Friday, June 28, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Strange but Beautiful Things Edition

I don't have time for a long list of links this week, but I have two things to share.

First, the words and their histories in this article from Mental Floss delight me.

Second, I came across a picture I took of one of my gardening failures. I think I meant to post it but never did. This is what happens if you forget to use your green onions.

It also delights me.

Happy weekend!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On My Feet

The news today is wild, and not really in a good way. I haven't really processed all the happenings at the Supreme Court and in Texas, and even if I had, I don't have the time or energy to write a thoughtful post on them.

So I'm going to talk about shoes instead.

I recently had to buy some new sandals. I know- this sounds like a non-event. And it was a non-event until I stopped and thought about the sandals I was replacing. They were a pair of Chacos that I'd bought for our big trip. I took four pairs of shoes on that trip: the Chacos, a pair of black Birkenstock Mary Janes, my hiking boots, and a pair of Reef flip flops. Until the Chacos gave out, I still owned (and wore!) all of these, which is a testament to the quality of expensive shoes when they are expensive for reasons other than fashion, I suppose.

The Mary Janes have had to have their strap elastic repaired, but otherwise are in good condition. I don't wear them for "everyday" uses, but I keep them because I have yet to find their match for looking reasonable and being comfortable to wear while walking all day. Yes I know. I said Birkenstocks looked reasonable. But these ones do!

The Mary Janes, in San Antonio on last year's Texas trip
They come out anytime I need to wear a skirt and closed toe shoes and be on my feet all day. They almost always go on vacation with me.

I did not buy the hiking boots new for the trip, but before the trip I only wore them when I was actually hiking. During the trip, I wore them hiking, and anytime I needed to wear socks.

The hiking boots on the canopy walk in Taman Negara, Malaysia
After the trip, they were demoted to hiking-only use again, but they are still in my possession. They are definitely starting to show their age.

The flip flops have survived due to benign neglect. I am not one of those San Diegans that wears flip flops everywhere, so they only come out for trips to the beach and occasional use around the house.

But the Chacos. Well, those saw heavy wear during the trip.

At a "wildlife" center in Australia, feeding a wallaby

On the beach many places... here, in Hawaii, at the end of our trip

They are surprisingly comfortable, and are my shoe of choice for all day walking- as long as I'm walking somewhere where the sight of my toes won't give anyone the vapors. They not only keep my feet from hurting, they help keep my legs from hurting when I've been walking all days. I was so impressed by their performance on the trip that they continued to get heavy wear when we got home. They survived frequent wearings for almost 8 years. They still look reasonable and feel just as comfortable as they did from the start. But the bottom of the sole started flake off after our recent trip to Disneyland (where they kept my feet and legs happy through two days of tromping around the parks).

About to start their two day tour of Disneyland and California Adventure

So it was time to replace them. No prizes for guessing what I chose to replace them with.

Shiny new Chacos

This post was not sponsored by anything or anyone other than my happy feet!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Hodge-Podge Edition

I've got a hodge-podge of links for you this weekend, and a lingering cold that has me coughing and complaining a lot. So I'll spare you the chit chat and get straight to the links!

First, Boing Boing led me to this really nice essay by Hillary Rosner about the overwhelming effects of all the advice people give pregnant women. Rosner is a science journalist, and was surprised by how overwhelmed she felt... but it also gave her some new insights:

"Pregnancy has allowed me for the first time to understand how hard it is to tell good information from bad. As a science journalist, I make my living by being able to decipher the two, but all these warnings bewilder me. As a result, I feel like I can see a bit more clearly how misinformation can become epidemic, leading to collective panic and seriously bad policy making."

Next, staying on the parenting theme, I found a good article via @ScienceofMom, with ideas for how to ask whether their are guns in the home when your kid is heading off for a play date. Pumpkin is just now reaching the age of "drop off" play dates, so we'll need to start asking about this. I also liked @DrRachelF''s suggestion for how to ask the question:

 I have no idea how I came across this book review that hints at why education research doesn't have more influence on education policy, but it is interesting.

The Harvard Business Review had a good but rather depressing article about how companies really aren't equal opportunity employers.

Reading that reminded me of this excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates post about why we can't ignore race and just look at socioeconomic class.

"When you hear people claiming that "class" can somehow account for the damage of white supremacy, or making spurious comparisons between Appalachia and Harlem,  you should be skeptical. I have made those comparisons. But learning is the entire point of researching, writing, and reporting. I am learning that you can not simply wish the past away."

He cites a lot of research explaining why you should be skeptical. It is a good read.

