Life Is Not A Science Experiment

According to Wikipedia a scientific control is an “experiment or observation designed to minimize the effects of variables other than the single independent variable. This increases the reliability of the results, often through a comparison between control measurements and the other measurements.”

I recently read the  NYTimes article “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In” and some of the ensuing discussion such as here.

I found myself engrossed in the individual stories – all of the women profiled were very clear about what they gave up and what the cost was – also what they gained and enjoyed.  For a variety of reasons, however, the losses were looming large in their minds.  There was a lot of implied “what iff’ing” going on – as if the alternate path was knowable.

I think it is human nature to compare ourselves and our decisions with others and that comparison often leads us to feel dissatisfied with our lot in life.  That comparison can feel particularly acute if one made the explicit choice to be on their current path and is observing the benefits others are accruing from the alternate choice.  We notice the benefits of their choice and the weaknesses of our own more readily than the inverse.

I am no exception to the tendency to “what iff.”  Could I have maintained my career opportunities if I traveled less and missed fewer school events?  How would that have affected my children – would they have noticed or remembered?  Fortunately I don’t find myself “what-iff’ing” my children’s general well-being being bettered by my not working – seeing who they are and what they are doing I feel very blessed.

As many of my friends are approaching the freebird aka empty nest state, I see a big range in satisfaction among those who opted out.  In some cases without regrets and looking forward to new activities professional and/or volunteer to occupy what used to be parenting time, in other cases with decidedly more ambivalent feelings.  The decision to stay home when kids were little and their job had little flexibility v. now that kids are older and their peers are in high-level and perhaps more flexible roles than expected may put that decision in a different light.

But the truth is that it is impossible to truly know what the alternate course would have yielded.  Life is not a science experiment where all variables but one can be held constant.  With a decision such as working outside the home v. staying home full-time or even the possibilities in between, the variable is clearly not independent.  It impacts all of our relationships in immeasurable ways.  Even the financial impact cannot be known for certain.

The most interesting part of all this to me is that there is any element of surprise.  I notice a sense of unreality filtering through the NYTimes interviews.  Almost as if there was an expectation for a “storybook” outcome – actually for both the opt-in and opt-out path takers.  Perhaps this contributes to the regrets and potential dissatisfaction.

More choices and more options for working parents are sorely needed but those options will still come with tradeoffs unless there is a built-in day-extender.

There is always a road not traveled.  By definition that road is not known and it is natural to be curious what it would have been like.  But the story does not (hopefully) need to end at midlife.  I believe strongly that regardless of past choices and the inherent challenges there is the opportunity to set new goals and forward objectives and embark on a different road.


Milestones and Goals

Yesterday we hit a major milestone at SugarSync.  After almost a year of work we shipped the beta version of SugarSync 2.0.  This version represents a complete redesign of the SugarSync app from the ground up.  For more details on the new version you can read Drew Garcia’s blog post or check out the beta page on the website. SugarSync has always been recognized as having the most powerful and flexible product but we needed to make it easier to use.  Our goal was to make the power of the cloud more accessible to non-technical users and I think we’ve done a good job with that.  Early reviews from tech journalists have been very positive and, most importantly, I look forward to hearing from our users.

Particularly when teams work so hard for a long time on a goal and then accomplish it, it is really important to recognize that accomplishment.  We had a small lunch party at the office yesterday and Friday afternoon will take the team offsite for a real celebration.  It seemed prudent to be in the office “day of” in case of issues and it will be fun to let off steam and celebrate on Friday.  We sent a roundup of the reviews to our investors who of course were happy to see the positive feedback – after all this was a big financial as well as human investment.  I was on the phone with one of the board members yesterday on another topic and he commented, “nice reviews, how are the numbers?”  This reminded me of a great post “The Work Begins when the Milestone Ends”.

After all, the SugarSync 2.0 release is the milestone not the goal.  The goal is happy users and the ultimate goal is to build from those users a growing, sustainable business.  Fortunately, and not by accident, the team understands this as well.  We’ve instrumented the app to understand usage and encourage feedback.  The first wrap-up email from our director of product management to the team at the end of the day was about the feedback and what we should do with that feedback and how to get more feedback and then channel that back into product improvements.

