Work-life questions to ask tech recruiters

When I was looking for a job over a year ago I had a list of questions for tech recruiters about the company’s work environment, some of which seemed to catch them off-guard. I continue to refine these questions as I discover what environments I work best in.

These may or may not match things you care about, but perhaps they’ll spark some ideas on what is important to you.

What workstation hardware is provided and is that flexible?
If you’re a Mac aficionado and they stick you with a Windows box, are you going to be happy? If you are use to working with a laptop but they only provide desktops, is that OK? What if you function best with both, is that an option? How many monitors are provided and how big are they? You’re going to be spending hours and hours in front of whatever they give you, so make sure it’s something you want, they’re flexible in getting you want you want, or they’re at least OK with you bringing your own hardware.

Do you provide standing desks?
I’ve used a standing desk for 6 years now and couldn’t go back to sitting down all day. If this is something important to you, ask.

Do you have an open floor plan, cubicles, or offices?
Spaceflight is the first company I’ve ever worked in with an open floor plan and I hate it. It’s loud and disruptive. In the future this is going to be one of the factors I consider when looking for something else.

Can I access my personal email?
Shockingly, some companies block IMAP/POP3/SMTP and/or webmail sites for their employees, preventing them from using their personal email. Yes, you really have to ask this question.

Do you have a man-in-the-middle for HTTPS requests?
This question blew recruiters away. They couldn’t believe that a company would distrust their employees enough to snoop on their secure traffic for banking and other things. Except this is exactly what EMC did to their employees. All corporate-provided systems included an EMC CA. Their snooping appliance used that CA to sign certs provided to your browser every time it made an HTTPS request. For those of us in engineering who installed their Linux OS from scratch on Day 1 and didn’t have it, the web browsers would rightfully complain loudly that the certs were invalid and your traffic was being snooped on. Chrome would go so far as to refuse to connect to Google services when presented with a cert that wasn’t signed by a Google CA.

Can I bring and use my personal devices?
What is the official company policy on bringing and using your personal devices (laptops, tablets, cell phone) while at work? Can you work from the devices?

What is your work-from-home policy?
Are employees allowed to periodically work from home? Does the company provide adequate resources to make that possible?

What is the real vacation policy?
I’m way too old to start a job with just 2 weeks of vacation. Sorry, not going to happen. If the company refuses to budge, ask if they are OK with unpaid leave. On the flip side, if the company policy is “unlimited vacation”, what does this really mean in practice? Because if you give me unlimited vacation I’m likely to take a 4-6 weeks worth of vacation over the course of a year, usually in one or two day increments, while still making sure my work is getting done and my team is taken care of. If that’s not OK I need to know up front.

Where is the office located and are there existing plans to move?
Long commutes do not fit into my work-life balance and I will not work for an employer where I have to waste 2 hours of my day getting to and from work. For instance, I live in Seattle and will not take a job on the east side (that might change when the light rail gets completed, we’ll see). Knowing where the company is located is important to me. Knowing if there are existing plans to move the company is equally important.

 

These are just a small set of the questions to think about (I covered some more in my Dear Recruiter post two years ago) but don’t hesitate to ask them. We spent an exorbitant amount of our lives at work and we need to be happy there too.

Life: quantity vs quality

If you had a choice between increasing the quality of your life at the expense of quantity, which one would you choose? Would you rather live better for less amount of time or live less-well for longer?

It’s a hard question to answer. Unlike the witches in Discworld, we don’t know when we’re going to die which makes the trade-off hard to calculate. And how much better would life have to be such that you’d be willing to have less of it? I expect the answer varies for every person, but my guess is that optimally the answer is somewhere in the middle of both spectrums. Few people would opt to die tomorrow for one glorious day today, or suffer every day in order to prolong their life for an indeterminate amount of time.

