Off Topic: Communication, Careers & Working for Free

I was talking with my friend recently about how his and another friend’s jobs were going. The discussion centered around career paths - staying technical, changing fields or moving into supervision/management. We shared thoughts about our motivations for choosing a path and how we felt about ‘climbing the corporate ladder’ and the personal costs to do so. This really got me thinking about my career and how I’ve changed my career goals but more importantly, how marriage and children have changed my focus and values. I thought it could be helpful to share my opinions on careers and family and how I’m choosing to make them work.

Have a Career Goal

My daughter just turned 7. To celebrate, I took her out on a date and shopping for a gift for herself (she picked out a hula hoop!). On our way home, there was a car from a local computer company ahead of us that had the slogan ‘Who’s your IT guy?’ on the back. She read it and asked me what that meant. I explained what IT meant and proceeded to tell her that I work in IT. Her follow-up question was ‘Are you doing the job that you wanted to do when you grew up?’

I couldn’t believe how profound that question was coming from my ‘little’ girl. I told her ‘yes’ it was - I had gone to college with the goal of working in IT and that I’m working in the field that I set out to work in. Her current career goal is to become a scientist, so we talked more about what types of scientists there are which kind she’d like to be. She said she figured she could choose several fields since ‘you can have more than one job.’

The thing about goals is that they change. Yes, I have the career I set out for, however I’ve changed my goals within the field as my family and my expertise in the field have grown. I make a point of communicating my personal goals to my employer to help ensure we are on the same page and that I’m taking advantage of opportunities that fit our collective goals for me.

Don’t Work for Free

One of the hardest aspects of my job is that the work never stops. Outside of the occasional after-hours emergency, overseas support call or project deadline sprint, my employer doesn’t expect me to continue working after-hours on a regular basis, yet this is the issue I continue to struggle with: working after hours and making a habit of it.

I’ve heard it said (even I’ve said it): ‘I can’t get any of MY work done during the day because I spend my day doing stuff for everyone else so I have to work after hours just to keep up.” You may think there’s no real harm in working after hours or that it is helpful to you or the company, but I would suggest that its a bad habit all around (Aside from the obvious point of not letting other people’s issues keep you from completing the tasks your employer expects of you).

  1. It takes away from time you could be using for other things. Anything else is better than working for free.
  2. It potentially masks a manpower shortage that your employer would potentially notice if work wasn’t getting done.
  3. You may be setting a new baseline for how much work you can handle in a given period which locks you in to working extra hours just to maintain your baseline.

Communication is Key

For years I have been in the habit of working after hours for periods when I’ve got a heavy work load. My boss knows I do this but doesn’t require it, I honestly just tend to get a lot of good work done later in the evenings. So before I began a side job a few months ago, I sat down with him to get his blessing on everything and to be up-front about what I was planning. When we talked about the impact of me reducing the amount of after-hours work for our company to make time for consulting, he said: ‘If you want to give our company 80 hours a week they will take all 80 hours.’ and that really stuck with me. For years now, I’ve been choosing to give away my time to my company for free.

I have a great relationship with my bosses and my company, in fact, I’m sure they are reading this (Hi boss!). Being open and honest about your career, your goals and your personal/family goals goes a long way in making it easy to have the career you want with a company that values you and the work you do.

What Now?

I’m just a dude taking it one step at a time and hoping to learn from others and make the best decisions for myself and my family. Hopefully you have a job that allows you to do the same, if not, set some new goals to help you find the right match. Life is far too short to do a job that you hate. For some people, making a career/job change may not be possible but you certainly don’t have to let your employer take advantage of you especially if you are choosing to work for free.