When I meet someone and they ask what I do, I evade the topic with a vague and uninteresting response: “I work in data. [optional: self-deprecating sell-out joke]”
This response isn’t out of humility nor shame. In fact, I’m very proud to work at dbt Labs and I’m appreciative of the role I’m in. My evasion is because I’m not interested in how the conversation will progress if I answer honestly.
There is Erica, Head of Data at dbt Labs. At meetups, conferences, work events, she’ll happily divulge into why self-service analytics is hard but important, weighing between Data-as-a-Service vs. Data-as-a-Product, arguing why the data analyst deserves to be valued, and the future tooling and general dialogue around the Modern Data Stack.
But there’s also Erica the Person. She enjoys curating playlists, frequenting the flower vendors at the Farmer’s Market, baking for her neighbors, going on long walks to stare at beautiful architecture, and romanticizing the undervalued morning golden hour. That’s the conversation I want to have and that’s the version that I want to represent.
We have a tendency to bind our professional identities with our personal identities and thus, our professional worth with our personal self-worth. If you find fulfillment in your career and intrinsic happinessin that pursuit, then pursue it. I’ll happily cheer you from the sidelines.
But if you were to aggregate all after-hours conversation topics, what is the ratio between work vs. personal? And if you were to remove your career from the conversation, what are you left with?
When you spend 40 (okay sure, sometimes 50+) hours of your week towards work and you don’t figuratively (maybe literally for the in-person folks) step out of this persona, I can only imagine the degree of burn-out on the horizon. This may not be tomorrow, or months, or a year from now. But it’ll happen. And then you’ll find yourself looking back and wondering, where the fuck did time go?
the humbly naive beginning
When I chose to work in data, it was for three very simple reasons:
I wanted to learn hard-skills so I could eventually be on the board or work at a non-profit and apply Fortune 500 strategies to grow and develop the organization.
I wanted a career where I could work wherever I wanted, put my headphones on, and listen to music all day.
I genuinely enjoyed learning SQL and working in data felt like solving a puzzle — I could do it for hours (in hindsight, perhaps too many hours).
My first post-grad job was a data analyst at then Fishtown Analytics. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with folks I deeply respect and admire (as professionals and as people) for my entire career. They always advocated for and celebrated who I was as Erica the Person. This was the culture I wanted: being able to be upfront and unapologetic about who I was, including my conflicting feelings about working in this industry.
During my 6-month performance review, when Tristan and Erin asked the question all fresh new-grads dread, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, I responded very confidently:
“All I know is that I want to work out of a van one day!”
Yes, a cliched and overplayed millennial answer. However, I knew my tenure in tech was a stepping stone towards a greater goal and I wanted to prioritize making my “professional career” mold around the life I needed in order to feel fulfilled.
They laughed, but nonetheless gave a gracious response, “Okay Erica, our mission is to let you eventually work out of a van one day.”
be your own worst critic
Fast forward 2.5 years into my career, I was laser focused on professional prestige. I wanted to explore data science and progress into becoming an ML engineer. I wanted the big titles and the bigger paychecks. This often happens at the start of a fresh career: you begin at an entry-level, strive to climb a vague ladder of professional validation, eyes fixated on hitting your performance benchmarks while reassuring your friends over a Rooftop Happy Hour that, once you achieve whatever prefixed title lays ahead of you, you’ll pivot to doing what you actually want to do. You’d never succumb to completely “selling out” to tech because you’re different, you have dreams and goals outside of this corporate world.
When I told my managers that I decided to leave Fishtown Analytics to pursue a career in data science, they were honest and candid: “You’ve never shown interest in data science before, but if that’s what you want, then it’ll be good for you to explore it.”
Six months into my new role and in the midst of a pandemic (which forcibly placed a mirror in front of us to harshly self-reflect…or learn how to bake bread), I felt lost and unsatisfied. When you spend everyday in your apartment, staring down your screen, and removed from the audible cacophonies of career chatter, your mind starts running in circles that eventually devolve into spirals.
Who was I chasing this prestige for?
Why did I feel this extrinsic urgency to pursue a career that I didn’t actually want but felt like I should?
I spent the last 3 years heads-down on my work, chasing titles, and seeking validation through my resume and, even worse, my LinkedIn profile.
During this period, I somehow convinced myself that I was no longer a creative person and set aside the hobbies I once enjoyed. My dreams of living in a van, untethered to corporate strings, felt so foreign and uncomfortable. Rather than spending my downtime pursuing the hobbies and daydreams that once gave me so much happiness, I found myself alone in my tiny NYC apartment, reading about Data Science for Business and how to prep for a FAANG interview.
I hated it.
No one pushed me to want any of this, but somehow I fell into it. I became so caught up in chasing professional optics that I didn’t know who I was outside of my career.
a redemption arc
Now, you must be thinking that I’m a hypocrite. I’m telling you not to chase titles and to pursue a life motivated by personal dreams and goals that reach beyond the golden handcuffs of capitalism! And yet, I’m currently in such a privileged position.
