Monday, July 26, 2010

Why I don't like to work on federal holidays

Okay, so this post definitely falls into the category of "things I meant to write about when I had the idea but not the time."

For a while, my company had decided that the accounting department was going to have to work the 4th of July holiday. (The 4th of July always falls at quarter-end. Holidays that fall at the beginning of the month are always a pain for accounting because we're busy closing, although you'd think the federal oversight committee, or whoever is actually demanding that we get stuff done and turned in, would know about these holidays and extend the deadline, as they are federal holidays.) I was totally annoyed by having to work July 5. Livid, in fact. Although it turns out, I didn't have to. What a waste of a good tantrum! So I'm going to continue here as if I didn't already know that I didn't end up having to work July 5 (which is my dad's birthday, coincidentally).

I didn't actually have any plans for the 5th (Dad doesn't live nearby), but what if I had? It's been marked as a holiday on our payroll calendars since they came out at the end of 2009.

And Captain America was out of town. I had been really looking forward to three whole days off with the house to myself. I was going to watch a collection of movies that Captain America has no interest in, do some scrapbooking, and drink a lot of tea while reading a few books.

But then we were told we'd have to work, and while we'd get a different day off to make up for it, it just wasn't the same to me.

And then, on top of it all, isn't it a little rude and disrespectful to work on Independence Day?

Yes, I know the extra day off was the 5th, not the 4th. But, in ways I have yet to figure out how to concretely verbalize, it just strikes me as disrespectful. I know I have an idealized view that all of our service men and women are pledging to protect my rights, but then again, aren't we a nation founded on ideals? Shouldn't we be more respectful to the very people whose job it is to protect our rights? Isn't it a little presumptuous to think a few accounting entries are more important than celebrating our freedoms? I mean, really, one of those freedoms gives me the right to complain about it here.

Another holiday like this is Labor Day. Does anyone else see the irony in working Labor Day? Again, I think it's disrespectful to all of those men and women who fought so hard to get us things that seem like common sense: time to eat lunch, or use the restroom, in addition to other benefits, like worker's comp and over time pay. Oh, and fire exits. I'm a huge fan of fire exits. Remember 9/11? Yes, all of those people who made it out did so because they had fire exits.

I don't have to be in a union; I don't have to fight for those things because someone else did the work for me. And it wasn't as if a bunch of workers put some suggestions into a box and the boss said, hey, these are pretty good ideas. No, labor unions did actually have to fight for better working conditions.

I've tried explaining to my now-boss, before she became my boss, why I take lunch every day, but she just didn't get it. I said that I don't mind working through lunch on occasion, if it's necessary, but I won't do it every day because I don't want my company to expect it of me; I don't want my company to think I'm willing to do it every day. She just looked at me and said that if she took lunch everyday, she'd feel like she'd have to stay longer. And I commented that that sounded like we were under-staffed. (I would, however, gladly skip lunch ever day if it meant I could leave sooner, but it doesn't. And, my department is, in fact, hugely under-staffed.)

Everyone's job has unexpected inconveniences. Everyone I know has to work later than they want sometimes, and put in the occasional Saturday, and yes, it sucks. It cuts into your personal time, your real life. It limits your ability to literally re-create yourself on the weekend so you're a better employee the following week, but every now and then it's just necessary. And I don't mind it when it's necessary. But if it becomes necessary for me to skip lunch every day, or work every Saturday, or work late every day, well, then we have a problem. I don't live to work; I work to live.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

How is a sumo wrestler like a writing desk?

I have a number of things about which I'd like to blog, but obviously, lately, I've been a little short on time. Sigh.

I recently read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. In one of the early chapters, they discuss whether or not sumo wrestlers throw matches, how often, and why. I don't remember entirely the point they were trying to make (and I have since returned the book to the library), but it did get me thinking, which may be a more important outcome than whatever their point was anyway.

Here's the setup: in a sumo tournament, each wrestler wrestles 15 times (presumably to different opponents, otherwise this math would never work). In order to improve their ranking, they have to win eight of these matches. So, for a wrestler going into their final match with a score of 7-7, winning this final match is very important. In final matches where their opponent is 8-6 (and therefore, probably a slightly better wrestler, but who does not need to win this last match), the 7-7 wrestler wins most of the time, even though statistically they shouldn't.

The Freakonomics guys do a whole bunch of analysis and basically show that the 8-6 dudes are throwing their last match. This doesn't really bother me. I brought this up to Captain America, who felt that professional athletes should always do their best. While I agree in principle, I also sort of feel like this was decent sportsmanship. If a 9-6 record isn't going to do you any more good than an 8-7, why not give the win to the other guy, who actually needs it? (Am I actually nicer than we all think?)

This led me to thinking about two other rather unrelated topics. The first was my high school swim team. My swim team, although labeled "varsity," actually had swimmers of a large breadth of skill (there was no JV team). Some meets we swam were close, and our better swimmers swam a lot, and hard. Others, we knew we were going to win and our coach let our less skilled swimmers swim a lot more (this gave the less skilled swimmers opportunities to letter, which I won't get in to). In these meets, we could have swum our best athletes and creamed the other team, or swimmers like me could have a chance to letter and we'd still win.

Captain America points out that a public high school swim team is very different from professional athletics, and that we still won. But so did the 8-7 wrestler. We won, but we didn't have to be obnoxious about it.

