Category Archives: working

working

Remote work, in good times and in bad

I began working from home in 1993, from Italy, for a California company. You can read all about that and a subsequent remote work experience, in Long-Distance Working – A Tale of Two Companies. Other experiences have included working in San Jose for Ericsson, (headquartered in Sweden), and working for AWS (HQ in Seattle) from Read More…

I began working from home in 1993, from Italy, for a California company. You can read all about that and a subsequent remote work experience, in Long-Distance Working – A Tale of Two Companies. Other experiences have included working in San Jose for Ericsson, (headquartered in Sweden), and working for AWS (HQ in Seattle) from my home in San Jose, and now from Australia. 

In some ways, I wish I had spent more of my working years in  a “normal” office routine. Working intensely side by side every day, with people you like and respect, is a fantastic feeling, and in some phases of my life I had that and enjoyed it. But there were also times when workplaces went toxic, and going into the office every day became a torment to be dreaded. I’ve also had working from home situations go bad, and at those times I dreaded getting up to face my computer every day, even if I didn’t have to directly face the people who were making my life hell.

Often, remote work was the best option available to me. When my Italian employer moved most of the company to the US and then sold out to a US company, continuing in that job was the best paid and most interesting work I could have while still living with my family in Milan. 

“Working” on the P&O ferry to Dover during a family vacation

At times, remote work has literally been a lifesaver. When I began working for Ericsson in mid 2014, I expected to go into a San Jose office most days, with quarterly trips to Stockholm as well as other travel. I was fine with all that – I liked the people, loved the travel, was excited about the work, and didn’t mind the commute. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I had been in the job for less than six months, so I couldn’t take medical leave without losing all of my income (yes, the American health system is seriously fucked up), and I didn’t have the kind of savings that would allow me to take a year off without pay. But I didn’t even want to stop working – I could think of nothing worse than sitting at home with nothing better to do than think about dying. Fortunately, my employers were willing to be flexible (where the insurance company wasn’t), and I was able to work as much as I wanted to, and not work on the days when it simply wasn’t physically possible. From home, of course – for my own safety, I wasn’t going into an office while undergoing chemotherapy! 

Post-chemo, I frequently have respiratory and sinus infections. I was already prone to them, thanks to the selective IgA deficiency that I probably inherited from my father, but chemo seems to have made me even more vulnerable. But I had already established a pattern of managing my life and work around chronic illness. Being ill is very boring – I’m not the sort who can watch TV for hours, and I get tired even of reading after a while. So I generally prefer to stay busy even when I’m too tired and sick to leave the house. I might as well be doing work as anything else – I usually enjoy my work and find it a pleasant distraction from physical miseries. A lot of the time, the people around me (physically and virtually) have no idea how ill I actually am, and I try to ignore it myself.

Working at my in-laws’ dining table during a family Christmas in Roseto degli Abruzzi, late 1990s

I started working mostly from home soon after beginning my current job in 2017. The team I joined at AWS traveled so much that it was hard to be in the office at the same time, and not all of us particularly wanted to see each other anyway. I’d make specific plans to have lunch with colleagues I liked, or for occasional meetings, otherwise I was doing everything online even before the pandemic hit. The sudden shift to remote work for everybody held no terrors and few surprises for me.

The number of meetings I had to attend online increased, especially after I changed roles last July and had to deal with a multitude of new people and teams. Six or more hours a day of video meetings got exhausting. If I’m attending a meeting by phone, I walk around and do small household chores like dusting – I can focus better on what someone is saying when my hands are occupied than if I’m required to sit still and try to look attentive. This has been true since my school days, when I doodled all the time during lectures. (The smarter teachers realized that this meant I was actually listening to them.)

I have known for years that remote attendees are at a disadvantage in video/phone meetings with people who are together in a room. Even with the best video conferencing systems, human beings interact more naturally with those who are physically present. Having everyone attend via video can level the playing field, giving all a better chance to participate equally (yes, there are other factors that get in the way of equal attention and interaction).

