Geekamama


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Time flies.

The last time I wrote here (about my own life, I mean), I had a two-going-on-three-year old who was, in theory, learning to help me with household chores. I’d been experimenting with making different kinds of candy, to varying degrees of success, and thinking about how to recruit more women into engineering fields. That was more than two years ago. Things have changed a little bit.

That two year old just turned five last week. He just graduated from Kindergarten Prep in June, and will be starting kindergarten this fall. His school is less than a mile from the new house that we just bought, and are in the process of moving into. Oh, and he’s got a one-year-old little brother now, who’s all but walking, and who looks just like a junior version of Kiddo the Elder.

My work life has changed too. I’m in charge of two projects (well, let’s say one and a half) and I have a handful of people reporting to me – the first time in my 15-year software engineering career where I’ve had minions reports. And naturally, these changes have had an impact on our family life. So has the fact that my husband now works at the same smallish company that I do.

When I first started writing here, I was dealing with the challenges of learning how to be a parent to a young child. These days, it’s things like finding the right school districts; keeping work conversation at work rather than the dinner table; and just figuring out how to be a family of four, when the number of kids has doubled but my capacity for attention (and patience!) has not.

Oh, and figuring out how to get Kiddo the Elder to help with household chores. Still.

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Aunt CompSci wants YOU!

Can social media inspire more young women to explore computer science? It’s an idea Jocelyn Goldfein, a Director of Engineering at Facebook, discussed in an interview with the Seattle Times a few weeks ago. Bringing more visibility to the women who built popular features like the news feed and photo viewer could interest teenage girls in tech-related careers, she says.

I’ll admit that it’s a start, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.

Software engineering has a big strike against it right from the get-go: it’s still perceived as a guys’ world–one full of gadget-loving geeks whose idea of a good weekend is blasting their way through the latest shoot-em-up video game. Guys who are intelligent to the point of cockiness, but lacking somewhat in social awareness. Most teenage girls aren’t going to find the appeal in a world like that.

When I look back at my high-school self, I see someone who already knew what her career was going to be, and the only keyboarding involved would be writing up the news stories I’d been chasing all day. Journalism seemed like a great fit for me; I earned scholarships and assembled a good clip file. But as I learned more about the hours and workdays, the shine came off a bit. When I was a senior in college, I got interested in the potential of the World Wide Web thing–remember, this was the mid-90s, when it wasn’t the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Less than a year after I finished my Journalism degree, I was back in grad school studying computer science.

I’d like to claim that what changed my course was the foresight that we were on the edge of a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be in on the beginning. But in fact the only reason I even knew about the web was because some friends of mine had gotten me interested in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the early chat networks, and people who were more tech-minded than me were starting to talk about this internet thing.

What draws people into the field that eventually becomes their career? For many of my female peers, it was because computers and programming were something they got into when they were young, and that appeal never went away entirely. But when it came time to choose a degree program, a lot of us looked elsewhere. Is that because that other career path simply seemed a better fit? Or did the idea of darkened rooms, flickering monitors, and the complete lack of a social life put us off?

These days, there are a lot more young women online than there were when I was growing up. But most of them are there to use the software, not to create it. Knowing how to use a computer isn’t anything special anymore; in fact, it’s more or less required in our day-to-day lives. And yet, the number of women studying software and systems is down from previous decades. Less than one in five computer science majors are women, says the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

To draw more women into the fields of computer science and engineering, the most important thing we need to do is change the perception that’s it’s a playground for “brogrammers.” And yes, maybe Goldfein’s idea of giving more visibility to female programmers will help with that. But I think it’s the wrong presentation. “Look at this woman who is a programmer!” is not going to do it; all it does is emphasize the rarity of women in the field. We have to get to “Look at this programmer who happens to be a woman,” before we can achieve that mental shift.


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Destructive myths, at work and away from it

A friend of mine on Twitter shared a link recently to an article by Tony Schwartz called Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By. It’s a really interesting read; go check it out when you get a chance.

The myths Schwartz lists are:

  • Multitasking is critical in a world of infinite demand.
  • A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.
  • Creativity is genetically inherited, and it’s impossible to teach.
  • The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.

