voxsouley

Not-So-Secret Aid Worker, aka Daddy Aid Worker part 3

In Career Development, Home Life, Humanitarian Response, Kids, Travel on May 11, 2016 at 10:10 am

For the handful of you that read this blog – thank you very much, by the way! – you’ll have noticed that I’ve been open about my career development in relation to my personal life. I’ve written a few articles about being a traveling parent (Daddy Aid Worker 1 and 2).

Recently I got myself published in the Guardian Global Development Professionals weekly “Secret Aid Worker” column. The article was called, “Can only the childless and unattached manage the work we do?” I’m hoping that one and this blog post will be the epilogue articles about this subject from me (the daddy aid worker, “it’s so hard to travel and be away from my family” stuff), especially now that I’m out of the aid worker business.

I don’t feel any hesitation in outing myself as the author. Unlike some other Secret Aid Worker columns, I’m not putting anyone in danger, risking getting myself or a colleague fired, or otherwise alienating anyone. I just wanted to highlight my story about managing my specific situation, and what I had to say fit in with a call for articles that the SAW editors had put out there.

So obviously, if you’re reading this post maybe you care enough to click through and read the SAW story linked above. I’ll wait.

OK, first of all, they had to cut it back a bit because they wanted it to be more like 800 words or so. They also took out a little nuance. I didn’t expand too much more than they cut but there are some things I wanted to expand and explain from my end, given what they cut, and respond to some of the comments I’ve had from connections and publicly on the Guardian site.

First, I just want to reiterate how great my supervisors were at my last job. Both of them were also men with young families who also happened to telecommute, and they made every effort to be supportive and respectful of my desire to limit the length of my trips. And, I want to note that I even made these conditions clear throughout my hiring process, so it’s not like I went into my last job with any disingenuous promises. We all knew what we were getting into. We knew there would be lots of short notice travel – allowing me to work from home and move closer to family was supposed to mitigate that. We (meaning my wife and I) gave it a try for over a year, it wasn’t working for us and I took a great opportunity to transition to a different kind of job that works for us all. It was a little sooner than I would have originally intended, because I wanted to give the CRS job at least 2-3 years, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay anchored to my community and have a more family friendly, 9-5, US based job. I left CRS for the only opportunity I would ever have left them for, short of winning the proverbial lottery.

Secondly, we stopped making any attempt to live internationally 10 years ago when we found out our oldest daughter is autistic, so we’ve always been based in the USA. I’ve always been a HQ-based person who travels. Yes there are other people in similar situations (parenting special needs kids) who make that work overseas with various specialists people keep telling me about, in places like Nairobi or wherever, but I was never badass enough to be recruited into a position perfect enough to accommodate the kind of education and family support that my daughter needs. I didn’t think that was germane to the SAW format. Plus, it’s a super personal topic; I never write publicly about my daughter’s autism, because it opens the floodgates to advice from people who are not in our situation and don’t have the whole story. She’s doing very well now, incidentally.

Third, I’m completely aware of the “first-world problem” nature of this issue (“Can an aid worker with a young family make it work?”). I know there are a ton of people from the “global south” working outside their home countries – they get stuck as an expat because they’ll never make as much money at home, so they end up working away from home for extended periods of time, way more than I would ever be able to. More power to them, it’s really damn difficult. I tried hard as a recruiter not to put colleagues in those kinds of situations and impose the choice to separate from their families or not, at least without making sure they’ve thought about it. I would always keep in mind that if your HR is offering you an opportunity, it’s hard to say no, you worry what that would do to your reputation.

Another thing I couldn’t expand on as much in the piece is this idea of being so de-synchronized from my wife and kids. When you’re home all the time you have a daily knowledge of stuff – what chapter you’re on with the book you’re reading your 9 year old, where your son left a Lego figure when we went out to lunch the other day, what chore you need to do tonight, etc. That all goes away and takes days to build up again while you’re away, and it causes a distancing that, for me, started to feel profoundly shitty the more I traveled.

Finally, I want it noted, for the record, that my wife never felt any resentment, as I implied in the SAW piece. She just wanted to support me, and I read too much into things and assumed too much. I’m a lucky man.