This need to recognize the difference between the milestone and the goal is important in our personal lives as well.   As parents we so often focus on grades as the goal but, I believe, they are the milestone.  Education to enable life skills and character are the goal.  Of course, milestones serve a purpose – there is little chance of meeting the goal without meeting a reasonable percentage of the milestones but both effective parenting and effective business leadership require recognition of which is which and striking the right balance of focus.

Happy Rosh Hashanah

There are many New Years on our Calendar – the Christian one on January First, Chinese New Year a month or so later.  Judaism actually has multiple New Years – the famous one of Rosh Hashanah which we celebrated on Monday as well as 3 others including New Year of trees and one of animals.

Rosh Hashanah has always resonated to me as the real New Year – I think this is  because of its correspondence with the academic calendar that has ruled my life (either directly or indirectly through my children) since as long as I can remember.

While our formal annual plans at SugarSync follow the secular calendar, in fact much of the thought and analysis about next year’s plan starts happening now.

I believe it is a healthy process, both in one’s personal and professional lives to consider the New Year and take stock.  Evaluate what is working and not working.  Are we making progress towards our goals?  What needs to change?

If others close to us are going through that reflective process at the same it can be very helpful.  Our colleagues and loved ones sometimes can help us see our blind spots which helps us to make needed changes.

We had a wonderful get together with Steve’s side of the family in Stockton this year and I’m looking forward to gathering many of our close friends and family at our home for Erev Yom Kippur.  That is what I most treasure about the holidays – spending time with love ones.  Wishing all of my readers a sweet year filled with love of family and friends.

Moms working Full Time – the Norm not the Exception

Since a picture’s worth a thousand words this blog post can be short.  Take a look at this chart from the US Department of Health and Human Services website:

Many, many American women to the tune of 10’s of millions are today working full-time while caring for their children under 18.  This number has increased nearly 50% in the last 40 years.

The attention drawn by the Anne Marie Slaughter piece and others are distracting people from this reality.  Most mothers “have it all”, not a mythical idealized “all” but a sleeplessly busy “all” of full-time work as a key breadwinner for the family and loving care of their children.  For many the work is fulfilling and enjoyable, for some it isn’t, just as it ranges for men.

Don’t be fooled by Atlantic headlines or even perhaps your social circle.  The question is not if but how.  And that’s where we should focus our energies – not in debating the “if” but in solving the “how”.  How can we make sure these parents and families live in a society and community that provides the structure and support needed for their health and happiness.

Happy Messy House Week

In a past blog post I wrote about missing my daughter and even her messy room when she went off to college.

Well I got my wish completely last week – all four kids were home at the same time for eight days.  Other than a couple of days each for Todd’s wedding and Adam’s bar mitzvah this is the first time we had this happen in many years – perhaps since Derek left for college.  We were back in messy house mode and I loved it.

Most of the week was pretty low key as Derek was busy with his Stanford NeuroSurgery rotation and Todd was working on his Orthopedics research project during the day.  But, just having family dinner evenings with great conversation and some of the old favorite dishes was fun.  We missed having Jess and Emmanuelle with us though we had a fun weekend with Jess just the prior week – Emmanuelle was in the final throws of Surgery rotation so unfortunately she couldn’t be here.

One of the highlights was having Derek and Todd at Adam’s football scrimmage on Friday.  Adam went to virtually all of Derek and Todd’s football games over the years and of course he looks up to their football expertise.  Adam was beaming during the morning after play-by-play discussion.  I used the kids being home as an excuse to surprise Steve with a west coast 50th birthday party (we did one in NY in May).  We took over FuturePro batting cages for a baseball themed party with about 60 friends and family – lots of casual fun!

Derek and Todd went back east on Sunday but I can look forward to seeing them in just a week at my niece’s bat mitzvah in Nashville – thank goodness for lifecycle events.  Plus we have Margot another 2 weeks – enough time to do some damage, at Stanford Mall and Cafe Borrone

You Do What You Have to Do

I’m thrilled to see Yahoo appoint Marissa Mayer as CEO.  I don’t know her personally but from what I’ve heard from her at various conferences I believe it she is a great choice.  I was at Yahoo from 2003 -2004 – Yahoo had already strayed from its product/customer experience roots and while not as apparent publicly was already internally confused as to priorities and inefficiently run – I was frustrated with this and left after a short time.  Mayer appears to be just the antidote to this problem.  This will be a huge step up for her – it is quite different to run a company rather than product divisions but we all have to jump in the deep end when we take those big steps forward and she seems to be quite the fast swimmer.