These sound vaguely familiar.

 

I have this habit where I’ll be working on one task, and another task catches my attention briefly, and in that moment it seems like the second task more important than what I’m doing, or that it’s something that will take “only a minute” to complete. I drop my first task to work on the second, which inevitably ends up taking longer than I thought it would, and then when I return to my first task I spend too many minutes trying to remember where I left off and what I’d been planning to do.

 

Anxiety? Yeah, I spent the first quarter of this year getting up close and personal with anxiety. Guess how that affected my performance? (Hint: Poorly.) In contrast, I’ve found that I perform best when I’m riding a wave of success. The morale boost I get from doing a project well feeds my confidence, confirming that I really do have the skills to succeed in this area, and carries me into whatever I’m doing next. But when panic and pressure start looming, I fumble and fall into what my friend Michael calls analysis paralysis: when you spend so much time trying to research, analyze and choose the “right” approach to solving a problem that you end up with no time to actually solve the problem.

 

Oh, and those longer hours? HA. Ask my family members, ask my friends (if you can find any; they’re probably still at work), ask anyone who works in an engineering field. Schwartz describes it succintly:

No single myth is more destructive to employers and employees than this one. The reason is that we’re not designed to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

Not designed to operate like computers! No wonder this crops up so frequently in fields that spend a lot of time working with computers and software. The root of the issue is that there’s always more work to be done than there are time and resources to do it. But rather than acknowledging that people need downtime to rest and refresh* themselves, employees work late and take work home, because the expectations from above are that this project (and the three other ones you’ve been assigned) must be completed by the end of the month, come hell or high water. “Work smarter, not harder!” Uh-huh.

I fall victim to the longer-hours myth at home more than at work. I’ve been known to stay up until 2 a.m. working on a task that I feel has to be done before I go to bed or else it won’t get done before deadline. My husband urges me to go off and get some sleep. I resist, pointing out that he is still up doing work. I ignore the fact that I get up in the morning a good two hours before he does.

*Both figuratively and literally. Taking regular showers can do a lot for relations with your co-workers.

 

Obviously, these aren’t universal truths that apply to all companies. When I started at my current job, I was amazed that even though we were in crunch mode, most people actually went home at night. I tend to stick around in the office until 6:30 or 7 most nights. I’m often one of the last handful to head out. (I have an awesome job, and I can’t say enough about how happy I am that I got up the nerve to leave that last soul-sucking job and strike out on my own. But that could fill its own post; I’ll save that for a little later in the month.)

If these myths are destructive to companies, they’re also destructive to individuals who live by them. It’s often a difficult, slow process to change a company-wide attitude. But it might not be as difficult for an individual to change them in herself.


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Back to geekland

On the last workday of April, I left my previous job. On the last workday of May, I was offered a new one. I’ve accepted it, and will start work next Monday, once again testing software, but at a different company than before.  I’m looking forward to getting back into the work world. Our house is in a wooded neighborhood a dozen miles from the nearest town, and can feel very isolated at times. On the other hand, there are a couple of things I think I’ll miss from this past month and a half.

Above all, I’ll miss being able to stay on top of the clutter. Before, when I was working, our evening routine went something like this: come home, make dinner, give Kiddo a bath if he needed it, put him to bed, and then collapse in front of the TV. It was hard to do a lot of cleaning up right after Kiddo’s gone to bed because his bedroom is close to the kitchen and living room, so loud noises like vacuuming or clattering pots being put away would keep him from falling asleep. Even harder was putting down the remote to do the chores once we’d been sucked into TV watching for the night. While at home these past weeks I’ve done what I could to get the house to a cleaner “base level” in the hopes it would make daily tidying less of a burden, but I don’t know how long we’ll be able to maintain it.

I’ll also miss having time to cook interesting dinners. We pick Kiddo up from daycare around 6:15 p.m. and our drive home from there usually takes half an hour or more. This means anything beyond quick-prep dinners pushed dinnertime (and consequently, bedtime) even later. It didn’t help that we often didn’t decide on that night’s dinner until right before leaving work. Whoever wasn’t on pickup duty was in charge of arranging for dinner, whether that meant shopping or just hitting the local Panera. But that also meant a delay in getting home and getting it started.

