Reading 03: Work-Life Balance and “having it all”

From the readings and from your experience, can men and women have it all? That is, can parents have successful and fulfilling careers while also raising a family and meeting other non-work related goals?

I personally believe that men and women can have fulfilling careers, although “having it all” is a bit lofty of a goal. At Notre Dame, I have the privilege of being able to explore career paths that might not otherwise be available to me. I understand that many people will never have access to these same opportunities to have fulfilling experiences, so, unfortunately, I don’t believe that everyone can “have it all” at the same time. Keynes’ vision of a future where society would be so rich that people only have to work 10 or 15 hours per week is incredibly optimistic. There will always be a need to compete with others while working, although I don’t believe that it’s impossible to have fulfilling careers. Instead, it comes down to finding the right career path for each person.

 

What does it mean to have it all to you? What examples from real life do you draw from in order to define what having a balance is?

When it comes to deciding what exactly I want to get out of a career, it’s hard for me to articulate what I actually want beyond just “having it all.” Everyone wants a life where they can live comfortably and raise a family, never having to worry about losing their jobs or not having enough time off from work to raise a family, spend time with others, etc. The reality, however, is that most people are forced to compete with others on similar career paths, which I believe is the biggest hindrance to living the Keynesian vision of a comfortable life. So, rather than defining “having it all” in a career on an individual basis, I believe it has more to do with the labor force as a whole. When people are forced to compete with one another, no matter the career level, they will be naturally inclined to compare themselves to others in their field. We talked about this idea briefly during the discussion about negotiating salary. No matter what, you will compare yourself to others and feel compelled to be a better worker than they are. In light of this, “having it all” would mean total freedom from this idea of being forced to compete with people on the same career path, as this pressure appears to be the driving cause behind why we still continue to work so hard for the most prestigious, highest-paying positions, even if we don’t really want them. “Having it all” means the opportunity to explore career paths, spend time with family, and not being forced to compete for and work in jobs that I would despise just because they are more prestigious than my alternatives.

This idea of a work-life balance varies from person to person, and I don’t draw my personal ideas from anyone in particular. My most concrete vision for what the ideal working parent’s life comes from Keynes’ original prediction of the 10-hour work week. That is, nobody should be forced to work more than they have to, since advances in technology should automate the difficult parts of our lives, we should have the ability to spend time with our families and travelling and focusing on the life portion of the work-life balance. On top of that, when I’m not working, I should not be expected to think about or deal with anything relating to work.

 

Have you ever dealt with burnout or guilt over missing out on some portion of your life? If so, describe how you dealt with this situation and what helped you overcome these difficulties.

Burnout was one of the driving factors in choosing to switch from a strictly technical career path that my computer science degree would normally grant me to an actuarial career path. I’ve discovered over the course of my college career that there are certain kinds of stress that I can deal with more easily than I can deal with others. I can’t point to an exact time when I suffered academic or professional burnout in computer science, but the idea of having to compete with people just to keep my career moving along at a good pace was enough to drive me away from computer-related careers in general. I felt that this need to be competitive would end up consuming me, so I wanted to find a career that would allow me to use technical skills in a less competitive industry, even if that meant accepting a lower salary than many of my peers who have the same education and background as I do.

I ended up going with actuarial work because I felt that it would give me a clearly defined and much more manageable career path. While it’s still a competitive industry, I feel that this is a much healthier stress for me than the stress I would have felt from working in the tech industry. Actuarial work grants much more freedom than a more technical role, as I’m not forced to keep up with daily changes in my industry or worry that someone more talented might walk in tomorrow and take my job from me. Insurance is a much more gradual and less commoditized industry, and any stress that I have is stress that I put on myself. While I still have to take professional exams for many years after I graduate college, the company I’ll be working for grants me paid time off to study for exams, and there’s incentive for me to explore other careers within the company on my own time. I think of this career switch as a great sigh of relief for me; where I used to be haunted by the vision of competing with all of my peers and coworkers to stay on top of the industry, I’m now much more focused on my personal career growth, which has very little to do with the career paths of the people around me.

 

What can companies do to support their workers to find this balance and are they ethically obliged to do so? Was the opportunity for balance something that factored into your choice of career or job opportunity? Why or why not?

Helping workers to find this balance of life and work should be one of the highest priorities for a company, as far as internal relations go. While they might not be ethically or morally obligated to provide these opportunities, it would very clearly be in their best interest to do so. With the ability to move around to different jobs and find new jobs easily, it would be unreasonable for any company to think that and employee would stick with them just out of a sense of loyalty to the company or some small perks that might come along with working for them. If an employee in unsatisfied with how the company is treating them, it’s easier than ever before for that employee to switch companies. In order for a company to succeed in this fluid of a labor market, it’s important that they provide benefits to ensure that employees won’t want to leave the company.

