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. 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?


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

Starting June 15th, I will be taking a one year unpaid leave of absence from EMC Isilon.

The reason for the leave of absence is that I’m burned out. Crispy critter burned out. Although I’m not going to go into detail on exactly why, the 30k-foot version is that I held myself to too-high a standard on some projects that drastically, and negatively, impacted my work-life balance to the point where I was mentally and physically exhausted when I came home from work. Every day. For months.

I’m looking forward to mentally rebooting myself and hopefully learn some skills on how to help prevent this in the future.

That said, it’s incredibly difficult to leave EMC Isilon right now. It’s hard to leave just before the next version of OneFS1 ships. I’m super excited about the work that the entire engineering team has done for this release and would love to see it complete. It’s also hard to leave right when DuctTape is releasing some cool new functionality and significantly increased capacity.

Still, taking some time off is most certainly the right decision for my mental and physical health and I leave the projects I was working on in very capable hands.

1 According to the interwebs, the code-name of the next release is not yet public, and I’m not about to be the one to make it so!

Trying to quit

[This post was non-public when first posted.]

On Monday I gave my 4-weeks notice — it was not well received. Jonathan didn’t try to talk me out of it though. He said knowing me it wouldn’t do any good since I give things lots of thought before acting on them. He did, however, throw out the idea of a leave of absence.

As a rule, a 3-month leave of absence is the most they do which I said was a non-starter. It’s going to take them much more than 3 months to address some of the systematic issues that has me burnt out and leaving. Jonathan and HR are in the process of seeing if EMC will do a year’s leave of absence instead. We’ll see how flexible EMC wants to be.

The most flattering part of all of this is management’s view that my departure is going to be very impactful to the org from a morale perspective. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s flattering all the same.

I also discovered this week that 3 other well-respected and long-tenured people are leaving in the next few weeks, which makes me sad for Isilon and a bit guilty for being a 4th.

Work-life balance: quantity and quality

Up until recently I’ve always considered “work-life balance” to equate with a measure of quantity. That is, establishing and maintaining a healthy balance between the time one spends at work and the time one spends at home. For those of us in tech, and increasingly in other industries as well, the lines between the two can get blurry.

Checking work email after hours? Shopping for a gift for your niece on Amazon during the work day? Dialing into that work call after dinner? Running that errand in the middle of the afternoon? Working from home and doing laundry at the same time? These things really blur the line between doing home stuff and work and work stuff at home.

But “work life balance” is more than just quantity, it’s also quality: how does the quality of your life at work compare to the quality of your life at home? Are they positively influencing each other or dragging one another down?

For the past 8 months I’ve had a negative work-life-balance in quantity — checking and responding to work emails when I got up at 4:45a, working through lunch, thinking about work even when I got home, etc. In April I decided that needed to change and started protecting my “home time”, attempting to shift the scale of work-life-balance a bit more towards life. And it largely worked, at least in quantity.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago around mid-April that the quality aspect hit me. Some projects at work were sapping my energy. These were projects that I’d involved myself in because I saw an area that needed help, not because anyone had asked me to, and in doing so I’d stretched myself thin. Last week I started to pull away from those projects leaving them in the hands of the folks assigned to them. This has begun to improve my quality of life at work (and likely been a relief to the people on the project who never asked for my help anyway).

I’m also working on enhancing the quality of my life inside and outside of work. Re-engaging with friends after work. Reading a book during lunch at the office. Empowering myself to work from home during May Day. Little things that make a big difference.

Quitting the family business

I’ve always told people that you never quit a family business but here I am trying. For the past 20-something years I’ve been doing computer work for Peel, Inc., my family’s business. I gave my 5-month notice back in July and have been working towards tying off loose ends and getting ready for a hand-off to someone else.

It’s hard to say when you actually start working for a family business since you are raised in it. The business started the year before I was born as Quality Printing & Office Supply – doing both printing and selling office supplies for local businesses. Back then, people still needed business cards, letterheads, envelopes, shipping tags, etc because there was no desktop publishing. I remember doing office supply inventory back in junior high and running the offset press in high school among other job work.