I wanted to comment on the various hand-wringing going on about her starting a job 6 months pregnant.  It sure feels like you can’t please anyone these days – her comment about her plans to just take a few weeks off is either going to damage her child or set a bad precedent for family leave in general.  I don’t believe either of these ideas are true.  The difficult thing for Mayer is that all of this happens in the public eye but from a practical matter it is the same for parents all over.

In my view this all boils down to the fact that you do what you have to do at the time.  If you are as loving and attentive to your child as possible and have a good support system things will be fine.  I have gone through this 4 times under varying circumstances.  My oldest son was born in the beginning of December during the second year of my masters program at Georgetown.  I had 4 final exams that semester.  I had already taken two then Derek was born the Monday after.  Then back to studying for my last 2 finals.  Todd was born a month after I started my first job at Informix.  I didn’t qualify for disability yet so I just could take 2 weeks of vacation.  Margot was born in June after I had been working for Informix for 5 years.  I enjoyed taking 8 weeks of maternity leave when she was born and since Adam was born right after I left Gupta I also ended up with about 8 weeks off.

Sure – it was very nice to be able to have a “normal” maternity leave with Adam and Margot – it was preferable to the short recuperation time I had with Derek and Todd but I don’t think they turned out any worse for the experience.  It was difficult for sure but I completed my exams and work and got through it with the support from my family.  I don’t think we are any less “bonded” then I am with the younger two and the memory of the stress of juggling work with a newborn has faded.

Of course timing isn’t always perfect to allow men as much time as they would like off either.  Our VP of Marketing Drew Garcia had his first daughter shortly after he joined SugarSync.  At the time he was our only person in Product Management and we were in the middle of a big release so he couldn’t take much time off.  Fast forward 2 years and he had two great employees who could cover for him when his second child was born giving him more flexibility.

Bottom line is a dedicated professional such as Marissa Mayer will get the job done, both professionally and personally.  I wish her, as is customary in Jewish culture, B’Shaah tovah!**

**B’shaah tovah – congratulations to an expectant mother (literal translation “in a good hour,” means “at an auspicious time,” i.e. may whatever time your child is born be a good time.”  Also the correct response to the announcement of a marriage engagement.  In both cases, it is in in anticipation of a “mazal tov” for something to hope for that has not yet occurred.

Nobody Has it All – But It’s Possible to Have a Family and Rewarding Career

A recent article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled “Why we Still Can’t Have it All” has garnered considerable attention and controversy on the net.  I’ve been meaning to comment – frankly last week was too busy – now that I’m on vacation for a few days I wanted to reflect on this as it’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

The author starts with an example of a work/parenting dilemma that she faces – she is in a very high-powered position which has taken her away from her children, and she’s not living with them during the week.  One of the children is going through some normal but stressful adolescent challenges and she is feeling quite torn being far from him.  As a result she gives up the “high-power” position for what she considers to be a “non-high powered” position as a tenured professor at Princeton.

The fundamental problem is that she postulates a “have it all” fantasy which implies that life has no limits or tradeoffs.  There are no constraints of space nor of time.  Of course problems in life occur because these constraints exist. And, by the way, they exist for both men and women.

Tradeoffs exist and choices must be made in all parts of life.  We are always making these choices with regards to where we spend our money – home, education, necessities, splurge items, etc.  I can’t have it “all” and must make tradeoffs even though I am quite lucky and have all that I need and much that I want.  Similarly with food – moderation, balance and a bit of self-discipline are key.

Time is no different – it is not limitless.  For women and men who want to have high-powered careers and be an involved parent – especially during the busiest parenting years, that will probably be about it on the big time commitment front.  Those two activities are consuming.  Personally I didn’t find this a huge loss.  My career and children were so rewarding that the clubs and non-profits – while worthwhile – were skipable.  Social life also is more limited than for someone who isn’t balancing both family and career.

