Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Feb 26, 2010

A Job Hunt Story

Lecturer Ian Parsons files this report after approximately 7 months out of work

About a year and a half ago, I felt burned out on my long commute and the corporate climate at [integration systems company] Oracle so I was hoping to find a start-up or other company closer to home where I could have a bigger impact on the company's success.  I had been doing a passive job search while I was still at Oracle which began about a year before I was laid off.

Earlier last year I had thought I had another job lined up (2 months before I was laid off) where the company wanted to hire someone new by around late September. Unfortunately, the VP of Sales who was set to hire me was laid off himself and this put me back at the end of the line when a consulting team came in to hire new reps. In spite of that passive search in the works, I didn't really get searching full tilt until about October (2+ months after I was laid off). 

Initially, I made sure I was signed up with updated resumes on every job website that I could find, but also linked up with as many recruiters (in my field) as I could. What I found was that the job boards like Careerbuilder, Monster, DICE, etc. were useless. Most posted jobs were not really available, but were placeholders for companies who wanted to collect resumes. It was my 3-4 recruiters who came up with actual IT sales prospects. I came to rely almost exclusively on recruiters and I would recommend the same for ANYONE looking for a new position.

I was surprised by just how competitive it really is with these job opportunities. Where I was sure that I aced all stages of an interview process and the employer even checked my references, I would lose out to someone with a tiny bit more specific experience than I had (even though I knew they REALLY liked me culturally, etc.). Coming from a huge company like Oracle (one of the toughest companies to succeed at and to stay at) actually hurt me with some of the smaller companies who were more looking for small company experience in spite of Oracle's reputation for lots of training, etc.

The base salaries with some of these companies was lower than what the recruiters and I  expected. Companies are taking the chances that candidates will accept less because the economy has been so bad. And this turned out to be true,  People with more experience were willing to take a job they were overqualified for at a huge pay cut. I quickly learned that I would probably have to take a large pay cut too --  of between $5K-$10K less per year if I hoped to get past the phone interview stage (OR to even have my recruiter introduce me to the employer).

During my last job search (2006) I was actively working and doing really well. I loved the company I worked for but wanted to make more money and to get more experience in the software space (I was selling IT hardware). At that time, Oracle (among others) was eager to find new talent to hire. I had no problem getting in for interviews and the process moved along pretty well for a huge corporation. Basically, I didn't need to find a job, but I wanted to and I was able to do so even though I was already working.

As this new job search began, I made a lot of the same must-have rules. I was initially NOT going to give into a lower base salary (simply because my family couldn't live on less than I was earning at Oracle), we could NOT relocate because of the value of our house given the bad housing market, and I was NOT going to commute more than 75 miles to any job.

I made it to the on site interview stage with 7 companies in 7 months, and made it past the first on-site interview with 4 of those companies. One of the prospective employers put me through FOUR interview stages including THREE on-site meetings with every executive in the company. The whole process went really well...the CEO even listened to my music online and liked it a lot...  Although all of my interviews were completed by before the New Year, they kept telling me that I would need to be patient because it was the first time they were hiring for this position from the outside. I followed up regularly and yet they were still interviewing other candidates. They told me they hoped to have someone hired by the 2nd week of January; however, as of TODAY (February 26th) they still haven't made anyone an offer. I was even approached about the same job by two different recruiters after I'd already completed 4 stages of interviews. This job was at the top of my list from a salary and commute perspective and the waiting was awful. I even had a mutual friend of the CEO talk to him about me one day and he confirmed that I was in strong consideration for the position when they spoke in mid-late January.

The fact that my family needed me to get a job ASAP, and the dedication of my recruiters to find me new opportunities is sometimes all that kept me going. But there were other bright spots too.  One of the VP of Sales who didn't hire me even referred me to his good friend with a company that was too far away for me to commute to.   I was touched that someone who narrowed his search down to just me and another candidate still took the time to try helping me find a job elsewhere. It was dedication like that which helped me to keep pushing. One recruiter even shared an opportunity that they wouldn't be paid on while others still coached me on opportunities that I had been sent by other recruiters.

We exhausted our 401K plans just to scrape by and pay our mortgage. It was tough to do, but we had no choice.

We were close to cutting out many of our 'creature' comforts, but also to file for bankruptcy due to our huge debt (the result of a bad economy plus not enough commissions from my job at Oracle). We met with a Credit Counseling professional and our budget was way off. Our expenses were more than twice what my unemployment income was.  Our session with CCC was a huge help, so we will be trying to budget our money more carefully and hopefully to enjoy the new benefits of this new job where I can coach my kids in T-ball, etc. and we will have more vacation time to work with as well. I learned from this experience the value of quality time with my family.

You have to enjoy your time off as much as possible; it's better to be relaxed when searching for jobs. One of my recruiters cheered me on withevery opportunity including those she didn't place me with.

The position I was finally offered turned out to be BETTER than anything I was aiming for. It was very far off from what I expected to find. There is no commute and the base salary is  $11K better than my previous job!  We expect to have more flexibility than we had previously.

Some things about the Job Search game have certainly changed.  But most of what you know is still true.  You have to be yourself and be confident. You have to ask LOTS of questions to show that you're thinking a lot about the company (and they need to be creative questions like "What makes you lose sleep at night in your role?"). Companies are looking for a cultural fit as much as they are experience because they can afford to be that picky. You have to learn about the company and their competition to show that you have more than surface knowledge of the company you're trying to get into.