I helped my Dad move us from the TRS-80 systems to the then-new 286-based systems. Eventually we had multiple systems we connected via 10-base-T and NetWare Lite (anyone remember IPX/SPX) — based on that product’s release that was back in 1991. Sometime in the early 90s the business switched from doing typesetting from purely text-based input devices that “printed” out on chemical sheets and we then pasted together on the light-table (the origin of “copy and paste” in a very literal sense) to a digital model using Aldus PageMaker and HP LaserJet 4 printer.

The first program I ever developed for Peel, Inc. was Lable Star1. It was a QBasic rewrite for the PC of a Basic program my Dad had written for the TRS-80 to print packing labels for print jobs. It was super simple: you put in the description and total number of boxes and it would print out labels for each one (box X of Y). Ah, LPT ports, how far we’ve come.

I designed the first Peel, Inc. website. I don’t remember when that was but the WayBackMachine has one that is dated December 19972. Like most back then it was pure HTML although shortly after that in 1998 it was moved to PHP/FI 2.0, which was a step above server-side includes, but just barely. The website remained largely crap up until 2004 when my involvement in the family business took an interesting twist.

By 2004, Peel, Inc. had transitioned from a printing and office supply company into a printing and advertising company. Seeing the writing on the wall from desktop publishing taking over basic printing needs and Walmart taking over the office supply needs, my parents pivoted the business into its strength: offset press printing. Subdivisions and communities in Houston were wanting a way to communicate with their residents and brand their communities. A magazine-style newsletter printed solely for them with relevant news was just the thing. Peel, Inc. entered this existing market with a different approach than some of their early competitors: instead of charging the communities for the newsletter we sold advertising and made it free to the subdivisions.

Peel, Inc. had several ad reps in Houston that would go to businesses and sell ads. They’d fill out a 3-part carbonless form, fax in a copy, and then at the end of the month they’d FedEx all of their contracts in. We’d take the fax and input the data into a DOS-based database program called Q&A. Newsletter designers would take printed reports from the database when setting up the newsletter to make sure all the ads got in its respective newsletter. To my post-dot-com mind this was horribly inefficient. Why not just have a web portal for the ad reps to fill out a virtual form and centralize everything? The designers could access the same data before setting up their newsletters.

Sometime around that summer I approached my Dad with a business proposition: let me implement and design this system for a cut of the contracts that went through it. He agreed and in October of 2004 ConTrack was born. Over the next couple of years this grew to be a central component of the business — everything goes through ConTrack. Today advertisers can log into the system to see their past contracts and pay their current one through PayPal. Residents can log into the main Peel, Inc. website and submit articles and view past newsletter editions. None of this is particularly earth-shattering but it’s been pretty amazing to watch the whole thing grow over the past 10 years.

Also since 2004 the business went from one building in Littlefield to a multi-site operation where newsletters were being set up in Austin yet printed in Littlefield. I designed the back-end IT systems that enabled this workflow. We had one primary designer move to Dallas and I learned about VPNs and how to allow her to be fully productive from there. I’ve dabbled in email, web design, VPNs, Samba, off-site caching, and more. A few years ago the business got a bit simpler as it consolidated down to one building in Lakeway and moved to Macs — removing the need for offsite two-way data sync and anything having to do with Windows.

The business continues to evolve. Just last year we released an iOS app for residents to view their newsletters and receive community notifications. This month we rolled out an iPad-optimized version. I didn’t design the mobile apps — not my wheelhouse — but I did design the backend systems that support it (and learned about APNS in the process).

Of course, during all of this time I’ve had a full-time job, first with IBM starting in 2000 and then with EMC Isilon in 2010. This year at EMC Isilon has been the busiest of my professional career and I’ve been unable to focus time on Peel, Inc. This is a disservice to them and it’s been very taxing on me as well.

Which leads us up to now, my last day in the family business. Like any family business I don’t expect I’ll ever be truly out of it — the businesses/contractors that take over the IT systems will undoubtedly have questions that I’ll need to help answer — but it’s at least a formal parting of ways. It’s been a great learning experience in every aspect imaginable and now it’s time to move on.

1 Yes, that’s ‘Label’ misspelled. I was, and continue to be, a horrible speller. English sucks, compare: bible and able to label.

2 And I’m not linking you to it as it is hideous.