This led me to think about a very random exercise in one of my MBA classes. We did a number of similar exercises but the one I'm specifically discussing involves bidding on nickles. (If you're confused as to why we were even bidding on nickles, so was my team--we were horrible at this exercise. At one point, one of my team members turned to me and said, "Virginia, if you need a nickle this badly, I'll just give you one.")

The exercise is simple: in groups of three, two people bid on nickles (taking turns to go first) and one person acts as the auctioneer. So, if I bid first, and I bid a penny for the nickle, you have two choices: you can let me win the bid, or you can bid two pennies (or more). The point (which my group just could not figure out) is that if each bidder allows the other to win the bid at one penny, after 10 rounds of alternative bidding, everyone ends up with five nickles, but only spent five pennies. This is the outcome that maximized each person's gain. I have no idea how to apply this to the real world because who would sell money at 1/5 of its value? Even if we were bidding on something with a market value, like corn, still, who would sell it for 1/5 of its value?

Later on, in subsequent classes, we did another similar exercise, and I was paired with a girl, D, whom I knew to be a big proponent of this maximized gains idea, so when she bid the minimum the first time, I let her win it, knowing she would do the same for me. I considered the possibility that she would trick me and force me to bid more than the minimum, but I figured I could do the same to her in the next round. As it turns out, I was right; she let me win all of my bids and I let her win all of hers and we ended the game both winning a lot more than we spent and both being even. The professor was thrilled with us, as no other team had managed so well, but I still have no idea how to apply this to the real world.

The takeaway, I suppose, is that if your opponent is like-minded, you can probably reach an agreement at a lower cost. No kidding, right? Or maybe the point was you don't have to be ruthless to succeed in business. (Yeah, I'm sure that's the point.) This could only work if both parties were equally not ruthless.

So yeah, what did you get out of your $55k education?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More on the App Economy

I know I've already blogged once about why I'm a fan of the app economy, but there's even more, as evidenced by this Fortune article.

I'll give you all a break and summarize the article: Apple provides engineers to colleges to teach app programming classes free of charge.

Really, that's the set up.

Here's what I like: colleges get the benefit of a free professor teaching a relevant, real world type of class. This is great for students, because so often professors get all caught up in how much they love their subject, and the theory behind it, that they forget that their students have to go out and get jobs and actually apply the material to the real world.

If you're wondering what Apple gets out of this arrangement, aside from great PR, it's a chance to take a look at up-and-coming engineering talent, as well as a fresh look at what today's youth thinks actually will make a good app. It's sort of an engineering/consumer survey class all rolled up into one.

Here's the risk: this may be the start of a trend where large companies provide area experts for free to top colleges and universities to specifically train students to think and act the way the company wants them to. I'm not sure this is appropriate. If you follow the notion that people learn more from their mistakes than their successes, this might inhibit learning. In my graduate school program, the classes in which I learned the most were the ones where I also struggled the most.

I'm not saying Apple is out to make an army of cloned engineers, and as it's know as an innovative company, surely it understands the value of providing students with a set of tools and letting them run with them.

I would just caution against too many companies providing too many professors to too many universities, as this may, at some point, stifle innovation and creativity, the very backbone of a growing economy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On working without children

Last week, my department hired a new consultant. As my boss was making the rounds introducing the new woman, the woman commented that she had left a hectic job because she wanted a better work-life balance (I can't imagine what her work-life balance must have been at her old job if she thinks it's going to be better working here). Anyway, my boss made this joking comment that I didn't have kids at home, so I had more free time and was more available. I, trying really, really hard to not start a major battle in the workplace, responded that just because I didn't have kids didn't mean that I don't also have a life outside of work. Then the conversation turned to travel (apparently something I get to do because I don't have kids), and no one got shot.

Here's what ticks me off: I'm not having kids because I don't want them. End of story. If you want to have kids, that's great, but you've got to figure out how to take care of them and do your job, not me. It is not my job to pick up your slack because you have to go to girl scouts or softball practice or whatever. (I don't think any of the mothers with whom I work are slacking, I'm just saying...)

Please don't misunderstand. I definitely think that being a good parent is of utmost importance. I'm especially dependant on how other people are raising their kids and what sort of people those kids turn out to be because I'm not making any contributions to the future of society. Yes, I know: it's your kids who will be my nurses when I get old; it's your kids who will be the pilots flying me places; it's your kids who will be doing a million other things that need to get done. Yes, I get that.

And I also understand the importance of working mothers, not only as strong role models for their daughters, or for the additional stability that a second income brings to a family. Statistically, companies with women, and specifically mothers, in the C-suite are more profitable.

There's this adage that if you need somebody to get something done, you give it to a working mother to do. It stands to reason that someone who works full time and manages a couple of kids has both multi-tasking and efficiency down to an art.

However, I think there's this presumption that women who choose not to have kids do so because they want to be completely devoted to their career. I am not one of those people who defines myself by what I do. I don't want to have kids because I don't want to raise them. However, I also don't want to work 80 hours a week. (Really? Is this astonishing?) My feelings about having kids and my feelings about my career are not related. Along those lines, there are a number of other things I don't want to do that also have nothing to do with not wanting kids or not wanting to work 80 hours a week, such as eat peas, clean out the freezer, and be subjected to more ridiculous Twilight nonsense.

What I want to do is earn a paycheck that covers the bills, with a little extra, so Captain America and I can enjoy our lives.