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No such thing as a part-time engineer?

May 29th, 2007 at 10:46 pm

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 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!

Business ideas so far...

February 25th, 2007 at 04:27 pm

I'm not seriously moving toward anything yet, just thinking about possibilities and hoping the right thing comes to me eventually...

* Computer tutor. Would need babysitting for DS to pursue this.
* Children's resale shop. There's definitely a market hole in my immediate area, but it's a low-margin business and I'm not that keen on running a retail shop.
* A la carte cleaning -- I wonder if there are many people who don't want to fork over $80 to clean the whole house, but would pay $25 for just the bathrooms or kitchen floor. Not really appealing because it would be a labor intensive business, I would want to hire people to clean rather than doing it myself.
* Website and discussion forum. I've got the background but need the right site idea. Maybe a site to discuss and blog about books. Hmmmm, must check out the sites that are already out there.
* Software consulting. A former coworker has several people working for him on a freelance basis. Waiting to talk to him until I'm really serious about working again.
* Hardware consulting/contracting. A possible business with DH. I'd try to be more on the business end of things. I do have a EE degree (in addition to my CS degree) and could probably function at a new-grad level on the technical side.

If anyone can recommend good discussion forums about being an entrepreneur I'd love to check them out!

A possible side business

February 9th, 2007 at 11:04 pm

Being a stay-at-home mom leaves me little time to concentrate (except during naptime!) but lots of opportunity to mull over things. My thoughts on starting a business are really going three different directions at once, which may make my ramblings seem a little inconsistent from entry to entry.

First, there's the idea that it would be nice to have a little extra cash to spend on some of the fun things in life. Hence the idea of finding something fun to do during naptime that generates a little cash. A key requirement for this type of business is that it enhances our quality of life -- nothing too time consuming or stressful. It wouldn't have to be at all related to any future career plans.

The second direction is that maybe I should be doing a little something useful for my resume, so that I have an easier time of it when I do decide to return to the workforce. Perhaps I could take on a small project for one of my former employers. The upside is a little cash and not having that gaping hole in my resume, the downside is that it would require more time and I would be on the hook to deliver.

The third direction is that DH and I have often talked about going into business together. We're both getting fed up with being at the bottom of the engineering hierarchy, having to put up with long hours due to poor planning on the part of managers and VP's. In theory, once the kid(s) are in school, I could be the one to start a business while DH continues to work. Once it gained sufficient momentum, DH could quit his job and join me. But what business? And how do we gain some of the skills we lack like sales and marketing? It's still mostly a daydream at this point.

So today I decided to browse the want ads and gigs on Craig's list, just to see what's out there. Something really interesting popped up -- someone wants a ghost writer for their blog on career development. I got the impression that the poster had some ideas, and the ghost would flesh them out -- 30 posts upfront, then 3 posts per week, at $10-$15 per post. Could this be legit or is there some sort of "pay-for-blogging" scam that everyone but me knows about? I love to write and to edit, and I could see myself doing this during naptime. I emailed the poster a summary of my relevant experience (I was in charge of a lot of interviewing and hiring at my last job), so we'll see what happens.

Booknotes: The Millionaire Maker

February 9th, 2007 at 03:03 am

I stumbled across The Millionaire Maker on the "new books" shelf of my library. While it is actually a "get rich quick" instead of a "get rich slow" book (the things the author recommends doing with your home equity and your IRA are truly frightening, and her example investments and returns are ridiculous), it did have a couple of ideas that I found useful.

I really liked her version of a net worth statement:

One-Year Freedom Day Goals:
• List goals for where you want to be in 1 year, for example:
• Establish a business
• Shift from draining assets to performing assets
• $ of invested assets
• $ /month in passive income
• Create $ / month of cash flow from new business
• Eliminate $ of debt
• One less employee in family (replace salary with passive income)

Asset plan

Shift $ of Assets as follows:
• For instance:
• buy $ of rental property
• invest $ in a business
• loan $ in a promissory note


Cash Machine
• List type of business, cash flow goal, and ramp-up time

Passive Income: $ /mo
• For instance:
• $ /mo in rent
• $ /mo from note
• $ /mo from dividends

• Projected appreciation on rental property

Financial Baseline:

Income: $ /mo (pre-tax)
Expenses: $ /mo (average)
Assets: $
• List assets
Liabilities: $
• List liabilities

Skill Set:
• List skills

The author doesn't believe in saving your way to wealth -- in her view it takes too long. Instead, she advocates finding ways to generate extra income, through starting small side-businesses and passive income from owning rental property. She wants you to think up a business you can start within the next 24 hours based on skills and resources you already have (simple things like dog walking, computer tutoring, etc.) You use this first business to learn about how to run a business, and to provide a source of income for real estate investing. Eventually your goal is to reach the point where you have enough income from your side businesses and rentals that you can quit your job if you choose.

Our goal is to take those skills and gifts you have and put you in immediate action so that you can learn a whole new skill set, that of running your own business….Here’s the sequence:
1. Use a known skill set.
2. Create a viable Cash Machine.
3. Learn business skills.
4. Take those business skills into any arena you desire.

Whatever you decide to do, your first business:
1. Should have a low barrier to entry. That is, you should be able to have it up and running and possibly generating real money within 24 hours.
2. Shouldn’t take more time than you can allot, though perhaps you can get up an hour earlier every day.
3. Shouldn’t take more of your capacity than you can allot, tough it will be a stretch.
4. Should diversify your income.
5. Should give you a nice return on your investment.

Again, I want to emphasize that I think the book promises the moon, and I’m definitely not following her investment advice. However, a few worthwhile ideas gave me that lightbulb feeling: 1) the idea of starting a side business to learn business skills, 2) focusing on passive income in addition to salary vs. expenses, 3) setting long term and one-year goals.

Thinking about a side business

February 8th, 2007 at 01:01 am

Recently I’ve been mulling over the idea of starting a side business. An extra 10k-15k net per year would allow us to visit the in-laws in Australia, take another nice vacation, add a front patio, buy cabinets for the laundry room, buy a 2nd laptop and other toys, and maybe even invest a little more. (Notice how low investing falls on the priority list --- bad Zetta!)

The problem is that I would have to give up my free time when DS naps for 3 hours each day. So ideally it should be something I enjoy and would want to spend time on anyway. I can’t see getting anything productive done during the 9 hours he is awake, and don’t want to take away from time with DH in the evenings or on the weekends. Let’s say I could spend 10-15 hours per week. Dreaming some more, the ideal would be something flexible where I could work on something at home as it suits me and sell it when its done (as opposed to working according to a fixed schedule or delivering on deadline.)

I really don’t know how much other people are able to net from that kind of schedule, but even 5k would be a nice addition to our finances.

Hobbies: reading, surfing the net
Skills: software design, writing, layout, public speaking,
Personality: detail oriented

I’ve browsed through a couple of books along the lines of “101 Home Business Ideas”, but haven’t come across anything appealing. Some ideas that do occur to me are freelance writer, newsletter editor, website designer, discussion forum moderator – I wonder how one gets into this sort of work, and how well it pays…

Anybody have a good entrepreneurial or home-business website to recommend?