad about that. There are lots of reasons you didn't negotiate, some good, some probably not so good. But it is done. You can read resources and do some role playing practice with a friend to get ready for next time, but for now, just let it go and concentrate on getting the most out of your postdoc. An industry postdoc is a great way to break into industry, but only if at the end of it, your more established colleagues will say things like "she really understands how industry works" and "she made useful contributions to projects." I know someone who contacted a friend or an informal reference on a postdoc who had worked with him, and heard "he's smart enough, but he treated this postdoc like an extension of his academic career." That candidate did not get the job. I'm not 100% sure what constituted treating the industry postdoc as an extension of the academic career, but I suspect it was focusing too much on getting publications and not enough on helping to advance the company's goals.
On the flip side, I know someone else who was hired on the strength of the fact that the colleagues she worked with during her industry postdoc thought she brought unique skills to their projects and really helped to advance them.

So, I say stop worrying about your salary in this postdoc. No one gets these tough gender minefields right every time, and you actually picked a pretty good one to flub. Everyone knows that postdocs are paid less than equivalent regular positions, so you essentially get to "reset" your salary when you land your first non-postdoc position.  Switch your focus now to learning as much as you can about how your chosen industry works and finding ways to help contribute to projects, so that people will see you as someone who "gets it." Also read Frankel's book and try to stamp out a bad habit or two. As Frankel says in her book, you don't have to be perfect at overcoming the detrimental conditioning we get as girls to benefit. Every little bit helps. The book is a quick read, and is divided into short sections, so you can squeeze it in when you have the time. Some of the advice isn't all that relevant for my particular industry, but most of it is fairly universal.

OK, readers- what other advice do you have for our correspondent? Any stellar negotiators out there want to give us all some advice? Anyone do an industrial postdoc and have words of wisdom on how to get the most out of it?

On rereading my post I realized I failed to directly answer the questions. Sorry- it has been that sort of week and I am apparently having some sort of bad karma with this post. Earlier I posted an incomplete version without realizing it. Here are the direct answers that are hiding in the rest of the post:

1. Yes, you should generally negotiate a job offer. It doesn't have to be on salary- if you're thrilled with the salary but want more time off, you can try to negotiate that, although a lot of companies have policies they won't change in that area.

2. Yes, it can impact how your manager views you, and research shows that this is more problematic for women (see the linked post in the post). That is why it is such a tricky area. And here's the really sucky thing- it can impact how your manager views you if you DON'T negotiate, too. This is a true minefield.

3. You don't have to have a competing offer, although that gives you a stronger negotiating position. You just have to have a reason you're asking for more money (or whatever) and a knowledge of what you'll accept and what you'll walk away from.  Also- be careful playing two companies off of each other. It really, really pisses people off to think they are just being used to get more money from your current company. That creates bad will, and can come back to bite you, particularly if you are working in an industry with a small world vibe- like drug discovery.

And in case it isn't clear from my main answer, I have personally flubbed this many times, so much so that I have a pattern of getting hired in and then getting a big raise in my first review. My current job is the first time this hasn't happened- this may be because if I compare my salary to what my HR contacts tell me is average for my sort of position, I'm a little above. So don't sweat it. You can recover from this one.

Readers- rescue me and give some good advice!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Not Quiet, Not Loud

I just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I initially decided to read it because I have a couple of classic introverts working for me, and I wanted to better understand their style of work.

I have always considered myself an extrovert, so I didn't expect the book to tell me much about myself. I was wrong. As I read the book, I was surprised to recognize myself in some of Cain's descriptions. It turns out, I have two attributes of extroversion: I don't mind meeting new people or speaking in public. I certainly would not strike anyone who met me as an introvert. However, I have several characteristics that Cain identifies as being part of introversion or as often coexpressing with introversion: I dislike conflict. I dislike small talk and prefer conversation about weighty topics, even with people I've only just met. And most importantly, I find being in large groups and public speaking to be draining, not energizing. If asked what I want to do for relaxation, I certainly would not say "go to a large party" or anything like that. I like parties (in moderation!) but I usually want some downtime afterwards.