I always like to end on a happy note, so- say hello to Single Mom Postdoc, a new scientist and mother who blogs! If you go and say hello you will be one up on me- the cold and pile up of deadlines at work have seriously cut into my blog commenting- but you should do it, anyway. Her first post is about being a single mom in academia, and is very good.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Following the Money, Sort Of

Ginger at Ramble Ramble is starting a new writing prompt group. I don't know how often I'll play along- the limit on my blogging is more often time than ideas- but I thought I'd at least do a post for the inaugural topic. She put up two questions as prompts this week: Why did you start blogging? and What's the best decision you ever made?

I've written about why I blog before, so I figured I'd tackle the second question. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer. I've made some good decisions in my life (and yeah, some bad ones, too, but that isn't what the question was about). But which would be the best? They all sort of build off of each other, in the way that life does.

The first decision that I remember thinking of as really important was my decision to go to The University of Chicago for college. I can't really say why I chose to apply there, but I know why I went: they offered me a full tuition scholarship. I had a couple of other scholarship offers, so it wasn't as simple as choosing the only place I could go for free. But once the acceptance letter and scholarship offer from Chicago arrived, my choice was made. It was a perfect fit for me, although perhaps not for the reasons I thought when I accepted the offer. I accepted the offer with happy thoughts of the life of the mind and other phrases from the U of C's brochures. But it was actually a perfect fit because the academic rigor started to build my confidence in my abilities. I'd had a lot of good educational experiences before college, but was rarely really challenged. I also grew up in a place that was fairly conservative and went to a high school in which many of the students in one of the dominant social groups belonged to a religion that advocated for women to take a secondary role to their husbands. My family did not believe that, and my parents always supported me in my undertakings, and made me feel like I could do anything I wanted. But I think the combination of the fact that I was rarely challenged academically and the fact that a lot of my peers believed that a woman's place was in the home led me to sell myself a bit short.

That all ended in college. It wasn't an instantaneous thing- not by a long shot. Like many people I've met since, a lot of my college peers looked at my long blond hair and generally sunny disposition and judged me to be a lightweight. My performance in my classes seemed to reinforce their opinion, and I started to see myself as a lightweight, too. Part way through my first quarter there, I was sure I'd made a mistake, and I started thinking I should transfer some place else. Having never faced much of an academic challenge before, I didn't know how to study, and although I was not failing any of my classes, I felt like I was in over my head. Then the guy I was dating at the time, whose family lived in Chicago, didn't invite me to visit him for Thanksgiving. I spent the long weekend in the dorm, a bit bored and angry. And I studied. I studied so well that I aced my chemistry exam the following week. That surprised a lot of people, including me. From that point forward, my performance in my classes improved, and I started to believe more in my own capabilities. By the time I graduated from college, with an A- grade average, I felt like I could probably handle any challenge.

As I was finishing up at college, I decided to go to graduate school. Again, I can't really say why. It just seemed like the thing to do. Of course, the graduate students I knew tried to talk me out of it- that is sort of the duty of all graduate students, to warn people considering graduate school that it isn't all that much fun. Despite their best efforts, I was not deterred. And again, the specific choice of school was influenced by money. I won a National Science Foundation fellowship, which meant that I'd be bringing my own money into whatever graduate program I attended. A lot of graduate schools essentially said "That's great!" and offered no improvement over the standard graduate student compensation package. One or two said "That's great! You don't have to be a teaching assistant if you don't want to be one." The one I went to said "That's great! You can have an extra $3000 per year."

If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that the program seemed like a really good fit for me. It did- but so did several other programs. The honest reason why I went to the school I went to for my PhD is that extra $3000 per year.

It worked out well- the program was good. It was also very customizable, and because of that I graduated with training in both science and databases, which helped me land an offer for a job at a biotech company. I also had an offer for a postdoctoral fellowship, and I really agonized over which offer to take. For once, the deciding factor wasn't the money- or not entirely the money, anyway. The biotech job paid literally twice as much as the postdoctoral fellowship, but it also offered me more independence. Looking back, I can't actually believe I agonized so much over that decision, given the huge difference in salaries, but at the time, leaving academia felt like a giant step into uncertainty.

That particular job didn't work out all that well- but it set me on a career path that has served me well. And it was at that job that I met my husband. He would not appreciate me telling the entire world the story of how we ended up together, so suffice to say that money had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

I think I can get away with saying that when I met Mr. Snarky, I was at the tail end of another relationship, although I didn't really realize that at the time. In due course, the other relationship ended, and Mr. Snarky was there, offering me another option. I tried to warn him off- he was sure to be my rebound guy, right? But he said he didn't care, and I decided to give him a chance. And here we are, 12 years and two kids later, still happy.