I’m a little bummed that I didn’t get to all the projects I wanted to do. I’ve found that I’m something of a structured procrastinator, so I have gotten a fair amount of other work done, but the basement is still a mess, the recipes never got organized, the software project I’d meant to work on with a friend hasn’t gotten further than the design stage. Writing a non-prioritized weekly to-do list helped a lot; the weekly deadline let me push things back a day without feeling like I’d failed to get everything done, and I could rearrange things as needed–for example, I couldn’t sweep the deck very well in the pouring rain, so that had to wait for a good-weather day.

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about how to keep some of my at-home work to continue into the summer and beyond. Planning meals and shopping on the weekends might save us a little time in the evenings, and perhaps we could do some prep for the next night’s dinner after the boy has gone to bed. Chopping onions isn’t as noisy as washing dishes, after all. We might also be able to streamline our getting-out-of-the-house routine in the morning, in the hopes that leaving for work earlier means coming home earlier as well.

Could we do some of the noisy chores like vacuuming right after getting home from work? Maybe, if Kiddo were a little older. Right now he loves being underfoot while we’re cooking, which often means whoever’s not cooking is on distraction detail. In the past, I’ve asked my husband to take care of the vacuuming before he left for work (he generally went in later than we did) but that would cut into his worktime, meaning he had to either stay later at the office, or bring work home. Maybe it’s time to dust off and empty out that Roomba — or just get a quieter vacuum cleaner.

Having the weekly list in a visible place could also be helpful. I’ve found that when I have a visual reminder of what needs to be done, it’s a little easier to find the time to do small chores, and I can budget time for big ones. And it will help my husband as well, who has reminded me countless times that his psychic powers are very weak. This way we’ll be in sync about what needs to get done that week.

I don’t know about those projects, though. The obvious time to do them would be on weekends, but during the summer we rarely have a weekend free. Perhaps they’ll just have to wait until this fall, when we might have to find a new way to fill Sunday afternoons.


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A day in the life of a geekamama

It’s 7 a.m.  It’s still dark. I wake up.

I might have been woken up by the beeping alarm clock.  This is fine; I can snooze for a few more minutes, or I can drag myself out of bed into the shower.  Or, I might have been woken up by my son whimpering in his bedroom.  Most days, this is the case.  Ideally, I’d be showered and dressed before Kiddo wakes up, so that I can focus on getting him ready.  This has happened maybe a dozen times in the past year that I’ve been back at work.  Usually he wakes up either before I can get to the shower or while I’m showering, and my husband has to wake up and keep an eye on him until I’m ready.  On rare occasions I’m on my own, and I confess that I cope by skipping the shower and hoping that I don’t have to deal with many people that day.

It’s 8:45 a.m.  Time for Kiddo’s breakfast.  On weekdays we’re pretty consistent: yogurt and cereal.  I toss another yogurt into my tote bag to eat at my desk later; usually I don’t have time to enjoy my own morning meal while also feeding my toddler.  He’s getting more adept at spoon-feeding himself, so in a few months maybe we can yogurt it up together.  After breakfast Kiddo gets to play in the living room while I zip around packing up our needs for the day.  Extra shirts for daycare, a reference book I brought home from work, a birthday card I need to remember to mail.  With that done, I gather up two pairs of shoes, two jackets, and one toddler, and get both of us ready to leave.

It’s 9:20 a.m.  Or possibly 9:45.  We toddle down the hall to say goodbye to Daddy, who has gone back to bed for a little more precious sleep.  Hugs and kisses, a quick confirmation of plans for that evening, and then we wave goodbye and head downstairs to the garage.  There’s a small battle of wills over whether Kiddo has to hold my hand in the garage as we walk to the car; depending on who wins, he either goes willingly into his carseat or we have a quick wrestling match.  When he’s buckled in at last, we blow kisses and I walk around to the driver’s seat and buckle myself in.

It’s 9:50 a.m… or possibly later.  (Or if it’s a Wednesday, much earlier, because Kiddo has Spanish class at 9:15.)  The car ride to Kiddo’s day care has taken about 25 minutes.  We like to sing on the way there–rather, I do the singing and Kiddo does the appreciation.  “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is a favorite, although recently he’s shown a preference for “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  At the day care I walk him to his classroom, hand over the supplies we brought, and then wave goodbye.  This used to cue up tears (from him, not me), but now my departure is no big deal.

