I read this article recently and it inspired me to reflect. The article itself isn’t hugely insightful - it describes the struggle between managing time if you are a software engineer, and being successful despite the “communication tax.” In describing taking on responsibility for incidents or services it does assume a particular kind of engineer that is more akin to an SRSE (Site Reliability Engineer) but the points about time management are still fair. I agree with several of them, and without intended to, reading the article made me reflect on my own ability to manage time and communicate. And because I’m an introspective person, that led me to reflect further on myself, time, and this year. This is what this post is going to be about.
Time management is interesting to think about because it can be challenging for software engineers. It’s not just a matter of getting some good number of apps and then jumping from programming one hour to meeting the next - software engineers really do need large blocks of uninterrupted time to reach what I’d call a productive flow state. And no app or time management tool is going to just hand you that, although I suspect for some they can be helpful (I’ve never used such tools). So how do we get that time? I think there are two factors that have to play together to ultimately determine an engineer’s schedule. The first is culture, and the second is expressing what you need. Culture is probably the more important of the two, and let me try to talk through what I mean. This post is going to go beyond time management and into larger ideas about life, so forgive me in advance if it jumps in different directions. You can stop reading if you like!
Let’s start with expression of needs. Wherever you happen to work, the most important thing I’ve found is to set expectations for others around how you like to communicate, including channels (email, chat, video) and frequency. But this ability can be limited by culture. As an example, when I have started new roles, I’ll spend some time sniffing around to get a sense of the culture. For some jobs, the expectations were fairly low in terms of meetings, so I was good to go - my preferences matched the culture. For other roles where my preferences don’t match the culture, I would more so fall into what was expected over what worked for me (this tends to be more meetings). These first ~6 or so weeks would be pretty stressful for me, because it would be way too much face to face interaction. If I was the lowest denominator, such as during an internsip or working in the service industry, I would have no choice but to hand control of my time to someone else. Given a job that has meetings, a higher number of meetings was understandable because most people enjoy the banter, and it doesn’t exhaust them. It exhausts me.
Our needs and the culture of a workplace interact in interesting ways, which further is influenced by the specific people that we work with. Even if a culture is oriented around meetings and you are not, if you have colleagues and superiors that will listen to your needs, you can still thrive. This means that it would be unwise to accept a role where you know the culture and frequency / quality of meetings doesn’t match your preference, and also one where the people were not friendly and/or accommodating. You’ll never be able to truly be comfortable if those two things are out of sync, and people cannot be accepting of your different preferences. So you might find yourself in a meeting-oriented culture, but with kind and understanding people. When this is the case, you can build up trust and then express your needs. Why not right away? Well you could express your needs right away, but my thinking is that before people know you, they don’t have any evidence or reason to trust you, and that extends to your time. Before your’ve proven yourself, they don’t have any reason to think you are a competent person. They certainly don’t have reason to give you more responsibility until you’ve proven you deserve it. So by way of trying to do our best (of course not overworking) we can eventually show to others that we are self-sufficient. In other words, when people know you, your work ethnic, and trust your ability to allocate and use time, you are in a better position to ask for what you need. You can show up to a once a week meeting and demonstrate that you made progress. Personally speaking, once this familiarity and trust is established, I find it easier to be more expressive about my preferences. I can have an honest conversation with my manager and project leads about how meetings are draining for me, and about the meetings I think are useful and those that are not. I can directly state that to be happiest and most productive I need to minimize the count. It’s also important to learn how to say no, which is hard in and of itself. Once I (or more generally, a person) is able to open up these communication channels, it’s a huge sigh of relief. A work relationship is no different from any other relationship. If you can’t communicate your needs, it’s going to be more stressful and challenging to navigate.
To go back to the the article, I would say these ideas match the points about “Defending one’s time” and “Communicating with candor.” It really is the case that you have to be fairly verbose about your preferences and able to say no if you want a schedule that is oriented more towards programming and less toward being exhausted by meetings. It’s also very privileged, I recognize, to have this freedom, but I’d also argue it was a very explicit choice that I made many years ago. Okay, so here is the tangent where I am going to go off and explain the rationale for my choice of path in the last decade and a half. I feel very grateful for the journey I’ve taken and this has made me reflect-a-saurus. Feel free to skip the next sections if you aren’t interested.