I don't know which of these decisions was my best one, but I'm glad I made them all the way I did. However, I also tend to think that life has a way of working itself out, most times, so I suspect that if I'd made different decisions, I would probably have gotten to an equally happy place. I don't usually agonize over decisions. I've never really tried to state my decision-making philosophy, but perhaps it is this: do what seems best at the time, and trust yourself to make the best of where those choices lead you. And if everything else seems equal, picking the option that works out best financially is a pretty good way to go.

How do you make decisions? Can you look back and pick a decision you consider your best one?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Hold the Right People Accountable Edition

I was planning a links post around the theme of various ways to make the tech world better- but then I went on a little Twitter rant about holding the men in power accountable for increasing the representation of women in high status fields, or in fact for increasing the representation of any under-represented group. And I realized that the only non-women in tech related link was an article from Bruce Schneier comparing the current state of the internet to a feudal society. That is a good article. You should go read it.

But most of the links in this post are about why women are under-represented in tech. My Twitter rant was sparked by an article by Linda Holmes about movies, and how the vast majority of the movies are about men. There was a section at the end of this post that set me off:

"Somebody asked me this morning what "the women" are going to do about this. I don't know. I honestly am at the point where I have no idea what to do about it. Stop going to the movies? Boycott everything?

They put up Bridesmaids, we went. They put up Pitch Perfect, we went. They put up The Devil Wears Prada, which was in two-thousand-meryl-streeping-oh-six, and we went (and by "we," I do not just mean women; I mean we, the humans), and all of it has led right here, right to this place. Right to the land of zippedy-doo-dah. You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says "win some, lose some" and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every "surprise success" about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock."

And that reminded me of how people expect women to fix our own under-representation in the the upper levels of the business world. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox has been pointing out for awhile now, this is not really a problem we can ask women to fix, because the women aren't the ones who have the power to change the culture and how promotions are made. The people with the most power in that regard are the people in charge- who are mostly men.

It also made me think about a post by Elizabeth Yin about what female founders really face in Silicon Valley. As she points out in her post, part of the problem is that venture capitalists (much like movie executives, probably) base a lot of their decisions on pattern recognition, looking for opportunities that are similar to successful ventures they've backed in the past. And since there haven't been a lot of female founders, there haven't been a lot of successful female founders, and so on and so on.... a self-reinforcing cycle.

If you wonder how skewed the ratios are in Silicon Valley, take a look at this series of graphics from Mother Jones showing the severe under-representation of women and non-whites in tech.

And if you want evidence that the white men in charge don't generally see this as their problem, read the first comment on that last post. (Although, in general, reading the comments on any article about women in tech is a depressing undertaking, and I don't recommend it.)

Someone named Sebastian Meisinger asks:

"How is it a problem? If it is a problem, how did it happen? What do you propose we do to fix it?"

Why is this a problem? I think it should be obvious, but since it apparently isn't, here is my answer, in the form of a tweet I made earlier this week:

Sure, techies can and do fix problems that aren't directly relevant to them. It happens all the time. But the first step is for someone who sees and understands the problem to also understand what technology can do to fix it. The relative homogeneity of the people who understand what technology can do to fix problems leads to a relative homogeneity of the problems that get tackled. This is part of the reason why we have so many apps to fix the problems (or problem-like issues) of young, well-off men. (Another part is the pattern recognition tendencies of venture capital that I mentioned above.)

I was prompted to write that tweet by coming across the Black Girls Code initiative. I have since contributed to their fundraising campaign. We all suffer from the lack of diversity in tech. We should all try to fix it.

As regular readers know, I read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and I found some useful things in it. Sandberg herself acknowledges that the changes women can make themselves are only a part of the solution. I think it is high time that we start expecting the white men in charge to start owning this problem. They are the ones with the power to change things. Their companies and organizations will benefit greatly from the new ideas and different perspectives that diversity brings. Honestly, I don't know why boards aren't demanding management teams fix this problem. Think of the market opportunities that the tech giants are not addressing!

OK, actually I do know why most boards aren't demanding their management teams fix the problem. They are just as blinded by the lack of diversity as the management teams themselves are.

We often focus on the sexists. But I think we should also applaud the men who get it right- and there are plenty of them, in tech and elsewhere. So I'll end on an upbeat note, with two examples of the men in charge stepping up and tackling the problem.