I thought a little bit more about that last part, and I realized that I find the following parts of my job the most tiring: running meetings, negotiating agreements with other groups, and handling disagreements and conflict. I find the following parts of my job the most energizing: breaking down a problem and brainstorming possible solutions, analyzing options and deciding which one to implement, implementing solutions. Hmmm. So the people-oriented parts of my job are tiring, and the analytical and problem-solving parts of my job are energizing. This shouldn't surprise me. If I'm asked to say what motivates me in my work, I will invariably answer that I like learning new things and solving hard problems. I have never once answered that I like working through competing viewpoints to find a path forward that is acceptable to all parties or monitoring/gatekeeping other people's work loads so that they can get their most important tasks done somewhat on time.

And yet, as I've advanced in my career, my jobs have gotten more and more people-oriented and less and less analytical. I spend the majority of my time on the negotiating and gatekeeing and have to work hard to protect time for analysis and problem-solving. Oops.

I feel a bit unmoored by this discovery. It casts a new light on my recent career concerns. If I steered my career to such a serious mismatch between my job requirements and the things I find most energizing, what is to say I won't do it again with any changes I make?

I am unsure of what to make of this new realization about my personality. Obviously, personalities are more complex than a simple introvert-extrovert scale, and Cain makes that clear. She also mentions ambiverts (people who are in between extroversion and introversion) and discusses pseudo-extroverts (introverts who are able to act like extroverts despite the drain on their energy this causes). So what am I? An ambivert? A pseudo-extrovert who fooled even herself? Something else entirely? The correct label for me doesn't really matter, of course- but having an accurate label would at least give me something to go research as I attempt to figure out what to do next.

As it is, I'm in a muddle. How much of my current churn is due to a mismatch between my job and my personality, how much is the from the collateral damage from 15+ years of dealing with sexism (for instance, today I discovered that my recent misstep in the labyrinth continues to cause damage), and how much is just a garden variety midlife crisis?

I've also found myself surprisingly short-tempered with my family lately, and I wonder if some of that is just too much energy-draining people stuff at work colliding with having a mommy-centric 3.5 year old and a delightful, energetic but sensitive 6 year old at home. Maybe my reserves are just depleted. It makes me sick to think I'm wasting all my patience on coworkers behaving like 3.5 year olds and yelling at my sweet, wonderful, and frustrating actual 3.5 year old. I have to fix this.

So I looked at the complexity of this ball of issues, and decided I need some help. I found a counselor in my work area whose areas of expertise seemed to match my issues, and I've reached out to set up an appointment. I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I can wholeheartedly recommend Quiet as a very thought-provoking book, even if you think you're an extrovert!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Weekend Reading: The It Has Been a Tough Week So Here's Some Random Links Edition

So, sitting out two days in the middle of the week makes you behind on things. What a surprise!

Petunia is almost all better now, but not completely. And- this is fun!- it seems that when she's sick she wets her bed. Wheee! Mr. Snarky and I are both still trying to kick this cold, too. Probably the getting up at 1 a.m. to change Petunia's pajamas and strip the sheets off her bed isn't helping.

And then I had the sort of day at work today where my to do list was ambushed by my inbox.

But I don't want to deprive you of your links! I'll just deprive you of any organizing principle to the links whatsoever.

First, this is a really good open letter to white male comics. The main point of the piece is to explain why rape jokes aren't such a good idea, but it also explains part of why I don't watch much comedy anymore. Instead of being edgy and thought-provoking, so much of it is just mean.

Tressiemc had a really good post about why being able to enter and exit and re-enter the educational system is a strength, not a weakness, of our system.

