Welcome New Year! I'm rearing and ready to go! I'm ready to bring you this PSA: Whatever you do, do not get sick in Engineering. I don't mean a cold or flu that goes away after a couple of weeks, I mean a chronic illness. Being sick will hurt your career in engineering. And most likely in other industries as well, but today my focus is on the industry I work in, engineering and my observations.
Engineering is competitive. Don't be fooled by the stereotype of the mild-mannered nerd; we're out for intellectual blood in this industry. Got a B+ on your Calc II test? Ha, I got an A-! Got a job at a government contractor? Ha, I got a job at the Fortune 500 Silicon Valley tech giant! The best one (in my opinion), the not so subtle brag about how hard you've been working. Man, I'm wiped from working 50 hours this week. Yeah, me too dude, those 60 hours I worked, they were killer. We get into pissing matches about how our company is willing to take advantage of our desire to beat out the other guy. I mean, overtime. We get into pissing matches about overtime (companies would never exploit us, never).
Side note to engineering managers: if you ever need to motive your workforce to work overtime, just say your star pupil is already doing 50 hours a week, even if they're not. End of side note. Sure, there are a few humble engineers, who aren't competitive and ambitious (not that either is bad per say), but it is rare to find that engineer who thinks that teachers or waiters have harder jobs than they do. Math decathlon is a sport, and the winner matters-- engineers can be competitive, as the next academically smart smug intellect. Myself included (when I was a hostess at Chili's in college, studying engineering, I thought I was way too good for this job; that job probably brought me just as much stress, maybe even more, than my current job. Have you ever had to sit people at Chili's on a Friday night in the early aught? It's a logistics nightmare, parenthesis ramble over).
Early in my engineering career, I joked with a friend and colleague that one day I'll be VP of this company. He joked, not if I beat you there first. I wasn't completely arrogant, I knew that one day would be 20+ years down the road, but I had ambition. I got told I was smart and capable, receiving good performance reviews those first couple of years. Both my friend and I should now be project managers within our organization, if we are continue on our path to VP. Neither of us are PMs. Him, probably because he's Hispanic (which is a post for another day) and me, probably because I'm a chronically ill female (the female part is also a post for another day).
Here's the part of the story where if you want, you can call me a whiny little shark. Suzie, there are tons of sick people who succeed every day in engineering; you just need to suck it up, you big baby. That's your decision to call me whatever, but it's my decision is to speak about my observations and truth. Plus, I've already told myself plenty of times to suck it up, so it wouldn't be anything new to hear you call me that. I've already beat you to the punch (I was first to do it, na, na, boo, boo, competitive engineer strikes again!).
Alright now that we got that out of our systems, let's move forward with this story. I got really sick in 2007, see other blog posts for more details, and it took until 2008 to learn that I had Rheumatoid Arthritis. And also in 2007, I was this close to being fired from my job/company. Somehow I didn't, and here's probably the one cool thing my company has done for me over the years, they helped me go on to FMLA (to protect my job) and as I slowly recovered, allowed me to be part time. At that time I was so thankful, and to some degree, I still am thankful today.
But it was the first set back in my career for being chronically ill. I mean, I almost got fired. That's pretty big set up. In this competitive industry, if I didn't have someone above me be empathetic about my plight, I would have been let go. In fact, at any other tech company I would have been let go. Our industry is more competitive than it is empathetic. You ask, how do you know for sure if you were someplace else, you would have been fired? Because it happened to my friend Emma. Her company basically fired her for being ill. Let me emphasis basically here; yes, there probably are nuances to her case. Overall though, her MS limited when and where she could work, and her company at the time didn't know how to define work within those parameters (I am hopeful that now they do). There was no let's renew your FMLA or talk about going onto long term disability. They didn't have time to figure it; they had to get on with business.
I understand their position, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch someone who loved being an engineer so much (and who you care about), shrink and wilt. So much so, that she thought she wouldn't be welcomed anymore in our very supportive female engineering society. She thought because she didn't officially have the title anymore, how could she be in our professional society? How could she attend society meetings without being an engineer? She was fighting to get long term disability from the insurance her company carried, and her mother won Emma's case postmortem. It was a bitter victory to say the least.