A  VP of Sales at one company (where I was one of two finalists) took the time to debrief with me for 40 minutes and volunteered to stay in touch with me for counsel on other possible jobs since he knows the IT start up marketplace very well. Even though he didn't choose me for his one position, he cared enough to keep helping me because he would have liked to hire me if there were two positions available.

I was asked what I would say to someone I am close to if they were to lose their job. I would want them to immediately post their resumes online (because sometimes that will lead to finding recruiters), to research recruiters and to find as many as possible to help their search.  I would encourage them to place realistic expectations on the job options they're willing to take. The important thing is to just get back to work...7 months is far too long to go without a job and even if you have to take a stopgap job until you find the best opportunity, it's better than the anxiety of having nothing because you set your expectations too high. But, the main thing I would say is find RECRUITERS, RECRUITERS, RECRUITERS!!!

Our own Wicked Recruiter also comments frequently on the current job market.
To share your unemployment stories, contact the editorial staff through our comments space.  The Finishing School is an advertising partner of Monster.com. 

Feb 23, 2010

Working from home: A personal cost/benefit analysis

Our recent discussions of working from home, at-home parenting, and commuting have sparked a lot of commentary.  Guest blogger Dichotomom contributes this reflection from her website. Note that this is Summer 2008, when the cost of commuting had become restrictive, particularly in traffic-burdened New England.

The other day I rushed to pick up my sweet, innocent little boy from camp. When I scooped him up in a hug, he scowled and pulled away, “Uh, Mommy, you wore that yesterday. And the day before,” he said, disgusted. “And your hair smells yucky.”
Busted. Such is the life of a work from home mother.

I love working from home. I think it’s just about the best benefit any company can offer, particularly when I think about balancing my work and my life. And now, with gas costing upwards of $4/gallon, more and more people are doing it.

Telecommuting really makes my life work. While I can’t say that working from home is going to save the world, it sure keeps my work/life/work/life roller coaster on track. Plus, it really appeals to my cheap side. Honestly if someone told me I had to come into the office every day, I would ask for a raise. A pretty big raise. The other night my husband and I were tallying the costs of commuting from my lovely suburb 20 miles west of Boston into the city. Now, this was cocktail napkin figuring, but here’s what we came up with:
  • Keeping son in daycare an extra 1.5 hours/day = $175 more a month
  • Keeping daughter in daycare an extra 1 hour/day = $50 more a month
  • Parking = $300 more a month
  • Gas = $300 more a month
  • Food/coffee (let’s say I’m really good and bring my lunch half the time) = $150 more a month

Add in clothes, makeup, shoes (all that stuff that I frankly don’t put any effort into right now) and I'm saving about $1,000 a month by not commuting!

HOWEVER, working from home does have some costs, some of which are very high and should be taken into consideration:
  • It’s freezing cold. Or it's blazing hot. This past winter was one of the coldest, snowiest of record in Boston, and the oil man cameth. So, to save some dough, the heat in my house automatically kicked off at 8 a.m. Thus, I spent most of my day wearing three sweatshirts and blasting a space heater at my feet. And, now that suburban Boston has decided that it wants to become SoFla with humidity at 110% this summer, I'm dealing with the other extreme, with the added bonus of frizzy hair.
  • My house is a mess. Because I’m here all day, I figure I can throw in the laundry or do the dishes at any time. Except I don’t…
  • I don’t exercise. In fact, I sit on my bottom for hours at a time. I’m so lazy that I even wheel myself around my little office on my chair.
  • I munch. Sometimes all day. But, there’s a trade-off: I have to get off my chair to get to the kitchen (I can’t wheel there because there’s a small step).
  • I look like hell. I only wear jeans and sweatshirts, or shorts and t-shirts. My hair is in a ponytail. My makeup is drying out in a case in the back of the vanity. I don’t shower. Well, not as often as I should (is that too much information?). Seriously, though, at 4:55, five minutes before I’m due to pick up my kids at school, I rush upstairs and do a quick rinse. I hardly ever wash my hair—I don’t have time.
  • I am a social half-wit …I have tons of “virtual” friends online, but I’ve forgotten how to make small talk in person!
  • I never turn off the computer--“Just one more check of email” is my mantra.
I know, I know, I’ve got to draw my own boundaries. I have to shut off the computer and walk away. I have to brush my hair. But, I’m so productive! And I’m spending all of my non-work time with my kids! And I respond to all my emails!

So, I have to ask myself if my plummeting self-esteem is a fair tradeoff for the time I get with my family. Right now, while my kids are young, I think it is…at least until they mandate webcams in the next roll-out of laptops.

Survivor's Guilt: Watching the layoffs unfold

Miss Minchin, Dean of Students

There was no hint that anything was brewing, at least nothing aside from what has become the norm for anyone holding down a corporate job in this economy. It started as a regular Friday, with a full day of meetings and deliverables to complete before losing another two days to the weekend. And then about 9:30 in between conference calls, did I hear that right? Is someone saying good bye? Did he quit? No way, he's got important projects in the works. Wait - he sounds emotional, he wasn't expecting this. I turn around and he invites me over to tell me that he's been told it's his last day. Holy @$&*. I am not going to cry at work. He better not cry because if he does I won't be able to keep it together. This guy has been working just as many evenings and weekends as the rest of us and had his fair share of responsibility. He was likable and a good worker. I can't imagine that he stepped on anyone's toes. I can see that he's stunned and hurt, and we are too. What the heck is going on?