I worked some internships at a prestigious, really quite amazing financial investment firm in Boston in 2005/2006. I found the opportunity via a career fair, which I was lucky to have at my institution, and I imagine that I saw my peers doing things like internships and decided I’d like to try it too. It by no means was my first job - in high school I worked at an ice cream shop during the summers and loved it, and in college I worked several food service jobs. The internship in Boston was for me, my first “real” work experience in that it was with other adult professionals (the ice cream shop mostly hired teenagers, and the food services roles were a good portion students) and it was, likely for some, a dream job - showing up to a beautiful building in sharp suits, and making a good salary. I was in disbelief about being paid as well as I was, and how quickly I saved money (that actually got me through the rest of college and a little bit after). Of course I knew nothing about investing, so I foolishly put it in the bank to slowly lose value and didn’t invest any of it. But the lack of financial knowledge that should be a part of our education is a totally different topic. Those summers were incredibly valuable to me, because combined with adversity that I faced in college, it was the first time I ever asked myself questions about what I wanted in life, about my own preferences for interacting with people, and what made me happy. I met some people there that had impact on my life in huge ways - often instilling me with wisdom that I still cherish to this day. But the questions and wisdom were especially salient, because I was deeply unhappy. And I didn’t know how to escape that sadness.
I suspect that this is the reality for many people - you go through the motions of your work day because it’s how you make money and exist in the world, and it feels like work. You probably don’t enjoy it, or maybe you enjoy parts of it but the entire routine is really arduous. I found that I could be a chameleon and do a good job, but I hated that it felt like work. I tried really hard to inject fun into things - always making fun presentations and putting on a smile. I suspect that people could easily see through that, and that I didn’t care that much about financial markets. I’ve never been motivated much by money, aside from making sure that I have enough to get by. I was terrified that this kind of experience would be the rest of my life. Given what I was going through over those few years, the routine should have been what broke the camel’s back. You see, while the first summer I lived in Boston, the second I commuted from several hours away. I would get up at 3:30 am to drive 45 minutes for the 5:15am bus, and then the bus ride was an hour and a half into Boston, during which time I’d try to get a little more sleep. Why didn’t I just live in Boston? The second summer I had tried at the beginning, but because I had just gone through another round of major surgeries and heartbreak, I couldn’t bear to be alone. Seeing my family everyday, even for just a few moments at the end of the day, and even if I was grumpy, gave me tiny bits of strength, and a sense of normalcy. And I also felt more comfortable in their house than some student dorm. I would come home, assemble a massive cup of snacks, and play World of Warcraft until I was too tired to continue. And so this routine was my only choice, because I refused to let the sadness and life adversity win.
So back to this routine. I’d be dropped off at a bus stop and walk into this beautiful building a little before 7am, giving me just about an hour and some change to run before a morning meeting across the company. The facilities for showering there, and getting coffee were so nice, and still nicer than anything I’ve encountered in my life. I strangely felt out of place, and like I didn’t deserve that level of luxury. I felt like an imposter, because even the other interns seemed to be interested in finance, and maybe I was a pity case that they agreed to bring on because they felt sorry for me? Ironically I hadn’t done any programming at that time, but I was really surprised by how much of the work I had to do was in Microsoft Excel. I felt like a spreadsheet cell pusher, and it was manual and painful. I was also terrible at it, so I couldn’t come even close to the beautiful sheets that I saw others in my group put together. But there were many good experiences beyond the work day - my colleagues seemed to genuinely care about me, and the other interns became my (during work hours) friends because despite being in different parts of the company we’d always have lunch get together and other events. Indeed, this was my first glimpse of an extremely supportive culture with intelligent and kind people. I’m so grateful for that, because before I had only experienced food service bosses that were either just okay, or at worse would steal my tips.
From a routine standpoint, I’d be at my desk or various meetings during the day, and often just be hoping for the time to pass so I could leave the freezing office. Yes, what they say about offices is true! I was dressed in a full suit and shirt under it, and I was chronically freezing, and running over to the coffee room to get something hot, and then running to the bathroom because of that. I’d leave around 4pm to catch the same bus home, the routine in reverse, and get home pretty late to do it all over again. It was only 10 weeks, I rationalized, so it couldn’t totally kill me. But I would sink into one of those big Greyhound bus seats, put my headphones into my ears for something to drown out the people and outside noises, and I’d cry myself into some kind of sleep or frankly, just exhaustion, for most of the way home. This was one of those points that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that wasn’t it. It was an amazing workplace and culture, but the content of the role wasn’t for me. My supervisor there knew it too - on one of my last days he took me a walk and gave me a book, Stumbling on Happiness, which I’ve written about before because it changed my life. I am so grateful for him for seeing into me, and giving me the advice I needed at the time. Nobody else from my family to acquaintances could see it, or if they could, they didn’t know how to help me.