I have also long known that a remote employee is at a disadvantage when others are in the office together. Facetime with colleagues is important, and if you can’t get it every day or every week, you should at least have it every quarter. To meet this need, I used to travel from Italy to California four times a year for extended stays, and later from San Jose to Stockholm for a week or two at a time (yes, even in the dreadful Stockholm winter). 

Ross’ classmate Elisa and Deirdré working in a beautiful cottage in Landour, 2007

In a pandemic, that kind of travel isn’t wise even if it were possible. It’s not legal for me to leave Australia right now and I don’t know when it will be. In particular, I suspect that travel to and from the US will not be easy anytime soon. The Economist tells me that “[Britain will] introduce a three-tier “traffic-light” system when foreign travel is allowed again, with conditions in the countries visited determining what restrictions apply upon return.” With the anti-vaxxers, covidiots, and recurring surges so prevalent in the US, I don’t imagine US travelers will be universally welcomed.

Given the failures of governments and human behaviors, and the success of the virus, this pandemic is far from over. And it likely won’t be the last – the conditions that created this one have not changed, and it was and will be only a matter of time until a(nother) pathogen breaks out to conquer the world.

I therefore believe that the companies who imagine they will soon bring employees back to “the way things were” in the office are indulging in wishful thinking. Things will never again be exactly the way they were, for a host of reasons. We’d be wiser to direct our energies and attention to how to make the best of the way things actually are, and are likely to remain.

Toxic Things I Once Believed

Once upon a time, I believed that: I had to adhere to a commonly-accepted standard of beauty for women, in order to be found attractive at all. (And “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”) It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got Read More…

Once upon a time, I believed that:

I had to adhere to a commonly-accepted standard of beauty for women, in order to be found attractive at all. (And “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”)

It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got older – men would always prefer younger women. Yet even very young women were supposed to be attracted to older men for their maturity, experience, power, and money – the men’s physical attractiveness barely entered into the equation.

It was important for a woman not to “let herself go,” and especially not to get fat. She should make every effort to stay attractive to her mate (while he was not required to make any such efforts).

I was “too smart” and “too self confident,” and this would scare off most men – I was therefore lucky to have a man who “put up with me.” (I repeated this “wisdom” more than once to my daughter, a memory which now makes me feel ill.)

A woman might have a career (and her financial contributions to the family are welcome), but it is always of secondary importance to her husband’s career. She should also do the bulk of child-raising and housework so that he can focus on his Very Important Career. Even when she’s also working hard at her own job, and making two or three times his salary.

On the professional front, I internalized things like:

Women should first of all be decorative; any skills and knowledge they happen to have are a bonus.

Women are never as “technical” as men, whether from lack of innate skill, lack of interest, or lack of determination. (“Math class is tough!” exclaimed Barbie.)

Women developers exist, but the male ones are 10x, more gung-ho, just… better. Women engineers should be shuffled off to management ASAP, because they are better at those soft people skills, and should leave the real work of engineering to the men.

Engineering is the the only job that matters in any tech company; everyone else is at best useful to the engineers, at worst a moron who gets in the way of engineers doing the Really Important Work.

The role of women in all areas of a company is to support the far more important work of men. (Even in parts of an organization that are mostly staffed by women, such as marketing, who’s in the top roles? Men. I’ve never understood how any company justifies that on any statistical basis.)

As I got older, the world tried to make me believe that:

We should leave off older experience and specific dates from our resumés, so that potential employers won’t know our real age.

We should make self-deprecating jokes like, “Oh, this will date me…” or coyly say: “A lady doesn’t reveal her age.”

We should obsess about our rapidly-fading looks and sagging bodies, subjecting ourselves to expensive and painful diets, “treatments,” and surgeries, because standard beauty and looking young are still all that matters in a woman, and looking old is to be avoided at all costs. Even in the workplace.

We should be grateful to keep or get any man who will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.

We should be grateful to keep or get any job that will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.

There are undoubtedly other toxic ideas that I still live by without even realizing it. But, with 55 years of life and a hell of a lot of experience behind me, I have at last perceived the bullshit of many of the “rules” that once governed my thinking.

How did I unlearn what I have so far?