Wait now I see someone at the other end of the office getting a hug and putting on her coat. Now I'm back at my desk, nervous my boss is going to come and tap me on the shoulder. I'm late for my next conference call and as I dial in I wonder if it's in vain. I'm not panicked but feel a sense of dread. What did he just say? Two people on the project are no longer with the company? I didn't make the connection until later. Where are my project managers? They're not responding to IM. Oh I really hope they are not gone today. Everyone is being unusually nice on the call and I'm having trouble focusing.

Oh no, not him too. I see a coworker packing his desk a few cubes away. He's a recent grad, and has done great work for the past year (two years?) and he looks like he might be fighting back tears. I have an email draft half-written to him about some info I owe him. I'm still on the call and I can't say goodbye. I don't think he wants anyone to talk to him.

After my call I get some coffee. I see the manager from the UI team here. She doesn't work on Fridays and she isn't usually in this office. Now I know this is more than just a few people.

A little while later, another coworker comes by to tell me goodbye. He says he feels relieved and it's not too surprising since there aren't any projects pending for his area of expertise. I give him my contact info and wish him good luck. That's 3 people from my team now. I start wondering who's next? Are we all going? I see my boss waiting to escort him out. And I can't help but watch her out of the corner of my eye to see if she changes course and heads my way. I hold my breath when she looks like she is coming toward me but heads another direction.

Well I'll know something by 11. That's when I'm supposed to present in our team meeting. Surely she'd tell me before then and it's 10:30 now.

I'm IMing my neighbor about the layoffs on my team so far. He says he heard there were 17 cut in our Eastern Europe office. He is starting to freak out. I still can't get my project managers on IM.

It's almost 11 and my boss comes over. No she doesn't look like she is about to fire me. She says we'll have the meeting but we won't do our presentations today. She looks like you would expect someone to look like who just had to cut 3 good people from her team.

In our meeting she tells us the cuts to our team are done. That's a relief. We learn there is a large number being cut in our overall organization today. She tells us our leadership has changed again. I'm stunned. It just changed 6 months ago. He was a visionary, an incredibly inspirational  leader, and he made me feel privileged to work for him. Not only that but he knew me and my work, and made me feel like a valued part of the team. How could he leave? Why would they make him leave? What is going on?

There's only so much she can tell us since the layoffs are still happening around us. There will be a meeting at 5:00 to discuss as an organization. Now we know the layoffs should be done by then.

Back at our desks I try to be productive but I can't concentrate. Every 20 minutes it seems someone else is packing up. In our office we can see straight down the row from one end of the building to the other. It is almost like being under fire by a sniper, but you can't duck under your desk, and you don't know who the next target will be, and there's no avoiding these bullets.

My calendar has almost completely freed up as all my meetings are getting cancelled. By 2:00 it seems the worst is over. My neighbor and I are almost joking about him being afraid of getting cut, but I'm sure he would have been told by now. I saw his manager having normal project meetings earlier in the day, surely he would have cancelled them and not delay the layoffs. Then his boss called him into a room. I'm certain he's just filling him in on what is happening today, but when he comes back he starts packing his things. I can't believe it, he's such a sharp guy. I've learned a lot just sitting next to him. I can't believe they made him wait until the afternoon when everyone can see layoffs are happening all around us.

Everyone is hyper-alert to movement in the aisles. Anyone putting on a coat is assumed to be leaving for good. But some are just going out for lunch or consolation drinks. I exchange information with a manager I work with. I'm stunned once again by the cuts that have been made. He clearly didn't have a say about the people who were chosen from his team. This confuses me. I ask if I can protest - how could they cut Her? He's just as upset about it. I wonder who made the decisions then, and how did they make them? If they can cut those great people, then why am I still here?

Around 3:30 I get an invitation to attend the 5:00 meeting. In the invite I can see several names have "zzz" before them. Dear God they are already starting with the z's in Outlook? Oh no not her too. She has z's next to her name. I have to talk to her. We started on the same day and she kept me going through some rough patches. I go to her desk and find out it's true, but she's not there. On my way around the office looking for her I run into my boss' boss. We exchange some words about how it's a rough day but I'm distracted. I can't believe they cut my friend too and I want to see her before she leaves. She walks by and I inadvertently cut off my boss' boss to get my friend's attention. I realize later what I did - not good! - but hopefully he understands.

My friend and I talk at my desk for a minute while I write down my contact info. I can see she's keeping it together and I tell her I hope we can be friends outside of work. She starts to cry a little and so of course I do too. I give her a hug and offer to help her carry her things. She cracks a joke that at least she doesn't have to work the release this weekend. She and I quickly compose ourselves, she doesn't need help and we say good bye.

Now I'm trying not to cry at my desk - NO CRYING AT WORK- RIGHT? I know these people are not dying, but it is still a loss. It's a loss for them and for me. I should be able to grieve a little and I just want to go home. We all came in today thinking it was a normal day. They are thinking - why me? Why was I chosen? We're thinking the same thing.You hear bits and pieces about their personal life now: parents to take care of, how many children they have, health issues in the family. I call my husband but can't talk about what's going on and stay together emotionally, so I ask about some errand he was supposed to do. I'm exhausted and drained.

I leave at my usual time and try to dial in to the 5:00 call from the train. I miss most of what is said anyway.
I'm relieved that I made it through the day, but what will keep me through the next round if these great coworkers were taken out this time? Do I want to work under the new leadership? Is my heavy workload just going to get even heavier? I'm grateful that I'm still employed and glad I have a healthy emergency fund. I find out about more co-workers who were cut as I check my email, and I wonder what's in store for us on Monday.