First, from the tech world, there is the example of Etsy, which has a largely female customer base but was largely staffed by men. The CTO Kellan Elliot-McCrea, recognized the problem and decided to stop trying to solve it by poaching women from other companies. Instead, he invested in developing female junior engineers. And it is working.

And finally, Lt. Gen David Morrison, the Australian Chief of the Army, delivers an amazing take down of sexists in the ranks. Watching this clip makes me want to stand up and cheer:

(I found this clip via Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon)

There are men in power who get it. So let's start expecting all men in positions of authority to get it. Let's start judging them when they fail to tackle the problem. When they shrug their shoulders and say that the problem is that there aren't enough good women or people of color to hire, let's reply, Yes, but what have you done to try to fix that? Any one of those tech giants could step in and bring Black Girls Code to full-funding in an instant. Why don't they? Let's stop obsessing about what Sheryl Sandberg gets wrong on this issue and start pointing out what Mark Zuckerberg gets wrong.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Unconnected and Probably Unrealistic Visions of Harmonious Blending of Work and Home Life

I spent some time after dinner tonight sitting at the dining table with both girls, "working." Pumpkin was doing a Scooby Doo Activity Book (made more amusing by the fact that she has not yet seen a Scooby Doo show- I strongly suspect she would consider them too scary). Petunia was doing pages from her "I Can Paste" book. I was cutting out things for Petunia to paste onto her workbook pages, answering questions from Pumpkin like "what is an imposter?" and occasionally typing a few words into this post.

It was great. I have a picture in my head of the future, with me and the girls sitting at the table. The girls working on their homework and me working on... whatever I want to be working on.  They'll occasionally ask me a question, but for the most part we'll just all be sitting there on our own things. Reality probably won't match the lovely picture in my head, but tonight gave me a glimpse of how my work and parenting could combine in the future, and I liked it.


The comments about various people's maternity leave preferences on my last post really reinforce my opinion that a "one size fits all" policy is NOT the way to go. I didn't say it in that post, but I think my optimal leave would have been ~4 months completely off, followed by ~3 months of part time work. Or something like that.

I am very sympathetic to the effort to increase maternity leave in the US, and I would prefer a uniform 1 year leave over the ridiculously short leave we have now. But I am not at all convinced that a blanket "everyone gets X amount of time off" policy is the best way to go.

I am most definitely not a policy wonk, so I don't really know what the best thing would be. I wonder if extending the paid family medical leave we have in California (and some other states) might be the way to go- instead of the 5 months at whatever percentage of my salary I ended up getting, maybe it could be up to one year, paid at 80% salary (capped at some value). It could be funded by an insurance type scheme, similar to how current paid family leave or disability leave is funded: we all pay in, and anyone who meets one of the qualifying conditions could claim. Since the employee's salary would be paid by the insurance fund while he or she was out, the employer would have the money usually used to pay the employee's salary to pay for a temporary employee or contractors to fill in during leave.

I'd keep the ability to use the leave to "top up" pay if the employee goes part time, too- we used that to enable us to split the fourth month after each child was born, and found that to be a really great option.

I'd add something to encourage more men to take the leave. Maybe assign the leave by qualifying event, and give each household a set number of months that can be split among the family members, with a maximum for each family member? For instance: 18 months total, but no more than 12 months for one person. Or something like that. 

This may not be popular, but I think there needs to be some financial cost to the employee for taking leave, if only to encourage people to think about how much leave the truly want, instead of just taking "the standard." That is why I'd have the insurance pay out at 80%- but maybe 90% with a lower cap would be more fair. I don't actually know what California's percentage is, because I hit the cap, the percentage was different for the 6-8 weeks considered disability vs. the other time that was FMLA, and I also had private disability insurance one of the two times... so it was confusing, and I never did the math. We paid a small but manageable financial price for the leave I took. I'd set up the scheme so that people at lower incomes face a smaller financial penalty than people at higher incomes.

The chances of such a scheme being enacted probably approach zero, given the current political climate. But if we don't think about what we'd really want, we might find we trade one seriously suboptimal situation for another.

Feel free to describe your ideal scheme in the comments. I encourage you to think about unintended consequences, though- as I said in the last post, there is some evidence of discrimination against women with "standard" long leaves, and I have also heard anecdotes about the difficulty of finding child care if you want a shorter leave than the "standard." The ideal scheme would minimize these two problems. I fully acknowledge that the scheme I described above may not do that, though, and may have other problems I haven't seen (feel free to speculate on those in the comments, too).