There a core group of aid workers (and many professionals in general I guess) out there that always like to bear a cross and show the world how busy they are and how hard they work… my view is that EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. that I’ve ever admired in terms of their professional accomplishments (like “dent in the universe accomplishments”), when you do the research and read the biographies or other various accounts of their real lives, that because work came first – they either never started a family or their family life suffered. I liked what Anne Marie Slaughter had to say on the subject. Something’s gotta give. I don’t want that.

So I choose family over career. I’m lucky enough to be able to make a living where I can make it work. I mean no disrespect to those aid worker parents who can make it work, other families have a higher threshold for this lifestyle than we do. This is my story, opinion, and situation. I do not mean to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m only sharing this all as a way to help others who could foresee the same choices in their lives. If you like working in the field for months at a time, racking up the hazard pay and post differential, and your family’s functioning and everyone’s fine – wonderful, I’m happy for you.

I’m really hard on myself and maybe this is a grand bargain I make with myself, in the vein of procrastination – because if I don’t try I don’t fail, or “look how well I did considering I was barely able to work on it” – so who the hell knows what I could be doing or if I’m not giving my all or whatever… but I’ve always wanted to put my family first.

I guess I follow that old quote from John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, “Like your job, Love your wife.” That is working out for me and I’m really happy with the way things are.

We’ll see where  I can go with this blog from here. Look out for stuff about career development and general family life.

MIIS Spring Breaks DC

In Career Development, Humanitarian Response, International Development, MIIS on April 14, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Originally Posted on the MIIS Center for Advising and Career Services Blog.

While the stereotypical spring breakers head to far-flung destinations to absorb sun and fun, about 60 MIIS students got themselves to Washington DC where the MIIS Center for Advising and Career Services (CACS) and Alumni Relations Office collaborated to arrange 32 distinct events for MIIS students to network, learn, and develop their careers. These events included mostly information sessions and site visits at various organizations, government agencies, and companies – but also an alumni reception and a career fair. The trip was designed mostly for students and alumni of the Graduate School of International Policy and Management (GSIPM) – so employers were largely in the international development and humanitarian assistance, non-proliferation, and business/trade sectors.

Scott @ Relief International

Visiting Relief International with my students. 

US government agencies:

US International Trade Commission (USITC), Dept of Homeland Security, Dept of State Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration,  US Agency for International Development – Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA), US Department of the Treasury – Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) , US Department of CommerceCongressional Research Service, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) , Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) , and NASA

International development NGO’s and private companies:

DevEx , Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI), Relief International, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA), Save the Children , Creative Associates International, FHI360, the Asia Foundation , and InterAction

Private companies, think tanks and multilateral organizations:

OPower , Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Ploughshares Fund, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, World Bank Group, Thomson-Reuters Special Services, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Mexican Trade Commission, and General Electric

Career fair:

Beacon Hill Staffing Group , DIA, Embassy of Japan/JET Program, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Thomson Reuters Special Services, and the US Dept of Commerce

Students were also encouraged to make their own private appointments with alumni and other connections. One student’s uncle works for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and several students tagged along and got an impromptu tour of their offices on Friday. Overall, students were exposed to over 30 different organizations and their representatives. Several of these representatives are MIIS alumni themselves.

I personally went to 13 events, 11 of which I had planned myself. 8-10 MIIS students and alumni attended most of my sessions; they got a great overview of the international development industry. For me, as someone who worked in the industry for eight years, it was nice to run in those circles again. My goal for the trip was to make sure that students were exposed to a core group of DC-based stakeholders – including NGO’s (Save the Children, Relief International, FHI360, etc.), private contractors (DAI, Creative Associates), donors (USAID/OFDA, Dept of State), and trade groups (InterAction and DevEx). I was pleased to see the students get excited about places like DAI and Creative Associates, because as private, for-profit USAID contractors, not a lot of people know about these organizations outside of the industry. However, they receive hundreds of millions of dollars from USAID to do large-scale, ambitious development projects that help millions of people. More importantly for our purposes, they have robust internship programs, most of them with compensation.

Additionally, for my Trade students, I wanted them to get a preview of what their final semester will be like when they move to DC this summer. There are many active and motivated DC-based alumni from the MIIS Trade and Commercial Diplomacy programs working for places like the Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission. I attended the USITC session, and was very pleasantly surprised with how affable and happy the employees were; they are tasked, usually by the US Congress, with writing complex, 50-plus page reports on esoteric topics (paper products from Australia, electrical tubing produced in Appalachia) on short notice, but were engaged and happy in their work and were able to articulate that to MIIS students. One Trade alum with the Dept of Commerce was very proactive, Skyping into my career management class in early March, then hosting students at his offices in DC and then attending the Friday career fair, all before hopping a plane to Turkey the night of the career fair.