This was another important factor in choosing my career and the company I eventually signed with. While my base salary was just around what I was expecting to get, the main driver behind why I took the offer was the benefits that the company offers to its employees, such as 401(k) matching that is much higher than the industry standard, discounts on life insurance, stocks, and financial services products, 6 weeks of paid paternity leave, etc. This is in addition to many of the perks that actuarial workers get already involving paid study time off and bonuses awarded based on company and individual performance. Essentially, I interpreted this offer as granting me peace of mind and the comfort of feeling secure in my position. I have the great fortune of not having to worry about my career for the foreseeable future, which I believe is the most important component of a work-life balance.

 

Finally, is this balance important to you and if so, how do you hope to maintain it? What life-style changes or activities have you put in place to deal with finding a balance in your life and preventing burnout?

I’ve touched on all of these topics at least a little bit so far, but I’ll reiterate that I believe work-life balance is the most important part of choosing a career and a company to work for. Although I don’t have any immediate plans or ideas of how to maintain this balance for my entire career, I feel that I’m in a much more comfortable position in my actuarial career now than I would have in a strictly technical position. Moving forward, I don’t have any more changes in mind that would make my career more fulfilling than it is now. I love the work that I’m doing and the ability to take my mind off of it when I’m not at work. With all these taken into account, I believe I’ve found the balance of work and life that will grant me not only a more fulfilling career, but one in which I’m much less likely to suffer from burnout.

Reading 02: Promotion, Growth, and the “Chainsaw Al” approach

As you go through your job search process have you investigated how promotion and career advancement works at the companies you looked at? What is the common career trajectory for employees at your company? What systems of review and feedback do they have?

What do you think of the stack ranking system common in tech companies? Is it fair? Is it ethical? How would you feel about participating in that process?

 

Working as an actuary at a financial services company has introduced me to a different management mindset than I had seen previously, learning only about the computer science discipline. In the financial services industry, actuaries are in charge of quantifying key factors for corporate decisions and investment management. Whichever company has the most efficient actuaries or the most effective models, meaning they can provide the most effective services to their clients, can easily drive their competitors out of the market. For this reason, it’s critical for these companies to take any advantage they can to get ahead of the rest of the industry. With this approach, it might make sense that financial services companies would only want to hire the best systems engineers and the most efficient actuaries, as indicated by their resume or previous experience, meaning that companies would try to downsize inefficient departments and fire individuals who don’t perform as well as the company would like. Based on my experience, however, the exact opposite is the case.

The financial services industry as a whole, used to approach workplace efficiency with a greedy mindset. That is, once a job had been automated or a position became obsolete, those individuals would be removed from the company, since they had already served their purpose. Up until the late 90s, this was the approach for almost any corporate environment that existed. People who have been in the corporate world for a long time like to tell horror stories about Albert J. Dunlap, better known as “Chainsaw Al”, who would be brought into companies as a downsizing consultant. Chainsaw Al was responsible for laying off huge amounts of people from companies, all in the name of efficiency. This mindset caused an unhealthy competition within companies: managers would lie to subordinates to get ahead, employees would deliberately undermine each other, and workers in general would either undercut others or just work until they received their inevitable firing notice and severance package. This is what we now refer to as a “toxic” work environment, and is rarely ever seen in financial services today.

So what exactly has changed in the corporate world since then, and how has the workplace attitude adapted to these changes? Insurance has traditionally been slow to adopt new technologies for a number of reasons, but this has changed drastically over the last decade or so. Larger, older companies now find themselves in the same industry as “Insur-tech” startups, small companies focused on specific financial services or making them more accessible to demographics who previously might never have had access to these services, such as the lower-middle class, to help them plan for retirement or help them understand how to approach long-term financial planning. Traditional life insurance companies now invest heavily in these startups, creating a very successful and rapidly growing Insur-tech industry. These companies take an approach to insurance and financial services in ways that no company had previously considered. Now, companies across the entire industry are taking this approach with their actuarial workers, those in charge of coming up with ideas like the ones in the Insur-tech industry.

