How To Manage Your Startup Workload
A long time ago, I took my five and three-year-old to work — at night.
I worked for a startup that was “the next big thing,” at least in our minds. We dreamed big. We would make billions and cement ourselves as a household name.
The night I took my kids to work was critical for the company. The first major release of our new product was going live. Customers were clamoring. We were on edge, but there was a positive energy in the building.
Some of us saw generational wealth as a possible outcome. We were counting our chickens before they hatched, but we didn’t know it then. I recall fantasizing about my success track from college to that moment. “This was it,” I thought to myself. I would make an impact.
My kids played, running down the hallway. They blissfully discovered the ping pong and snacks in the fridge. Juggling my precious dad-time and work became second nature, because I wanted a future for them that my family had never seen.. It was a calculated sacrifice resulting in yet another overly zealous software company. Like most dotbomb companies, hubris was the victor.
I have no regrets about the hard work over the years, but there’s a better way. I learned that impactful work doesn’t have to equate to crazy hours.
Put Family First
Family first is a conundrum.
Does it mean your family right now? Or does it mean protecting your family’s future?
Like most people, my family is my number one focus. My goal in my twenties was to balance a demanding career with being a doting father.
I knew a reasonable sacrifice in the present could provide a better future for my children. Leaving aside finances, I wanted them to understand how the business world worked.
In part, I wanted to demystify the working world so that they’d learn the ways of corporate America. They would be first-hand witnesses to hard work and its reward.
When we see pictures of young Tiger Woods holding a golf club, we smile. His dad put the time in to make him a phenom.
My kids’ golf would be corporate America. My plan was for them to take their golf swings in board rooms. Their US Open victory would be company ownership and acquisitions.
Most days I seesawed between the Lion King and writing code. After crazy hours at the office, I would greet an exhausted wife. My girls would queue up Disney flicks. I remember teaching them how to operate the DVD player as a game.
I muscled my way through balance, but I was lucky. At that same company, marriages suffered, and some visited hospitals often.
I’ve always felt that to take a slice of the American pie, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice normal life. As for those who like being workaholics, “let them be.” I am one of them, but I am lucky that my passion is my work.
Experience taught me that family is the number one priority. To balance work and life requires planning. During the heyday of dotbomb, the engineering team would have dinner together. We’d frequent a restaurant, eat, then get back to work. Three nights a week, I’d drive home. I’d watch at least one princess movie, have dinner, then head back to the office at midnight.
I was fortunate to be able to maximize precious moments because I had support. I learned to take control rather than letting life drag my family and me into chaos. The delicate balance was all held together by master level napping on weekends.
I became a student of time management, where time-boxing was my weapon of choice.
Focus On Impact, Not Hours
Focusing on impact changed my career.
Deciding what’s impactful isn’t easy, but it’s worth it in the end. The reward is time with your family without sacrificing career growth.
If you can figure out the most important thing, you can shut out all the noise. My team didn’t always like it, but I was famous for horse trading with management. I found that even the most stubborn manager couldn’t argue away results.
Not much changes at the executive level. They’d ask for X, I would assess and deliver Y. It took a little extra work, but I figured out what was important. In a sense, I traded impactful deliverables for some me time.
Once I bartered massive backlogs down to the most important things, I got in the zone. I had to make each hour count, so I picked my favorite music, and blinded myself to the rest of the world.
Oprah Winfrey interviewed music mogul Jay-Z. As part of her master class, she asked him about hard work. He said his mother taught him, “you get out what you put in.”
Jay-Z goes on to say that excellence is about being good for a very long time.My takeaway was, it’s more about immersing yourself in your craft. Experts know how to get in the zone. They understand that time slows down when you focus. It’s what you do with each minute while you work — and what you don’t do.
I’ve learned that career advancement takes sacrifice. You don’t have to put your five-year-old on your keyboard, but you have to make small concessions.
Your goal may be self-improvement, financial gain, or making an impact. In all cases, you want to up your planning game.
When my kids were small, missing soccer practice was a non-starter. I allowed no interruptions, and I remember all the games. I learned that work chaos would kindly greet me after family time. Somehow the calamity of the office patiently waits for you.
My interpretation of Jay-Z’s mantra is mastering intensity and immersion. If you add those two together, you get to impact.
Warren Buffet is famous for reading in the middle of each day. He also gets a regular eight hours of sleep each night.
This lifestyle inspires me. If Mr. Buffet built his empire on sleep and reading, my little shack should be well in hand. Somehow he grows and is never short on ideas. He’s amassed enormous wealth and shared it with people around him. He’s well-known for encouraging “voracious” reading for the acquisition of knowledge.
Often times, your personal development takes a back seat to your day job. It’s the proverbial chicken and egg. If you want to advance, you need the time to learn and try things, but if you do that, your family suffers.
The answer is to schedule enrichment. Companies continue to adopt this method. Google is famous for 20% time — employees use 20% of each week to do anything they want.
I am sure not all companies would support this, but they are missing an opportunity. At a company that will remain nameless, I scheduled meetings with myself. The demands of the day to day wouldn’t let me breathe, so I created time. I’d hone my skills by reading and researching. I used the time to advance. And since I didn’t argue with myself, I left the meetings refreshed.
Negotiate Your Workload
Businesses focus on outcomes.
We build processes and methodologies to ensure a result. Often processes lull us to sleep. Completed tasks and deadlines become the goal.
I recall a meeting in the heat of a death march. A brave soul raised his hand and admitted he had no clue what we were building anymore. Management shamed him for his bravery, but he was correct. We marched forward, no matter what. We lost context because management bludgeoned us with dates.
We began to do anything to avoid showing up to a meeting with a dropped task. Before we knew it, we worked an 80 hour week.
Patty Azzarello’s TEDx talk advises that we step out of the corporate hierarchy. She describes the power of human conversations. It’s through real conversations that we can reclaim our humanity.
I believe that each team member should have authentic conversations with management. In Patty’s words, “show up as a human and have an honest conversation.”
If there’s too much work, say something. Speak to the people around you as humans, and tell them what you can do. Talk to them about the sacrifices you will make and the ones you won’t.
Knowing the business outcome is vital because you can barter. It’s important not to let your Agile process be the only conduit for discussing time.
You may have more time in some sprints and less in others. If this is the case, negotiate. I have never failed to have this conversation in the past.
Here are a few things I’ve tried:
- Set boundaries around untouchable time. It could be dinner time or something else. Here’s an example: “I am committed to the success of the team and company. For me to be happy, I can never miss my kid’s soccer game. Here are a few times when I can work late. ”
- Build credibility through your work. Because you deliver, they will listen to you. Use your excellent track record to negotiate away unreasonable requests.
- Suggest things. I didn’t coin the term, but don’t be a victim accomplisher. If the process is killing you, come up with a plan and share it using human conversations. Be willing to help institute change.
- Get involved in strategy. It’s easy to assume that management can see the same things that you see. If you understand the why, you can help with the how. Businesses want outcomes. Simple conversations help a lot.
The fact of the matter is that you have a voice. Software engineering is one of the most sought after professions in the world. It takes perseverance, talent, and patience.
You can be in full control of your life, advancing your career and nurturing your family. The trick is to set boundaries and honor them. Demand that others respect you time and you’ll be happier.
I wish I knew twenty years ago how to value my time. I would later find coaches who showed me how to draw credible boundaries around my life. Their lessons taught me that work-life balance is real. I didn’t need to be a bad dad to win in corporate America: my slice of the pie was as large as everyone else’s, as long as I knew how to balance.