I am so proud of the students that attended all my events – they had their game faces on, were polished and asked great questions. Most students lingered after events ended, to chat up the various recruiters and future hiring managers – I heard lots of painstakingly prepared elevator pitches and saw business cards exchanged. Many of the students had been planning for this trip for several weeks, I’d met with many of them one-on-one to help them craft their resume and messaging. Students largely paid for this trip out of their own personal funds, while some received limited conference funding from MIIS. That made it more impressive to me, that students would drop upwards of $1200 to invest in their own career development. That motivated me to help make this trip as meaningful as possible.

Employers were very positive on their experience with MIIS students. One Senior Advisor from DAI said in an email, “It is always interesting for us to see what the latest talent looks like from top schools like yours, and to have the opportunity to interact and understand the perspectives and views they hold. We welcome any applications for the rotation-internship program.”  It was rewarding to see a spark in the employers when a MIIS student would ask a good question. Overall I felt like we were doing MIIS a great service, by representing ourselves well and showing key employers that we’re a great school producing qualified professionals.

One of the highlights from the trip, for me, was the session at InterAction with Sam Worthington, their President and a MIIS alum (MAIPS ’84). Sam was very generous with his time, he gave us a full hour alone, then had six of his staff present to us for another hour. Last year Sam went on a four-month sabbatical where he had holed himself up in rural Italy as a resident policy fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to write a book on international development. He talked with us about the present and future states of international development. He elaborated on these with us – you can see some of his blog posts on this here and linked in his sabbatical announcement above. For me this was a Jedi Master preaching to his padowans.

Throughout the entire week, I consistently heard the same messages reinforced from a diverse group of professionals.

  • Networking: ABN – Always Be Networking. The importance of networking cannot be understated. Put yourself out there – make connections, cultivate those connections, help each other, and learn constantly. Networking is a two-way street – you have to be prepared to give as well as take. Ask for informational interviews often and don’t leave any informational interview without asking for another referral; another person to talk to and learn from. Try to buy their coffee if you can.
  • Applying to jobs/internships: Make sure you’re personalizing your job applications – don’t just have one resume and cover letter you use. Make sure you complete the entire online application, don’t leave anything uncompleted (like adding “see resume” in a text field.) Your cover letter is your first writing sample. Your email correspondence will be judged on how polished and professional it is. How you treat even the front-desk people and interns matters and is evaluated. This leads to the next point.
  • “Don’t be a jerk” was also a common phrase – always be nice to people you encounter, it’s a small town and you will run into people again. No one wants to work with people that drain energy from them. We all want to work with people we enjoy working with.
  • Make sure you’re aligned with the mission of the employer you’re trying to work with. Several senior people we spoke with have found that looking back on their careers, this is what they’re most proud of. This is true for everyone from the USG agencies to the small NGO.

A great thanks are due – Jen Holguin, my CACS colleague and a fellow Career and Academic Advisor, worked hard to plan out and coordinate the week from Monterey, while our colleague Emily Weidner and I flew to DC to coordinate and attend most of the events ourselves. Emily was amazing with the calendar organization and handling the high RSVP volume. Fariha Haque and Gabby Tarini at the Middlebury office in Washington DC were generous hosts and helped a lot with the career fair and alumni reception. I also greatly appreciate the help and guidance of Leah Gowron and Maggie Peters from the MIIS Alumni Relations team – they are the keepers of institutional memory and are great at mobilizing helpful alumni.

I’m excited about planning next years’ trip and I can’t wait to see how the students benefit from the connections they’ve made and the lessons they’ve learned.

Check out these Flickr Photos from the event:
MIIS DC Spring Break 2016

Smelly T-Shirts and Shaving… Teleworking at it’s best

In Career Development, Home Life on November 2, 2015 at 1:55 pm

As some of you read in my last blog post, I just switched jobs. One thing I might not have brought up is the fact that I’m giving up teleworking. I was allowed to work from home from August last year until I left at the end of October, so I’ve now got a solid 14 months of working from home under my belt. I’ve learned some lessons along the way.

