Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Contracting Lifecycle

As I've mentioned before, I work as a contract engineer. While my title and company remain the same from month to month, my projects and clients are transient. After months of working closely with clients on a project, when I've finished the job I pack up my laptop bag and move on. Sometimes I'll end up working with the same people in a matter of days, sometimes I won't work with them for a year or more.

Leaving at the end of a project can be kind of awkward and anticlimactic; people don't know if they should make some grand gesture to say goodbye, or if they should just say "have a nice life" and move on. One client insisted on me stopping by his desk on my way out after completing a six month project.

He shook my hand and proclaimed, "It's been a pleasure working with you. You've done excellent work here."

Yet somehow after six months of pouring my heart and soul into the project, even that kind ending felt like I'd lost something. For six months I had talked with the same cast of characters every day, stayed in the same hotel, and even eaten lunch at the same table in the same chair at the the same time with the same friends. And while I was doing so much the same, I felt like I was changing my environment. I fixed a complex system, I got two divisions who hadn't worked together in over a decade to play nice, I created real friendships, and I earned the respect and trust of people who had initially doubted me. As a result, I felt like going back to my "home office" meant that I was losing my new friends and that I would not get to enjoy being the respected engineer I had become.

This isn't to say that there aren't times when I am not super excited to get off of a project (because there are), or that I would ever try to extend out a project to keep my life constant (because I wouldn't). Just that as I was walking out of my client's office on the last day, I felt a sense of loss even though it was another win on my resume.

I definitely moped around  internally for a few days upon returning home, although I was all smiles when coworkers I'd spoken to once a year ago greeted me back to the office like a long lost sister. I can never tell how to deal with people who proclaim how much they missed me when I don't even remember their name. Luckily for me, by the end of the week I had another assignment at an old site but with a new team.

After walking through a cubicle maze which doubles as a menagerie of old clients and friends, I headed into a room of unfamiliar faces filled with doubt at who this stranger was. I could tell they were wondering if I was truly capable of helping, everyone does at the beginning. I took a deep breath, and braced myself to start from scratch again. This time, I told myself, it would be easier since my reputation preceded me. I extended my hand to each man in the room (since there were, of course, no women) and said, "Hello, I'm Vanessa. I'm the lead engineer for this project."

When you keep going around, it's hard to feel like you are moving up.
When it's all said and done there will always be an expiration date, and there will always be a new project, and a new team. The trick for me is allowing myself to care deeply about each new project regardless of the expiration date, as that is what drives me to succeed. The projects may be temporary to me, but they are permanent for my clients.



Monday, May 19, 2014

How To Deal With Work Exams

I remember the feeling of relief after I took my last final senior year. I remember going out with friends and celebrating taking our "last exams ever".  I remember being ecstatic that I'd never have to study, cram, and stress over a graded assignment. Looking back I don't know how this rumor of the "last exam ever" is accepted as fact by the majority of graduating engineering students, when many of them will have to start taking qualifying exams for work just a few weeks later.

If only there were such a thing, it would probably be awesome
Sorry engineering students who think they will never be tested again, but I've taken countless classes, quizzes, and exams since graduating college.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, my manager beckoned me to his office. I don't know why but I still have a principal's office syndrome about being called into managers' offices; I am always convinced I'm in trouble even though I know I'm a top performing employee. He told me I'd be taking an exam  for a professional certification in two weeks, and that I should get the study guide today.

Paging through the 1400 page study guide, I realized that I knew practically nothing about the subject. I looked up exam reviews online, and all the recommendations said I should take six months to study. And I had just two weeks to learn it all while still making all of my project deadlines (because my clients don't care that I'm taking some exam that isn't related to their system). Cue me freaking out.

It was like finals week all over, except this time if I failed, I wasn't the only one to pay the price- my company would suffer too because they wouldn't be able to use my certification. I studied every minute I had available the first week: lunches, weekends, after work, flashcards when I got up. The second week my work signed me up for a cram course and we ate, slept, and breathed the course material. During breaks I delegated project pieces to people in my home office, returned client emails, and tried to network with the other students (who worked for a range of potential clients).

And at the end of all of this, was a day long exam. My boss drove me to the test,  and all I could think about was how awkward the drive home would be if I failed. The test itself was a whirlwind (as most tests are)  and the entire day disappeared in what seemed to be a matter of minutes. As I clicked the submit button, I winced.  I was sure I was in for the most uncomfortable hour long car ride of my life. The proctor walked over to my station,  his feet thumping slowly in rhythm with the frantic clicking of test takers.  He handed me a single piece of paper and my stomach dropped.

"Why do you look so sad?" he asked.

"Honestly? I just don't think this went very well," I sighed.

He gave me a confused look and pointed at a line mid-way through the page he'd given me which read: "VANESSA POCKET has passed" in bold letters. A wave of relief washed over me.

In reality, the worst part of exam was the pressure I put on myself. And while a certain amount of pressure helps drive me to success, I had to try to leave out any thought of self doubt while I studied in order to allow myself to learn. If you take a moment to breath and quiet the critical voices in your mind, you can get back into the studying grove that let you get your engineering degree in the first place.

So work exams may exist, and they can be hard and stressful, but they are also a chance to prove your engineering prowess. In an industry where others sometimes presume your gender is the reason for your success, it can be a blessing to have hard results that show your skills. So think of life with exams as a positive thing, and go forth and own them!