Monday, October 27, 2014

How to Accomplish Your Own Priorities at Work

I don't set New Years Resolutions so much as goals/targets for the year. This year, one of my goals was to write a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I consider it important for my personal growth. Additionally, it is important in helping the company gain transparency with its consumers as a true research organization. I used both of these points to sell this goal to my boss and get her to allow me to put it as one of my official work goals.

My other projects are currently taking all my work time, and this has been the case for the last 6 months, so I have been unable to work on any of the publications I've wanted to. So I made a decision today to work on my paper during my lunch break and after work hours. And then I actually followed through.

While I was working on my paper during lunch, my boss walked by.

Boss: "Oh, Ruby. I know you really want to do this, but I don't think we have the time to focus on this."

Ruby: "But wait, it's my lunch break; I thought I could do what I wanted on my lunch break."

Boss: "Oh, you're right. Go ahead."

I'm grateful that my boss at least admits when she is wrong. And I'm pretty sure I was in the right for speaking up when she tried to micromanage me during my lunch break. At least that's what my friends and coworkers say.

This exchange really irritated me because it should really be my boss' job to realistically prioritize projects such that I have the time to get work done on all of my work goals. I shouldn't have to spend time during lunch to accomplish one of my official work goals.

However, I learned that you shouldn't let anyone, not even your managers who dictate your performance review, walk over you. Especially don't let them take away your freedoms without your say-so. It is better for your own sanity and may even gain you respect for not being the person who lets people walk all over her.

I know this post is titled "How to accomplish your own priorities at work," so I'd better give you some advice on how to do that...

If you truly value something, you had better be willing to sacrifice to get it done. Sometimes it will be as simple as giving up your lunch breaks, but sometimes it will be worse.But if you really want something, don't let anything get in the way of you achieving it.

- Ruby

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gender in the Contracting World

Everyone in the contracting world knows that a large portion of business is done outside of the office. Whether it is on the golf course, in a bar over drinks, at dinner, or one of countless other ways, a lot of getting and keeping big clients is about forging personal relationships. People are more likely to hire somebody they feel like they know and trust than some random stranger. So when two men go out for drinks or dinner, it is just good business. But when a young single woman goes out with a man for drinks or dinner... What exactly is that?

The first few times a client asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner and drinks just the two of us, I made up excuses not to go. I didn't want to end up accidentally on a date, and something about going out with a strange (sometimes married) man seemed like I would be targeted as a girl who was "asking for it" even if I had completely genuine intentions. I considered asking my management or HR for advice, but I felt like it made me sound presumptuous and I was too embarrassed to ask. Plus everyone in management and HR was male, so would they really understand? Instead, I just avoided the situations all together. But as time went on (and after many lengthy philosophical discussions with my friends in similar industries), I realized I was screwing myself out of opportunities by discriminating against myself because of my own gender.

I began to ask myself, "Would this be inappropriate if I was a man?" and unless the question involved the men's bathroom, if it was appropriate for a man I decided it was appropriate for me. So I started to accept offers for business dinners, drinks, and other outings, even if it was just me and a guy (although if I knew he was married, I usually casually suggested bringing his wife). I was careful to draw a line for myself by reverse engineering all the typical signs that "she is totally into you" to make sure that my intentions were always extremely clear: no physical contact at all, don't touch my hair, don't talk about my relationships, use a napkin instead of absent-mindedly licking my lips (especially if we were out getting wings and beer), keep your distance from him where possible, and be careful about how you tease them. Even when walking on eggshells, there was still always the chance that something I did would be taken the wrong way.

I realize that it's kind of ridiculous that I went to these great lengths when in a perfect world I should have just been able to be myself. And I realize that if my list of requirements for a woman's behavior at a business dinner was handed out that a lot of people would be all over how anti-feminist it was. But the truth is that if things got weird, I'm the one who would suffer the most. If things got weird my clients would be more likely to drop my contracting firm, which in turn would make it look like I wasn't doing a good job. On their end, they could just fill my place with one many other contractors, and there would be essentially no change. Maybe that's not how it should be, but that is how it was.