I mentioned in the last post that I was coming up for air since it was Pumpkin's last day of school and the End of Year Marathon of School Events was finally ending. But it was a short lived surfacing- I have an unusually busy schedule at work for the next 6 weeks or so- we are doing at least one "release"- either of a piece of software or a major system upgrade- every week. It should be... interesting. And we've got some things on the home calendar, too, not least of which is adjusting to doing the daily drop off/pick up for Pumpkin at a different location. So posting may be a little light for the next few weeks. Don't worry, though- I have lots of things I want to write about, so I'll be back at full strength as soon I can.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ask Cloud: Handling an Extended Leave

I have had a question about taking an extended maternity leave queued up for an Ask Cloud post for several weeks. I made the rookie mistake of not minimizing my work commitments during the last couple of weeks of the school year and have just been flattened by a parade of school events competing with work deadlines. Tomorrow is the last day of school, so I'm coming up for air. Apologies to my anonymous correspondent for the long delay in posting this answer!

Also, I want to put a caveat up front: this is a very US-centric post. I realize that some of my international readers will read it and think about nothing other than how little leave time and legal protections US workers have. This is a fair observation (and feel free to make it)- but I'm going to focus on what can be done within the confines of our current system. I agree that the US system is imperfect, and I think we should change it. However, I also think that the European systems with long leaves are not perfect. Not every mother wants to take 1-2 years off after each birth (I did not- although I'd have liked a little more time than I had), and there is data hinting at discrimination against women in hiring, even in the egalitarian Scandinavian countries in which fathers take leave, too.

I am not at all qualified to expound on the policy options that would be fairest and have fewest unintended consequences, so I'm going to skip that altogether and focus on practical advice about how to get the leave you want without tanking your career in the imperfect system we have now.

I should perhaps also provide the details of my own maternity leaves. In both cases, I took 3 months off, followed by one month of working 3 days per week (Mr. Snarky stayed home those days, and worked the other two). The first time around, I then went back at 35 hours/week until my daughter was ~10 months old, when I switched jobs. The first leave occurred while I was an employee at a contracting company at which a lot of people had shifted schedules and where part time options were fairly common. The second leave occurred while I was the head of a small department at a small biotech company. No one had done a part time schedule before, and I had to submit a plan to convince the CEO that I could make the part time schedule work. I was laid off from that job when my second daughter was a little over a year old. I do not think my maternity leave arrangement had any impact on that decision at all.

Anyway, on to the question:

Anonymous is a research scientist in a university lab. For my non-US readers, this usually means a PhD level position with more stability than a postdoc, but not a principal investigator on grants. Anonymous didn't say exactly what the position entails, but from the context of the rest of the email, I think it is pretty close to the usual definition.

She writes that she loves what she does and is happy with her position, but...

"The one thing I struggle with the most, as far as the whole motherhood/scientist thing goes, is the maternity leave.  The 12 weeks of FMLA feel too short and inadequate.  Some of my colleagues take even less.  Our university has a policy for up to 1 year leave of absence (unpaid) for employees if the department chair agrees to it. On one hand, I would feel totally out of line and guilty asking for 9-12 months leave.  On the other hand, the policy is there - why not use it?

What's your take on the length of maternity leave and the options scientist moms have (or don't have)? How would you react if one of the people on your team asked for an extended leave of absence to take care of their child(ren)?"

I have some thoughts on this, and I'd also like to bring in some thoughts on returning to the work force after a few years out (to raise kids, care for a sick parent, or whatever). I want to weave these two things together because the crux of my advice is the same in each case: to get what you want, your best bet is to spend some serious time thinking about how to make what you want attractive to your employer (current or prospective).

Let's talk about Anonymous' case first. She wants to take advantage of a policy that is in place, but that is not normally used. I think she should use the policies that are in place if that is what she wants to do, but that there are ways to do so that maximize career risk and ways that minimize it.

I would approach this from the standpoint of what she could do to help ensure her projects stay on track while she's out. Perhaps she could come in once a week for some meetings (having arranged child care- yes, in an ideal world we could bring a baby along and expect people to work meetings around the baby's schedule, but that is not the world we live in, and I think it would be particularly problematic if you're trying to pack a lot of value into a short period of time). Perhaps she'd be willing to read and answer emails once or twice per day (this was my arrangement on my second maternity leave, when I was the head of a small department). Perhaps she'd be thrilled to have a part time arrangement.

She should also do some research into sources of funding for temporary help in the lab, to fill in during her absence. This is one area in which industrial scientists have a bit of an advantage. If your department isn't paying your salary, they can often tap into that money to pay a temporary employee or contractor. I have heard that some grants allow PIs to claim funds to pay for temporary help to cover family leave, but I do not know the details. Chances are, neither does Anonymous' supervisor. Sure, he or she could figure that out after talking to Anonymous, but Anonymous will be seen as much more professional and committed to the lab if she has this information on hand. Remember, the goal is not just to take the leave. It is to return from the leave to pick up a career that has not been damaged by the time off.

