The Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) story that has made the headlines the last few days has highlighted a long-standing issue with tech-industry workers, regardless of their job type or gender. It’s not just about the early bird getting the worm. It’s also about the night-owls getting the promotions.
As a tech worker, I have often felt compelled to work long hours, from the office and at home and even on vacation, just to “keep up.” I think tech workers are some of the most harried out there: the perceived requirement for long hours, for being available even when you aren’t supposed to be available (at home, at a conference, in a meeting, at lunch, on vacation, on the bus during your commute), the expectation that you’ll always be connected and tethered (smart phone, tablet, laptop), and that you don’t know the proper use of the word “no.” Yes, I make my living in technology. But does this realistically mean that I should not have a life at all outside of my job in the tech industry?
This is the same question that should be asked of both men and women. Why is the expectation that men who work in the tech industry have no lives, either, and that women, by virtue of the fact that they are women and possibly mothers and wives as well, are expected to have lives and therefore cannot perform at the same level as men. Ergo, women cannot be as successful as men.
And how much of this expectation is our own fault?
I thank Ms. Sandberg for finally speaking out about the reality of her job and her home life. I wish she had done so sooner. The tech world may be overwhelmingly male, but success is not always a result of how many hours you put in. It is a matter of the quality of your work, being able to work SMARTER, not harder, as a former boss of mine put it. I have long known that my ability to multitask, in addition to my skills and experience, means that I do not have to put in the same amount of hours as others to do in the same job. In other words, I’m good at what I do. I’ve learned to work smarter, not harder. I also refused long ago to be tethered, to work more than a standard work week except in very rare circumstances, and have put a lot of effort into changing people’s expectations and perceptions along the way. I have found that many “emergencies” that come up in my line of work are not emergencies, but poor or nonexistent planning on the part of the requester. By reforming people’s expectations, I reduce the amount of panic and “emergency” production that I will have to face in any given week. That means, in literal terms, that I can have a life, and that my life does not have to be 80% job and 20% sleep/shower/eat.
The truth is, by allowing ourselves to be tethered to our devices/job, by allowing ourselves to be bullied and pushed around, we have set the expectation that the only way to succeed in the tech world is to give up everything that is not related to our job, and to live for the company. I refuse to be that person. When I am on my deathbed, I don’t want to say, “I really regret not having taken my daughter to the park, or gone on that hiking trip to the mountains, or visited Japan.” No one on their death bed ever says, “if I had only worked harder/longer…”
So, my fellow geeks. Can you work smarter, not harder? Can you cut back, little by little, on the amount of off-company time you are spending on the company? Can you build a life that doesn’t require auto-syncing of your work email with your smartphone, and can you stop checking your work email before you go to bed and the minute you get up in the morning? Can you mold expectations, by mere degrees, every day, every week, every month, to reduce the “emergencies” that keep you tethered to the company? Can you get yourself into a 9-5 mold, instead of the one you’ve allowed to be built for you, that keeps you constantly under the threat of work?
I challenge you to do so.