Scene 10 of Googleplex in The Unusual Candidate
By Amin Ariana — January 2014
How do you balance two extremely demanding undertakings while still maintaining a work-life balance?
The following is a historic representation of my thought processes while going through the Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley (CMU SV) class of 2011 in Software Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship. I did that program on a part-time basis while applying for, getting admitted to and working full-time as a Software Engineer at Google. The wise faculty had advised against rocking the boat while I was already stretched thin, but I've always made trouble.
I've been working on sharing this draft with future prospective students at CMU to help them understand the perils and peaks of the journey ahead. It especially took root when I was invited as a guest by the Director of the CMU Software Management program, Gladys Mercier, to demystify the after-life of making this commitment for then-current students. I found myself talking about having found a life compass through the experience. There were quite a bit of nodding in agreement from fellow alumni; but in the allotted time I could only transfuse a sense that there are glorious peaks to come, without a chance to get into the personal costs and perils to be paid. That's perhaps why I made so many new friends on that guest-speaker session. It was fine with my conscience. The class was already pulling tough shifts and didn't need me to tell them that double-shifts are coming, even if some of them were studying full-time. Advanced education increases your expectations from yourself.
But for months, I stopped the writing. My advice was too tactical. It had to become about something larger than a how-to guide: self-actualization, perhaps? Until someone in Quora asked it directly in the context of wanting to go to Stanford University while at Google, and needing to know whether there were special breaks for employees. Then the dilemma hit me hard: People wanting to do this think that it is normal!
There is nothing normal about wanting to go outside the mainstream. You're part of the 2% abnormal. The typical corporate employee is happy to make it out of the office before rush hour. They're not seeking the thrill of 16-hour days. Nor should they. I have every reason to write this essay. It falls within my modus operandi: illuminating a path less travelled.
I did a part time masters at Carnegie Mellon University while working full-time as an engineer at Google.
You may be thinking about going through a different demanding school while working at a different demanding company. The lesson here is not for this specific situation, but rather for how to survive, thrive and lead when you undertake what you consider too much.
Google encourages studying with tuition reimbursements
CMU Mountain View campus is right next to Google campus and relatively close to Stanford Palo Alto campus. The work loads are essentially similar, so this explanation should be applicable regardless of school choice.
Google has a standard tuition aid package ($12K a year at the time I was working there). The first $4K is approved by your direct manager and the rest is approved by your director. You need to apply for it, and the condition is that it adds value to your abilities towards your job or your targeted job after promotion.
Other companies also have tuition reimbursement programs. You can look into your place of work. Technically every company after the industrial age should have these programs, since the skilled employee is the real intellectual property. Many companies might not yet realize that the value they would gain from having such a program is worth ten times the cost of investment. As William Gibson says, The future is here. It's just not very evenly distributed.
The hardest part about studying and working at the same time is time management. I went to incredible extremes getting to know my limits and my spouse's capacity for sacrifice.
From work-life balance to study-work-life survival
You will have no evenings or weekends for two years, unless you guard them against wasteful meetings and activities with your life. You will learn to say NO to things that seem risky to say no to. You will trim down your belongings, friends and news consumption.
You will divide your personality into its 7 essential constituent roles (a survivor, a student, an engineer, a life partner, a child of your parents, an adventurer and a friend) and create a separate Calendar Layer for each one. You will color code each layer and that's how you will know whether your week is going to look balanced and you'll be safe under the pressure. If you don't do this, inevitably one of the two roles of "student" or "engineer" will dominate capacity for all other six roles and you will feel extremely alienated. You're going to learn absolute control over your time.
The school may understand your work pressures, but the work culture's understanding will last about a week. The deliverable deadlines will not be touched. Your coworkers will not remember your other responsibilities. And the best that you can hope for is that your manager will be the same person for longer than four months (managers change frequently due to career shifts) so that you can maintain your flexibility on rare occasion. Despite all this, it would be best to set expectations with your manager from the beginning to reduce later tension.