I would not recommend that Anonymous broach the subject with her supervisor until she has a concrete proposal or two worked out. Speaking from experience both as an employee and as a supervisor, your chances of success with your supervisor are greater if you have solutions for some of the problems your absence will cause.

She should also think about what her response will be if her supervisor says "no." The very first extended leave I negotiated was actually not to care for a baby- it was to travel around the pacific for four months. My case was helped by the fact that I was a contractor and could time the leave to be between assignments, minimizing disruption. It was also helped by the fact that my response to a "no" would have been to quit, and my supervisor knew that. Obviously, being willing to walk away gives you a strong negotiating position, but only if that is truly an option.

And what if you do walk away for a year or more? Can you get back in?

I think the answer is "yes," but that again, there are things that maximize your chances of success and things that minimize them.

I think there are three distinct stages to taking a long leave: before you go out, while you're out, and getting back in. I'll take them each in turn.

Before you go out, you want to do everything you can to make sure people think of you as a professional with strong skills. These are the people who you'll need to help you back in- so leave them thinking well of you. Obviously, you're awesome and have been doing awesome work and have an appropriately awesome reputation. Don't blow this by showing obvious signs of "short-timer's syndrome" as your end date draws near. Proactively working with your supervisor and colleagues on a transition plan would be a great idea. Look at the advice I gave Anonymous about handling a 9-12 month leave, and think about whether any of it makes sense in your case. Can you offer to answer questions if they come up in the weeks and months right after you go out? Can you help recruit and/or train your successor?

While you're out, consider taking steps to stay somewhat connected to your career. Obviously, you want to make sure this doesn't interfere with the primary purpose of taking the leave- if you are taking time out to focus on your kids, by all means, make them your primary focus. But if you decide you want some sort of outlet for the parts of you that aren't all about mothering, why not make that outlet relevant to your career? Ideas I've seen for keeping a connection with your career are to take a class, work to finish off a paper, offer to collaborate with a former adviser on a review article, and participate in a relevant volunteer project. At the very least, try to keep your network active. Go to lunch with colleagues. Look for a local conference that you can attend. Things like that.

When it comes time to get back in, you're going to need your network. I have to be honest: your chances of being hired into a position based on sending a resume in to a job listing are slim in any circumstances, but are next to none if you have anything on your resume that needs explanation- like a gap of several years since your last position. However, you CAN get back in. I have personally hired women back in after breaks. In every case, I made the hire based on a glowing recommendation from someone who knew the woman in question and went out of his way to make the recommendation.

You can also think about options such as being a temporary employee and contracting. Contracting reduces the risk for the hiring manager. Hiring is a PITA, but firing really sucks. Really. No one wants to make a hiring mistake. Contract to hire positions let the hiring manager test you out and see if you are really going to be a fast learner who quickly picks up the things that have changed during your absence from the workforce. A temporary position gets something current on your resume, even if you have to run another search in a few months.

I have seen people recommend going back to do another postdoc, and I know people for whom that has worked well. If you are going the contracting route, you can also consider offering a short term discount on your rates while you get up to speed. I know a couple of people who have used that technique successfully, as well.

My final bit of advice applies during all stages, and should be obvious, but is clearly not, since I've seen it violated so many times: don't diss the women who have made different choices. I was at a women in science event recently, and during a discussion of work-life balance, one woman got up and basically delivered a rant on why employers should help her back into the workforce. Her argument seemed to be that since she had made the sacrifice for the good of her children, who were spared the inferior experience of day care and also the parade of day care illnesses thanks to her willingness to stay home with them, employers should have to help her back in.

Um, no. Employers don't really owe you anything. The hiring manager might be an incredibly nice person, and is perhaps even sympathetic to your argument. But if you aren't going to help solve his or her problems, you aren't going to get hired. It is not about you. It is about them.

I actually tried to find the woman who gave the rant after the session ended, but could not. So I will tell you what I wanted to tell her: it is fine that she thinks that staying home was the best thing for her kids. But her rant broke the cardinal rule of job searching: never sound bitter. No one wants to hire someone who might turn out to be a congenital complainer. Also, she delivered a neat slap in the face to some of the people who are best positioned to be her allies on her way back in- mothers who chose to stay in the workforce, but who know full well what skills you are likely to develop as a mother. (I've always said that anyone who can consistently get more than one kid out of the house on time would make an excellent release manager, and probably also has the skills to be a project manager....) She should take a break from the networking events until she can be less angry about her experience- or at least hide that anger better. Is that fair? Maybe not. But it is real.