I drive to work, 10 minutes on a good traffic day, 15 to 20 if it’s not.  At last, three hours after waking up, I can eat my breakfast!  I make my plan for the day.  Check my email.  Change the plan.

It’s 11:15 a.m.  One of my co-workers stops by and I command-H to hide the browser.  Since I’m at the computer all day long, I tend to keep a window open to my favorite websites.  It’s how I keep myself motivated when faced with tedious tasks.  Just 15 more minutes of this, and then you can have five minutes of web time.

My cell phone rings.  It’s the dentist, or the hairdresser, or the spa, confirming my appointment for tomorrow.  I’ll be there, I tell them.

It’s 2 p.m. and I’m off to a team meeting.  I grab a Diet Coke and a notepad and spend the next half hour (or hour) jotting notes.  Sometimes they’re even relevant to whatever the meeting’s about.

It’s 3 p.m. and I’m back in my office.  Notice how I haven’t yet mentioned eating lunch?  I’ve forgotten about it until just now.

My office phone rings.  It’s the day care, calling to let me know that Kiddo has fallen down (again) and he’s fine but there will be an incident report for me to sign (again).  I thank them for calling, because one of the things I really love about this center is how great they are at communicating with parents.  If it’s one of my husband’s nights for pickup, I pass along the message to him.  We are united in our lack of surprise.

It’s 5:30 p.m.  I probably haven’t finished everything that was on my plan for the day.  If it’s Tuesday or Thursday, I save my code, toss things in my tote bag, and head for the garage and then the day care.  Other days, I start thinking about dinner.  We have a system: whichever parent is not picking Kiddo up from day care is in charge of dinner that night, whether that means cooking or visiting a favorite restaurant.  Before Kiddo entered our lives, we went out for dinner at least four out of five weeknights.  That was because we tended to stay at work until 7 or 7:30 p.m., and by the time we finally got home from work it was very late for starting to cook.  Now we leave work earlier, which makes it easier to make dinner at home.

It’s 6:45 p.m. on Tuesday/Thursday, or a little later on other nights.  Home at last!  Time to stop thinking about work, if I can.  Most nights after I get home, I have enough housekeeping and mothering to do that I don’t have time to log on and check email or work remotely like I once did.

We play a little bit.  We make dinner.  We all sit down together and eat.  Kiddo has blessed us by being a really great eater.  He usually has a smaller portion of  whatever we’re having, although sometimes we do a little food editing before he gets his.  If we’ve got leftovers for him from a previous night and it’s taking a long time to make dinner, one of us might feed Kiddo early, and then let him play while we eat.  We probably don’t clean up after ourselves just yet–that can wait until after Kiddo is asleep.

It’s… whatever time we finish dinner.  It’s either bath time or play time for Kiddo, followed by bedtime.  My husband changes Kiddo into his pajamas while I pick up some toys, refill the water cup, and grab tonight’s bedtime stories.  The guys walk around upstairs turning off lights in the living room, hallway and the overhead one in the bedroom.  When that’s done,  Kiddo comes back to me, and the guys say goodnight.  We read a few books, turn off the bookcase light, nurse for a few minutes, and then he goes into his crib.  My husband and I listen to his babbling over the baby monitor until he falls asleep.

It’s 11:30, or midnight, or possibly a little later.  Husband and I have been watching TV downstairs, but I’m starting to doze off.  I head upstairs, brush my teeth, and fall into bed.

It’s 4 a.m., give or take half an hour.  Kiddo wakes up and cries, and refuses to fall back asleep.  I stagger down the hall and nurse him for a few minutes.  We’re hoping to drop this nursing session before long, but at 4 a.m. I’m often too tired to go through the trials of convincing Kiddo he doesn’t need it.  I really should know better, but… it’s 4 a.m.  Fortunately for me, this one’s usually pretty quick.  Back to bed for each of us.

It’s 7 a.m.  It’s still dark.  I wake up.