Feb 22, 2010

Ask A Manager:

Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager, 

What should we do when the boss' favorite is the one who slacks off, always makes messes that others have to clean up, or is just plain incompetent? When this person is a pro at charming the boss, and rolling up his/ her sleeves to "save the day" when it was his mess in the first place, how do you address the issue without looking like you're not being a team player? 

First let me help you to understand why this might be happening. How can your otherwise competent manager just not see that this guy is a total drain? Well, there’s a little something called a blind spot that we are talking about here. As much as I would like to think it’s not true, we all have them. I’ve seen many quality managers carry dead weight direct reports for long periods of time, and I have to admit I’ve had some situations where I’ve done the same.

This can certainly come about due to the manager’s ego being stroked by the individual in question. A vain manager is prone to flattery so if this employee is what you might call a “suck-up”, then he can certainly gain favor easily. But I don’t think this is the most common cause of this issue. Let’s assume that your manager is a sharper cookie than that. Why then does this still happen? I see two major reasons. 

The first is the value of loyalty. Experienced managers learn to live with the fact that many employees generally are in it for themselves. They aren’t always straight with you. Sometimes they can shut down on you when you need them most, and sometimes they just plain up and leave. So when a manager has a history with someone who has been there through the tough times, and who has a string of past contributions under his leadership, it really counts for something. You should realize that this might have happened long before you were around to see it. 

In this case, the manager feels some reciprocal loyalty to the employee based on their history together. So while the employee may have excelled in a prior role, he probably does not belong in the current role due to a mismatch of skills. Perhaps because of this past loyalty he has been promoted before he was ready and now he is floundering. 

All of this can cause the manager to (consciously or unconsciously) overlook the employee’s inability to meet the needs of the role. I believe you see this scenario more often as you go to higher levels in an organization, because this is where you tend to find leaders with longer professional histories who have brought their loyalists along with them. Unfortunately, this issue is more dangerous at the higher levels because it will generally mean that the employee who is living in the blind spot might be responsible for actually running a large part of the organization.

The second factor that contributes to the blind spot is somewhat similar to the effect of loyalty, only on a smaller scale. It happens when an employee is extremely good at one specific thing. I mean this guy is so damn good at that one thing, and there is no one who has ever been better. Ever. If pressed, even those who can’t stand working with him would admit it. So if this one thing is important to the manager, the employee’s skill in this area will have such a powerful impact as to cloud the fact that he is otherwise a scourge on the organization! 

The worst part is that the other employees often do not even recognize the value of that one thing because it is specific to what the manager needs to run things. As such, it is not necessarily apparent to the entire team. This impact of this employee’s benefit to the manager in this one area is amplified if the area itself was a cause for crisis or pain in the manager’s organization until this employee came along to address it. This is a big driver of the loyalty effect that I already outlined.

I call employees like this “10%ers”, as in 10% of what they do is really important and it they do it better than anyone. Unfortunately managers who focus on this 10% can spend a lot of time ignoring the other 90% where the employee is wreaking havoc on the organization. 

If you understand the reasons that your manager seems so dense in relation to this one issue, it might help you to address it. Assuming you respect your manager and you have an open relationship with him, you might be able to frame some discussion in a way that does not create undue conflict. This also assumes that the manager wants what is best for his organization, but in my view I think most do.

You should know that generally it takes a manager a long time to resolve these issues, but continuous input from the team on the impact that this employee has is important. Your manager might seem to dismiss it at first, or even become defensive. Sometimes the manager knows very well what the employee’s weaknesses are but he chooses to overlook them for reasons outlined above. In these cases, his defense of the decision to ignore the weaknesses can come across as favoritism. In other words, your boss might know very well that he has a problem, but in trying to protect his employee and stand behind his own past decision, he could outwardly project a defensiveness that manifests itself as favoritism.

So my advice is that you try and see the reasons that this person is still around. Don’t be so quick to assume that your boss doesn’t see the negatives, and don’t assume that this person really is the “favorite”.  If you do approach your boss with concerns, make them about the impact that you see to the business. You can’t make it an emotional appeal that sounds like sour grapes. Try to make the feedback balanced, and be ready to accept that your manager might just need to ruminate on it for a while. It might take several attempts, but the message will sink in. This doesn’t’ always mean that the scourge is eradicated, but you quite possibly will see some shifts in responsibilities over time that will neutralize the negative impact. 

As difficult as these conversations are, in the grand scheme of things, you will be doing your manager a favor.

Feb 16, 2010

A Working Mother's Rant

Our Guest Blogger writes The Dyer Family, which she describes as a series of "semi-daily diatribes."  In this one, she ponders whether raising children should have turned her into the kind of person she has never really been anyway. 

I am no good at a stay-at-home mother, and I don't know why....or do I?

Let's back up.  I am a working mother.  I teach school full time, and I have two very small children who spend their days at day care. 
No, it's not the most preferable option, but it's what we've got.

There are times that I hate working - hate every second of it.  I hate being busy all the time and living in squalor.  I hate missing my children's parties at their school and I hate that I can't join mommy groups or be the room mother or organize play dates.  I hate that I see my sixth graders more than I see my own children.  I hate racing to the grocery store for a few quick items after my rushed, too-short-to- make-a-difference workout followed by blowing through the day care to grab my kids before they feel completely abandoned.  I hate the $1200 check I write to day care each month, and I hate the year-end statement I just received for my taxes.