You can read the Story of Stumbling if you are interested in what happened after that internship ended. In a larger sense, the main life introspection that I took away from those summers was realizing that being in a role that performed a service (sales, finance, doctor, lawyer, anyone that sits somewhere and waits for people to show up and help) would never give me control of my time. Even an office job where you have mostly freedom until it’s time for meetings was relinquishing too much control. I’d eternally be on this schedule of waking up to go from one building to another, and being there when someone expected me to. So I was motivated to try and better understand myself, and to find something that didn’t feel like work. Thus, as a consequence of that I worked a bunch of different jobs my last two years of college - everything from front of the house to back of the house in different food venues, and even a small research role for an economics group. Honestly I had no idea what was going on for that last one - research was weird and mysterious and I didn’t get it. It felt like assembling some random potpourri of facts and putting them together to tell a story you wanted to tell. Nothing quite clicked, but I knew the exploration I was doing was very important. If I couldn’t indentify what I wanted to do, I could at least cross things off of the list.
It wasn’t until my first “official” post-college job as a research assistant in a lab that I found this beautiful (mostly) temporal and intellectual freedom that I knew that I wanted. I showed up bright and early the first day, not sure what to expect (another 9-5 role?) and I’ll never forget what the PI told me about his expectations for being in the office - “Whatever works for you, V” and “When you need to be here.” Even without knowing me yet, he trusted me. It felt amazing, and I put together a routine that I liked - running before the sun came up, heading to the campus gym fairly early, and working there until late morning and finally stopping into the lab when I needed. Needed meant either for fun to see my labmates, or to run a behavioral battery or take someone to get an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. I’d then go back to my private area in the gym to work for a few more hours, and this was important because the social aspect tired me out, and this was when I could be productive and write code. This is also when I discovered and fell in love with programming, and a routine where I had responsibility and freedom.
After a few years in this role I didn’t know where I would wind up, but I wanted to “keep doing this thing” for as long as I possibly could, and I trusted myself to figure it out. It was this mindset that took me through graduate school, and then stumbling into being a software engineer up to where I am today. This is where this post lines up with the one about vision, because seeing a need and then positioning myself to work on it has been what has guided me toward specific things. This knowledge about the self, meaning what I wanted to do and what made me happy, was the greatest comfort. Once you have this comfort your introspection shifts from “How do I survive?” to “How can I have impact on the world, in a way that is meaningfult to me?” It didn’t matter if it might take me 7-8 years to get to a more professional role doing what I loved, I was ready to live and enjoy my life.
Coming from the wrong background, however, I also knew I’d have to work hard, at least for maybe decade, to prove myself. But to get temporal or intellectual freedom? All of that hard work is worth it. So the reason for telling this story is because I feel that I have very carefully chosen my current path to maximize those two things. I was not tempted by roles that looked prestigious or high paying because I knew what I wanted, and it wasn’t that. I feel privileged and lucky to have what I have now, but I cannot lose sight of the fact that it was intentional, directed, and not an easy path. Graduate school was not without it’s own hard times, but regardless I would chose this path again in a heartbeat. Would I take a little higher salary to trade in for a 9-5 service job, or even the same job with more meetings? Nope! Because honestly? Time is something that money cannot buy. And I realized when I had my first job as an RA that I was just immensely happy without a lot.
To go back to schedules, I wonder if most people are not intentional. Whenever I peek at someone’s schedule at a tech company or someone at my own institution, a “very quiet” day tends to be 2-3 meetings. An usually quiet day is one meeting. A typical day usually is like 4-7, and then for managers their entire block from 9-5 is chock full - everything from 15 minute to hour slots (depending on the company). I don’t really get it, because that would mean some days people are meeting more than they are working. I’ve gone into meetings with other engineers and they tell me “Oh this is my 7th today” and I’m pretty sure that would render me drained and dead. This makes sense for a manager, as a manager has a primary role to manage people, but I don’t think it makes sense for an engineer. If you have most of your days scattered with meetings the small blocks of time you get to work aren’t really enough for that deep, satisfying kind of focus that you get in a 4-5 hour block. Y’all that are programmers know what I’m talking about!