I've been told more than once from different managers, being a part time sicko employee, "Know that your career is limited," and "you'll have career growth, it will move more slowly." Those statements are (unfortunately) correct. Ever year as part of our performance assessments, we have to write down our long term goals. Since 2008 (the year I started feeling better and went from 24 hours to 30 hours), I have written my long term goal as "project leader." Managing a team has been a career goal for me for 8+ years. I am a task lead, but I don't directly manage anyone. To move up to the next level within my company, that level specifically calls out for supervisor/manager experience.
So the end of 2016 and yesterday (2017,) I explicitly wrote down that I want to be a supervisor and why I'd be a good supervisor. No vague project leader term (because you could possibly be a project leader without any direct reports/supervisees). I explicitly asked to run/manager team. And then I voiced my concern to my manager (in our one on one) about how my career growth feels limited if I don't have the opportunity to manage someone (even just one intern, how hard is it to give me one gosh shark intern?). First time, it was our company, specifically our project, is not set up to manage a team remotely or part time. Second time around, it was, well our project just doesn't have any teams to manage currently, but I'm willing to help you find that opportunity with another project, especially one set up around remote work.
Okay cool, that's a fair answer. However, it showed what I already knew a couple of years ago (I mean after 8+ years of not reaching your long term goal, you start to get the hint that your career is stalled). If I want my career to grow, I need to work on another project or leave the company. I doubt I can shake the stigma of being a chronically ill engineer, so my best opportunity for job growth is to leave the company and work someplace else, where they don't know I'm a sicko.
It's tough to see 2 engineers with 10 years of experience have the opportunity to be supervisors. Another engineer with 8 years become the manager of the test team and got his own office (while you're still in a cube). A different engineer with 4 years of experience will be put on the project leader team this year. Another engineer with 2 years of experience is accepted onto the Engineering Leadership Program. I'm not saying their opportunities aren't well deserved, because the opportunities are deserved, those people have worked hard; I'm just saying that I've worked hard too, so where's my opportunity for growth? It's certainly not here.
The good news is that now that I have accepted that I have no room to grow at my current company, I'm no longer indifferent about the salary I make. I know engineers make a lot of money compared to other professions, but when you're an engineering making 10K less than another engineer at the same level, it's one more indication of how being sick this industry really hurts your career. Real quick, my company pro-rates my salary, my salary is based on 40 hours/week. So technically if my performance reviews said I did a good job, then my 40 hours/week salary should be within hundreds of the other people who work 40 hours and who are within my level. I have a feeling my counterparts don't make what I make, and if they did, why are they still here? Our company (according to Glassdoor.com and Salary.com), are underpaying you!
Anyway, I feel that I can no longer be complaisant about my salary (not like I felt a year ago in The Salary). Sometime in the next 2 weeks I'm going to ask for the average salary of someone at my level. I feel like I owe it to all the sickos and other discriminated people out there. By staying indifferent about my salary, I'm only hurt those around me. I know, how unselfish of me. Yes, I am doing it for myself too. It's important that I do it for me (my self-esteem could use the boost right now; I'm wallowing in my own pity party). But somebody has to speak up for the disenfranchised, so I might as well speak up for them while I'm standing up for myself. And what do I have to lose? Job opportunities at my current company? Oh wait, that's already in the toilet, so yeah I have nothing to risk by asking for more. For the sicko club (it's like the Breakfast Club, but we're all napping in the library instead of dancing and sharing information about latest diet/treatment/medication instead of high school gossip), fist raised victoriously in the air!
So, the morale of the story? Don't get sick in engineering. Your career depends on you staying healthy. Take your vitamins. Exercise. Get your flu shots. For those of us who battle diseases and chronic illnesses. I promise to stay in this industry until my fingers are all gnarled and knotted and I can no longer type (but by then maybe the workplace will have cognitive software, think The Matrix, and I can just blink my TPS reports over to my boss, and I could stay even longer in this industry). I know the longer I stay in this industry, the better I make it for others like me. That's my promise to you: that through my trials and tribulations, I'll make this industry better for us all sickos. That one day, no one will measure your career by the number of sick days you took. One day, it will be okay to be sick in engineering.
*1/7/17 Update: I've had 2 engineering friends who have auto immune diseases share with me their career struggles (aka stalling). I deeply appreciate them sharing their stories with me. And one even shared some statistics from this post. I'm developing a secret hand shake for us sickos, so that we can advocate career advancement for each other in our industry. Is wincing in pain after shaking hands too spot on? Take care!