Speaking of higher education, Nicoleandmaggie had some thoughts on Harvard, and Grad Lurker posted a link to the return on investment of various undergraduate colleges. It is an interesting, but an incomplete way of looking at things. For one thing, I strongly suspect that the ROI differs for different groups (race, gender, etc- see this earlier Tressiemc post for thoughts on that with respect to the "don't go to grad school" advice that is popular these days. Tressiemc has interesting things to say about higher education. If you're interested in that topic, a stroll through her archives is likely to be a bit of a time sink.) Also, Harvey Mudd is the top of the list, but since Mudd is focused on STEM, it benefits from the fact that a large number of Mudd grads are likely to go into STEM fields, which tend to make more money, particularly at the BS/BA level that the list examines. Finally, I don't think getting a high paying job is the sole purpose of higher education. I realize that is easy for me to say from my comfortable status possessing a high paying job, and I don't think getting a high paying job is a bad thing to hope for from your higher education, I just think that it isn't the only thing you might hope for.  I still had to look up my alma mater and generally waste a fair amount of time examining the list.

On a completely different topic, Laura Vanderkam had a good post about the latest incarnation of the false dichotomy between working and enjoying your life/kids/whatever. 

I found ThinReads, a site dedicated to short eBooks, via Laura's twitter feed, since they interviewed her. I haven't had time to explore it much yet, but I like the idea of a site to help me find short eBooks- as you know, I'm a fan of them.

I really liked this Salon article from Bill Moyers and Michael Winship about the gun regulation debate, and how mind-blowing it is that almost 3 in 10 Americans think they will need to take up arms in the next few years to defend their liberties. WTF, people?!?!?!?! Way to give up on democracy and the Constitution!

Let's end on a far more lighthearted note. I loved this tweet:

And these photos of London are cool, if a bit creepy.

I hope you are all healthier than we are at Chez Cloud. Happy weekend!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Sick Kids, Productivity, and the Importance of Prioritization

I was home with a sick girl today- Petunia's been running a fever for two days. Mr. Snarky stayed home with her yesterday, and today was my turn. To be honest, neither of us really minded our turn, because we're both sort of sick, too. We have an annoying low grade cold that includes a headache and a cough. And my voice is doing that thing it does when I get sick and it decides that by the end of the day I should sound like a cross between a frog and Kathleen Turner playing a role in which she is only allowed to whisper.

When she is sick, Petunia mostly wants to sit on the sofa and snuggle while we watch shows. I was able to piece together roughly 1.5 hours of work today, but that came in bits and pieces, mostly spent sending emails that would help keep my various projects on track. And of course, I had plenty of time to think about both my work and home projects while I sat on the sofa and snuggled.

I think it is interesting to look at what I do when my work time is severely compressed like this. Today, I focused on three projects. We have a big upgrade scheduled for this weekend, and I am "quarterbacking" it (tracking the tasks and making sure everyone knows when to do their part). I sent emails to make sure we were ready to go, and then sent out the email notifying the rest of the company of the outages that would be required. We have another project that is trying to get started. I read the technical specification so that the kickoff wasn't held up waiting for my input. And we have a third project that is struggling to finish, so I sent a couple of emails trying to get it over the latest hurdles. The rest of my time was spent clearing out administrative emails, so that they wouldn't consume too much time when I get back to work.

There is nothing surprising in that list- it is just an intensified version of my standard prioritization process. Every weekday morning, I write a to do list of the three to six things I want to accomplish that day. Sometimes, I'll jot down items for the next day's list towards the end of a day, but for the most part, I write the list while I drink my morning tea. It contains the most urgent and high value things that I can do that day: things in which I am holding up a project, or things that I can do that will help a project along. There is a bit of an art to writing that list- sometimes the items are obvious, sometimes they aren't. It is similar to what I said in a Twitter exchange with @creakyvoice after my kanban post-  with any project management technique, there is skill in figuring out how to structure the work, and that skill is something that gets better with practice.

Given my approach to to do lists, it is not surprising that the section about to do lists was one of the many parts of Laura Vanderkam's latest eBook, What the Most Successful People Do at Work, that really resonated with me. One of the women she profiles limits her to do list to 6 items: 3 "must dos" for the day and 3 small tasks towards bigger goals. I am not that rigid in how I structure my daily list. Some days my list skews more towards immediate deadlines, and some days my list skews more towards longer term goals. But I have always had a short daily list.