Having written all of this, I want to emphasize: these are the opinions of one woman. I have both taken slightly unusual leaves and seen my career survive and hired women back in after two or more years out of the workforce. However, my advice is purely anecdotal. I do not have data on what works best. Going off the "normal" path is inherently risky. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it- a lot of great things in life come with risks. The way to handle risks isn't necessarily to avoid them, it is to analyze them and figure out how to minimize the chances of negative things happening while you pursue the things you want to do. To do that, you have to be honest with yourself about the risks, and make sure that you are truly OK with taking them.

OK, readers- what ideas and opinions do you have for our anonymous correspondent who wants a 9-12 month maternity leave or for the hypothetical person considering taking a multi-year break from the workforce?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Heavy and Light Edition

I am trapped at my desk, monitoring a big upgrade my team is doing. My roll is minor- to tell people when to do the next step, and to make decisions when things don't go quite as planned. But I have to be online, because I don't want anyone to waste their weekend time waiting for a decision from me. Luckily, I have a weekend links post to write! I have a mix of serious links and fluff today. So, to the links. Let's do the serious things first:

First, several people in my Twitter feed tweeted out a link to this article in which a woman answers a letter from a Harvard professor who was concerned about her ability to balance family and career- 52 years after she received it. It is a good read.

This article in Salon about a bus driver who was fired for posting on Facebook about a student who said he was denied lunch highlights the shortcomings of the free/reduced cost school lunch program in many places. I think the level of food insecurity we have in the US is shameful. I think this is one of the problems that we convince ourselves is intractable, but the experience in other countries tells us otherwise. We are such a rich country. We could solve this problem if we wanted to.

Finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates replies to a question about what advice he would give to kids. The question is phrased for advice for poor urban kids in a specific location, but Coates answers more generally, and I think his answer is brilliant. I won't try to summarize it. Just go read it.

It reminds me of an experience I had in 6th grade that has stuck with me. There was a kid in my class who was the class clown, and was frequently in trouble. Let's call him Joe. His family originally came from Mexico, but he had been born in the US. This family history shouldn't have mattered- but it did, as I learned. One day, we were doing a project in class and the teacher paired us up. I was paired with Joe. In the course of the project, I realized he was clearly just as smart as I was, although he rarely showed that in class. We got to talking about our career aspirations. At the time, I wanted to be either a doctor or an anthropologist. Joe said he wanted to be a mechanic.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a mechanic (or being a mechanic). It is a fine career goal, and I do not mean to disparage it at all. What struck me, though, was why Joe wanted to be a mechanic, and how he reacted to my question about that. He had an uncle who was a mechanic, and that uncle was the most successful person he knew. To Joe, mechanic was as high as he could aim.  It wasn't that he'd considered being a doctor or an anthropologist or President or what not and decided that they didn't sound as good as being a mechanic. It was that he didn't consider those other options at all. It was clear from how he answered me that he hadn't even thought he might go to college. I, meanwhile, had dreams that required not just college but post-graduate degrees.

I was just 12 years old. I didn't really understand why Joe and I had such different ideas about the limits on our lives. I knew I lived in a slightly nicer neighborhood, and of course I knew I was white and he was Hispanic. I had, up until that point, not really thought much about what those things meant to the rest of our lives, and to be honest, I didn't really think much about it right then. But that conversation stuck in my memory, and as I got older and learned more, the context around it filled in for me.

I still don't know what people like me can do to show kids like Joe that they can dream past the bounds of their neighborhoods. Ta-Nehisi Coates' article is a powerful reminder of the fact that we need to try.

Now for the lightweight things:

I forget where I came across this article with cool pictures of beaches from the air, but the pictures are great.

And lets close with a big smile. Mommyshorts has been running a competition to find the most epic baby hair. Her 12 finalists are great. My own babies were mostly bald, so I have no direct experience with epic baby hair. It is awfully cute, isn't it?

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Good Things

I spent last weekend in San Francisco, visiting a good friend. I flew up on Saturday morning and flew home late Sunday afternoon. Notice is said "I"- this was a solo trip. Taking a weekend away without Mr. Snarky or the kids was one of the items on my 2013 personal fun list, and I am so glad I did it. I had a great time catching up with my friend, exploring San Francisco (she's recently moved there, and I haven't been there in over a decade).