Even more than that, I hate the stay-at-home moms that you see at Target or Kroger.  They all seem to know each other and they are dressed in their standard work-out wear wardrobe that goes with their tight asses, which get that way from the hour a day they get to spend at the gym.  They stop in the middle of aisles to talk to each other, smugly not caring whose path they are blocking while their well-behaved children sit quietly in the grocery cart not begging for anything and not attempting an escape.  Their teeth look great because they have time to make it to the dentist every 6 months, their hair looks amazing because they have time to make a standing, monthly salon appointment.  Their clothes look great because they have time to wash and properly fold them.  I hate these women because they do everything I want to do with my days, and they do it better.

Would I spend my days productively if I got to stay at home? 

Sometimes, I doubt it.  I recently stayed home with my 10 month-old bundle of love while she healed from a double ear infection and double pink eye.  I can say that I managed to shower that day, but little else was done.  During her morning nap, I was aware of the laundry that needed to be done and the floors that needed to be vacuumed, but once I halfway unloaded the dishwasher, I sat on the bed and blankly stared at morning TV while facebooking and napping.  I was hungry and I had to pee for a period of time, but the effort it took to get up and do those things was a little much for me.

Is this who I am?  An insufferably lazy mother with zero-to-little housekeeping skills and absolutely no wherewithal to create structure and schedules without the confines of work?

Did we manage to get out that day, my tiny child and I?  Yes, we did. 
We managed to make a deposit at the bank drive-through, pick up a strawberry limeade at Sonic because Mama was thirsty, then we stopped off at my school so I could use the bathroom and the office ladies could fawn over my baby.  Yes, that's right, I had a day off and I spent at least 30 minutes of it at work.  I am pathetic.

Ok, so where does this leave me?  Do I lack the stay-at-home mom personality trait?  Do I have a total inability to create home structures?  It's possible.

I do enjoy crappy TV and an unhealthy snack, and I never was good at keeping a gym membership.  What made me think I would change into a responsible person when I became a  mother?  It seems that I have reached an impasse.  I cannot change. 

Work is what drives me, whether I enjoy the hard work or not, it gets me out of bed and forces me to maintain some sort of structure.  No, my house will never be immaculate, no my fridge will never be fully, perfectly stocked, yes my pants will always look a little wrinkled, and yes my kids will learn to hold on tight and enjoy the ride,  I might be able to achieve these things with a full time assistant and a monthly supply of ADD medication, but those are not luxuries enjoyed by the working, strapped-for-cash, frantic mother.

Related reading, for fun and otherwise:
I don't Know How She Does It
This is How We Do It
How She Really Does It

Your comments also help a great deal

Feb 14, 2010

Faculty Chat: Kindle Reading (product review)

A discussion arose recently between Guest Blogger/Contributors Webb (From The Garden Bench) and  Cathie (The Desert of My Real Life) , with AK, of Atlanta.  Caroline Bender moderated. 

CB: What attracted you to the Kindle, and what finally made you buy?

AK: I am a "gadget" person and an avid reader, so I had been intrigued with the idea of an electronic way of reading books for a long time.   I read a lot of paperback fiction and then I donate the books, so this was a way to read them at a cheaper price and not have to deal with the issues of either finding room for them or getting them somewhere for donation.  It is living up to that.

Cathie: I am a voracious reader. A year and a half ago, I took a trip to Spain. I never want to be without reading material on trips like this and so I brought plenty of books with me for this two week visit... I didn't count on my initial flight being delayed. I finished my first book before I even left the first airport. When I arrived in Philadelphia for my first of two plane changes, I was nearly halfway through my second book. Despite the many books in my checked baggage, I bought another book at the Philadelphia airport because I was sure I would finish this second one before I arrived in Barcelona.

Webb: First, I am CHEAP!! Like really cheap.
We bought two Kindles as anniversary gifts to each other and in anticipation of a two-week vacation on a boat - a time where we would not have room enough to take enough books to keep me occupied...  Last Sunday I downloaded a 1000-page novel to read on the way home - in anticipation of spending many hours in snowed-in airports. I was not disappointed.

CB: But the Kindle certainly isn't cheap
Cathie: I was concerned about the high price of the device and the still relatively high price of the electronic books that were available... At the time, the device was selling for $359 and the average book in the Kindle store was $9.99, about $5 less than the hardcover editions were selling for at Amazon.

I reconsidered [when] the price of the six inch version of the device had fallen to $259. I read that I could get a subscription to the Boston Globe for the Kindle for $9.99 a month, which is a bargain when you consider a single Sunday edition costs $4.00 up here in NH. So in early December, I made the plunge and purchased my very own Kindle.

 CB:  So...how's the reading experience?  
Webb: Reading is fine, although you do have to "turn the page" (push a button) pretty often and occasionally that bothers me. I love the font feature that allows me to increase the size of the font when I want to read in low light. It's great to be able to pull it out of my purse to read for those odd moments that suddenly appear and stretch on. I have bought several (inexpensive) books as a risk and they were all ok - nothing I went gaga over.

Cathie:  It's just a bit different than I thought it would be. And I'm using it differently than I thought I would. I haven't really traveled since I've gotten it, but the nice thing is that it's small enough that I can carry with me all the time. Then in those moments when I find myself waiting for something unexpectedly, I can take it out and read something that I've already been reading. I've never carried a book with me unless I knew I was going to be waiting somewhere. 