For awhile, I started letting my daily list get longer, and it crept into a two or three day list. I realized that was decreasing the utility of the list, but wasn't sure what to do about it. Then I started reading about kanban, and realized I needed a list to explicitly acknowledge the tasks that are in progress, even if they aren't on that day's to do list. I created a personal work kanban board with my backlog and in progress tasks, and switched back to true daily lists, and I have felt my days get more productive.

Maybe the years of practice in identifying the three or four top priority items makes days like today easier, or maybe it doesn't. I obviously can't do the controlled experiment. Certainly, knowing my top priority tasks (at work and at home) helps me to make the most of small pockets of time, and that is one of the things that eases the inevitable stress points in my life as a relatively ambitious and career-focused mother of small children. Kids get sick, and they rarely consult your work schedule before doing so. Petunia doesn't really care about my work deadlines, and I don't want her to. If she wants snuggles when she is sick, she mostly gets them. But even with a full day of snuggles and the fact that I also napped through half of her nap, I was able to get enough work done to keep things on track. I didn't really make any progress, but I didn't lose ground, either.

The idea of "quality time" has been so overused in the parenting realm that it has become a semi-ironic cliche, but for me, applying the same idea to work can really pay off.

What do you do when you or your kids get sick? Do you try to work, or do you let it slide?

Friday, May 03, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Modern Ethics Edition

I've got quite a mix of links for you this weekend, but the unifying theme is living ethically in these times.

First, an old article from Salon about traveling ethically. I love to travel, and I do think about how to travel ethically. This article doesn't really provide the answers for how to do it, but I think it does a decent job of raising some of the right questions, and it has links to some good resources.

Today Salon had another article about ethics- this time about buying clothes ethically. Bad Mom, Good Mom writes about this topic quite a bit, and this week she had posts about taking the wardrobe refashion pledge and the Me Made May challenge, and the impacts of those two things on her choices and behavior.

I know how to sew- I learned as a kid, and sewed into early high school. I do not currently have the time or the inclination to make my own clothes, though. It is not an activity I find relaxing. For one thing, I suck at cutting straight and that always stressed me out as a seamstress. I do, however, greatly prefer to buy fewer clothes of high quality versus a lot of low quality clothes. I'm not really into disposable fashion trends. I like high quality clothes in classic styles that flatter my body type. The trick is finding them. I've been pleased with the quality of what I get from Stitch Fix, but as much as I enjoy the serendipitous aspect of it, I do not want the number of clothes it would take to build a reasonable wardrobe solely by that approach. I suspect that I'll get at most a few fixes a year, and use them to push me out of my fashion ruts and add some variety to my otherwise pretty boring wardrobe.

I'm still planning to try out a personal shopper later this year, when my pants size has stabilized. But I'm also tempted by another online service I came across- custom shirts. Most of the online options are geared for men, but I found one called Joe Button that has a nice selection of women's button up shirts. I'm tempted because I like the way a well-fitting button up shirt looks- but I can almost never find one. I am a 38F. A structured shirt that fits my chest is usually tent-like and unflattering,  so I end up with nothing but t-shirts. Luckily, I work in a casual industry, but I'd like a few dressier options. Joe Button's website says that I can customize based on my measurements, which is a tempting idea. They use tailors based in Hong Kong.  Before I use a service like Joe Button, I'd like to do some research to see if their conditions are as good as they imply.  If I decide to give Joe Button a try, I'll let you all know how it turns out.

I have ordered clothing from far away before- I bought a pair of Sole Rebels from Ethiopa last year, and I love them (I think these are the ones I have). I don't have a problem with clothing made in other countries, as long as the working conditions and pay are acceptable (see the Salon article for more info about that). However, I'm also interested in finding some good local designers to support, assuming I can find someone here in San Diego who makes things appropriate for a 40 year old professional, and not just for 20-something beach goers. I guess I could always extend my search up to LA or even San Francisco, too. I thought that maybe I had a lead from my Stitch Fix boxes. Of the the 6 pieces of clothing I've kept, two were from a brand called 41 Hawthorn, and both of those were made in the USA. Google tells me that it is Stitch Fix's in house brand, though.