Partly, it’s being with a good man who values me and finds me attractive – physically, intellectually, and professionally – as I am (even when I was undergoing chemo and looked like Dr. Evil).

There’s also something that comes with age. Not necessarily wisdom, but… a lack of patience with bullshit. At this point, I’ve dealt with more than enough for one lifetime, and I’m no longer willing to put up with it for the sake of getting along with or appeasing anyone.

And, after years of trying to “fit in,” I came to terms with the fact that I’m not good at being anyone but my weirdo self. I’m ok with that, because I like who I am, and I’m finally able to say that anyone who doesn’t appreciate me just as I am is not worth having in my life. I have plenty of friends and loved ones who do appreciate me exactly as I am –  I need not put up with anyone telling me that I should be otherwise.

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”

Dorothy Parker

“You Can Always Go to a Startup”

“You can always go to a startup.” Job seekers in the Bay Area hear this refrain, especially from people with no experience of startups (or tech, or the Bay Area). Startups are seen as the sexy option. Some startup employees even dismiss those who stay in “safe” jobs at bigcos: “You must lack the guts Read More…

“You can always go to a startup.” Job seekers in the Bay Area hear this refrain, especially from people with no experience of startups (or tech, or the Bay Area). Startups are seen as the sexy option. Some startup employees even dismiss those who stay in “safe” jobs at bigcos: “You must lack the guts or the talent to be out on the tech frontier, boldly disrupting the establishment!”

Easy for you to say. For many of us, working for a startup is not a realistic option. Not because we lack guts or talent (many of us have worked at startups before) but because most startup jobs are – by design – suited only to a very particular demographic. This limits employment prospects for the many who are not part of that group, but it also hurts the startups themselves.

If you’re a startup founder, you may think you don’t care about this particular problem, but you should.

The Lifecycle Barrier

I am not (for the moment) talking about the sexism and racism rampant in tech today. These are real problems and I in no way dismiss them, but there’s another barrier to job mobility, one that sooner or later everyone may face. I’m referring to the human lifecycle which, for many of us, looks like this:

  1. childhood
  2. college
  3. relationships / marriage
  4. babies
  5. kids growing up
  6. kids in college/empty nest
  7. retirement

For the first phase or two of this cycle, we usually have others providing for us. From phase three, we start providing for others, including our future retired selves.

The financial onus of a traditional middle-class family lifestyle today is staggering, more so in real estate markets like the Bay Area. People with families need decent salaries, good benefits, and humane hours: basic working conditions that are not met by most startup jobs.

The Trouble with Startups

Startups tend to offer lower salaries and skimpier benefits*,  while expecting long working weeks. As an employee, you are asked to invest a lot of time and brainpower in a venture which is extremely unlikely to pay off for you. The bait is lottery odds of getting rich on stock options, or a (usually illusive) sense of participation in “changing the world”.

It’s tempting to believe that startups and the VCs who fund them rely on the naïveté of young techies to fill these jobs. Regardless, most older employees can’t follow a startup dream even if we’d like to: we simply can’t afford the financial risk while we have responsibilities to provide for others. This is what I call the lifecycle barrier.

The lifecycle barrier is not exactly the same as ageism. It is possible to be older and less encumbered – e.g. divorced, kids grown, retirement funds safely socked away. But then ageism does come into play: many startups and VCs won’t even look at older people anyway.

Why You Need Lifecycle Diversity in Your Startup

The lifecycle problem harms startups in at least two critical ways.

First, it reduces the pool of candidates available for hire by startups. There’s huge demand for young people willing to work (and be compensated) startup-style, and every company is competing for a limited pool of such. Hence the increasingly strained attempts to stand out in cheap perks like free lunches, designer coffee, and employee drinkups.

Even if you manage to hire all the bright young things you want, you’ll still be missing something: your team will lack the perspective that diversity brings. The kind of perspective that comes with different cultures and experiences, sexes and sexualities, and just plain years of life and work. If the intended users of your products include any demographic other than young techies, you’re at far greater risk of failing (with a company, a product, or a feature) through lack of life experience and the broader empathy that such experience brings. You risk death by groupthink.