The question isn’t just philosophical, we implicitly answer it every day based on hundreds of little decisions: do I snack on the carrots or the chocolate cake? Others, like those with hard-to-cure medical conditions, make it explicitly: do I undergo treatment to possibly extend my life while decreasing the quality or do I live the time I have left with the best quality possible?

If you had asked me this question a few years ago I would have said I preferred quantity over quality. Who doesn’t want to see mankind living among the stars or honest-to-goodness hoverboards? During my sabbatical I’ve decided that while I’m not going out in a blaze of glory tomorrow, I’m solidly on the side of quality.

Yes, I’ll have dessert after (or for!) dinner tonight, thank you. The Corolla has a better safety rating than the Miata? Screw it, I’m renting the Miata. Why am I stressing out working 60+ hours at work when I could work 40 less-stressful hours and have a life I enjoy more? Yes, I’ll rent the downstairs unit as well as the upstairs one after our dumb-ass neighbor moves out despite the expense because it will make it much more enjoyable to live here. And in the future if I ever have to make a medical decision with the quality/quantity trade-off, quality already has some points in its favor.

What about you? Where do you fall on the quality vs quantity spectrum?

Retirement is wasted on the old

Youth is wasted on the young.
Retirement is wasted on the old.

Retirement

Retirement. It’s the goal to which we all aspire. To gain enough financial security such that we no longer have to work for the rest of our lives.

When I started working at IBM at the height of the dot-com boom I had visions of retiring by the age of 30. Six months later the bubble burst and I was fortunate to have a stable job. What was I going to do when I hit 30 and was able to retire? I don’t know, but I knew that “retirement” was the goal.

For many people in the US, the magic age for retirement is 65 when Social Security kicks in to supplement your income. For others it may be a decade earlier.

But stop and think about it: why are we waiting to live until we’re old? Why do we think that when we reach retirement that we will be content not working? As someone in their 30s who has taken six months off work test-driving retirement, I’m here to tell you that we’re doing it all wrong.

Living in the now

I love to travel and have always assumed that I would do much more of it when I retired. And perhaps I will, but after doing quite a bit of traveling over the past 6 months I realize just how taxing it can be. Fast-forward to 30 years from now and how much more taxing will it be when I’m 68? Will I still want to be gone from home for weeks at a time? Will I still be able to hike up mountains? Will skiing in the winter still sound like fun? Will the mountains still have snow 30 years from now?

I want to take every opportunity to travel and live in the now while my body still works. While my knees don’t hurt. While I can still see and hear. While I can still remember things.

Every year I use up every single hour of my vacation and sick time. Some years I come skidding into the last few months with virtually nothing left and throw myself on the mercy of my manager to work from home for a few days around the holidays.1

It’s not enough.

A few weeks of vacation a year is not enough living, it’s still pinning hopes on retirement, biding time until that fateful day. I have to learn to live outside of vacation time, get more of it, or both.

Doing nothing is boring

One of the realizations that I had during my sabbatical was that I love to work. Perhaps not the 9-to-5 job in front of a computer for someone else, but I love programming. Creating something useful. Working with a team. Who’s to say that I won’t want to continue doing something like this after I reach retirement age?

What if retirement wasn’t “not working for the rest of our lives” but “working differently or working less” instead? My good friend John Martin retired over a year ago and has been doing some contract work for his prior employer. Not because he must, but because he enjoys it.2

Why can’t we have a better balance between work and living and stretch out both for longer?

Perspective

My uncle died last month from pancreatic cancer. He was 69. He went from diagnosis to dead in 5 weeks. His father, my grandfather, died from pancreatic cancer at 83. My grandmother tells me that my grandfather’s father also died from pancreatic cancer. As you can guess, it can be hereditary.

From the American Cancer Society:

Almost all patients [who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer] are older than 45. About two-thirds are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 71.

I may not make it to retirement to begin living; I have to live now.


1 Thankfully, every manager I’ve had has been most forgiving with vacation hours. Also, I love working around Christmas and New Years because no one else is around which gives me tons of uninterrupted Maker time.