One of the things we did was check out Dandelion Chocolate, which is the small-batch chocolatier I mentioned in last week's weekend reading post. This turned out to be an awesome find. They had some samples out, and I was amazed by the difference I could taste between two bars made from different beans. So I bought a tasting sample pack, and my family and I have been enjoying comparing them. They are all delicious- but also distinctly different. I had no idea there is so much variation in the taste of chocolate beans. It makes me wonder two things: (1) how do the big manufacturers ensure consistent taste (I'm guessing it is a combination of using a mix of beans every time and the extra things that are added) and (2) why isn't chocolate tasting already a big thing?


In book news... Taming the Work Week is now available at Barnes and Noble for the Nook and in various formats directly from the publisher.

And of course, you can still get it for the Kindle on Amazon.


And that's all I have for you tonight, because I made the rookie mistake of not minimizing work calendar commitments during the last couple of weeks of school, and then we compounded the error by deciding we should refinance our house right now... so things are a bit busy here right now. It is a good thing I have some really good chocolate to help me through....

Monday, June 03, 2013

The Joy of Problem-Solving

I'm in one of those time periods that crop up occasionally, in which I have an unusual number of high priority things going on both at work and at home. I can absorb a crunch time in either my work life or my home life without too much angst, but when they gang up on me, I really feel it.

The saving grace this time is that most of the high priority things going on are good- including at work. For instance, I had a great day at work on Friday. I cleared the BS work early and got to spend most of the day working on one of my favorite sorts of technical problems. We're starting to build a system to capture a new type of data, and I'm designing the database to store it. This is complex data that will be accessed in multiple ways by a variety of applications, so it is worth taking the time to think about its natural structure, rather than just letting the requirements of a single application dictate the database design.

I genuinely love this part of my job. I write down the operational requirements, as gathered from the users and the programmers, and mix in my own scientific and technical knowledge, perhaps augmented by a little research. I sketch out ideas (usually on paper), jot down questions, and add more ideas, which produce more questions... until I get stuck. I hit some aspect of the data for which the optimal storage structure is not obvious to me, and I can't immediately think of the questions I need to ask to determine the best structure. I stare at my sketches and my list of questions for a few minutes, waiting to see if something comes to me. And if it doesn't, I go do something else. I work on another task, or I read something random on the internet. (Which of these I do depends on how many other deadlines I have looming and how tired my brain feels.) If it is close to lunch, I eat and then take one more look at my papers before heading out for my walk.

I describe this process as "loading a problem into my brain and then looking away." It is by far the best problem-solving process I've found. And I love it. I love the satisfying mental effort of dissecting the work at hand until I have a clear view of what it is I do not know how to do. I love the feeling of my brain stretching to wrap itself around the gap in my understanding. And I love the almost magical way my brain can fill in that gap if I stop looking at it.

I need the mental equivalent of this
Once the gap is filled, I fill in the new details on my design and I keep going, until I hit the next non-obvious thing. Then the entire process repeats.

This problem-solving process- and the happiness it brings me- is not limited to technical problems. I have similar experiences when sorting through complex project plans, which can be like giant logic problems. My recent experiments with using kanban methods for program management also came from this process. I had a management problem I couldn't see how to solve. I loaded it into my brain and looked away for a surprisingly long time. I picked around the edges of the problem, but couldn't unravel it. I read things I thought might give me ideas, and then I looked away again. Then the idea came to me. I refined it and implemented it, and so far, I'm happy with the results.

To be honest, I get a similar kick out of solving organizational and logistical problems at home, and I use a similar process for it. Basically, anytime I confront a problem I don't know how to solve, I take the same approach: break it down, go as far as I can, then load it into my brain and let my brain magically fill in the gap or suggest new things to research. It can take a long time to work, but I have not had this process fail me yet.

I think a lot of people use a similar process for solving problems, or doing anything creative (and solving a problem is creative: you are creating the solution). A lot of people don't really appreciate how important that "look away" part is, though.  My friend @smbaxtersd tweeted a link to this blog post on the creative process today, and I think it really captures the wry, self-effacing humor about the creative process that is so common. I used to feel the same way. I'd try to skip the "look away" step, forcing myself to continue to stare at the papers with the problem. It didn't work. I now consider looking away to be an essential part of the process. In fact, it is how I know I've got a good, interesting problem to solve. If I can solve it without looking away, it was too easy. And while I'm perfectly happy to go months and months at home without a hard problem to solve, if I go too long at work with out a problem I have to look away from to solve, I get restless and unhappy, the same way I get restless if I go too long without any physical exercise. So Friday was a very good day indeed.

What is your problem solving process? Do you like it?