How high-powered is high-powered enough?  Just because being a tenured professor at Princeton is not high-powered enough for Slaughter doesn’t mean that that logic should be applied to all women – I suspect that it would be seen as a pretty awesome level of accomplishment for most.  But even if not – maybe it’s a matter of timing.  Skills and opportunity aside, I’m not so sure I could have juggled being CEO of SugarSync 15 years ago with 4 young children.  That’s ok with me – I’m enjoying doing it now.

What about business travel?  That is where the rubber meets the road (or more accurately where the s—t hits the fan) for many working parents.  I did find this very challenging – I had international responsibilities for much of my career.  In some cases I took the kids.  I couldn’t fathom living apart so moved them with me to Brazil.  When they were infants I took them with me on business trips.    Beyond this my husband and I tried as best to juggle our trips such that we weren’t both gone at the same time and when we were, we were lucky enough that my mother-in-law (expert work/family juggler herself) was able to take care of the kids for us.  I know many successful professional women who made medium-term job choices to limit travel.  Certain professions (e.g., management consulting) have so much travel baked in that perhaps bigger changes are needed, though I know of many successful management consultant moms who take short term research assignments or focus on local clients.

The point that I hope is coming through here is that much is possible.  It takes tradeoffs, some number of years of less than ideal amounts of sleep but, in my opinion, the rewards are worth it.  Some situations seem to go beyond what feels like possible.  Slaughter’s situation of living apart from a teenager feels impossible to me – I certainly couldn’t do it.  I certainly don’t know if there were other solutions she could have explored.  Could they all have moved to Washington? That might have worked on the family connection but not for the children’s school – I don’t know.

But what I do know is that for our family that situation is not a gender issue.  I cannot imagine my husband being able to live apart from our kids for more than a few months.  He did it when we were in Brazil and that was very difficult for our family.  I knew when I went there it was not long-term without him.  Both my husband and I have been contacted by recruiters about some jobs in LA that would require commuting and being home only on the weekend.  We turned them down without much remorse, confident that we could find something we enjoyed close to our children.  I do not find that the absence of some extreme choices has overshadowed the many choices and opportunities I’ve had.

None of my views on the above changes my opinion that there are still barriers that should not exist and changes that should be made.

Childcare is a huge issue – both availability and cost.  When I started my first job at Informix and Steve was in Law School >50% of our after-tax income went towards childcare.  Things were pretty tight!  I agree with Slaughter’s point about re-valuing facetime.  The work/family juggle is made more doable if you can finish up a project at home after the kids go to bed rather than in the office from 6-8.  More women in leadership? I agree with that too (no surprise).  Policy and management changes to support this juggle are important to both men and women.  I don’t see that as a women’s issue but rather a family issue.

One other place where I take strong issue with Slaughter’s recommendations is around timing.  Yes, I think we should take the long view of careers and I recognize that we will likely work longer and that there are differing stages of one’s career where one may be more “pedal to the metal” than others.  The one place were we tend to have less flexibility though, is timing of having children.  I’ve seen way too many women friends and colleagues who decided to wait, have to put their bodies through a hormonal wringer or, worse, suffer heartbreak and disappointment in not being able to have any or the number of children they want.  Partnership or tenure or VP jobs can be done later with perhaps some extra sweat equity.  Women’s bodies are simply less flexible on this.  Loss of fertility is quite dramatic in the early 30’s – see here and here. If a woman at 32 had a couple of children and was upset that she missed out on some key promotion – I would tell her to redouble her efforts, find a new company, start a company – basically the opportunity is still in front of you.  If that same woman at 42 had the plum job but wanted and was unable to have children, the only response would be one of consolation.

I do not believe early motherhood needs to be the death knell of one’s career.  At 30 a woman can easily have 40 more years of  her career in front of her – lots of opportunity to make up for any lost time.   I do object to the focus on youth accomplishments – in part because it puts women in a poor choice situation.

It’s not easy nor as common as I’d like to see, but I don’t think the women who are both mothers and top professionals are, as Slaughter says, only those who are “superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”  If they are a top-professional, they may not be rich though they probably can afford good childcare.  Self-employment can be a great option but I don’t believe it is the only one.  I find that those women who do do both are determined to do both, a bit flexible and while not super-human, very hard working.  I believe many women can aspire to this combination.