Let me explain.
When Tristan offered me to return as Head of Data, I hesitated. After spending the past few years regressing from the person I wanted to be and feeling suffocated by even the word “data”, I told him I needed two weeks to mull it over.
I went backpacking to unplug and harshly self-reflect by asking those unbearably difficult questions that I evaded for years:
What makes me feel genuinely happy? What makes me feel the saddest?
What life would make me feel most at-peace to say I’ve lived?
If I removed my entire career from who I was as a person, what would I need to do to feel like I had any substance at all?
And, when I have kids of my own, what lessons from my life and experiences would I want to teach them?
By the end of my trip, I came to a few conclusions that I still hold to this day:
Value the people, not the titles: The foundation of my happiness stems from my relationships with people. I can be living in the most beautiful environment with an executive salary and all of the accolades and extrinsic validation, but that doesn’t mean anything to me if I’m not surrounded with people I respect, admire, and feel truly comfortable around. If I have to clock-in 40+ hr a week, I want to spend that time with people who share the same values and care about me as Erica the Person.
It’s not that deep: For years, I followed a constructed yet vague professional path in an attempt to collect technical skills, pursue fancy titles at large tech companies, and gain the respect of my peers. I was trying to fit into everyone else’s shoes and after years of attempting to walk in them, I felt the aches and the pains of wondering why I never felt like I found my place. There was a nagging thought that questioned if I deserved to be in this industry if I wasn’t actively engaging in the latest discourses. But moving forward, I want to shake that feeling by doing what feels right to me. If I’m going to be in this industry, then I will approach it in a way that feels authentically me and claim my space on my terms. This ultimately translates to producing Good Work and leading with empathy. It’s as simple (and as complicated) as that.
While the job title was a wonderful bonus, my motivation to return to dbt Labs wasn’t to pursue an ambitious career in data. In reality, at the heart of my decision were the people and the values. And to this day, I firmly believe it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my adult years.
“Best decision” isn’t alluding to the company’s trajectory or leading a team, it’s because I weighed my choice based on what would give me the most personal fulfillment in the long-term. When I started viewing my job through this context, I’ve been able to place my personal identity and long-term goals at the center again. And I can truthfully say that I’ve never been happier or felt more fulfilled, personally and professionally, than I do today.
I believe my greatest strength as a manager and a coworker is how I approach and contextualize my team and my peers. I view people as people who have beautiful and wonderful facets to their personality, who spend weekends doing the hobbies they love, and with dreams that expand far beyond Monday to Friday between 9am to 5pm.
For my team, I like ask how they prefer to decompress from work or what activities bring them joy when they close their laptops. One of them is based in Utah and loves skiing. He reflected how powder days on the weekdays are magical and unparalleled. Another said he enjoys going to broadway shows and he recently took up bouldering which has been a rejuvenating new outlet for him.
I encourage my team to set their working hours around their personal lives. If there’s a powder day, the former will take the morning to go for a ski run. The latter will go to the bouldering gym in the mid-afternoon or early evening. As long as they can continue doing great work and communicate their adjusted hours to the team and stakeholders, then they should do whatever they need to feel like they’re balancing both their personal and professional fulfillment.
As we get caught up in stressing over OKRs, job titles and their meanings, and the latest Twitter discourses, we often forget to step back and look at this huge and wonderful picture of what it means to be living a truly authentic and enriching life outside of work. We should be centering our personal lives and identities, and pushing our professional identities to being a small subset of the greater whole. Because in the end, when your knees are achey and your hair is thinned and white, will you be able to look back on your years and say you’ve genuinely lived a satisfying and fulfilling life?
You know the saying - if there’s a broken pipeline and no one is there to give validation on a job well done, would you actually want to fix the broken pipeline?
I eventually did fulfill this dream, but moving to Los Angeles limits the practicality of parking a large cargo van without rapid aging from the stress of finding parking and the consequences of going into debt via parking tickets.
Especially after the great COVID flour shortage and we no longer had baking bread as an option to escape our cognitive dissonance.
re: python and R, but this was solely motivated by “Well, this would fluff up my resume once I apply to Facebook.”
To this day, I couldn’t tell give you the faintest definition of the data mesh or shape rotators or bundled/unbundled data. And at this point, I’m too scared to ask (…or I just really have no interest in the topic but let’s keep this a secret between you and me).
Although, my team has become an unexpectedly huge reason why I jump onto my laptop in the mornings. Over the past year, they’ve allowed me to grow into my role and as a person in ways that I never knew I could.
Very interesting, ... many thoughtful and honest points there! I am still struggling with getting the right balance between my ambitions and doing ‚the job‘ that might eventually get me there. Will keep your post in mind and try to be bold. :-)