I’m a Tech Leader and Recording Musician — How I Manage Both Roles, Even During Stressful Times

Sponsored by Columbia University Information Technology

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Fairygodboss
April 16, 2024 at 7:30PM UTC

Kirsten Thien, Senior Manager of the Grants Management System at Columbia University Information Technology, has been considering dualities. As a results-driven techie and a creative-minded musician, she lives a dual life that she’s even explored in her songwriting.

“I don’t feel like I have a typical day,” she told us. “This was true even before the pandemic, as I am a musician who, for years, has juggled a music career alongside my life in technology management. It seems like the two wouldn’t go together but somehow, these two integral parts of my life have always complemented each other well, even as the combination doesn’t lend toward any day being much like another.”

Thien has had a lot on her plate between tracking grant proposals and awards for Columbia and performing music (albeit virtually) these days. Thanks to the supportive Columbia community, her partner and her passions, she’s been able to find comfort in the fluidity of life. Here, she talks to us about managing her very different days, navigating challenges during this “new normal,” and taking a breath every now and then.

Tell me a bit about your current role. What are your priorities? 

My primary mission at Columbia University IT is working with our Sponsored Projects Administration office and managing Columbia’s Grants Management System. Our system tracks the highly regulated government and private grant proposals and awards, and it’s key to the flow of almost $1 billion of funds into the university for sponsored projects. Our priority right now is reducing administrative burden, as well as leveraging data to guide operational and strategic decisions. 

Paint a picture of a typical day for me. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up and the last thing you do before you go to sleep?

I don’t feel like I have a typical day! This was true even before the pandemic, as I am a musician who, for years, has juggled a music career alongside my life in technology management. It seems like the two wouldn’t go together but somehow, these two integral parts of my life have always complemented each other well, even as the combination doesn’t lend toward any day being much like another.

I’ve been exploring lots of ‘dualities’ these days and the latest album is indeed called Two Sides, with the songs arranged along the theme of exploring dualities. On the one hand, in technology management, we are problem solvers and results-driven. There is a tremendous, objective satisfaction of working with a team to build something with set requirements and a set goal — especially when it’s completed on schedule, too! In music, the scope or goal of any project is subjective at best. Some of the most magical musical moments I’ve experienced came from the unexpected. Over time, I’ve learned to leave room for that when collaborating creatively.

But if there is one thing that’s typical each day, it’s needing to check my schedule first thing in the morning (including my goals for evening work) and as the last thing I do before turning off devices for the night. Just quickly stepping through the list at each of these times helps me mentally prepare for the day ahead. 

What does balance mean to you, and in what ways do you feel like you’ve achieved it?

Balance, to me, is an active verb — with motion. It means always making adjustments as required. It’s exciting and never a dull moment! With that in mind, I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve it! I’ll just keep getting more comfortable knowing that life is fluid, that we will lose our balance and fall at times, and that we are learning at every turn.

Attaining work-life balance can’t be done solo. What people, resources, and tools do you rely on to get it all done?

I’m so lucky to have a strong partner and support in my husband. The days can be such a flurry of activity, especially now that we are both working from home all day and we have been in the process of promoting our latest album release, which just came out on vinyl!

But to put a cap on the work day, we will often sit for about an hour and decompress with a glass of wine and just chat. I am also lucky to have a group of supportive friends and loved ones who I depend on for sharing both laughs and tears. Sometimes, with friends who feel the stress of teaching high school, or raising kids, or generating freelance work right now, we find common ground in the fact that we can’t get it all done. So, the important thing is to choose what we will get done now, as we are swimming against a current of sorts and have to allow for that. 

How have you had to adjust your schedule during the COVID-19 crisis?

In my technology position, my schedule hasn’t changed drastically (after the initial flurry). However, as a musician and highly social person, it has changed immensely. We had worked up to about 50 shows a year and 2020 was shaping up to be packed. In lieu of hours in the car, setting up the stage, performing and then hanging with the band or the fans, we have been learning video editing, setting up a home-sound-stage and trying to find ways to connect meaningfully with audiences through technology. 

While it’s not at ALL the same as performing in person, we are reaching people in disparate geographical locations that we wouldn’t have been able to reach in the best of the pre-COVID touring world. We did a show for the West Coast a couple weeks ago and the next day (for me on the East Coast), I saw a post from a friend in The Netherlands watching with her one-year-old at 5 a.m.! That was really fun. So, while we leave our home a lot less, we are casting a broader net with the help of technology. 

What resources or support has Columbia University IT offered you during the crisis? 

Just being part of the Columbia University community has been a great comfort during this time. The research community began forums (many publicly available on YouTube) that were a source of direct — even preliminary — information that I could put my trust in to guide my actions and my outlook.

In addition, our Office of Work Life, Office of Student Life, Campus COVID Task Force and our own department’s HR and Talent Services staff made great efforts to keep people informed and engaged. It has really felt like Columbia led from the top and has given every level of management the tools and the empowerment to rise to this occasion. 

What has been the biggest challenge for you as you are navigating this ‘new normal’?

The hardest part for me has been letting go of the plans we had for 2020 and 2021, and not being able to solidly plan for an in-person future. In every aspect of our lives, we have all had to learn to become more flexible, to compromise and, really, to lower our expectations somewhat. I sorely miss the personal interaction with others — at the office, at rehearsals, before and after shows, at a party with friends. 

At the same time, I can see a few silver linings and am looking forward to making use of our time at home this winter. The adjustments in the Spring of 2020 included dealing with the shock of the situation. The length of time our restricted motion has continued makes the coming months challenging. But, in absence of the shock of the situation, I am hoping to be able to set this as a time for growth and creativity. 

What is your favorite way to destress outside of work? 

Sometimes work IS the de-stressor — especially when presented with a complex but solvable problem. So much in our lives right now is out of our control, which is so stressful. Give me a challenging work task to dive into and that can be the greatest escape! Aside from that, I’m enjoying biking, walking around my neighborhood, cooking new foods, crossword puzzles galore and, of course, Friday night (or any night) dance parties!

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