Lately I've been thinking a lot about my career, and what to do next.
The first 12 years of my career, I worked as an embedded software engineer in small-ish companines (50-150 people). ("Embedded" in my case means programming in non-Windows, non-PC applications. Over the years, I've worked on the specialized kinds of equipment that provide DSL, cable-phones, and voice-over-IP. More recently, I've had experience with video from UAV aircraft and a consumer video capture and playback product.) I've always gravitated toward the non-technical aspects of getting a product designed and built -- being a team leader, creating and tracking schedules, prioritizing bugs, reporting status to upper management, interviewing for open positions and getting new people up to speed, etc. I'm also really good at systems-level design, where you understand the product as a whole, and you define how to break it into smaller pieces that individuals will work on. To be honest I'm bored with the mechanics of writing and debugging programs and if I never had to write another line of code I wouldn't mind a bit.
I've been promoted to first-level manager twice -- the first time I quit after six months and took a non-management job in another company. I was frustrated that after finally becoming a manager I wasn't given any real power to improve the way we developed products, and I had also come to the conclusion that the marketing and sales groups weren't working and the CEO wasn't going to be able to fix them. That was a big mistake -- I should've gotten more time under my belt and then looked for a management job at another company. The second time, four years later, a management job landed in my lap via a headhunter. I didn't officially have the manager title, but the actual work was a combination of system architect and first-level software manager. It came pretty close to being my dream job. Three weeks after starting, I got pregnant. I had to laugh at the timing -- we had a very difficult time getting pregnant, and while surgery to fix the root cause had been done, we were told there was only a 50% success rate of becoming pregnant on our own within 18 months. Mentally, I was expecting to spend another year doing infertility treatments and then a couple of years trying to adopt.
I had nine months to decide what to do once the baby came. The choices I saw open to me were: 1) juggle 50-hour to 60-hour weeks and a newborn in daycare, 2) negotiate a part-time position but go back to being a non-management software engineer (basically doing coding and debugging), 3) quit and become a SAHM. I asked my director if there were any way he would agree to my being a part-time manager, and he said no. I suppose I could've looked harder for someone to join me in a job-share, but frankly I didn't know where to find a partner, and it would be a tough sell given that I was so new to the company.
Choice #1, while best for my career, basically sucked. I didn't want the double-dose of stress associated with an intense project and a new baby. I wasn't keen on full-time day care (although I don't have a problem with part-time daycare), and wanted to have enough time and energy to enjoy my baby.
Choice #2 sounds like a good compromise in theory -- keep your skills up but with less stress. If I wasn't so sick of programming itself I might've gone this route. However, in the past I've observed that the part timers get the bottom of the barrel in terms of assignments. Engineering companies tend to push and push their salaried engineers for more and more hours, so the part-timer is the one who ends up working 40 hours instead of 60. It seems to be hard for many managers to divy up projects in a way that makes sense for using a part-time person, and my husband reports that he often hears people joke that, "there's no such thing as a part-time engineer." It's ironic, because every time I tell someone I'm a software engineer, they immediately say how great that I'll be able to do that from home, but in reality it's difficult to find an employer who is willing to let you work that way. Generally part-time work is mainly available by working full-time, becoming very valued, handing in your resignation, and then being persuaded to stay on part-time by a manager who doesn't want to let you go. You can't go on monster.com and find a job listing that specifies 20 hours per week from home!
So I chose door #3 and quit. I've been at home for 22 months now. I've really enjoyed the time with my son, hanging out with the other moms at playgroup, going on mom hikes with our baby backpacks and jogging strollers, but I'm starting to get restless. I find myself spending too much time surfing the web during naptime, pulling weeds while my son plays outside, and doing more cleaning and organizing than is really necessary when he plays inside. (I do play with him part of the time as well, but I believe it's important for children to be able to amuse themselves instead of being dependent on Mom for entertainment.) I'm also very aware of the reality that every year that I stay home makes it much more difficult for me to get rehired as a software engineer, and makes my future re-starting salary lower and lower. If I'm out more than 2-3 years, I will have to spend thousands of dollars taking courses for technology certifications or a masters degree to convince hiring managers that I'm serious about working and my skills are fresh.
So I've decided the time has come for me to attempt to create a part-time consulting career for myself. Here's my dream: start by taking on small projects that I can do at home, at a level of 10-15 hours per week. (I may have to increase this to 20 hours in order to get work.) I'll work when DS is napping, and probably also hire a babysitter to come to our house for 1-2 hours a day. My mom lives nearby and is available to babysit for the odd morning or afternoon that I need to go to an in-person meeting, but babysitting every day would be a bit too much to ask of her. Do this for anywhere from 9 to 18 months, until baby #2 comes along or DS is ready for preschool. (It's not too surprising that we're having difficulties again.) Quit working, and enjoy baby #2 full-time for 12-18 months. Resume consulting at 10-15 hours until #2 is in preschool, then increase to 20-25 hours. Once both kids are in elementary school, increase to 30-35 hours from home, so that I am home and free when they get home from school.
As for the content of my work, I'd dearly love to be able to use my system-level skills. The reality is that I will need to start with whatever programming work I can get, and as I make a name for myself I hope to be able to steer toward work that is more and more interesting.
So far, I have a lead on some work on equipment that is used for scientific research -- a friend was kind enough to post my resume at the academic institute where he works. I've talked with the manager of the project twice -- he said my embedded experience was hard to find, and didn't reject my 10-15 hour level out of hand, so I'm hopeful something will come of it. He said it will be at least another couple of weeks before they start planning the next project, so it may be awhile before I know for sure.
In the meantime, I need to start contacting old coworkers to let them know I'm available for contract work. I need to work on my sales pitch and on defining the types of services I can provide at the 10-15 hour level. I may also take some online classes to add marketable skills to my resume, and to test-drive the logistics of working from home.
Wish me luck!
No such thing as a part-time engineer?
Lately I've been thinking a lot about my career, and what to do next.