Even when I was very careful, sometimes I would find myself slipping into situations where I felt out of control. Like the time a client asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his cabin. Or the time a different client invited me to stay over to his house at 10 pm when I was in a nearby hotel. Or the time a client was insisting that he come hang out in my hotel late on a weeknight. If the line wasn't at dinner and drinks, than where was the line? On one hand it still murkily passed the "would this be weird if I was man" test (they might really just want to hang out). But in the context of the specific relationship those still just sounded like trouble and I would decline or figure out a way to bring another coworker or client along. 

Even if there is nothing but a completely professional relationship where both of you are extremely clear on the boundaries, there is always the question of "what does everyone else think"? Once I had forged strong professional relationships with clients, my bosses and coworkers used to note that it was odd that many of my clients would call me directly regarding projects that weren't even mine. My coworkers were especially vocal about teasing me for ridiculous reasons why they hadn't been called first like:

"Joe just wants to talk to you because he wants to hear the voice of a woman."  No, he just knows me and trusts that I will solve the problem. 

"Joe and Vanessa went out on a romantic dinner last night, he's just calling to follow up." No, we grabbed burgers after working a 14 hour day. 

"Joe's totally in love with Vanessa." No. No. No. No. No. 

On one hand, there was no real measurable impact of these comments and jokes. My clients loved me (but weren't in love with me), and my coworkers didn't control the business I got. On the other hand, I felt like comments about me winning business because by being a femme fatale (which was ridiculous) instead of an engineer who happened to be awesome at networking would slowly chip away at my reputation. As my friend Ruby has pointed out to me, people only make jokes that they believe are true on some level. And can you imagine these comments being made to a man in my position? 

My point is that for women (especially single women) in a heavily male dominated contracting world, you are kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't. Our business relationships are often tainted with some level of weirdness, whether it is perceived by us or outsiders, that doesn't impact single gender relationships. It's treated as a weirder occurrence than married guys going to a strip club on their lunch breaks. It seems the only way to try to avoid the weirdness is by installing a glass ceiling above your own head as a barrier, and even that doesn't always work. It's one of the reasons I left contracting, and have moved to the other side of the table where there is no way I can be accused of whoring myself out for engineering work.

While I am much happier on this side of the table, I still wonder if there is any way to fix the Catch-22 situation where female contractors are currently stuck. And I know most engineers have never even considered it, or realize how bad it can be. 

What are your thoughts? Have any of the male readers ever felt the same weirdness as contractors?



Monday, October 13, 2014

The way-too-optimistic blog post filled with sugar and sunshine

A year and a half ago, I was unhappy with my life. I was unfulfilled by work, didn't like my boss, and was very lonely at home. I went from sitting alone in a cubicle to watching TV at home alone every day. Then, a miracle happened: someone within my company approached me and offered me a new position in another department. Not only did it get me out of my old, depressing role and department, but it was actually in an area of engineering/science that I was interested in. I was ecstatic and jumped at the opportunity.

Switching departments was a tough transition and working in my new department required a TON of overtime to keep up with the new demands and with all the learning I had to do to catch up. But, I had coworkers to talk to instead of living in isolation. Plus I found the work to be not just better than before, but actually and truly enjoyable.

Fast forward to a year and a half later, and I've become a star. I've had meetings where I've gotten so much praise that I literally don't know what to say? What do you say when your boss' boss' boss tells you that you've made a priceless contribution to the advancement of this department and to the science in the field? What do you say when they won't accept your "thank you" because they believe they should be thanking you? I am totally willing to acknowledge that this sounds like I'm ungrateful and am complaining about a good thing. But really - what the hell do you say to that when you aren't allowed to say "thank you"?

Let's just suffice it to say that I'm appreciated at work, get what I want when I ask for it, like what I do, and have a somewhat flexible schedule. Some might say that I have it good. Coming from my first job in the company, I'd have to agree. I'd even raise that to saying that pretty freaking fantastic job. So when I was approached last week unofficially about a position in another department, I didn't jump on it. In fact, I was hesitant despite the fact that I was offered a promotion, which would mean I would get a second promotion only one year after my last promotion. I was hesitant despite the fact that I was offered a position in the group that does the work that I eventually want to do. I was hesitant despite the fact that I would get more freedom and visibility across departments.