Companies now tend to focus on retention and growth rather than greedy efficiency. They recognize that, a few decades from now, the jobs that people are currently doing will be replaced by jobs that might not have even been invented yet. Within Allianz Life, instead of having managers directly evaluate their workers on a pre-determined set of criteria, promotions and bonuses are done based on goals that workers set with their managers at the beginning of each quarter. The goals tend to involve learning about different parts of the company, exploring ways to make the company more effective, working a part-time internship in a different department, etc. The point of this process is to ensure that actuaries within the company are lifetime learners and that they will, ideally, stay within the company for as long as possible. This promotes a much healthier work environment than what corporate America used to have, and the tech industry might benefit from not having a greedy mindset about their employees, which the ‘stack’ ranking clearly indicates.

While it might not be outright ethical or immoral to evaluate employees based on the stack approach, I’ve only heard negative feedback about similar approaches that have been taken by traditional corporations in the past. I recognize that corporations have an obligation to their shareholders and their clients, but I personally believe that a company’s primary obligation is too its workers, since a healthy work environment promotes creativity and exploration in an industry like technology or insurance, which benefits from being able to solve problems in unorthodox ways.

Reading 01: Evolution of Meritocracy in the Tech Industry

From the readings and from your experience, is the technology industry a meritocracy (what does that actually mean)? If it is, then is that a good thing or a bad thing? If it is not, should it try to be?

Based on my own personal experience, the tech industry falls into a different kind of meritocracy than what the world is used to seeing. One of the key principles behind a meritocracy, as I’ve always understood the term, is the idea that individual talents are important for the success of a community or society as a whole. In practice, this translates to “we want the best and most talented people to work for us” from a tech company’s perspective. At first glance, it would appear that meritocratic ideals and the tech industry would go hand-in-hand, since the technical skill of a systems engineer of computer scientist is based solely on individual talent and ability. After all, what separates a generic programmer from a computer scientist is the ability to implement and understand dynamic and elegant solutions to complex problems, and each computer scientist has their own unique understanding of how to solve a problem. So, these different understandings are what make each computer scientist unique; in an industry where all individuals understand how to code, the only way to stand out individually is to understand and implement ideas about code in unique and creative ways. Interestingly enough, however, it seems that the industry has moved on from this individualistic idea of meritocracy and toward one that focuses more on programmers’ and engineers’ collaborative abilities.

Given how often professionals move to different companies nowadays and how pervasive the ability to code has become over the last decade or so, individual talent can actually turn out to be a hindrance rather than a directly correlated measure of value. Speaking from personal experience, one of the biggest concerns for actuaries and systems engineers in the company I worked for this past summer, Allianz Life, was legacy code that previous workers had left behind with no proper documentation or explanation for how their legacy code was implemented, why it was implemented the way it was, or any guidance for how to solve problems should one arise. Those people who wrote the legacy code were quite obviously individually talented. That said, when some (what should have been minor) bugs arose with any of the legacy code that they had written, it took an extremely long amount of time to locate and debug whatever the issue was. This became such a time sink that the team I worked with chose to scrap the vast majority of the code that had been written and start from scratch. Herein lies the problem of an individualist meritocracy in the tech industry: if nobody can understand the code that you’ve written or why you wrote it the way you did, regardless of how individually skilled you may be, your talents and abilities have been wasted. Instead, with the growing emphasis on collaboration, there appears to be a shift in priorities from technical skill to “group” skills, such as communication and teamwork, and the use of technical expertise to benefit both those around you and the community/society as a whole. In this sense, a tech recruiter isn’t necessarily looking for the “best” candidate, but rather one that can clearly articulate their decisions and work to the team they work with.

Because the tech industry obviously varies by a large amount when choosing the qualities of an ideal worker, I’m very hesitant to say whether or not the tech industry as a whole is or is not a meritocracy. In my own opinion, however, I see more benefit from the idea of “group” meritocracy rather than “individual” meritocracy. Rather than arguing the industry’s being or not being a meritocracy, I believe it’s more important to recognize that the individual’s talent is much less important now than it used to be (i.e. traditional meritocracy) and using one’s talents to benefit society as a whole has become a top priority in the tech industry. Unlike the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto, I don’t believe that working in a diversity of backgrounds, benefiting the lives of others, and having solid interpersonal skills are incompatible with the idea of a meritocracy. In fact, I’ve experienced that these ideas are much more related compatible than I had previously imagined. As the needs of the tech industry evolve and as we apply technical skills to bigger and more important problems, the additional need for collaboration and interpersonal skills drives a new kind of meritocracy, the “group” meritocracy; rather than being outright replaced by a new set of ideals, meritocracy will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the changing industry.

Reading 00: Determination of Accountability

How do you normally determine if an action is right or wrong? What sort of ethical or moral framework do you depend on or utilize? What sort of things do you consider?