The two things in particular that reviewers were raving about were the reading surface which more closely mimicked paper (and its lack of strain on the eyes) than the backlit screens of the other readers and the 3G wireless connectivity which allowed the Kindle to connect to the Amazon store (and its many, many books) from anyplace there was cell phone service.

AK:  I wasn't too sure about the comments in the reviews that I had read ...that after a while you lose the "device" [feeling] when reading and you don't think about the fact that you aren't physically turning the pages.  I was wrong - when I'm in the middle of a good story, I'm not thinking about the Kindle at all.

Cathie: I did notice, however, that I wanted to hold the device like a book [2 hands] and ... found that the most popular was the Mivizu Amazon 2 Leather Cover

 CB: Do you still read that ancient papyrus version ?

AK:  I do still read in paper format.  There are certain authors that I love and I want all of their books on my shelves, so I can go back and re-read them.  I also love old books - I'm not a real collector, but I do still have most of my mother's childhood favorites, that became mine as well.
Webb: Definitely still read paper books. Books from the library are all FREE! If it is a new book that I really want to read NOW (True Compass) I will Kindle it.

CB: Let's talk about purchasing, since you've brought that up.  How is the Kindle purchasing experience?
Cathie: When [my device] arrived, I immediately purchased two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. I also purchased a single weekday edition of the Boston Globe for 49 cents, which $1.01 less than the paper edition would cost me. I read the non-fiction book quickly, making notes as I went along using the built-in keypad and placing bookmarks throughout the text on the interesting bits

Webb: When I am feeling cheap(er) I download classics that are frequently FREE! Like Treasure Island and Jane Austen - which I haven't read since I was a teen. Great fun to re-visit. All NYT best sellers are $9.99, so nearly paperback price while first edition. The main thing I don't like is that finding a random book is tedious on the Kindle. I usually do my surfing on my computer first, buy the book, and then when I open the Kindle, it downloads. If you know what you want, it's quick and easy to purchase on the fly - as I did Sunday in the airport.
Cathie: There have been two negative aspects to my Kindle use so far...I have been a bit disappointed by the choices and, sometimes, by the prices. For example, a friend recommended that I read Salmon Rushdie's 1985 Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight's Children [which] is unavailable in a Kindle edition. And I've found this to be the case with quite a few older novels. Although most novels are $9.99 in the Kindle store (saving about 33% off the paperback price), non-fiction works tend to be much more expensive. Frans Mayra's book, An Introduction to Game Studies, is $38.65 in paperback and $32.36 in the Kindle edition, which is nowhere near a 33% savings.

AK: I do like the idea of seeing a book being reviewed/mentioned on TV or in a magazine and then being able to go and download it in 60 seconds.  I have had pretty good luck with Amazon having most books available when I've gone looking for them.  I have had a couple of instances where it wasn't available or I had to pre-order it, for delivery at a later date.

CB: Do you think you buy more books now than you did in traditional format?
AK: Not sure ...Most of what I've been reading lately would be available in hardback or paperback as well - mostly pretty current fiction.

CB: Do you think you're more willing to, say, "take a risk" on a book in Kindle format that you might not consider at full cover price?
AK: Definitely - it is a great way to try a new author and only pay $9.99 for the book, vs. paying $20+ for a hardback and find that I don't like it. 

CB: Is getting a Kindle gift card the same as getting a book as a gift?
AK: I'd rather pick something that I know I want to read than have someone give me a book that I may already have, or wouldn't be on the top of my list of things to read.   I love getting [books] as gifts, but if someone gave me a gift card instead, I'd be just as happy to go and buy it later myself.
Webb: Got a $25 Kindle gift card for Christmas - it was great! Easy to redeem and I got 3.5 books for it! Nice gift.

The Kindle wireless reading device is a product of Amazon, a partner of the Finishing School.

Feb 11, 2010

Roth Conversion: Decision Scenarios

Instructor, Caroline Bender

You have read or heard through your preferred news outlets that investors may now convert their traditional IRA savings into a Roth IRA and reap the benefits of tax-free retirement withdrawals in their older age. What you have always wanted -- a paycheck in the full amount of what you earn (however you set your payroll in your golden years). If internet research has brought you to this post, then you are likely reading everywhere what you are about to read here: there is no universal answer to "Should I or Shouldn't I?"

We applaud you for trying to learn more; we are flattered that you chose us out of the many search results you must have been offered. What we want to stress to you is that you should not make such a significant financial decision without consulting an expert -- one who does not reside inside Google. We at the Finishing School are not financial advisors, and the School is not authorized to dispense financial advice. What we do is try to bring abstract ideas like money and work and raises and balance and performance reviews and "having it all down" to real life narrative so you can figure out who to use the information at hand.

Here are the terms you need to know
Roth: specialized individual retirement account that does not require automatic withdrawal at a given age, is transferrable, and taxed on contribution rather than withdrawl, allowing a smaller tax on a larger account. (named for the late William Roth, [R] Delaware)
Traditional: individual retirement account that allows tax-deductible contributions, and tax on the withdrawal as mandatory income at a determined age.
Taxes: When and how much. What you are really chosing here is whether to pay tax on funds you convert now, or funds you withdraw later. As they say around your workplace (and mine) "it depends."

Yes, I always say, I am sure it does. Depends on what?
Here are the factors to consider with your family and financial advisors before taking the plunge.

