Monday, January 6, 2014

Advice From an Ex-Boss

Guess what? Sometimes, bosses quit too.

You've heard talk of this happening before, but you always thought it was just a rumor like engineering students who have a social life or job recruiters who don't ask for your GPA. But this is totally real, we promise.

And, sit down for this part (in case you are walking while reading this blog, which is a super dangerous habit anyways): when bosses quit, they sometimes will give you actual feedback.

For those of you who have had performance reviews, you know that through all of the confusion and stress you rarely feel like you've emerged with facts that help you improve yourself as an employee. With all of the politics going on, the fear of confrontation, and the limited interaction with employees, many bosses just give you a big "keep up the good work!" instead of pointing out one of the numerous things you feel you could improve. But when a boss quits, they can give you feedback without fear of political whiplash.

Anyways, this isn't just a hypothetical situation. Ruby and I have both recently experienced our bosses quitting. Although we work for different companies, we both received some of the same interesting advice from them on the way out. So we've decided to compile it and share it with you here.

Don't Work Too Hard 

We've all heard this advice a hundred times before in a number of cliche idioms:
  • "Maintain a good work-life balance." 
  • "Work hard, play hard." 
  • "Don't burn yourself out." 
But this isn't just some generic cliche. This is the very person who was supposed to squeeze every drop of work out of you telling you that sometimes deadlines aren't the most important thing in the world. Though your boss will leave with all the cheer and not directly say a bad word about the work, environment, or company, you know: giving it 110% all day, every day was enough to push them out of the company. They lost their passion; they fell out of lust with the job, the science, the company, and the product. By making it their whole life, they made it a prison, which they had to break free from in order to find some joy in life. 

So what do you do when you hear this from your ex-boss? Keep an eye on your time at work and keep a finger on the pulse of your passion. It is okay to have busy days or even busy weeks. However, if you are spending months at a time in a routine which doesn't even give you enough time to sleep between getting home from work and going back, then you're doing it wrong. That is when you need to put your foot down, and show your bosses that evidence of the 80+ hours you've been working every week, and take some time off to sing with the birds snow, make a twinkle-twinkle-little-star centerpiece, write a post for your favorite blog, or something else. 

We find that when you take breaks appropriately (even if they're still ridiculously nerdy, engineering-related breaks), we end up much more motivated and happy at work. And a happy worker may not work harder, but they do work better. 

Fight for projects you are passionate about. 

"Fight for projects you are passionate about, not just ones your management is passionate about." We've actually gotten this advice from both ex-coworkers and ex-bosses. And we kind of like the advice. This isn't to say that you should deny working on projects with high management priorities. Those projects might even excite you in their own quirky ways. But it's different if you're working on a project that you've built from scratch. It's different for a project that you've had to advocate for. It's different for a project which you had an intellectually gladiatorial to battle to the death in order to get budget approval.

The projects you are passionate about are the ones you will enjoy the most.
Therefore, the projects you are passionate about are the ones that you will devote the most time to.
Therefore, the projects you are passionate about are the ones that will be the most innovative.
Therefore, the projects you are passionate about are the ones that will be the most successful.
Therefore, the projects you are passionate about are the ones that you will have the most pride in upon completion.
Therefore, the projects you are passionate about are the ones that will be the best for you.

This is meant in a totally non-ironic way. If you like your project, days will fly by!
But your positive experience isn't the only thing that will benefit. Your projects of passion will be most fruitful to your company and will be the most fruitful to your career. So fight for projects you are passionate about.

Stand up to your bosses. 

The exact advice we got was, "Don't be afraid to stand up to your bosses when they are wrong." This was especially interesting since we have had our fair share of disagreements with management regarding ethics, training, projects, time management, etc.

The point was that it is your duty as en engineer to tell people you won't turn over documentation by a deadline if it is a piece of crap, since in the long term, that would lose customers. Not that we have ever signed documents we didn't believe in, but they had probably sensed some of our past discomforts and wanted us to know that the management knew that we did the right thing (even if it was kind of annoying). Note that this advice distinctly doesn't mean you should escalate interactions to knock-down, drag-out fights because you don't like your cube location. Rather you should speak up more often when you are given impossible deadlines (which is frequently), to ensure a high quality product.

Keep up the good work.

"Keep working as hard as you always do; it doesn't go unnoticed." This advice is almost completely at odds with the first bit of advice, but the last bit makes it equally haunting. Who, pray tell, is noticing? Was it just my boss who is now leaving without telling anyone how I worked my ass off? Or is there some big brother who is looking over my shoulder and saying to other big brothers, "Oh that Vanessa, she is a hard worker." If so, this happens in the mysterious confines of their offices, without any seeming impact on my day to day life. Regardless, it is a little cryptic.

Beyond the enigma of the statement, though, is the obviousness of the advice itself. Of course you will continue to work hard. After all, you (like us) are a workaholic and perfectionist. In fact, we're beginning to think that's the definition of a good engineer. So while it's kinda cryptic and leaves us confused, once again, it's pretty much advice we're going to follow to a T.

Do it for your resume. 

"Stick it out until you are a supervisor; it will look good on your resume." This was the single most dark, and honest piece of advice we received. In all honesty, we'd considered leaving our positions for a variety of reasons, and this comment implied that they knew that we were in a tough spot. And yet, they recommended that we stay anyways. It's hard to tell if this was some sort of foreshadowing that they actually felt that we are supervisor material, or if there was some other reason we should stick around for a year. But either way, they acknowledge that we don't belong here for very long.

Hopefully, these pieces of advice have given you some food for thought. Keep in mind, like any advice, they are the opinion of only two individuals and should not be adopted blindly. But interestingly, it was the same advice that two people in different fields, at different companies, with different pressures both gave us. So perhaps there is a little bit of truth.


Vanessa and Ruby

PS. What is the best advice you've ever gotten from a boss?

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