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5 IT Industry Pro Tips on Debugging Your Work/Life Balance

Balancing the demands of work with the pleasures of life is difficult in any field, but it's particularly tough in the IT industry. The widespread proliferation of technology like mobile devices and Internet connectivity have become drivers in the push towards keeping workers, if not on-duty then on-call for more hours out of the day. The effect can be particularly harsh on people working on solving tech problems.

"Work-life balance in tech jobs is especially challenging," Stu Sjouwerman, CEO of KnowBe4, a security awareness training company, said. "People in IT are on an electronic leash that can pull them back into the job on a 24/7 schedule."

For example, an IT manager or database admin might be tasked with overseeing operations across multiple time zones. While the manager's standard duties may not explicitly require a 24-hour on-call status, it's more or less inevitable that data hiccups will occur at different points along the corporate network, requiring quick fire control on her part--regardless of whether or not it's at 4 a.m.

"In the role of CEO of a high-tech startup, managing your work-life balance is a precarious ledge that one must walk," said Jeff Erwin, CEO of Intego, a developer of security software for Macs. "You believe that 15-hour days and weeks spent on the road are requirements for success, yet you don't want your kids to grow up knowing you as that guy in the pictures with mom.'"

To help prospective tech students as well as newly minted IT professionals navigate these treacherous waters, we talked to managers and CEOs from the industry to get their tips on how to preserve a healthy work/life balance.

Industry veterans chime in: IT work/life balance tips

Here are five strategies as recommended by IT veterans from companies like Intego, 41st Parameter and Robert Half Technologies:

Prioritizing

Jeff Erwin of Intego has found setting priorities and sticking to them is a key to balancing work with his life outside the office. For example, while his kids were in grades K-12, Thursday and Friday nights were when they participated in sporting events, so he made it a priority to be home on those nights.

"By declaring that exceptions to this rule were scarce at best, I was able to arrange my travel and work schedule to make it happen," he said. "Sure, there were the occasional exceptions, usually involving international travel, but knowing the rules in advance always let me move things around on the business side to make it work."

Imposing a schedule for yourself

Scheduling is important within every profession for using time efficiently and getting things done, but it can also be used to balance work with life outside the office.

"Schedule things that are important to you, whether it's going to the gym or going on vacation," Kristen Johnson, a regional manager for Robert Half Technology, said. "Having a fulfilling personal life is key for most people to be a stellar business professional."

Ori Eisen, CEO and founder of 41st Parameter, a subsidiary of Experian, is a firm believer in using his calendar planner as both a work and life tool. "If you keep telling yourself you're going to do something, unless you put it on your calendar, it's not going to happen," he said.

Among the life events Eisen puts on his calendar are times to take his kids to a local ice cream shop, randomly buying flowers for his wife and scheduling personal time. "Sometimes 30 minutes in a coffee shop with yourself gives you time to think about what you're doing that you don't have while you're doing it," he said.

Unplugging

Taking time to unplug during the work week also comes recommended by the execs. "The trick with IT work is to make firm agreements that allow you to compartment your life," said Sjouwerman, of KnowBe4. "If you want to survive in tech jobs, you simply cannot continue year after year with 60- to 80-hour weeks without some scheduling and agreed upon downtime"

"When that time is there, unplug," he continued. "Turn off the pager, phone, tablet and laptop and focus on being where you are and enjoy what you are doing in that moment."

Ari Zoldan, CEO of Quantum Networks, a technology and media incubator, also attests to the value of unplugging to work-life balance. "If you can take one day and completely unplug, it's incredible for resetting your work life," he said.

As anyone in the tech industry knows, unplugging, even over the weekend, isn't as easy as it sounds. Zoldan does it with the help of religious obligation. "As an orthodox Jew, I'm forced to unplug from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday," he explained. "That helps me recharge."

When 41st Parameter's Eisen goes on vacation, he uses nature as a means of remaining unplugged. "When I go on vacation with my family, I pick a place that's inside a valley where there's virtually no phone or Wi-Fi reception," he said. "That's because as long as we have our smartphones in our pocket and they're on, it's very hard not to check them."

Splitting up vacation time

Zoldan also recommends as balancing strategies meditation and taking vacations in small chunks -- taking long weekends several times a year, rather than taking two weeks once a year. "For employers, it's more palatable to do Thursday through Monday four or five times a year than being MIA for two weeks," he said.

"It's become popular to take long weekends," added Johsnon from Robert Half. "If a two-week vacation isn't going to work for you because of projects in play, taking a long weekend is perfectly acceptable."

Monitoring your team's work-life balance

According to Oxford Economics, American workers use only 77 percent of their paid vacation time -- the highest in the world. One reason for that, especially in the high tech industry, is that a missing team member can create havoc with project deadlines. Stackify, a maker of application monitoring solutions, has an innovative approach to that problem. It cross-trains team members. "We breakdown knowledge silos and skill sets so anybody on the team can fill in for somebody else so you don't have that single go-to person who's always being leaned on all hours of the day," said Stackify CTO Jason Taylor.

Managers have a responsibility to help employees balance their team's work-life commitments, according to Taylor. "Software developers have a tendency to work long hours because when you're working on a problem, it's hard to turn it off," he said. "It's the responsibility of every manager out there to make sure their employees aren't burning themselves out, to give them the affirmation to let them walk away from something for a while."

"I spend a lot of time watching what my developers are doing and reminding them that there's still going to be work there tomorrow, find your stopping place, go home, shut off and don't worry about it," he added.

Why striking a balance pays off

Allowing employees to distance themselves from work not only benefits their state of mind but is important to innovation and productivity, contends 41st Parameter's Eisen. "The further you get away from your work, the more clarity you get about your work," he said.

"I enjoy sending my employees on vacation knowing that not only will they come back recharged physically and mentally," Eisen added, "but they will be able to see things in a much clearer way. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works like a charm."

Sources

Interview with Kristen Johnson, Regional Manager, Robert Half Technology; conducted by John Mello, December 2014

Interview with Jeff Erwin, CEO, Intego; conducted by John Mello, December 2014

Interview with Stu Sjouwerman, CEO, KnowBe4; conducted by John Mello, December 2014

Interview with Ari Zoldan, CEO, Quantum Networks; conducted by John Mello, December 2014

Interview with Ori Eisen, CEO/founder, 41st Parameter; conducted by John Mello, December 2014

Interview with Jason Taylor, CTO, Stackify; conducted by John Mello, December 2014

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