Monday, December 30, 2013

Who's The Boss?

When I go to meet a client at the beginning of new projects that I have been assigned to lead,  I often bring along coworkers or subordinates who will also be working on the project. Before the first meeting, my client speaks only with people who are in the equivalent of sales positions, so it is often the first time the client meets any of our engineers. We all are dressed in equivalent business casual wear,  and carry matching folders and pens. I wear my hair in neat, professional styles and wear simple makeup. I give a firm handshake, and look my clients directly in the eyes. I am also always the only woman not only in my team, but in the entire meeting.

Regardless of my efforts to make stellar first impressions,  about 80% of the time clients who don't know me presume my subordinates or coworkers are my boss. This includes times when they are handed a piece of paper that reads "Vanessa - Project Lead" at the beginning of the meeting. It's actually quite fascinating to watch, because you could probably hold a billboard with an arrow pointing to me proclaiming "SHE'S THE BOSS" but the average client would still dismiss it.

Yes, I know she's the same in both halves. But how my behavior doesn't change just because others perceive it differently.
Given, this is straightened out as soon as the project starts and they notice that I am the one who assigns work, answers their questions, etc. But the interim period is filled with some awkward exchanges like:

Client: "Vanessa can you ask Joe if you can work late?"
Me: "I'm more than happy to stay."
Client: "Do you want to clear it with Joe?"
Me: "It's fine,  Joe doesn't determine my work schedule. He's actually working on this project for me."
Client: "Okay... if you are sure."

And when your coworkers see that people already think they are the boss, it gives them an opportunity to easily usurp whatever power you have been given on a project. Sometimes, people in my office who are unrelated to the project start to pose as my boss for no particular reason, adding to the confusion.

Client: "Luke told me that he was going to pull you off site on Tuesday for some paperwork in your home office. Will this have an impact on your deadline?"
Me: "Oh really? I hadn't heard that before."
Client: "Well he said he's pulling you back..."
Me: "I can ask my boss, David. But Luke is a support engineer, so he shouldn't need to me back for anything."
(Note: I was never supposed to leave site, but Luke did apparently that to my client. I'm still unclear as why this happened.)

This may surprise you but my first reaction was not to blame my client's reactions on my gender, but to try and evaluate how I could change these impressions. Was it something about how I act, how I carry myself, how I dress or how I speak?

But when clients who knew me continuously complimented my professionalism and called me directly with future projects, I realized that upon first impression the main thing that makes me appear to be anything less than my teammates is actually my gender. There are so few women in my industry in general, that people don't usually assume a woman is an engineer- let alone a technical lead.

But so what? As long as my clients are happy, my bosses don't really care who leads a project. If I start as project lead and other people take over the project, then it will seem like I am incompetent. Appearing incompetent will actually make me less likely to get raises, get promotions, and be designated as the project lead in the future. The problem with the initial "who's the boss" mix up is every time I have a new client I fight an uphill battle to prove the competency I've proven to my bosses and coworkers over the years as quickly as possible.

I know the initial assumption that a woman isn't the boss doesn't have the same impact at every engineering organization, and in some more female dominated fields it probably isn't even an issue anymore. But for positions like mine the slight undertone of sexism makes it just a little harder to earn respect for the work I do. It's not that I think that the people who make these assumptions intend to be vicious, or make my life harder. I barely know them at the time, so I doubt that they have some evil plan for my professional demise. Perhaps the worst part is that I can't say that I would make any different assumption if the tables were flipped, because honestly a woman in a leadership position in my industry is extremely unusual.

It's because of this that organizations that promote female engineers are so important. Because, in the "real world" there are still undertones of sexism that will only be solved by a ton of amazing female engineers dealing with uncomfortable situations, and proving that gender is irrelevant measure of engineering prowess one client at a time.



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Enjoy your days off work and school, and have a happy holidays!


Vanessa and Ruby

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Handle a Performance Review

I don't know if my situation is like your situation, but let me tell you, I am always terrified for my performance reviews. It's not that I do a bad job. In fact, I know I do a fantastic job because:
  • I put in insane overtime
  • I am almost anal/ocd about only turning in excellent work
  • I'm actually also completing the backlog of work that was left by my predecessors
  • My coworkers are constantly telling me how impressed with my work they are
  • My boss, my boss' boss, and my boss' boss' boss is constantly telling me how well I'm doing
  • I'm constantly being appointed to big projects or company-wide task forces
Despite all that, performance reviews make me trepedatious. I'm worried that I've accidentally said something wrong on one of my bad days, that I'm not performing well enough, or that I'm not smart enough. Basically, I feel a bit like an imposter, and I feel like I'll finally be told the truth as a surprise reveal at my performance review.

As it turns out, my worries were unfounded, as should have been obvious to me by the evidence I listed above. Despite that, my performance review was still unsettling. It basically turned out to be a weird combination of a game show and interview.

My performance review this year [2013]

Boss: Okay, are you ready for your performance review?
My mind: Of course I'm ready. This is what I've been mentally conditioning myself for over the past two weeks. Give me your worst. I can take it. I'm a warrior with a tenacious and confident intellect. But actually, please be nice.
Me: Yes.

Boss: Great. What is your proudest moment of the year?
My mind: What is this, an interview? My proudest moment was being the glue who kept this department from falling apart. But I can't tell you that because that's your job.
Me: I'm really proud of XYZ project and how much I've learned this year.

Boss: What do you think could be improved upon?
My mind: Seriously? This is the vaguest question ever. This could refer to my company as a whole, my department in general, my experiences with you, or myself. What do you mean? Also, I have to point out that this is yet another interview question.
Me: Well, I think that managing the abundance of projects we have is always a difficult task because resource prioritization.