And then… young employees do get older, and eventually start to care about mortgages and school districts. If your financial model relies on your staff working 80 hours a week for relatively low wages, you may be sitting on a time bomb: can you cash out before key employees leave because they can no longer afford to work on your terms?

Fixing the Problem

If you’re a founder or investor, what could you change? What could you do to attract the diverse range of employees that your startup needs?

It probably requires rethinking your financial model and compensation structure, and thinking about what it means to be a desirable employer to a broad range of people. It requires thinking about company culture and how it is expressed, and whether yours is welcoming to more people than the stereotypical [young, male] startup employee. Myself and various middle-aged friends have had the experience of walking into a startup office and thinking: “I would not fit in here. Nor would I even want to.” Does this describe your company? Fix that.

So here’s a challenge: Think you’re a disruptor? Prove it. Start by disrupting the startup employment model. A whole bunch of smart, capable potential employees will be watching. And you might even persuade some of us to come work for you.


PS

As for me, I now work for Ericsson, arguably the most multinational company in the world, which keeps the long-term welfare of its employees very much in mind. People who join Ericsson tend not to leave.

People with families do, of course, sometimes found and work for startups. But those who can afford to do so often have already achieved sufficient financial security (perhaps having been winners in an earlier startup lottery) to take the risk. To be a serial entrepreneur, you have to have had a success somewhere along the line.

For more reasons and ways startup culture needs to change, read Shanley Kane’s YOUR STARTUP IS BROKEN: INSIDE THE TOXIC HEART OF TECH CULTURE. It’s uncomfortable reading. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Melinda Byerly for very useful comments on this piece!

* The original article “Benefits matter, or why I won’t work for your Y Combinator startup” appears to have been completely removed from the Internet by its author. Which is a pity. It made some good and true points, and generated some useful discussion, you can see examples at the link above.

Second Chances

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This truism was, predictably, repeated during the WITI Summit. In my experience, it’s (fortunately) not entirely true. When I was in college, my dad was covering my basic living expenses and my tuition was covered by scholarships. But I still needed a bit of Read More…

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

This truism was, predictably, repeated during the WITI Summit. In my experience, it’s (fortunately) not entirely true.

When I was in college, my dad was covering my basic living expenses and my tuition was covered by scholarships. But I still needed a bit of walking-around money, so I sought flexible, part-time work, preferably something that did not involve long, late hours of being on my feet.

My major marketable skills at the time were reading, writing, and typing, so it made sense to interview with a small printing company in downtown Austin that was looking for someone to learn electronic typesetting and word processing. This was around 1983, when both of those activities involved clunky, expensive, dedicated machinery, and the rest of the printing work was done traditionally.

I interviewed with an office manager not much older than myself. I have no recollection of that interview, but it ended with a standard, noncommittal “We’ll let you know” – and then I didn’t hear from her for days. I knew I could do the job as she had described it, but I also had the uneasy feeling that I had not impressed her. Having spent my teenage years in boarding school in India, I had little experience of working, let alone interviewing.

Unsure of the etiquette of these situations, I finally called and asked her if a decision had been made.

“We’d like to look at some more candidates,” she laconically answered. It was clear that she did not have any other candidates to interview right then, but she didn’t want me even as an alternative to no one at all. At that point, I had nothing to lose.

“Look”, I said, “I’m really bad at interviewing, but I know I can do this job. Will you give me a chance?”

She did. And I was great. And they loved me. And what I learned there set me up for my later jobs in desktop publishing, then CD-R and technical documentation, and…

So, yes, first impressions are important. But a bad one doesn’t have to be your last chance, and if a hirer (or potential friend or mate) is willing to look past a less-than-optimal first impact, they might just find that that rough stone contained a diamond after all.

Men, Women, and Salary Negotiation

“To get ahead in business, women need to speak up, blow their own horns, and always negotiate their salary offers. In other words: act like men.” Women hear this sort of thing often. I’ve said it myself as well-meaning advice to other, especially younger, women. We heard it from many speakers at the WITI summit, Read More…

“To get ahead in business, women need to speak up, blow their own horns, and always negotiate their salary offers. In other words: act like men.”

