Careers: Mixing Work with Vacation

For IT pros on vacation, work’s no more than a voice mail, e-mail, or SSH session away

Summer is (almost) upon us, and with it, the mass migration of IT professionals in a seasonal exodus known as “vacation.”

But the requirements of employment in IT are different from those in many other sectors, and many IT pros say that even when they’re on vacation, they need to stay in touch via voice mail, e-mail, or SSH session.

Last year, data security researcher CoreProtect found that 72 percent of IT professionals experience apprehension of some kind upon returning to work after a vacation. More to the point, the researcher said, many IT pros aren’t actually taking a vacation, if by “vacation” we mean a complete break from work. In fact, 23 percent of IT professionals reported that they had received work-related phone calls, or conducted other work-related business, while on vacation.

Most of the IT professionals that we spoke with say this is par for the course. Almost all have logged time on e-mail, voice mail, or TELNET, SSH, or remote desktop connections while on vacation. Most seem to accept it as a matter of course, but others remain defiant.

Take Daniel McLaughlin, a mainframe operator with a prominent insurance company. He’s had the work-while-on-vacation experience in the past, McLaughlin allows, but no longer. “I have done this in former jobs, but as I get a little older, tend not to do it as much. In fact, at one point in a former job my boss asked me to take all my gear on vacation in case she needed me. I asked her if she did the same, and she said no because it was her time to relax. I told her the same applied to me and didn't take my pager, laptop, cell phone, nor leave a number to be reached at,” he explains.

There’s also the opposite extreme—IT professionals who simply don’t take vacations in the first place. That’s the position in which Bob Richards, a long-time mainframe operator and former consultant, finds himself. “After being a consultant for years, vacation time is considered by me to be a luxury,” says Richards, who currently works for a prominent financial institution.

These are generally the exceptions to the rule, however. Most IT professionals seem to settle for an arrangement similar to that described by Eric Johnson, a SQL Server administrator with a national architectural design firm. Does he typically perform job-related work of some kind when he’s on vacation? Yes, Johnson admits, if by work you mean “checking voice mail and e-mail.” On a few occasions, he adds, “I had to do support over the phone.”

Johnson and many of his colleagues seem to accept such requirements as part of working in IT. Nice work if you can get it, even.

Edward Ko, a network administrator with the Pennsylvania State University, describes a similar compromise. “I have checked voice mail, answered e-mails, troubleshot and even [used Microsoft’s Remote Desktop facility to access] servers to do diagnostics or repairs,” he says.

Some IT professionals, such as mainframe operator Kevin Kinney, say that they’re often kept so busy with job-related responsibilities while on “vacation” or leave that they actually look forward to returning to work. “The company gave me a six-week hiatus to help IBM write a Redbook. I averaged two hours a day putting out fires here [at work] in addition to the 8-12 hours working on the book. I was glad to get back to work so I could relax,” he explains. “[W]hen my first son was born, our company was installing software at a customer’s site. I was scheduled to be off for a week, but ended up working an average of four hours a day from home or the office.”

In fact, some IT pros say that they dread going on vacation because of all of the planning that they’ve got to do to make it happen.

“I am the proverbial ‘one man shop’—literally,” says Chuck Lewis, an iSeries operator with Indianapolis-based Lee Supply Corp. “There is absolutely no one here that can do the majority of what I do. And I do not mean that in a bragging way. We have exactly one person in the IT department.”

Consequently, Lewis says, vacation involves a lot of preparation—much of it for the safeguarding of his own sanity upon his return. “I usually try and have the high priority stuff done so it is easier to be off with a clear conscience and not have that to come back to when I return,” he comments.

PSU’s Ko says that when he plans for vacation, he’s mindful of imposing upon his colleagues, so he tries to get as much out of the way as possible before leaving: “There are lots of [firm] deadlines that need to be kept and I also don't want to burden the other staff of having to pick the pieces of my unfinished work.”

Most IT professionals worry that their environments will fall to pieces while they’re gone. Some point to another concern, however: Their shops could continue to function just as well without them. At a time when companies are still looking to cut costs by slashing jobs, they don’t want to give anxious corporate bean-counters the idea that they’re expendable.

“We recently moved applications from [a] production mainframe to another mainframe elsewhere in the states. The other shop has sysprogs who say their hands are full already but I'm leery about my job despite this,” comments one mainframe administrator, who wished to remain anonymous. “I'm just too afraid that the week I'm gone will be the one week when none of the wheels fall off. And someone will get the idea they don't need me, if they aren't thinking that already.”

Even when they’re away from work on “vacation,” some IT professionals report that their employers actually dictate where they can go. “We have relaxed the vacation restrictions that used to be in place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, our busiest season,” says Joe Poole, a mainframe operator with an upscale retail chain, noting that vacationers over the Thanksgiving holiday should stay within the state boundaries where his employer is based.

Mainframe operator Kinney says that his employer has “veto power over any vacation I plan.” Once his vacation is approved, Kinney says, he has to provide his employer with a number where he can be reached in case of an emergency. “In the past, I was able to get around providing a contact phone number by claiming the Central American or Caribbean phone traffic was unreliable. Since I no longer go there, this excuse is lost to me,” he comments. “[So] when I travel in the states, I always take a laptop regardless of where I'm going or how long I'll be there.”

What’s more, some IT professionals say, when they return from vacation they’re often buried in work, so much so that in some cases they’ve cut short their vacations to more effectively deal with it. “I've gotten into the habit of arriving home from my vacation on Saturday,” concludes Kinney. “That gives us Sunday to get back in to the swing of normal life. I mention this because I usually sneak into the office on Sunday to take care of difficult, pressing problems.”

Not surprisingly, however, most IT professionals say that vacation is worth the planning, preparation, and other compromises—no matter how much work has piled up in their absence.

“That is a given in our field. I tackle it as I can, arranging priorities as required. Do I dread it? No, not really,” says mainframe operator McLaughlin.

Fellow mainframer Poole confirms that he doesn’t dread returning from vacation “too much.” In fact, he points out, “sorting through the snail mail, coding invoices to be paid, e-mail messages, and new requests are a sort of transition therapy from being off to being back on.”

In the end, says PSU’s Ko, why ruin a perfectly good vacation worrying about what fresh hell has accrued during your time away? “I don't dread the amount of work I'll have when I come back. What a way to ruin a perfectly good vacation!” he argues. “I think I don't worry because I have accepted the fact that there will be work waiting for me and it's not something I can control. I also know that taking phone calls or being called back may happen, but that's also out of my control. I like to think of vacation as ‘Ed Time’ and make the most of it.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.