My telework has been by choice – I wasn’t assigned to work out in California. So this means I didn’t get any financial support to have a home office – like my employer paying for part of my internet service provider bill, or printing, etc. My employer did pay for my mobile bill the whole year, although I had to reimburse for some personal use fees when I was traveling, that’s another story… But some people who are assigned to work from home might have some benefits that I couldn’t take advantage of, including writing off some costs on your tax return.

Working from home has been amazing, but it’s not without its tradeoffs. I’ve loved not having to iron my clothes, or shave that often. I had to make sure that I at least looked relatively neat in case someone wanted to do the Skype video. Mid-day walks/runs/whatever with my wife while the kids are at school were really nice. Being able to control when I worked was great, I was able to be there for my kids more than when I have to work a solid 8-hour day at an office I have to commute to. I could step out and pick up my kids from school, drop them off, go to those random mid-day events. I chaperoned a couple of field trips. I could go work from my daughter’s Gymnastics class, where I could clear my inbox and do some weekly organizational tasks that didn’t require as much attention. I could work from the library while my oldest daughter devoured library books. In theory, we could travel the world as long as I was getting my stuff done on time and being responsive. Modern technology is amazing.

The total blending of work and home has its drawbacks, though. While it’s great to have control over when I work, I had to constantly police myself. My wife learned to stop being mad at me (at least outwardly) when I had my phone out all the time, because she knew I had to be responsive, this was part of the deal. “Is it a work email?” she would say. I still would feel bad about it – there’s a level of constant stress to be responsive. My colleagues were all over the world, and I was also acutely aware that teleworking was a privilege; I never wanted it to be a hindrance or to attract negative attention because my time zone or responsiveness was the problem. So, I never grumbled when I had to hop on Skype conference calls before dawn or late at night. I would wake up to Skype messages piled up on my phone, I’d lay there and try to get back to people, mostly on their time. I’m sure that’s a nice image for my former colleagues to try to get out of their heads…

Because my work was paying for my mobile phone, I felt like my work was with me all the time. In some ways, it’s great – if you allow yourself the confidence to think you’re spreading your work out all day – that you’re genuinely putting in the full time work that you would if you were commuting to an office. But sometimes that confidence is hard to find. The more efficient you are, the more will be expected of you. Creating some ground rules in the beginning, and discussing the expectation of your work output with your supervisor is essential. You have to feel like someone has your back, and that it’s OK to respond on your time. At least you need to define what is urgent and what can wait. In reality I think we all believe we’re way more important and critical to our organizations than we really are.

The other thing that a lot of people discuss about teleworking is the lack of physical face time with people – the chance meetings in the hall, the spontaneous collaboration, or missing snap meetings. I was fortunate in that almost all of my colleagues also teleworked or were located in field offices where I would have worked with them in the same way. I wouldn’t have collaborated much with my colleagues in person at HQ anyway – other than being social. I found that being logged into Skype could be a great way to poke my head into the hallway to ask a question. I found in my last office job – that I would waste a lot of time chatting about random personal stuff, not necessarily coming up with groundbreaking new initiatives. Not that I didn’t really like my colleagues, but I felt like there was room for more productivity and less social drama.

I did learn a more valuable skill, especially for this day and age – being able to answer most questions myself. When I’m in an office with colleagues, in a cubicle or shared space – you can kind of blurt out a question or pop up and ask someone something – and chances are you could have Googled it or dug a little deeper through your intranet to find the answer. Of course there are always deeper or confidential verbal-only talks that need to happen, especially for me since I was into some occasionally sensitive Human Resources issues. I never felt like I was unable to engage in those when I needed to.

Now that I’ve been in my office job for the last week, I’ve noticed that I am slow to re-engage in the office-style workflow. I haven’t had to greet everyone (other than my family) for a long time. I struggle to not spend money on food again – when I was home all the time I could pop in for a snack, I seem to need constant food.  I am holed up in an office but I need to take advantage of being around some very interesting and experienced people. We’re all busy so it’s not like I look stand-offish, but this is a level of outgoing-ness that I hadn’t fully considered.

The best part of this new configuration, especially since I live in a beautiful place and my work is really less than 3 miles away from my home – is being able to incorporate exercise into my commute. When it’s not raining, I ride my bike to and from work. I plan on walking it from time to time. That should make up for any excess sugar I’m consuming, hopefully. At least I am generally cleaner, I shave more often, and am remembering to use deodorant more.

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