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Tech Workers Manage Complex Balance of Work, Education and Home

And even if employees decide not to go back to school for formal education, more companies are offering Web-based training courses at no cost to the worker.

The catch? Managers, especially those at consulting and e-services shops that bill clients by the hour, require that the learning go on outside the regular business day. Which creates a bind for workers eager to stay at the top of their game but loath to further extend their work schedule.

It's a problem that can be managed with the help of colleagues and friends, says Michael Smith, president of Rockville's TeraTech Inc., a programming and consulting firm.

"It's impossible to keep up with all the new stuff in an area," says Smith. "You must specialize and network with friends that know other areas."

Smith recommends spending time with like-minded programmers who get together for monthly meetings and exchange e-mails and instant messages about vexing technical problems. He runs one such "user group" for fans of ColdFusion, software that helps link Web sites with databases.

"It's a chance to get real work info from fellow programmers rather than out-of-date book info," says Smith.

Lisa King knows how to juggle. She balances her full-time job at Arlington's WestLake Internet Training with researching her master's thesis in science and technology studies at Virginia Polytechnic. She also volunteers and handles consulting projects. Her solution to the time crunch? Decide upon your interests and find a way to fit the rest of your life around them. For instance, King will write her thesis on gender issues in online communities--something she observes up close as president of the nonprofit group D.C. Web Women.

"By integrating your life and activities around a core set of values, you gravitate toward the things that matter most to you, and then you don't have so many issues of balance," she says.

The decisions that technology workers make today need not be set in stone, says Helene King, a psychologist and the chief executive of COPE, a D.C. human resources consulting firm. While some tech workers enter a bargain to work ungodly hours in the months preceding their employer's initial public offering or a new product launch, they should make management understand that their priorities can change over time.

"The longer term has got to be a value judgment about where I find time for my family, my friends, for growing and learning not necessarily connected to the job," King says. "People and companies need to be able to shift gears."

Instant Reply

E-mail keeps coming in about a recent column focusing on the Peter Principle. Apparently some readers have run into one incompetent tech worker too many. Writes Chris Euell, a recruiter in eastern Massachusetts: "I am overcome with bile in my throat every time I stumble across a candidate (I use that term loosely) who has obviously reaped the monetary rewards of salary creep, and doesn't even realize how lucky and overpaid they are. I look forward to the market correction, and there will be a correction, and only the truly learned and talented will prevail."

How do you balance the competing pressures of family, training, and a career in the technology industry? Send your experiences to johnsonca@washpost.com.

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