What is the money for?
For most of it, it is our retirement income, but if you also have a pension or other annuity, your IRA may be your investment fund, a savings fund to be given as inheritance, or your Foxwoods account.

Who is the money for?
Similarly, is this an individual fund, an income for a retired couple, or an older couple with other dependents, such as grandchildren, siblings.  This question also answers How long does it need to last, which is also related to How long might you be being taxes on it?

Is is easier/more palatable for you to pay a large up-front tax or small back-end taxes over a period of time, depending on how long that period might be?

How old are you? In other words, how much time does your Roth have to grow, and how big might it be when you begin withdrawing?

What is your income bracket and how much money are we talking about?

Take, for example, an individual with 100K in a traditional account (IRA or 401k) today.
The 40 year-old may not have the cash on-hand to convert today, or want to liquidate $35K for the promise of a tax-free future.
The 60 year-old may have the cash and another 20 years to build interest before they want to/need to begin withdrawing.
The 75 year-old may actually save cash by paying tax on small withdrawals for 10 more years

A family may prefer the tax deduction today when expenses are plentiful over tax-free income in a future when there are fewer responsibilities and unexpected costs.
A single person may prefer building income in his/her name, when it is easier to control personal spending.

Will taxes go up....?  Or down...?  by the time you are withdrawing?
What will your income do?
A 35% tax bracket or higher can make that contribution tax feel like a sock in the stomach, especially if you will be in a lower bracket when you retire.  But what will "lower" mean in such a distant future? 

The entrepreneur with a big idea may prefer to pay a contribution tax at his Garage Inventor tax bracket of 25%.  before his hopes of future wealth may come true.
The union man with a known future income plan may have a pension to rely on and may rarely contribute to his IRA.
The 2nd wife may be building an inheritance for her grown children.  Roths are transferrable.

If we are your first stop on your research journey, let us recommend a few other resources to help in your scenarios.  Do not expect any of them to tell you what to choose, but do work your own situation against the possibilities of your income changing, the tax rates changing, the tax laws changing, the amount in your account changing (anyone remember last year?)  and your needs for that savings changing.  Then make your best all-around decision.  And don't be too scared: you can reverse your decision  if you get cold feet.

Related resources:
Suze Orman: No Match?  no Sweat?
Ameriprise: 2 Scenarios
Daily Worth: IRA Math

Feb 5, 2010

Commuting: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Instructor Maggie, career secretary and commuter
Not everyone has the luxury of walking to work or even having a short drive anymore, thus “commute” is a big part of our lives. Sometimes it can be both bad and ugly. Bad when others drive too fast and try to push us; ugly when the weather works against us.  But find the Good - and put it first.

The company for which I work recently moved into its new headquarters building about 20 miles closer to my house and for the first couple of weeks the conversations in the elevator were “How’s your commute?”

It’s interesting to see how folks adjust to changes that affect that particular aspect of their day. The first couple of weeks, they check with each other to see who really has to commute further than they do and smile quietly to themselves because they no longer have a long commute. As the days progress, they compare different routes (and toll plazas) trying to figure out better ways to get from home to work and back. They also must learn new alternate routes if their preferred way has traffic issues on any given morning.

Just this morning I had a need to be at our former location and I wondered how I did that every day for 3.5 years! When I was asked back then "how do you do it," I usually replied, “Oh you get used to it.” And you do – until it’s time to change something else.

I have been commuting for the past 35 years – sometimes 10-15 minutes one way and more recently 45 – 55 minutes one way. Up until the move, my commute was about 90 miles a day, roundtrip. It is now 50 miles a day.   I have lost half of the upside to my commute.

What is the upside to commuting? For me, it has allowed me to leave work at work and home at home. This in turn has helped keep the insanity at bay.

I’ve tried listening to books but that didn’t work out so well for me – hard to focus on the story, the traffic and driving safely all at the same time! What works best for me is “elevator music” on the radio without a lot of talking. Don’t laugh – it really does soothe.

What I liked best about the length of the commute was that I could use it to “dump” all my at-home issues from my mind and prepare for my workday by making a mental ‘to-do’ list. On the way home, I can then “dump” the office and all that entails so that I can focus on what needs to be done or where I need to go when I get home.

One caveat – watch out for the homeward dump! If I had done everything at home that I’ve carefully planned out in my head (such as painting, new curtains, new anything, remodel, yard work, gardening – to name a few) my house would be a lead article in Southern Living and House Beautiful at the same time!! Other times, it’s “What shall I fix for dinner?” “What’s on TV tonight?” “Can the laundry wait another day?” “If I stop at the grocery store, what shall I get?’’ Shall I wait until Saturday and make a list?”

Just don’t think about work! If you can avoid it, don’t take it home with you at all!

My adjustment right now is realizing that I have a bit less time to process the same amount of data in both directions, so right now I’m finding that I am at home before I’m done and at work before I’m quite ready. I imagine it won’t be long before I will either process less or do it faster. I’ll let you know. What I am liking is that now I drive fewer miles a day and buy gas once a week instead of twice. Eventually it all evens out!

Feb 3, 2010

The Three Step Formula for Redefining Life Balance

Guest Blogger, Charlene, The Balance Beam.

A lot of people make an immediate mental leap from "life balance" to "work/life balance."

Newsflash: "Work/life" balance is a misnomer. Yes, work is a part of life. But so are family, education, community and taking care of yourself so you can handle it all.

The impossible quest for "work/life" balance somehow says that work and life are on the same playing field, vying for position. It implies teeter-totter energy. It assumes that when one side goes up, the other goes down and vice versa.There is a perpetual give and take... with parallel neutrality being the ideal scenario.