2 He recently came out of retirement for some great reasons.

A sabbatical is not a trial-run for retirement

A year ago when I first started planning my sabbatical I had the idea that I would use it as a trial-run for my future retirement. I know many people, many of them men, who work all their lives and yet when they retire they don’t know what to do with themselves. My Dad is one of those people. He has owned his own business, pouring himself into it, for the past 40 years. Now that he’s on the verge of retirement he seems to be at a loss with what to do with himself. I’m like my Dad in that I pour myself into my job. Could I use the time off from work to cultivate skills that I would ultimately need in my eventual retirement?

I’m here to tell you that while a sabbatical can be amazing and useful for cultivating some retirement skills, it isn’t a trial-run for retirement. The biggest reason for this is that a sabbatical has an end-date.

Retirement skills

Sabbaticals are great for identifying things that you need to survive retirement that your work currently provides.

The biggest eye-opener for me was how much I need to be involved in a technical pursuit. I love programming and working with a team, things that I primarily get to indulge in at work. After I started my sabbatical, however, I didn’t have anything technical that I could really sink my teeth into. After a couple of months I started back into volunteering with Distributed Proofreaders doing development work which really improved my overall happiness. Frustratingly, the pendulum swung too far and DP became work for a while which took some time to realize and correct.

Another thing that I really needed was time away from my significant other. I love Daniel, but unlike my parents who have spent almost every day together for the past 40 years running the family business, I need time away from my S.O. Having some time apart lets us do our own thing for a bit and then come back together later to share different experiences.

Yet another thing that became important to me was some structure to my day. When I am working I have a fairly structured schedule. I have some idea of what tomorrow will look like, at least in part. When you’re on sabbatical, and presumably when you’re retired, tomorrow’s calendar might not have anything at all on it. For some people that can be liberating. For those of us who thrive on structure, it is intimidating. For me I’ve discovered that while not every day needs a plan, that having some plan for some days makes it easier to enjoy the days when anything goes.

Not a trial-run: the end is coming!

If you only have a limited time off of work you’re likely to do a fair bit of traveling. Indeed that’s what I did, including a week at Critical Northwest, 2 weeks in the DC area, 3.5 weeks in Europe, 2 weeks in the Carolinas, and 2 weeks in Texas. We have plans to spend 2 weeks in the bay area next month and hopefully a week or more in Denver in March. That doesn’t include other smaller trips to Portland, the Tri-Cities area, and Sequim. For me at least, that amount of travel isn’t sustainable when I retire but I would have kicked myself if I hadn’t taken advantage of the time off of work. That much time away from home makes forging strong out-of-work social networks challenging — networks that I know I will need in retirement.

Knowing that there’s an end-date prevents you from committing to activities that will go beyond that time, such as volunteering with local organizations that have a weekly time commitment during the day, or investing heavily into a craft that will take over a room in your house.

Worth every penny

If you have the opportunity to take an extended leave away from work, I highly encourage you to take it. It may not be a trial-run for retirement, but you’ll have a great time learning more about how you derive happiness from work and ways to achieve that outside the office.

Amazon – I would leave such a company too

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the New York Times article titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace that portends to describe the high-pressure dog-eat-dog white-collar workforce at Amazon. There’s also the rebuttal article by a current Amazon employee and the open letter from Bezos to Amazon employees who concludes:

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Indeed — I would leave such a company too. But to many Amazon employees, past and present, it is that kind of company, which is why Amazon is one of three companies I will never work for1.

I keep hearing the lines “Amazon may once have been like that, but it isn’t like that anymore”. Oh? Living in Seattle, I have many friends who work for Amazon or who previously worked there. I know friends who carry pagers, who are expected to respond to emails immediately regardless if they’re during work hours or at 2am, and who all live in fear of getting an email from Bezos himself.2

I’ve also interviewed, hired, and work with many people who recently left Amazon. These individuals are focused and driven. One was so ready to leave that they happily paid Amazon back moving expenses to be free. And all of their stories back up what the NYT article talks about: Amazon is burning through software developers.

