Sarah Schell, a data scientist, starts her day with coffee and the understanding that she might not be home until 10 P.M. No, not because she has a deadline. She’s just got that much going on in her personal and professional life.
As a natural “sprinter” — someone who likes to work in energetic bursts when she’s passionate about an activity or project — Schell has a unique approach to achieving work-life balance. She sees balance as a long-term vision rather than something that’s measured by daily yoga classes, and she sets personal goals to make sure she gets the right amount of leisure time.
Thankfully, her employer, GameChanger, empowers her to work and relax when she pleases. Schell speaks candidly about the company’s relatively flat structure where everyone’s ideas and needs are heard.
We asked Schell more about how she achieves work-life balance, how her daily routines keep her on task, and how working at GameChanger has allowed her to do her best work — in the office and in the pursuit of her personal goals. Schell also shared how her wife helps her achieve balance, what being a contractor taught her about work and how women can advocate for themselves, even in structures not as understanding as GameChanger.
Tell me a bit about your current role. What are your priorities?
The function of my team is to empower everyone at GameChanger to answer questions with our data. What that means for me on a daily basis is deciding just how to do that — and managing the people who do that work. It involves a lot of understanding the needs, questions and concerns of different stakeholders in the company, then doing the coding and analysis to get the answers for them.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up and the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
First, I press snooze. Most days I will lay in bed, drink coffee and listen to a podcast with my wife. Then I go into work and I make more coffee. I’m usually one of the first people in, so it’s a good time to do work quietly for a few minutes.
At the end of the day, a lot of evenings I don’t get home until nine or 10, because New York is not a place you can stop by home if you live in Brooklyn. I’ll watch something or read, make food and fall asleep. I usually shower at some point, too.
What does “balance” mean to you, and in what ways do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
I think for me, in this moment, balance is not achieved on a daily basis but over the long run. It’s a function of how I like to work. Like, if I’m working on something I'm mentally engaged in, I want to keep working on it and leaving at five or six seems silly. But I think I balance that well when the work demands aren't there, leaving to go work out or sleeping in a little if I need to. At a minimum, I try to move my body and eat a vegetable, and if I'm doing that, I'm feeling pretty good no matter what else is happening.
What people, resources, and tools do you rely on to get it all done?
My wife helps me have fun and forces me to not look at Slack. And I have a partner in the sort of maintenance of living a life — feeding yourself and cleaning a house — so it’s half the burden. I also have this thing where I feel like I have to be productive, so setting non-work goals helps me do those things. I play basketball with a group of friends, so there's social accountability, which is fun. And I’m in a reading discussion group, which forces me to read and think about things I wouldn’t otherwise. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to push myself to do that my own.
What’s one misconception you think exists around work-life balance today?
I think this is more broad social commentary, but the discussion around work-life balance and “having it all” is centered on women. The implicit assumption is that women are doing all the work, and real workplace equality won’t exist until men aspire to be great dads and partners in addition to great employees. The having it all work-life balance tips and tricks are just that: tips and tricks. So, unless there's structural change, those sorts of things are fiddling at the margins.
Let’s talk about your company’s culture. What’s your favorite aspect of it, and how does your employer aid you in achieving balance?
I appreciate that we have a relatively flat organization and that there are a lot of mechanisms in place to have ideas percolate up. It’s not a “culture” in the typical sense, but our OKR process and stand-up and retrospective meetings are a really healthy way to work with each other. And I think people are always trying to improve those mechanisms. We had a meeting today where another manager asked how we should be handing interpersonal information and how to communicate it in useful ways.
What’s something you think most people (perhaps even current employees) don’t know about your company that you think they should?
I think I have a unique perspective because this is my first job in tech, but having worked in places that are very hierarchical, I know that while there is efficiency there, it doesn’t always keep people happy or generate their best work like our culture does. We are really empowered here.
What’s been your favorite career mistake?
Right after grad school, I tried to be a self-employed contractor. I was doing it for 6 months or so and I learned a ton, but I also realized there is a ceiling to what you can teach yourself.
What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you would give to other women who want to excel professionally and personally?
Negotiate your salary. There are so many dummies making more money than you. I know money isn't everything, but it is a big part of why we work. And this is the advice I give to other people because I don’t do it well, but it’s ok to brag about yourself.
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