Adapting to your own ambitions
Your only protection from the pressure is the following:
1. Desire and Hunger -- Decide this is what you want to do. If you haven't decided, don't do it. You will need an iron will. There will be satisfaction in the journey, but all the financial rewards are strongly back-loaded, meaning it'll take years to realize how to reap them. You may be under the illusion that a masters will immediately boost your career. It's true, but you're likely off by a good factor. The real benefits of the education will come slowly but with acceleration, so you'll feel them four to five years out. There is nothing, neither in terms of satisfaction nor financial rewards to sustain you in the first two years. Your only savior is the absolute desire to do this because it's a piece of a puzzle that is necessary for your life story to be complete.
2. Faith -- There are people who have done this. My entire cohort at CMU, eighty people, were doing this. Each of them had a senior-level engineering or director role at a successful and high-pressure company. Some were single, some were married, some had three kids. The pressures for each of these situations is different (even the single person gets lonely). But realize that every year, hundreds of people are successfully doing this. They're not more special than you. Once you have the desire, you need to back it by blind faith: Faith that will carry you through on the 13th Wednesday of the quarter, when the release schedule is coming up for "cherry picking" bugs on one end, and your grad school teammates (if you do team work) are scheduling a 3 hour phone meeting from 7pm to 10pm, and you have to push the "date night" to 11pm with Pizza delivery and shorten it from a Netflix movie to a 20 minute Daily Show. Your only saving grace in this situation is a faithful smile that there is an end and you're getting there, while awake and even while asleep.
3. Imagination -- Only you can decide what this degree means to you. Before the rewards are validated, all the research as to what the past students have been able to accomplish with the degree are irrelevant to your personal life. Education is a gift that gives differently to different people, depending on who they are and what they imagine for themselves. Some of my classmates imagined promotions for themselves. They're on the way to get it. Some imagined charting their own way. I'm one of those. I left Google a year after graduating, with all my gratitude. And some others had twenty year plans to transform their lives. Once you can imagine who you'll be and what you're about to accomplish, small barriers such as schedule conflicts, performance risks, expectation management and keeping friendships find their own place in your new perspective. Staying at work overtime often becomes a silly synonym for unproductive pretense, while keeping coffee dates with strangers or calling your parents more often take more of a priority. This is the new you.
4. The Pareto Principle (80 / 20 rule) -- You will learn that for this imaginary place that you're getting in shape to go, you've long needed to get your work done in the first half of the day and learn new things in the second half. You never used that capacity. But now you have to, so you will. And though you never needed to "imagine" before, now you desperately need to, because it's no longer about daydreaming about a distant possibility of who you'll be. It's about visualizing it for surviving today, until you get there. I know first hand that volumes of email, pointless meetings and needless commute easily used to take up 80% of my productivity. I used to want to cut them out, but I somehow couldn't. When in survival mode, I somehow found the courage to say no. I would actually say to my teammates "I need to learn something here, please let me know if anything important was said during the meeting" and they'd gladly empathize without knowing my cause. I would tell my boss "I'm about two weeks behind on reading reams of email. If you need something from me, just tell me". He'd be happy to. I'd sometimes sign myself up for an independent project and disappear for a week, doing it from home, just to recover from commute. It's whatever you can do basically. But understand that by doing these, you're creating a new value in this world that nobody else is, when they're reading email or attending meetings. The last time I checked, most of the projects that those emails and meetings were about are scrapped, because better projects came along. Hey, that's progress. What's unique is that I actually learned to be a better person along the way. (A quick book recommendation: 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris)
The rewards that will forever change you
I wrote thus far mostly for someone about to go, or currently going through the motions. I'd like to end with a few things that have happened to me since actually accomplishing it:
- I did it! That's one more data point for me to know when I set my mind to wanting and desiring and hungering for something badly enough, I will get it. (See Napoleon Hill's book Think and Grow Rich, Chapter 1: Desire)
- I made great friends in the pressure cooker that I was in. I was new to California in the beginning. I now have forty friends I can call, just from school, when life priorities come into question. They know the answer.
- What I've learned, not just academically but also in terms of lifestyle, has become 90% of my mental inner-dialog. What I did in terms of work, I hardly even remember today. Good investment? You tell me.
