If there’s a bad part about retiring early (and so far there aren’t many), it would be that I have to shift my blogging muse perspective from the negative (“here’s why it SUCKS to be stuck in an office”) to the positive (“here’s why it’s AWESOME to NOT be stuck in an office”).
But before I wrap-up that paradigm shift, I’m going to dig into the well one more time.
This is an alternative optimistic follow up to my previous post on corporations. It wasn’t my intention to be pessimistic in the last post, just honest. But I know a few of you didn’t like it. 😉
During my last week in the office, a coworker of mine came up to me to vent. He’d just finished a conference call with our management and one of our large customers. The project he was working on is way behind schedule, and the customer wasn’t happy. Even worse, the scope of the project was increasing without changing to the schedule.
This scope increase is a common scenario in the engineering world, and I suspect it’s pretty common in most corporate environments. I like to playfully refer to this as “planning for failure,” but unfortunately most people haven’t accepted this. Instead, they think of it as “planning for overtime.” This might not be so bad, except we’re all on salary so overtime really just means “working for free.”
Here’s the conversation as it played out:
Andy: (sighs) I just got off the phone with <insert customer>. Do you remember when we scoped out this project, and we all agreed that we would buy an off-the-shelf <insert widget>, rather than designing our own custom <insert widget>?
Me: Yeah. Why?
Andy: Well, now they want us to design and test the <widget>. That’s weeks of extra work, and we’re already way understaffed and behind schedule.
Me: That’s not good. I guess you’ll have to change the schedule and the budget.
Andy: Yeah, you’d think. But <insert manager and director> were on the call and they said we’d do it. They told <customer> we were committed to this project and that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get back on schedule and give them what they want. They didn’t even act like it was additional work.
Me: What’s in the SoW? (This is the Statement of Work: The detailed definition of what the design teams will provide, including the scope of work, budget, and schedule)
Andy: It says that we’d buy it off the shelf. That we’d do no design and only a small amount of integration testing.
Me: Then you’ll have to change the schedule if they want more than that.
Andy: It’s not that easy. Our fearless leaders already agreed to it. So the SoW doesn’t do much good if we don’t stick with it.
Me: You’re looking at it wrong. The SoW isn’t just an agreement between our two companies, it’s also an agreement between Engineering and Management. If you accept this overtime, then you’re condoning it. And if it was a one-time thing, maybe that’s the right thing to do. But do you think that in this case it’s the right thing to do?
Andy: No, but…
Me: Engineers are terrible, and electrical engineers are the worst. We complain about the long hours and having no social life, and yet we constantly blame “The Man” for our situations. The truth is, we create this environment for ourselves by always sucking it up. If you don’t want to work nights and weekends for the next 6 months, then you need to go take the SoW to <insert manager> and tell them that this is out of scope, and that we’re not resourced to pull it off. It’s one thing to work overtime when we screw up, or during “crunch time” on a project, but to actually plan for it is absurd. And if you condone it, or even accept it, then you are The Man.
The irony is, I worked crazy long hours during the first decade of my career. And it would be easy to call me a hypocrite now for calling someone else out now that I’m in retirement. But there’s a key difference: when I worked those long hours I actually wanted to. I was young, energetic, and filled with ambition. I didn’t do it because someone made me, I did it because I wanted to be the best. I wanted more money and more authority, I wanted to beat my peers and rise up the ranks faster than anyone ever has in the industry. I never ever complained. Like a cyclist in the Tour de France that actually pushes the pace near the top of the Col du Tourmalet, I wanted to keep working to see if I could break everyone else in the Peloton with my relentless pace.
But let’s face it, most people aren’t like this. Instead, most people will complain under their breath, and begrudgingly suck it up. Like Andy…
For me, when the day came that I no longer wanted to work long hours (coinciding with when my son was born 6 years ago), I stopped doing it. And you know how much my career trajectory slowed down?
Not a bit. I continued to rise up the promotional ranks, get maximum bonuses, and increased authority. As that continued to happen, I realized something: The Man, who’s been pushing us to work more and to prioritize our work over our family, is within. No one ever expected me to work like I did, and no one punished me when I stopped.
I realized that The Man is just a figment of our imagination who we let control us through fear. Fear of being fired, of letting someone down, or of not getting a much-desired promotion. Sure, there are plenty of people that will let you work your ass off: managers, customers, stockholders, and even your peers – they will all let you work harder to make their live’s easier. But they aren’t The Man. They can’t be The Man because they’re all busy working for their own “Man.”
What To Do About It
The power in this message is simply in recognizing the truth, that The Man is an imaginary guy in your head that holds no power over you unless you give him that power. There’s no one holding you down, no one holding a gun to your head to work so hard that you’re sacrificing your physical, mental, or emotional health. There’s no one chaining you up and keeping you from your family. There are plenty of people that will let you believe that there’s a gun to your head if it means they get some benefit from it, but with rare exceptions there’s no one ready to fire you for not letting your career overtake your life.
In the case of my buddy Andy, I told him to try exactly what I’d done many times in the past. I told him to take the SoW, mark it up and present it to his manager with logic and reason, and no emotion. Explain that it was out of scope, and that he couldn’t support it without a schedule change. I told him to explain that we write the SoW for a reason, and that we shouldn’t “plan for overtime.”
When he removed the anger and frustration from his mind and his communication to his manager, he was able to rationally explain the situation to his manager and the customer. Ultimately, the customer prioritized the schedule and regressed back to the original scope of work, knowing that he was right. And just that easily, The Man was emasculated.
Even now in retirement, I still love sticking it to The Man.
tl;dr? The Man doesn’t exist. So stop blaming him, and take responsibility for your own work/life balance.