Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bring Your Child To Work Day

As a child, I remember being so excited on the rare occasion when my dad had to swing by his office after picking me up from school. He taught me how to answer the phone and I'd sit at his desk while he worked, and field phone calls from important customers like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Between my positive memories and my passion for educating the next generation of engineers and scientists, you'd think that Bring Your Child to Work Day would be my jam. But, as an adult, bring your child to work day is officially my least favorite day of the year. 

My abhorrence for this holiday began a few years ago, when my engineering firm decided to start inviting children to work. One of the secretaries tried to plan a loose schedule, which involved having kids "observe engineers at work". And since we were still expected to meet deadlines and produce works, this basically means that the children (ages 2-17) were expected to sit in somebody's cube and watch us think, and type, and draw, discuss complex technical problems, and do math- which is basically torture for a kid. As a result, the cube halls were filled with children who were just aimlessly running and screaming. 

It was complete anarchy, with no adults even trying to take direct responsibility. What was most shocking to me is that the majority of parents somehow took zero responsibility for their children the moment they dropped them off at the secretary's desk. I remember one particularly vocal five year old running past his dad's cube with a bouncy ball multiple times before he face planted into a metal filing cabinet (luckily he wasn't injured), and his father just kept working without even acknowledging his child was there. At that point, I escorted the kid back to the secretary and explained to both of them that running recklessly about was not something we do in an office. I never thought of my parents as particularly strict, but I cannot imagine running wild like that for more than five seconds before I was disciplined... especially in public.

My natural instinct was to want to bring order to the chaos, to kick in and pull out one of my classes or something to entertain them. But in a building filled with people avoiding responsibility, I didn't want to enforce stereotypes by being the woman who was taking care of children while the men worked. Thus, a day with so much potential became a day where the only people more miserable than the employees were the children. This version of bring your child to work day became the bane of my existence, and I come to find myself hoping that my new company doesn't have one so I don't have to relive that nightmare.

So here are times you should NOT bring your child to work:

1. If you work in an industrial setting where your child may not leave in the same condition in which he or she arrived. 
2. If you would want to stab your eyes out with a pencil if you were forced to watch you work for a day without doing anything- and your company doesn't have activities planned. (This is most engineering jobs, let's be honest)
3. If you are unwilling to recognize that your child exists in public.
4. If you have a big project coming due, and can't afford to be distracted at work. 

That said, I am still a proponent of companies trying to participate in organized educational events... I just don't think a chaotic day of nonsense counts as an educational event.

Does your company pull off a more successful bring your child to work day? What type of activities do they do?



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Performance Reviews

Ruby and I both have been through quite a few rounds of performance reviews now. Each of us earns high ratings, and our bosses spend the majority of time praising the extra time we put in, the quality of our work, etc. But the one thing we have yet to leave a performance review with, is real feedback as to how we can improve ourselves.

In college, when you earn a grade on a math exam - the professor (or more likely his or her underpaid TA) marks the questions you missed in a red pen. You review your mistakes, and you learn how to correct them next time. If you still don't understand it, you can even ask the professor (or TA) for additional explanations and help. Without getting the results back, the test would be more or less worthless to your personal education. It is a system designed to build up the knowledge base and performance of any student who wants to improve, even though the professor's career isn't really founded on your individual performance (ie, if one student fails for whatever reason, it's not like that is going to have any impact on his or her life).

Fast forward to the real world, where my company directly profits from my increased performance. There is a dedicated process at almost every company to take out the hypothetical red pen and mark up the last year's exam results. And being the perfectionist that I am, I get genuinely excited that the weak points I may have overlooked will be highlighted so that I can improve myself in the next year. But for whatever reason, they end up being a dog and pony show instead of a real review.

The first year, I get that a boss may not have had enough time to really judge my performance but may still feel uncomfortable about giving me a perfect score. Honestly, in the first review at a company, I expect to get something along the lines of "just keep learning, and you'll be great" unless I'm doing something incredibly wrong. But after that first review, I go in knowing things I feel I need to improve (nobody's perfect), and I expect my boss to have seen at least these items, if not others. So when I get another round of "just keep doing what your doing" feedback, I get frustrated.

What's even worse is when you get "just keep what you are doing" feedback combined with anything less than a completely perfect rating. Both Ruby and I have been rated on scales whose top scores are something along the lines of "exceeds expectations" and have always gotten at least one "grade" in our review that is just "meets" instead of "exceeds".  The first time I came across this, I thought this meant that this was where I could take action to improve. But when I asked for feedback as to how I could improve, I was told that he could only tell me how to meet their expectations and that he would just know if I had exceeded but couldn't tell me how. The only feedback that I got that year (after pressing hard) was that I could be "more accurate", because I was averaging one typo per every couple of pages of documentation when it went to my peer reviewer. In my opinion that was a load of BS, because the typos were not related to technical quality- and they weren't even part of the final product. Compared to the list of things I felt I needed to improve, I felt as if this just showed how little my boss knew about what I was doing.

So supervisors, if you are listening, some subordinates really do want actual feedback from you. And I'm not talking about you-never-show-up-to-work-maybe-we-should-have-fired-you-months-ago feedback. I'm talking about honest feedback to improve each and every employee regardless of how independent she is or how high of a performer she already is.

And engineers, if you get actual feedback at a performance review, don't take to take it offense. Getting honest feedback is the beginning of improving yourself professionally, and it shows that your boss values you as an employee and as an individual with a strong future.


Vanessa and Ruby