Anyway, enough about clothes. My next link is a blog post about work-life balance and being a good team leader from Jon Gallant, a dev manager at Microsoft. Anandi (who blogs at House of Peanut) sent it to me saying it was the best article on the topic she'd ever read, and I agree with her- it is a  great article. For me, caring about work-life fit is part of my ethics not just as a parent and a worker, but also as a manager. A lot of people I come across, look down their noses at management and business in general, but most people work for businesses, and the quality of the management has a huge impact on those people's quality of life. Therefore, I think that one of the most important things I need to do to be ethical at work is to be a good manager. I take the role seriously, particularly with regards to ensuring my team can have good work-life fit and that they get the career development opportunities they want. Reading posts like this one make me feel that I'm not alone in that.

My next link is an article from a guy who unplugged from the internet for a year, because he thought that maybe the internet was the source of some of his problems. It turned out that his problems came from inside himself, not the internet. It is a good read. I found it via Scalzi's post on it.

The internet does make it easier for people to be haters, though. I've written before about how I'd rather be a maker than a hater, and Wil Wheaton had a great post on that topic.

And finally, here are some everyday acts of kindness, captured courtesy of those Russian dashboard cameras that are famous for capturing accidents real and fake. It is nice to see the good things that they capture for once.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Kanban: From Work to Home and Back Again

A few weeks ago, I mentioned in my weekend reading post that I was looking at kanban ideas for project management. Kanban is a management technique that came out of Japanese manufacturing, and it is getting popular for software development projects. I am still learning about it, so I won't try to give a full description. It is a method that focus on the flow of work more than schedules, and has an explicit goal of limiting work in progress. The original reason for this was for supply chain management, I think, but it turns out to be a powerful method even for projects whose work products are produced primarily from peoples brains. The link in my weekend reading post will lead you to more information, if you're curious. I've started experimenting with it at work, in particular the idea of limiting the work in progress, and early signs are that it is going to be useful.

Before I implemented anything for my projects at work, though, I wanted to try it out. So I set up a personal kanban board for home, using KanbanFlow, a free online tool. I've been using it for about a month now, and I really like the results. I am using the default kanban board, which has columns for the backlog ("To-Do"), Do Today, In Progress, and Done. I rarely use the Do Today lane, so I may remove that. This is what my home board looks like right now:

The aspect of the kanban approach that I find most useful is the explicit recognition of a backlog, and the idea that you should limit the number of things you have in progress at any one time. I have never been the sort of person who was bothered by a long to do list, as long as I felt that everything I truly needed to do was captured on that list, and as long as I knew what needed to be done first. I had evolved a system of lists that helped with that- I had a global to do list, but then pulled out specific tasks for a monthly, weekly, or daily list, depending on my needs at the time.

Kanban takes this a step further, by encouraging me to think carefully about how many tasks I have in flight at any one time. The backlog can grow and grow, but I only move 2-3 tasks to In Progress at a time. At first, I did this just because I was trying out the system. But now I do it because it works. Moving a task to In Progress is equivalent to saying "this is my current priority." So if I have time to work on something, I can take a quick look at the board and I know which thing I should do. No more just doing what sounds most interesting, and having 20 things half done but nothing finished. Of course, I could still do that- but the visual reminder that the kanban board seems to be enough to keep me focused.

"Get the kids passports" has been on my master to do list literally for years. We've decided that we're going to New Zealand this year, though, so it was time to get it done. I moved it into my In Progress column, and it was done within a week. Same thing with "buy a new computer, " which had been on my to do list for several months. It spent roughly a week and a half in the In Progress column and is done now. Now I'm tackling checking into our options for refinancing our house and we're starting to plan our trip to New Zealand.

I also like how easy it is to throw something on the backlog, and how that is kept visually separate from my current tasks. If I remember to do something, I just pop open the board and type in a card. I can easily drag them around to prioritize my list later, if I want.

There are a lot of other features in KanbanFlow, but I make only light use of them. I've set up categories (the different colors for the tasks) and I use the subtask checklists (I love my checklists!) but haven't found it useful to try to set due dates on most things. It seems to be enough to just work on the flow of tasks. I've decided to go "all in" on this new method, and transfer all of my non-work items from my global to do list to the backlog on my kanban board. Mr. Snarky is still on the fence, but he has actually used it, which is more than I can say for the shared Google Doc that was our previous joint to do list. I think he likes the fact that he can make subtasks and also capture notes directly on the "card" for a task.