Women hear this sort of thing often. I’ve said it myself as well-meaning advice to other, especially younger, women. We heard it from many speakers at the WITI summit, successful women who were presumably giving this advice because it had worked for them. Research shows that it can be effective in getting that raise, VC meeting, promotion, or next job.

There are two problems with women emulating men in this way:

  1. The social rules are different for men and women. A man who is assertive and self-promoting is considered, well, manly. A woman who does the same is more often considered a bitch. Both men and women react negatively to “pushy” women.
  2. Because of Point 1 or for socialized reasons, most women feel uncomfortable behaving this way. As a male friend pointed out, telling women to behave more like men is similar to telling introverts they should behave like extroverts. It implies a judgement that the extroverted or “male” way is the “best” mode of human interaction, and we should all strive to emulate it. For some, this may be harrowingly uncomfortable – for some, it’s downright impossible.

There are reams of advice given on doing business in other cultures: how to fit in, how not to offend, how to negotiate with someone who may see things very differently than you do and may not give the cultural cues that you expect. Such advice stresses understanding and compromise, and we all agree that it would be unproductive and gauche to expect our counterparts from other cultures to adapt entirely to our ways.

So why is it acceptable to demand that women take on the modes of interaction more native to men (or introverts to extroverts)?

I have read articles about how even hirers are frustrated at the way women “leave money on the table”. To paraphrase a piece written by an anonymous hiring manager: “I’m authorized to give a higher starting salary, but only if they ask for it. The women never ask, the men always do.”

The women in these situations say, if asked, that they felt the offer was fair – i.e., they assumed the employer would treat them fairly – and/or they didn’t feel comfortable making a counter request and being perceived as pushy broads before even starting a new job. But if they later learned or guessed that they were paid less than a man (or another woman) for the same job, you can bet they resented the hell out of it, and felt betrayed by their employer.

Avoiding “politics” of this kind is a big motivator for many women to found their own businesses: when you’re the boss, you can ensure that your employees are treated fairly.

My own feeling is: if you (my employer) think my job is worth $n, that’s what you should pay me; I should not have to ask. (If you don’t know what the job is worth, I may not either – why don’t we figure it out together?)

Telling women that we’re leaving money on the table by not asking is blaming the victim. Paying higher salaries to those who merely ask rewards negotiating skills, not professional merit or hard work in a particular role which may have nothing to do with the ability to be an aggressive bargainer.

The same applies to introverts – which, by the way, often describes some of your most valuable staff: programmers. Many male engineers are naive, young, introverted, and/or socially awkward, which puts them in a similar position to women at the bargaining table. They may accept your first offer and not subsequently question their salaries, as long as they can pay the rent.

But, in a hot job market, you’re taking a risk when you pay people less than you can afford and know they’re worth. Your best and brightest (men or women, outgoing or introverted) get job offers every week, and if you’re paying them at the low end of the scale, it’s easy for someone else to make a better offer. Company rules may “discourage” your employees from discussing their salaries with each other*, but a recruiter may be happy to say: “Oh, we pay a lot better for that position.”

If you value an employee and want to keep them, it’s in your best interest to deal with them transparently, honestly, fairly, and in a way that accommodates their individual character and style. If that’s not already part of your company culture and policy, perhaps it’s time to revisit those things and think about what kind of company you want to be, in order to keep your best and brightest, and attract more like them.


* In California, it is no longer legal for companies to prevent or penalize employees discussing their salaries. Furthermore, “California’s newly effective (January 1, 2017) pay equity law indicates that reliance on an individual’s salary history does not justify a pay disparity, but the law does not specifically prohibit employers from soliciting the information on applications.”

Especially in light of a recent (April, 2017) court ruling which seems to undermine that law, the best advice is never to give recruiters any previous salary history. However, it can be difficult to avoid doing so. I have seen at least one company use a web-based form that forces you to put something into a “previous salary” field (I did not experiment with filling that field with zeroes, for example), along with a statement that falsifying any part of the form would end forever your chances of employment with that company.