… and what in the world do I do when I realize I’m not!?

I spend a fair amount of time, as a people manager, dealing with ‘fires’, everything from building a rush interview loop for a candidate with other offers, to escalating a show-stopping problem that appeared late in the working plan for a high-profile project, in the hopes that we finish something like on time (or, perhaps only kind of late…) You may have used the four quadrant model to identify a fire, in the past – fires are urgent tasks, which may or may not be important (refer to Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more on the four quadrant model).

Fires represent one exciting part of my job, where I get an opportunity to act decisively, which appeals to me greatly; the high stakes that come with every fire keep me interested and stimulated, while letting me learn something new every day. (Learning motivates me more than most of the other verbs do.)

You may have already experienced one or more negative states in your work life, but when you have many urgent matters competing for your attention, you risk one or more of a state of overwhelm, making frequent errors and finding peer mistakes, or even your own and others’ burning out.

In order to ensure I stay on top of the ‘right things’ without simply working harder and thus overworking myself into a state of burnout, I create a rubric that helps me evaluate and prioritize among the many items jockeying for attention. For each project or deliverable, I ask myself:

  • Is this something that I / we may fix through some kind of preventative measure? If not, how do we generate a fix?
  • How do I / we measure success in this arena? We don’t want to work to produce an outcome we can’t perceive – and if we can’t measure it, we can’t perceive it.
  • What’s the expected lifespan and level of impact to deliver this control? (the ratio here should be favorable – if we work for 6 weeks to deliver a fix that will disappear in the next quarter, was it worth the effort?)
  • Number of owners or systems impacted? Who’s the customer, and how many of them are there? We generally prefer a greater impact over a lesser one, but sometimes (say in certain compliance cases) we may have to prioritize a fix for a smaller number of affected customers.
  • Number of resources impacted (e.g. groups, Teams)? There may be one owner or a single system, but there could be a much larger number of Teams, posix or ldap groups, etc. utilizing that system or reporting up through that owner. We should account for their numbers in our impact calculation, when relevant.
  • Is this a one-off or repeating request? Certain workflows repeat on a regular basis, e.g. quarterly or annually. If I know I will generate this report once a month, I am more likely to automate as much as I’m able vs. a one-off report that answers my manager’s singular inquiry.
  • Do I enjoy doing this myself (am I able to deliver on my own) or is this better delegated? You don’t want me writing your enterprise HTML or CSS, even though I’m theoretically able. However, if you want a 3 year plan or vision for our roadmap, I can whip that out no problem, and I enjoy learning about a team and our software ecosystem in order to draw a compelling vision that retains current employees and appeals to prospectives.

Once I have this data for each project or priority, I can play a kind of multi-dimensional Tetris that shuffles employees’ career goals, the business goals, and available projects and features so that we meet as many of these at a high-enough quality level, as close to on-time as we are able. For the items that I must deliver personally, I give a little extra thought and consideration to what I’m able to automate and what I’m not, and then craft a plan to deliver it – including blocking off what seems like an appropriate amount of time on my calendar to actually do the work. I monitor those stats, too, so that I can improve my estimations over time.

With the above, and with regular check-ins with stakeholders and leadership (including my direct manager) to improve my understanding of the business context & details of requirements, I know that I am pretty likely to be focusing on the right thing. I can’t always be 100% certain that I’m right, especially when I’m working mostly-autonomously. But I can be certain *enough* to get my work done, without blocking on outside input.

I’ve gotten this question a couple of times now, so I thought I would sit down, take a moment, and write a post to share the “why” behind this blog. I really want to impress upon you, the reader, how important this little blog is to me, since it might not be immediately obvious.

I’ve worked for a FAANG technology company for more than ten years now. Before that, I went to school for civil engineering, earning a Master’s Degree in civil & construction engineering. I was one of about 25% of my class who presented in a femme way. Since entering technology, though, that already-low number plummeted dramatically. Ever since 2010, when I joined Amazon Business as a copywriter for Business, Industrial & Scientific Supplies, I’ve become accustomed to being the only woman in the room. I truly didn’t mind, at first. I didn’t think to question the situation that much.

Not knowing much about office jobs, I accepted behavior from my coworkers that, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t. (Before Amazon, I’d interned and contracted in engineering offices, but those tend to feel more like small or even family businesses vs big corporations.) For example, one of my early bosses would come up behind people and startle them, then laugh. Today if someone did that to me or my peers, I would give them a strange look and ask them if they thought that was funny? Maybe I would wonder out loud whether they thought they were acting in a professional manner. Usually, a funny look and not-so-rhetorical questions stop unwanted behavior pretty quickly.

I started gradually improving how I enforced boundaries for myself, and sometimes even stepped in for others around me. By 2015-2016, when I found myself in a meeting with a bunch of hardware engineers who needed my teams’ requirements for some database hardware, I was pretty good at taking-no-shit-from-people. The hardware engineering team decided, for some reason, that they didn’t need to call me by my real human name, but instead I should answer to my team’s name… even though I had reminded them several times & had asked them each time to please call me Celeste. After they called me by my team’s name in yet another group meeting, again, I politely lost my shit. I emailed their boss, told them how I had tried to fix the problem to-date, explained how I interpreted it as rather dehumanizing and why it’s a problem for a group of men to treat a woman in a sub-human fashion, and asked that the manager make it stop. After that email, suddenly I was Celeste in all of those meetings.

I may have personally learned these lessons about standing up for what’s right, being successful despite not looking like most of my peers, and finding acceptance for myself, within myself. I see my mentees and direct reports and networking contacts I meet at conferences and meetups (well, used to meet, pre-covid) struggling with, and needing to learn, the same lessons I’ve already learned. I know the coping mechanisms I’ve built will help other people out there. I have skills that other people need, and can use to better themselves and their lived experiences at work. I can share what I’ve learned in the stories on this blog.

Maybe you don’t present as femme, or you don’t identify with some under-represented group, nor anything similar – do I still want to help you succeed? Of course I do! You might not struggle exactly with the same things as I do or did at work… but I’m sure you have your own struggles – and I hope my perspective helps you out, as well. I write because I want to share my experience and help others, no matter who they are. I will admit I get more of a thrill from helping out women and femmes in technology careers, but I will never object to giving an assist to anyone else in the world. Help me understand what situation are you struggling to resolve at work? Do you have any stories of egregious discrimination while you were at work? I’d love to hear your problems and, if you’ve solved them, how you went about solving it.