What I'm saying is that I was offered a pretty good new job and I made an argument against it because I realized that my job is nearly perfect for my needs right now and is fulfilling both in terms of work projects and in terms of work-life balance.

This is just my long-winded way of saying that I didn't realize how happy I was with my current job until I had this offer come and slap me in the face with my happiness. I didn't realize how happy I was until I was forced to reflect on it. And I realize now that I was right in recognizing my unhappiness in my past job, recognizing what would make me happy, and taking the opportunity when it came to me. Yes, part of it is luck. But part of achieving happiness is taking a moment to reflect on what you need, what you want to avoid, and where you want to go in the future. For now, my current job is taking me on the path to the future I want and at the same time is keeping me fulfilled in the present. Keep an eye out for what can get you both those things, and you'll be happy, too.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Scary Cool Science Projects

October means it's almost Halloween. Which means there is an excuse to embrace your inner mad scientist and make some creepy, crawly, sticky, oozing masterpieces. One of the first ways I got involved in engineering was actually tricking out my house as a kid with special effects to scare unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.

So here are a few fun little projects for you (the kids are totally optional):

Oobleck (a classic)

At Halloween,  a good back story for this (because every good halloween tale starts with a scary story) is that you have found a special material that defies worldy laws of material.

Set the stage by letting your subject put their hand in a bowl of water. Note how the water reacts as a fluid. How motion is permitted no matter the speed. Now have the subject put their hand on a table. This is a solid (obviously)  and note how no matter how fast or slow or how hard or soft you push, the table provides equal and opposite force keeping your hand still. It seems silly to go over these obvious actions, but this understanding is crucial to showing why Oobleck is so unusual (it's a non-newtonian fluid).

Make Oobleck with this recipe (if you are working with a kid,  let them measure out everything and put it together with your instruction).

I suggest using some green or red food coloring.  Once you have the oobleck, remember what you previously determined about solids and liquids, and then explore the behavior of your new alien creation.

Send Letters With Disappearing Ink

Ruby suggests two possible scary set-ups for this project: leaving secret wolf paw prints, or writing letters to Halloween ghosts.You can order disappearing ink online, or make it using these instructions or these other instructions. Make sure to discuss the chemistry behind what is happening, and how it might impact other things in the world around you. Ask them to come up with ideas of when they might want or need to use something like disappearing ink.

Dry Ice Fog and Fun 

Make sure to use proper safety precautions when handling dry ice, and communicate these precautions to any kids involved. Dry ice and hot water can make a cool, creepy fog. Try using these instructions for a basic dry ice fog. 

If you want to step up your dry ice game, Steve Spangler has some great ideas for cool experiments with dry ice. The following video is an example of some of his ideas, no copyright infringement is intended. 

Yes, all of this is fun to play with, but it is also really interesting science. Talk to the engineer-in-training about different forms of matter. A great example to discuss is water. The solid form is ice, the liquid form is water, and the gas form is steam. When H2O changes from an ice cube, it melts to water before it becomes steam. Dry ice experiments are a great example of sublimation, where matter is able to change directly from solid to gas forms. Here is some more scientific information about dry ice if you want to know more.

Electronic Special Effects

If you are looking for an electronics project, this website has some instructions on how to make a rustling leave special effect to spook some of your trick-or-treaters. Be sure to use proper precautions when using soldering irons, or just use a breadboard instead. If you don't want to go through the whole process of making your own special effect, get one of those tacky (read: awesome) animatronic Halloween decorations and take it apart. Figure out what the different parts do, and why they work. Does it use a light sensor? What does the sensor look like? How does the animatronic make sound? How does it move?

Whatever projects or experiments you decide to try, encourage kids to ask "why", and "how" all of these experiments work. If you don't know the answer (or even if you do) go to a computer or a library or a text book, and help them learn how to look up the answer. Perhaps the most helpful part of experiments is teaching them how to question the world around them. It's that questioning attitude that is the foundation of a great engineer or scientist. 



PS. What are your favorite ideas for creepy science experiments and projects?