Personally I think this is neither realistic nor desirable.

First of all, I'm not sure we want our lives to be "neutral." Surely we have more ambition than that! Most career-minded individuals I know want life to include some measure of hard work and I'm sure any boss we’ve ever had would be happy to know this.

Life is a juggling act, not a teeter-totter ride. Work is just one ball in the mix.

Here's the real secret: Life balance is not about keeping all those balls in the air in perfect rhythm at all times. Of course we try. It's important to have strategies around getting stuff done.

Still, the world is an unpredictable place and let's face it, we're human. Sometimes those balls are going to drop through some misstep of our own or with the help of others. We may even lose a ball for a while. Sometimes it feels like we are juggling bowling balls. They may turn into a little evil monster heads and try to eat our face. Like I said before, stuff happens.

The thing to remember is that true life balance is internal.

What's most important is the balance within you -- your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual self. When those things are in harmony, the objects of external life can explode into flaming stink bombs and you'll be just fine.

So how exactly do we get to that place of inner harmony while mired in the stress and demands of “external” day-to-day life?

Next time you feel “out of balance,” focus on three steps:
1. Internal -- Transform thoughts, feelings, words, feeding only positive energy.

When you find yourself thinking or saying such sentiments as, “What a horrible day!” “I’m so tired.” “My boss is such a (fill in the blank) “I’m not making enough money!” STOP. Energy flows where attention goes. You get back what you put out. Only invest in the positive.

2. External -- Engage in healthy, healing actions.
This may require honesty as well as discipline. Put forth the effort to align actions with goals. There’s an old saying, “Trust in God but tie your horse to the post.” If you see your horse galloping away, start being real about what part you may have played in that misfortune. And, learn how to tie a good knot already.

The key is starting. Not tomorrow, not on Monday, not on the first full moon of the leap year. NOW. Whether its meditation, fitness, a creative outlet or whatever; focus on daily activities which are aligned with your life balance goals.

3. Support -- Ask for help.
Get feedback, physical assistance, accountability and/or just the time and space for steps #1 and #2 to be possible. We don’t need to do anything alone.Many of us grew up such that we view asking for help as a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of strength. If you don’t feel comfortable leveraging your “in real life” network, there is a virtual support system for just about anything.

Practicing these steps will provide you with the balanced internal foundation needed to cope, problem solve, persist and overcome anything that comes your way.

Including evil monster heads.

Related Resources
Life is NOT a Teeter-Totter
Find Your Strongest Life (Marcus Buckingham book)
Find Your Strongest Life  (book review)
How I Took Back My Life Through the Miracle of Outlook

Feb 2, 2010

Groundhog’s Day—The Working Mom’s Holiday

Guest Blogger Jeanne Brown is a Boston-based freelance writer and communications consultant. She is also a married mother of two who is trying to juggle it all—family, work, health, writing, volunteering and the rest of life. When she finds time, she blogs at http://dichotomom.blogspot.com/ or tweets at @JeanneBrown.

To many, February means Valentine’s Day, complete with romance, hearts and fluff. I say, down with that. We don’t need candy and we won’t wear lingerie.  Instead, we need a day that focuses on keeping us sane, not one that makes us insane.  Working mothers should unite. Let’s lobby Hallmark for a new February holiday, one that honors the cornerstones of any working mother’s life—routine, consistency, schedules and predictability. Up with Groundhog Day!

One of my favorite movie lines is from The Devil Wears Prada when Emily says "I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight."  Right now I'm feeling kind of like Emily, except my life is not close to the high fashion scene and my stomach flu doesn’t end with me happily fitting into skinny jeans. I am a working mother. That means I’m just one stomach flu away from my finely crafted schedule getting flushed down the toilet.

There is a way my life is like a movie, though more like Groundhog Day than Prada.  In the 1993 film, Bill Murray plays a weatherman stuck in Punxsutawney, PA, and he relives Groundhog Day over and over and over again, until he finally gets it right.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get it right. Getting it done is good enough. And if I can manage to do it all—or most of it, anyway—with just a modicum of yelling, well that’s a great day. I get it when Bill Murray’s character Phil says, “It's the same thing your whole life: ‘Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don't mix beer and wine, ever.’ Oh yeah: ‘Don't drive on the railroad track.’"

Because for me, it really is the same thing every day (minus the railroad track): wake-up, work out, get kids to school, work, pick up kids, drive kids to activities, cook dinner, play or read to kids, put kids to bed, check e-mail, fold laundry, fall into bed, do it over again. While each day has a sprinkling of variety (Tuesdays the kids are home early, Thursdays we have dance, basketball AND wrestling), it all follows the same exhausting rhythm.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. For the most part, I’m okay with the go-go-go pace and I’m not that different from a lot of other working parents. Besides, I’ve never really been one for drama, I like my schedule and I thrive on routine. Why shake things up?

But I am shaking it up. After fifteen years working in marketing/communications, I’ve decided to try a new career path. I’m early into it, but this change has required me to rethink my priorities and rejuggle my schedule. I’ve got to fit in 10 hours of studying a week, so right now, my routine is critical. A stomach flu would derail all that I have going.

So this February 2, celebrate Groundhog Day in style: Make a meatloaf. Watch The Biggest Loser. Fold some laundry. And give a great big cheer for the routine (and a silent prayer that everyone stays healthy.)

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Powered by Blogger