How do my weeks compare? With my combined strategy to slim down on meetings, clearly communicate my needs, and then try to clump meetings together to prevent more “between work” times, I will maybe have a handful of days with 1-2 meetings each. And it’s a constant battle, because people so readily want to claim chunks of time, and I have to push back. I also work way outside of traditional work hours, and do a lot of extra things that are important to me, but maybe not related (e.g., editing and hosting a podcast takes a lot of time). Some meetings are good because you make decisions about what to do next, and keep the others you are working with updated on what you are working on. But some meetings I find an hour or more goes by and I’m not sure what was accomplished. In my current role I’ve actually found my regular 1:1 to not only be fun, but really useful and directional, and that is an attestation to how important a good manager is. And you know what? A lot of even the longer “What did we accomplish?” meetings can be strangely fun, especially if I can feel relaxed off camera. My brain is like a constant pun-track and rollercoaster of mental imagery, so even if I’m not talking I’ll occasionally make a funny comment in some chat. Something that gives me joy is being able to make someone else laugh, and it happens!
Staying off camera, or feeling that you have the choice to, is also really important, and it’s a relief when a work culture is supportive of that. Zoom fatigue is real y’all, and especially for women. We are expected to be gussied up and pretty all the time, and honestly I just want to be comfortable and not do that. I want it to be okay for me not to be smiling and feel like I’m being stared at, and more importantly I don’t want to have to stare at myself and start self-monitoring. Anyway, the salient point is that all the time when I’m not in meetings I get to focus on what I love to do, program, which makes me generally relaxed and happy. A few random people have called me one of those 10x engineer and I’m still in the camp that this isn’t a desired or even real thing. I think I might just be productive because I’m better at protecting my time. Anyone that can have fewer meetings could be more productive too! I get the feeling sometimes that people want to have more meetings because it makes them more involved in more things, and it’s networking in a way. I recognize that my career might be slower or less quick to advance because I’d rather not do that, and that’s a choice I’m okay with. I’m not maximizing getting promoted; I’m maximizing doing what I love and enjoying my work.
To step back to the beginning and starting out, I wonder sometimes if people show up and are comfortable communicating their preferences off the bat? Is it just me that needs a few months to get a sense of the culture and then slowly express what I need? What I would be afraid of in doing is coming off as too demanding and not being open and flexible. To be clear, if someone needs to meet with me about something important - I’m there. This isn’t mutually exclusive from being able to be firm about your needs. It’s being flexible and reasonable without being a pushover. I’d even step back further and say you can have a sense of this before accepting a job, because if your preferences are hugely different than the culture, it’s going to be painful. If you join a tech company that is meeting oriented, and “the face to face time is invaluable” or “we are very social and insert company adjective here to mean gregarious” and then you are more “This meeting could have been an email” it could be that you don’t match the culture and you are always going to be fighting between doing what is expected and what is best for yourself. Avoid that.
Overall, I’m just really grateful. It hits me like an awareness bomb, throughout most of this year, how incredibly lucky I am to have what I have, and (for the last few years) to be healthy, and have found a sense of belonging and self-acceptance. And to still have my immediate family that are (knock on wood) healthy and I will continually try to share my happiness with them, and try to show them that I value their existence. I even hesitate to call it happiness, because a good life isn’t just being stupidly happy, it’s rich with different kinds of experiences. And I’m so lucky to have found a companion that is infinitely supportive and accepting of all my quirks, and makes me feel perfect just the way I am. Others can likely relate - you can sometimes find yourself smitten with someone that subtly sends you the message that you should or should not do things, or that you are acceptable only in a particular state (and certainly not a state where you aren’t perfect or superficially positive). I can have “bad” things happen to me that, perhaps two decades ago, would have made me fall apart, and now feel like nothing. They are nothing because compared to gesticulates around everything going on in the world right now, they really are nothing. So am I middle-aged? Is this a case of “achiement unlocked!” and I’m old and wise? Is age really a number? I’ll let you answer that question, and to do that, here is how I reacted when I opened the dinosaur stickers I got for Christmas (at about 1:00am the day after Christmas). Remember how I was talking about how amazing it is to have freedom of time? Sometimes you just have to stay up really late having fun, and being a happy dinosaur :) rawr!