It Gets Better (Or at Least Easier)

I had a couple of conversations recently that got me thinking about this topic and I wanted to share my experience. Inspired by the “It Gets Better” movement and idea – I thought it applies significantly to stages in life and that really knowing and internalizing that it does get better might lead people to different decision.

I was at an offsite business meeting recently with Drew Garcia (SugarSync VP of Product Management) and Jason Mikami (VP of Operations). It was a beautiful Friday morning. While waiting for the meeting to start we were chatting about the great weather and I mentioned that my husband and I had enjoyed the gorgeous morning by going for an early hike at the Stanford Dish. They both looked at me incredulously – how did we manage such a thing with the kids. By way of background Drew has two children – newborn and two year old and Jason has a four year old. They are both very busy – of course with their work at SugarSync, in addition, Drew’s wife works as a management consultant at The Trium Group, and Jason and his wife have an award-winning winery that they manage.

I assured them that Steve and I were not exercising together before work when our kids were little. Our mornings then, like their mornings now, were completely crazy just getting ourselves and kids out the door to work and school. What I realized is that since they are totally in the midst of this intensive parenting/juggling mode they can’t even imagine a future beyond it. It is such an immersive, consuming experience that I just think it is human nature to feel like it will go on that way forever.

In my case it wasn’t forever but it was a long time. My oldest son is 26 and my youngest son just turned old enough (16) to drive himself. With four kids and a big age range it has been 26 years of responsibility for kids that needed morning driving. No wonder it seemed like forever. And it was many years of juggling, lack of sleep, and rushing…all the challenges that working parents experience. But amazingly enough, I blinked and that time is nearly over. I’m lucky when I get a kiss goodbye from my son in the morning – he is super independent. And for many working parents who have their children in a shorter period of time, it goes by even faster. On the other hand, I feel like I still have a potentially long professional career in front of me. Both of my parents and my father-in-law are still practicing physicians in their 70’s. My Great Uncle retired from the law at 98! I hope that my best work is ahead of me. Bottom line, I’m looking forward to that work and am glad that I slogged through that time when the juggling meant very very little “me” time.

So this is a reminder, to those in the heat of it. It gets better, or at least easier. Stick with it – you have much to contribute not only to your families but professionally as well.

Career Choices and Insidious Bias

Continuing on the topic of the WSJ conference, I found one of the most thought provoking speakers to be Geena Davis.  She founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media   The institute describes itself at “the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under.”   I found this work so interesting because it is directly related to two topics I’ve written about on this blog.  One is the insidious biases – these unconscious preferences we have and two – the lack of women entering the technology fields. This research uncovers a potentially major source of these biases as well as job preferences.  According to her institute’s research:

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films…this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.
  • Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire…Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.

To summarize, using the infamous words of Woody Allen in Annie Hall – not only is the food bad (the main occupation for women in animated films is princess) the portion are small.

I found the 19.5 (call it 20) % number very sobering.  It seems that once we get to that level of penetration by women in particular fields or even levels the urgency for change goes away.  No wonder we have become so accepting of this 20% number and even consider that success – subconsciously that’s what we’ve been trained to accept as a norm.

Fortunately Geena Davis has good company working on exposing this issue – Misrepresentation is doing a great job exposing issues of gender bias in the media – I love their tagline “you can’t be what you can’t see” – we need to help girls imagine themselves as engineers, programmers and even VP’s and CEO’s

As I’ve found myself concluding in other blog posts where the personal action items is not clear, I’ll wrap up with the point that awareness is the first step.  Personal awareness as we consume media (and accompany our children as they consume it) and awareness of how this is impacting our society.

In the Place Just Right

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Elder Joseph of the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine was correct:
When we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I was in that place this weekend, in that valley.  With my husband, walking my son down the aisle to marry his beloved, a young lady we adore.  All of our children participating and supporting their brother and sister-to-be.  Our parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews all there with us. Surrounded by the love of our extended family and dear friends.

It is hard for me to imagine life being sweeter. Sure there were wonderful extras, a beautiful setting, music, food etc.  But that valley of love and delight is created by family and friends.  I’m sure I will be visiting this valley in my memories in the days and years to come.

I’m not sure who to thank for this good fortune but I am truly grateful.