Coming from an insurance background, it’s very important for me to understand exactly what occurs during a transaction between two parties, especially when it involves intangible externalities such as specific types of risk or trust. For example, the job of a life insurance company isn’t exactly to sell life insurance products or annuities. The policyholder expects some level of involvement and places some trust in the company that assumes the policyholder’s risk. In this sense, the company has to sell “trust” on top of whatever product is actually being sold, which may come in the form of a high credit rating, a long-standing quality reputation, or some other factors that are used to gain confidence. These kinds of externalities help define the responsibilities of the company and can help give a guideline for what is “right” and “wrong” in a lightly regulated industry.

The company itself may have some values to help guide decision-making. I, for instance, as a part of the company, assume a portion of that responsibility and that ethical framework as well. At a very abstract level, the job of the life insurance company is to protect its clients’ wealth. This, however, is a very complex issue with many components, and different parts of this responsibility are undertaken by departments or individuals, creating a division of responsibility and accountability. To address the original question, I try to create and utilize an ethical or moral framework that would best suit the body or company in which I have the most responsibility, based on the mission of this body or company, such as taking accountability for one of the many different factors that goes into creating a sustainable life insurance company. It’s my responsibility to do what is best for the company to the best of my ability. I don’t believe that a moral or ethical framework can exist independently from one of a society or company, since ethics and morals govern the interactions that individuals and entities have with one another within that particular group.

I would personally consider the existing ethical and moral norms that already exist before I try to create my own framework. Professionally, I would consider the core values of a company or the role that it actually serves in its industry or in the economy to make judgments about whether certain actions should or should not be taken. Based on my discussion of how a governing or corporate body trades in intangibles such as “risk” and “trust”, I would say that I’m more ethically flexible than most, since I believe that responsibilities are often distributed over an entire group of people and rarely ever come down to one person making a key decision. What’s more important is being able to interpret a set of central tenets is such a way that it best meets the needs and values that the group, company, or society holds for that one specific role. Assigning a single person to that role of executive decision-making with no advisers or other people informing those decisions is far too dangerous to be implemented practically.

Reading 00: Introduction

In your first blog post, please write a short introduction to who you are, what your interests are, why you are studying Computer Science (or whatever your major is), and what you hope to get out of this class.

I’m Ben Shadid, a senior computer science & engineering student going into an actuarial career in the life insurance industry. I chose to study computer science not necessarily because I wanted to have a strictly technical career after graduating college, but because it gives me a unique skill set for solving problems. That is, I believe that the analytical problem-solving and mindset that comes with a computer science background can be usefully applied to a very different career path.

Outside of my own career interests, I have a passion for philosophy, music, and history. Approaching these first two with a technical mindset is always interesting; I’ve always seen philosophy as just an application of logic, and music (specifically composing and making music) tends to be more mechanical that most people give it credit for. What interests me the most about these two areas, however, is the creative uses of otherwise logical or mechanical tools to make something meaningful. My passion for history stems from my desire to solve problems reveal mysteries. Most of history is still unexplained, and, while we can have any number of conjectures about history, we have very few ways of proving what actually happened in the past. The methods that historians, archaeologists, etc. produce to discover actual historical events requires a level of creativity and dedication that I’ve always admired.

Going into life insurance, I hope to learn from this class about the ethical and appropriate use of data. In the life insurance industry specifically, actuaries are in charge of projecting the expected mortality rates of their policyholders based on a set of data about their previous policyholders and on third-party data that doesn’t directly relate to the life insurance assumption platform, such as credit history, stress tests, etc. Having worked at a life insurance company last summer, I was amazed to learn that the last piece of regulation that governed the use of data in these types of decisions was passed in the 1960s, called the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Since then, the ability to collect and process data has improved drastically beyond the capabilities from the 1960s, so insurance companies have to rely on their own tenets to set a foundation for what data should and should not be mined for internal use. From this class, I hope to learn about what factors might contribute to these decisions.

 

Additionally, in your opinion, what are the most pressing ethical and moral issues facing computer scientists and engineers? Which ones are you particularly interested in discussing this semester?

While I’m not well-versed enough to confidently say what the most pressing issue overall could be, the most interesting and complex issue, in my opinion, is the idea of intellectual property and how that should be handled. Over the last summer, one of the conditions of my employment contract was that any code I wrote and any ideas I had relating to my work were the intellectual property of the insurance company that I worked for. Since these would technically fall under the category of proprietary information, to what extent does this restriction apply? I’ve never fully understood why intellectual property and copyright protections exist the way that they currently do because I’ve never agreed with how strictly they can be enforced. As a result, I’m most interested in studying the effects of copyright and intellectual property on technical industries and gaining some insight into why these protections are implemented the way they are currently.