Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Job Just Got So Much Better

An outside observer might expect my job to be a rather typical 9-5 position. Had said observer seen the same job posting I did, I'd be able to forgive him that erroneous conclusion as I had come to the same one. However, this is the software industry - if my time at Microsoft taught me anything, it's that 9-5 doesn't really exist here. At the very least, we're expected check our work email on a consistent basis - even on nights, weekends, and vacations - just in case of a last-minute fire drill. (This is one of the reasons why we feel completely justified checking personal email and Facebook at the office.)

The job I have now is similar to the one I had at Microsoft, but different in a number of significant ways:

  1. Way less responsibility, mostly because...
  2. ZAAZ mostly sells a service, not products - QA standards vary from project to project based on what the client is willing to pay for (which is usually not very much) - and also because...
  3. I was an FTE at Microsoft. I'm a contractor at ZAAZ.

Basically the way it works is I get assigned hours at the beginning of the week (x hours on project A, y hours on project B, etc..). Ostensibly these hours add up to full time work, however they are usually very inflated to either make room for possible fire drills or as a way to under-promise/over-deliver to the client (or both). To put this in perspective, on average, I get assigned almost 18 hours each week I'll never get to bill (yeah, I'm a geek, I keep track of this stuff). So, in order to expect to actually work 40 hours/wk, I'd have to be assigned something like 58 hours/wk. What this means is that, for all intents and purposes, this is a part time job.

I suppose you'd expect that I'd totally have a lot of free time, right? Kind of. I certainly have a lot of time during the day that I spend doing nothing. The problem is I generally have very little idea when the work is actually going to show up. The procedure is for people to put blocks of QA work on the calendar so that we can plan our time, but for whatever reason it doesn't ever seem to go down like that. As a result, I never feel like I have free time. I feel like I am constantly on call. Imagine, if you will, that you're back in college. You're taking 4-5 classes and each week you know you have a certain amount of work to do and a certain amount of class to attend, but you're never given any due dates or told when things will be assigned. Not a very comfortable situation, is it?

I potentially have a lot of time during the day to run errands or get other things done, but I don't often capitalize on it because I constantly live in abject fear of missing an email. You know, that email. It's the feeling of "I haven't gotten any email in hours and there's nothing to do on my calendar, but I can't leave to go to the gym or something because... what if that's right when they decide they have work for me?" (There's a psychological term for this, but I forget what it is at the moment.) It doesn't take long for that kind of thing to burn you out, especially if the job itself isn't something you really love.

The solution, it turns out, is something I've distinctly avoided for months: getting work email on my smartphone. The various rationales for resisting doing this are likely very obvious; it boils down to not wanting to let my job have more control over my life than it already does. There's something very psychologically satisfying about drawing a line in the sand. 

But yesterday I caved... and I have never been so glad. At the time, I was getting a quick bite after going to the gym on "work hours" and instantly all of the guilt and fear melted away. I awoke so much more relaxed today. Ironically, this has put me in more control of my job than I ever was before. As it turns out, just because someone's emailing me doesn't mean I have to respond. But at least now I'll know that if I need to - if the perfect storm does hit at the moment I'm out of the office - I can. 

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