- Most people choose to graduate with insane amounts of student debt. I actually worked off my tuition before getting any help from work. That's the whole point of studying while working: avoiding debt.
- I thought I was going to "save two years of my life" by creating this work / study overlap, and "get ahead". It turns out that after you graduate, you'll need two more years just to recover from the pressure cooker. So that motivation turned out not to be valid from a lifestyle perspective. But:
- From a currency perspective, I learned while doing. Traditionally you learn, then you look for a job, then by the time you do, you've lost track of the relevance of what you learned. I had a chance to go back to school the next day and ask "why the heck does this not work in the office?" and I'd get feedback in realtime.
- My relationships with my spouse, friends and parents are no longer one maintained haphazardly and casually. I call my parents (who live outside the US) strictly every single Saturday and make sure my presence is felt for them. I strictly maintain a "Date Night" with my wife on a certain week night every week that even the most important event in the world can't alter. When friends are going through tough times I'm sure to make myself available. I do all this because for every moment of going through the pressure, I sensed how fragile and short life is, and how only when you don't have time, you treasure it with others.
In the foregoing, I never once mentioned salary and compensation changes. They were coming. But I learned that I didn't want them. Quite a few friends have switched jobs or accelerated their career paths one way or another. Looking three years back, like the frogs in the boiler they may not realize the changes, but I do: they are far better off today than their cohorts who were happy enough to spend their time reading email and attending meetings.
But more important, from my perspective, is growing enough to realize the other dimensions to satisfaction. I discovered goals that I didn't know I had. And so I threw caution into the wind once more.
The goals you didn't know you had
I mentioned that I left Google a year after graduating. It was a most incredible career opportunity and I'm forever grateful for everything I experienced there, and all the challenges and opportunities. I would most certainly do it all over again.
Part of my reason was the desire to chart my own path as an entrepreneur, a subject I was studying. But the other motivation was this incredible sense of life's potential. Google itself didn't happen by a bunch of guys sitting in a corporate office and playing it safe. It happened when people asked "what if" questions and went beyond what was asked of them. And when the answer to the "what if" question was a world of possibilities, they left their well-treaded path and pursued it.
So something similar to the formula I outlined above happened to me on the ensuing year. I worked on interesting projects. But my desire had shifted to "what if there's a whole other life out there that I'm not going to experience in this lifetime, because I got used to this routine?" The curious desire was there, but at first, the faith wasn't. I was comfortable.
But faith and imagination have an interesting interplay. I started imagining myself figuring out a repeatable formula for jumping into hopeless pressure-cookers, finding out the 80/20 broken rules and turning the hopelessness into success. Most people stop the madness of this thinking pattern at this point, because they ask themselves "how the heck does that maximize my outcome?"
I was asking that wrong question for about a year. But something wasn't feeling right inside. I read a lot about the psychology of people who "left it all on the table" and jumped into chaos. Until I came across a Jeff Bezos story, where he explained how he left a successful finance career to start Amazon, a faint idea in his head that didn't even have a name yet. He put it simply: he invented for himself "The Least Regret Principle". Instead of asking yourself "how do I maximize my outcome in life?" ask yourself "how will I be a person with the least number of regrets when I retire?" That was my answer. That retrospectively answered why I had chosen to put myself into that difficult work / graduate school program. It was also explaining why I would regret missing out on the opportunity to chart my own path.
So I waited until my department was going under a major transition and everybody else was going to other teams. And to everyone's surprise, I left Google without a backup plan. Just faith. And I'm writing this a year later, so you know I'm still surviving in the wild.
Word to the wise
Allow Yourself Time to Recharge
How to turn a simple idea into a high-growth company; play #1 by Marc Benioff, Founder of Salesforce, in his book Behind the Cloud
I took a long format to paint the picture, because this is not a simple decision. Only 2% of the human population will empathize with the undertones in the following answer. If you're one of them, just remember that perhaps the simpler advice is the following:
If you'll regret not doing it, do it. It will work out.
That's my answer to the most important what-if decisions in life.