Maybe I’m just old and no longer interested in playing the work-until-you-drop game, but I want to work for a company that understands that my job, while a career I’m interested in growing and am vested in, it isn’t my life. And word on the street is that company isn’t Amazon.

So Amazon, if you are no longer like the company described in the NYT article then you need to convince the rest of the experienced software development community because that’s how you are perceived.

1 And since I know I’ll get asked, the other two are Microsoft and Oracle.

2 Similar to Ellison at Oracle.

My longest vacation yet

15 years ago today I started work at IBM in Austin. Between then and now my life has revolved around my job. In fact, the longest time I’ve ever had off from work was around 12 days traveling overseas or driving across the country with Daniel. When I changed jobs from IBM to Isilon, I took zero days off in-between. Zero.

All that to say I’m very much looking forward to having some time off of work.

I’m also scared shitless.

One week from today I’ll start my sabbatical and have a year off from working. In many ways I consider this a retirement trial run: can I keep myself active, engaged, and happy without of a job? Do I have an identity outside of work?

I can’t wait to find out.

A leave of absence from EMC Isilon – the skinny

The prior post gave a high-level overview of why I’m taking a leave of absence from EMC Isilon, but I wanted to take a moment and write down some of the details of my burn-out for myself and to share with friends.

The downward trajectory of my work-life balance started when I left my cozy position in the performance team to work on BSD10 merge effort in February of last year. When I started on that team there was no test plan and the only tester was a developer who didn’t want to be a tester but was one anyway. The BSD10 merge was said to be critical to the success of the business, yet management wasn’t willing to move any testing resources, experienced or not, over to it. Instead, they pushed us to use contractors which produced crappy code and required extreme hand-holding.1

Despite this, I rallied the test resources we had, created a test plan, worked with the developers on a viable code merge/validation plan, and created test infrastructure to enable automated code testing. I felt like I had moved a mountain. 2

If I had rolled off that effort back to the performance team I probably would have been ok. Instead, in August I put my neck out on The Factory whose mission was to change how we develop our products.

The Factory was charged with architecting whole new systems but had no high-level people with those skills on it — except me (and I’m not an experienced architect). It was tasked with coding up those systems but had no developers — except me (and I’m a tester, not a developer). The code being developed needed to fit into the existing test infrastructure, yet no one with that knowledge was on the team — except me (this one I totally own as me). When I pushed back saying we needed more developers than just me, the only people we were given were from other teams that did not want them and only one of which was a developer. When I pushed again saying that wasn’t enough, we got told to use contractors — who produced poor quality code and only increased the technical debit. All the while management was saying that this effort was critical in keeping Isilon relevant. We were pushed to increase our velocity but given no experienced resources.

I pushed very hard — designing systems, writing code, testing code, herding the team — and we were able to get DuctTape up and running in time to save the BSD10 team’s ass. We enabled them to test their code using virtual nodes since they were not yet running on hardware. Everyone who uses DuctTape loves it. The nodes are fully integrated into our test system and Just Work. I felt like I had moved a mountain again.

For the longest time I was frustrated with the work of some members of the team, until I realized that they are performing at the career level they are at. You don’t expect an intern to architect your internal deployment strategy, why should I expect Consultant-level code from Senior-level people?

And here I am burnt out. Perhaps I would have been less burn out if management had ponied up resources for these teams working on “critical” projects but not staffing them as such. Unless this trend is changed and they invest in the people on the internal infrastructure teams (both more bodies as well as some higher-level people) the entire organization is going to implode.

1 Eventually they brought Ngie back which was the saving grace of the BSD10 merge, their contributions can not be overstated.

2 The BSD10 merge was late merging into HEAD, but came in a very high quality, thanks partially to the work I did early in their effort.