I've liked my home kanban board so much that I've set up a work kanban board, too. I'd actually prefer to have them mixed together, but my company's particular rules about putting data in the cloud preclude that. I've also given over my office whiteboard to a physical program level kanban board for all of my group's projects, and have been using that to prevent people from adding more projects to our In Progress lanes before we clear out the ones that are already there. I'm experimenting with ideas for how to use the board to avoid piling too many projects on one person at a time- we're far from ideal in that area right now, and it is showing in our productivity. There are some members of the department, most notably our director, who have a tendency to get a lot of things spun up at once. For some people on my team, that is no problem- they have their own methods for prioritizing projects and staying productive. For others, it is sapping their productivity to the point that they are practically paralyzed, as they try to move all of their projects forward at once. The board is helping us visualize the problem, and that alone is helping to solve it. I may come back and write more about that in a future post, once our use of kanban at work has had a chance to mature.

For now, though, I can enthusiastically recommend kanban to anyone who is looking for a little more order in their to do list, particularly if you find that things get started but not finished.

This is NOT a sponsored post. KanbanFlow is just one of many kanban board options out there. I've been happy with it, but as I say in the post, I haven't really given it a thorough workout. I also haven't investigated smartphone apps for kanban, but they are definitely out there. KanbanFlow doesn't have an app, but they have a mobile website. It seems fine, but I haven't used it much. I am not someone who needs constant access to her to do list, I guess.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Ask Cloud: Handling an Annoying Co-Worker

I'm starting to get more questions in my inbox, and more of the question-writers are saying I can post the question and answer on my blog. Some question writers are even requesting I post the question and answer, no doubt because they realize that my readers are all super smart and will have great ideas. So I've decided to start an occasional "Ask Cloud" series. I considered calling it "Ask the Cloud" since the questions are as much for you as for me... but then I decided that sounded pretty egotistical, like I'm not just Cloud, but the Cloud.

The first in the series was actually my Having it All: The Logistics post, and my recent Advice for a Grad Student post fits the category, too, so I've gone back and tagged those two posts with the "ask cloud" label.

And here is the next installment, from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. I've made a few tweaks to the email to protect her anonymity, but I promise I have not changed the meaning.


I have a co-worker, who I share an office with, whose behavior I find more and more grating. She's good at her job, it's more of some of her personal behavior that really gets to me. She eats at her desk (which I'm fine with), but she chews VERY loudly to the point where it's a distraction and it's all I can hear. She also…um…burps and farts throughout the day, which can get a bit disgusting. She also has a habit of talking very loudly to herself a lot, so half the time I don't know if she's trying to engage me in conversation. She also intrudes on my conversations, adding peanut gallery-type comments, when I'm on the phone or am meeting with someone in our office, and likes to make comments and/or laughs about what's on my computer (especially if I'm having lunch and am therefore just surfing the net or whatever).

I might rip my hair out if I keep having to deal with of this. But, I have no idea what to do. She does NOT take any sort of confrontation well. Once, she left our door open over night, and I told her (not even…I just said I noticed our door was left open, and did she remember closing it, and maybe it was the cleaners or something), and she got instantly defensive and saying stuff like "oh, who cares anyway?" (well, I care!). I've seen her in other confrontations as well, and she takes it horribly. So, I don't think I can talk to her directly…but it would be really weird going over her head and talking to our supervisor about this.

I try to leave the office when she's eating, but she eats at such random times, and throughout the day, that I can't manage that. I also no longer have meetings in our office, which can get annoying since I have to book rooms.

I don't know what else to do. Help!


Ah, the joys of the shared office/open plan office! Management talks about their supposed benefits for collaboration, but never about how these arrangements can make you despise your colleagues....

I'm going to answer this more from a "what I would do" standpoint than a "how to get management to solve this" standpoint, because I wouldn't take this problem to your management, at least not yet.

