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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

“Cut Yourself Some Slack” and Other Advice for Parents Working From Home, According to a Facebook Engineer (and Mom of Two)

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Erin Summers, an engineer at Facebook.
| Courtesy of Facebook

Having two young children and no family nearby isn’t easy for any parent. Add in a very long commute to the mix, and you have the makings of a stressful existence. That’s exactly what Facebook engineer Erin Summers was facing a few years ago—so she decided to do something about it and, in 2018, asked to work remotely full time, during a time when it was an exception.

“My husband and I are both from North Carolina and our parents and siblings all live there. We spent all our vacation time traveling back there,” she says. “Plus, the Bay Area was incredibly expensive and I ended up commuting three hours a day round trip in order to live in an affordable area. I wanted to continue to work at Facebook, but living in California wasn’t sustainable for me.”

After joining a new virtual reality team within the company, Summers approached her managers about her desire to work remotely full time. “I was honest about my intention to move within a year, and they were on board to discuss it after I’d been on the team for six months,” she says. “I worked really hard during that time, and then worked with my director on a proposal to get it approved by HR.” 

Summers and her family moved to North Carolina in 2018—and in May 2020, her situation became more of the norm at Facebook, when the company announced it would begin offering a full-time remote work program that employees in eligible roles could apply for.

Here, she shares how to set boundaries when working from home, why it’s important to always advocate for yourself, and how working remotely is becoming a key part of Facebook’s employee experience.

Tell us about your career journey and what led you to your job at Facebook.

In high school I was very interested in AI and robotics. For a senior project I decided to learn how to build a robot by following a book. This was in the early 2000s before there were so many easy kits. I was ordering servos from a giant Jameco catalog and stealing parts from the toys of the kids I babysat next door. It was my equivalent of a “walking uphill in the snow both ways” story. It was so magical building a robot that moved around the room from all these small pieces.

I was inspired to pursue a degree in electrical and computer engineering at NC State, and later a PhD at UC Berkeley in control systems. In my PhD I was writing theorems about the stability of airplanes and worked at NASA for a bit. At the same time I was learning about what kind of engineering I enjoyed. I wanted to work in a more fast-paced industry that had an impact on a quicker time scale. I taught myself how to code Android and was hooked to mobile development and did an Insight Data Science Fellowship. I landed a job at Facebook right out of my PhD program.

You joined a new team in January 2020. How did they feel about you working remotely?

I switched to working on Civic Integrity, and I was a little nervous about working remotely since most of my team was based in offices. But they were supportive. You know the rest of the story—the whole company pivoted to work from home, nearly overnight, because of COVID-19 and even opened up many remote roles and now offers a permanent remote program, which I’m a part of. Since everyone has had to work remote, I think we’ve seen that we can connect and make an impact no matter where we’re working, so I’m excited that this is something more people are feeling comfortable with now—it feels like a new normal.

What are you responsible for in your role?

As a tech lead on Integrity, I’m responsible for reducing harm on Facebook and Instagram related to specific problem areas such as civic, health, racial justice, and climate change. Though these problem areas are different, a lot of the solutions we employ to help inform and reduce harmful content are similar. I work to leverage the commonalities among these different areas so that we can address key societal harms faster and better. I work with product managers, engineers, design, research, data science, and policy to determine what the most pressing problems are, how to measure harm, and how to reduce it.

What have been the keys to your success as an engineer at Facebook?

I’ve been successful because I’ve learned how to advocate for myself and others around me. I was very clueless about this when I started Facebook, but over time I’ve learned how to leverage my strengths. I put a lot of effort into cultivating teams with a healthy culture, where people have the space to be vulnerable and to give and receive honest feedback. My goal is to be the type of tech lead that I wish I’d had.

What do you like best about the company culture at Facebook?

Facebook is like a directed acyclic graph, where decisions are made and you have the power to influence them. You won’t find people telling you what you should do very often, but rather there are opportunities to solve hard problems and make a broad impact. I thrive in situations where I can add order to chaos, and find the culture empowering because I am in control of how I choose to solve problems.

What impact has working remotely made on your life, both professionally and as a mother?

Personally, I have three hours of my life back a day, not wasted in traffic. I have more flexibility to have time for exercise and for cultivating friendships and relationships. I can take long weekend trips and leave the kids with our parents.

Professionally, I find work less stressful when I’m forced to do much more asynchronous communication. I have time to gather my thoughts and be more strategic. I’ve become more self-sufficient in some ways, have more time to be curious, and have more clarity to think since I’m not in a giant room filled with the hustle and bustle of people.

How have you been able to successfully set boundaries between your work and home life?

Every day, I set a calendar alert for 5:30PM to remind myself to stop working. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you’re available all the time, and no one expects that of you.

I also created a dedicated workspace in the garage that is free from distractions. Mentally it’s a ritual I rely on being able to leave an actual building and shut the door with my laptop locked away. If you don’t have a dedicated space, consider setting up at your dining table. While coding in bed sounds luxurious, bad posture can lead to serious injuries.

What tips do you have for those who aren’t sure how to ask for help at work while WFH?

There’s a potential to have a lot more friction asking for help when you’re working from home than when you’re in the office. You might hesitate because you feel like you’re “bothering” someone—but remember, it’s your responsibility to ask questions and clear up things that might be blocking you. This means proactively messaging people that you don’t know or asking your team in a group chat. If possible, work with your team to set up a space for people to ask questions, whether it’s a forum, a dedicated group chat, or a productivity tool. This will provide an open environment for people to reach out to one another.

What advice do you have for parents juggling remote work and having kids at home?

Working at home with kids is really hard. I’ve found that more screen time keeps them occupied, though I also have parental guilt about overdoing it. Remember you’re doing the best you can.

Setting expectations with your team is equally important. If I take an early or a late call or if my kids are at home sick, I warn people that they might make a cameo. Only once did I have to hang up and reschedule because my kid misbehaved. If they’re old enough to listen, having conversations about why you need to work can help. Also, cut yourself some slack. No one expects this to be perfect.