Boss: How well do you think you did?
My mind: And now I'm on a game show. Guess your score on a scale from one to five. If you guess too high, we judge you. If you guess too low, we pity you. Guess right and you get absolutely nothing. This is a lose, lose, lose situation. Try not to lose!
Me: I think I performed well.

Boss: No really, how well do you think you did?
My mind: Is this a trick question? You just asked me this. Okay, here goes...
Me: I think I performed very well.

Boss: Okay, let me be bad cop now.
My mind: Uh oh. Here it comes.
Me: Okay.

Boss: Just kidding. You have nothing to improve upon.
My mind: Seriously, nothing at all? You can't give me any constructive criticism? Improve timing? Improve leadership? Stop being such a leader? Stop socializing so much? Socialize more? Are you really telling me I'm absolutely perfect?
Me: Well, that's good.

Boss: Also, here's a surprise promotion.
Kaboom. My mind has been blown.
Me: That's great! Thank you so much!
As you can see, the year-end review I had was a bit of a roller coaster ride that ended on a confusing, yet high note. But just to show you that I'm not the only one who is left unsettled and confused, I have a few more year-end review anecdotes for you. Obviously because these are being retold, I can't include the behind-the-scenes thoughts(for the most part, except when they've given me their commentary). However, I'm sure you can fill in the blanks with your imagination.

A friend's performance review

Boss: You screwed up here.
My friend: Yes, I know.

Boss: You also screwed up here.
My friend: Yes, I know.

Boss: Oh, and you screwed up here, too.
My friend: Yes, I know. Do you want me to explain why I missed deadline? I have a very good reason and you backed me up at the time. Oh, you don't? Okay, I'll be quiet.

Boss: You also did a few things pretty okay.
My friend: Well, that's good, I guess.

Boss: Congratulations, we love you, keep doing what you're doing.
My friend: Cool?

Another friend's performance review

Boss: Your work is fabulous.
My friend: Great, it's good to know my effort is appreciated.

Boss: But you have a few things that you should improve on.
My friend: Oh, really?
My friend's mind: Which of the many areas do you want me to improve on? I could know more about statistics. I could know more about biology. I could know more about chemistry. I could know more about nuclear physics. I could know more about astronomy. I could know more about nerf guns.

Boss: We want you to be more professional?
My friend: Okay...

Boss: Basically, we want you to change you to change your vocabulary slightly. Oh, and have better posture.
My friend's mind: That's all? Seriously, that's what you want me to improve on? I'm a scientist and you don't want me to improve my science?

Boss: Oh, and we think we're going to promote you next year.
My friend's mind: Great. Are you going to tell me how to make that happen? No, okay, I'll just smile gratefully.

From all the stories I've heard of year-end reviews, everyone is always left somewhat dazed and confused, regardless of how well it went.

Honestly, I don't really have much advice to give. From what I can tell, a performance review is always going to be a roller coaster of terror and confusion. But if you do your job well, it will usually end in a pat on the back and appreciation because there is still a scarcity of quality engineers out there (if you don't believe me, look at some of the stories Vanessa and I have written about our coworkers...). And since you are surely doing quality work, your company will try to openly appreciate and appease you in order to keep you around. And if they don't, then it's time to start looking for a new job anyways.

Also, I'd love to hear your performance review stories. Are they as confusing and crazy as these? Have you had a different experience than me and my friends?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Extended Business Trip Essentials

If you've ever been on an extended business trip, you know that it's not quite as glamorous as being whisked off to Paris to meet top designers from around the world in a career-making opportunity of a lifetime. And yes, I was referencing the much sought after business trip in The Devil Wears Prada. In the real world, many engineering consultants take awkwardly long business trips lasting between one and six months in the middle of nowhere. The worst is when you travel back on weekends, because you never actually get to meet settle into your new environment, and so you just spend months in limbo.

When I'm at my home office, I have events scheduled quite literally every night.  Sometimes, I'll even have three separate events in one day. So when I'm relocated to the middle of nowhere Kansas where I don't know a single other person, I kind of get a little stir crazy.

I've recently devised a plan for actually enjoying this alone time, and maybe it will help you too. The idea is to treat the time when you get "home" as a relaxing spa vacation. Go to the gym. Eat out. And, pack a "spa" bag.

I know, it sounds ridiculous and feeds into the stereotypes for women in so many ways. But, it's important for me to not spend so much time fighting stereotypes that I end up altering myself to be the some foreign entity. Especially on my own time. And, for people like me it is easy to get so caught up in causes, events, classes, chores, and friends that I forget to take some time for myself to just relax. So, I've taken to packing a spa bag for my days of "forced relaxation".

Your bag can be different, and obviously this is made for trips where you are driving or checking a bag (way too much liquid and gel for a day trip), but here is what is in mine:
  • Pore strips (don't use these every night, nobody has enough blackheads for that.)
  • Clay face mask (don't use this every night, your skin will dry out.)
  • Salt or sugar scrub
  • Really nice moisturizer
  • Really nice shampoo and conditioner
  • Professional looking nailpolish (I would recommend you try to go towards nuetral tones and dark colors, or rock out a french manicure)
  • Calming bath salts (I'm a fan of lavender)
  • A book that has nothing to do with work (sci-fi, chick lit, historical fiction, textbook for a new language, it doesn't matter so long at is completely unrelated to any real responsibility)
At the end of the day settle in with a glass of wine, tea, or hot chocolate (whatever gets you relaxed), and just relax. I know, it's totally unproductive and you probably can't do it every night. But just take some time to take care of yourself. Business travel can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining- so it's even more important than normal to take some time to rejuvenate yourself for owning the next day.



PS. Got any tips for business travelers? Comment below!