Realistically, there is very little a supervisor can do about these problems that you could not do yourself, so if you go directly to management, you would risk coming off as someone who wants to avoid tough conversations, which is not a good impression to make on your boss. If you have a specific solution in mind, and you don't have the authority to implement it, then it makes sense to go to your supervisor. Otherwise, I'd try to solve it on my own.

I would also think carefully about which problems I wanted to bring up, and what I could reasonably expect my colleague to change. Sometimes, there are crappy situations in a shared office arrangement that are just part of the overall crappiness of the shared office, and trying to change them will just bring about new and even crappier problems.

I certainly feel your pain. Before I was moved to my current location at work, I had the misfortune of sitting in a cubicle near two guys who were doing a cleansing diet. I learned far more than I wanted to know about the state of their bowels, but they weren't really doing anything wrong, and if I'd tried to ask them to stop, it would probably have had a negative impact on my working relationship with them.

I think you are facing three distinct problems: the noise problem, the smell problem, and the interrupting of conversations problem.

I would use headphones to deal with the noise problem. You might be able to have a graceful conversation about your coworker about trying to curb her habit of talking to herself, but I cannot think of a graceful way to have a conversation about the noise she makes while eating. Ask yourself: what would you be asking her to do? Is this something she is likely to be able to control? I don't think she can control the noise she makes while eating- at least not without a huge effort. So I'd set up a Pandora account or bring in some music or just get some noise cancelling headphones, and block out the noise from her eating and also from the almost-conversations.

It is unfortunate that you have to block the noise instead of stopping it, but that does seem to be the expectation these days.  For better or for worse, headphones are the standard answer to noise in modern workplaces. I've asked for a nice wireless pair for my birthday, in preparation for my upcoming move back into a cubicle. You can experiment with different types of music and find the type that is best for work. During the Great Cleansing Diet of 2011, I discovered that female singer/songwriters work well for me, and I currently have a nice Pandora station built around Sinead Lohan, Vienna Teng, and Tristan Prettyman that is my go to mix for at work.

The burping and farting is tougher. I don't think I'd want to confront someone on this, either- I mean, what would I be suggesting the person do? Bolt up and dash out to the bathroom whenever gas strikes? I think this is another conversation that has almost no hope of going well. If the smell was too bad to just ignore,  I think I'd take a page from medieval times and douse a handkerchief in a smell I like or bring in a little ball of potpourri, and keep that on hand to discretely breath through when the smell in the office got to me. Perhaps this is one benefit of a cubicle farm over shared offices- smells dissipate pretty quickly.

The final issue, though, I think I'd try to discuss with her. I know you said she deals poorly with confrontation, but that's just tough, because she's a grown up at work not a two year old at day care, so she'll have to deal with a conversation. You can (and probably should) continue to book a room for meetings, as a good will gesture. I think a short, impromptu conversation in your office is OK, but for anything longer, and certainly for anything planned, I'd book a meeting room. I know it is a pain, but perhaps she finds your meetings as disruptive as you find her talking to her computer. And, more importantly, you can use this to tactfully bring up the topic of interruptions.

I'd say something like this: "I've noticed that it disrupts your work when I have meetings in the office, so I'll schedule meeting rooms whenever I can. However, I cannot avoid taking the occasional phone call in the office, and I have a hard time concentrating on the call when you interject into it. I know you can't help but hear what I'm saying, but could you please wait until the call is over to talk to me about it?"

Hopefully, that would open up a conversation about boundaries and you guys could then negotiate a work environment that works for both of you. If it doesn't work out, you could ask your manager about the possibility of moving, but that is only likely to be an option if there is an equivalent or less-desirable location to move to. As a manager, I would definitely try to find you a work location that works better for you- but I might not have much latitude to do so. There are often strict rules about who gets first choice on office assignments, and in my experience, making exceptions to those rules causes more problems than it solves.

That's all I have. I don't think there is any easy way to deal with any of these problems- and problems like this are unfortunately a fact of life in workplaces that are moving away from offices to cubicles or even completely open workspaces.

Readers- anyone out there have other suggestions?