How much vacation time did you take last year? If you're like most workers in the States, it was probably less than 3 weeks. That's all your company will give you, right?
3 weeks is the amount of PAID vacation your employer will compensate you for. The actual amount you take has nothing to do with that number. In practice, the amount of vacation time you can take is directly related to your value to the company. And let me give you a little hint: You are a lot more valuable to your employer than they are to you.
I stumbled across this idea early in my career, and didn't even realize it. I was about 3 years out of school, working as an environmental engineer at a big consulting firm. It was the mid-90's, at the height of the downsizing era. Morale was low and people were leaving the company fast.
One day, I was looking at a little backpack I owned and it occurred to me that I could probably fit enough in that pack to live on for 3 months if I wanted to. Hmm… I hear the climbing in Southern France is pretty good. Maybe I'll look into a flight…
Two days later, ticket in hand, I strolled into the office of my department head. I caught the flash of exasperation on his face before he greeted me (he was fielding about one resignation a week at this point, so he probably expected the worst). "Don't worry," I said. "I'll be coming back in August."
That was it. No begging, pleading or anything. Just a bit of shuffling to make sure my plate was clean before heading out, and that was that. Life at the company didn't skip a beat, and 3 months later I picked up where I left off just like I would have after a week in Cancun.
At first, I figured that this must have been a special case. The company was in tough shape, and I was in a unique position to take advantage. Turns out though, that I kept finding myself in this position of advantage time and again over the years. So much so, that it finally dawned on me just how valuable a good employee really is to an organization.
Cut to 3 years later, and I'm on a small, tight programming team for a little dot-com startup. I've been there for almost a year, and it's time for a bit of R&R in Central America. 6 weeks off should just about do it. So I sit down with the boss, and start listening to the old "yeah… we're kind of in crunch mode right now… I'm not sure we can spare you for even 3 weeks, let alone Six…", so I just cut it short:
"Well, I'd really hoped I would be able to come back when I was done. I really like this company, and it's too bad to hear that I'll have to be leaving…"
And that was that. The tone of the meeting turned on a dime, and the next day I had a 4-week leave of absence approved and tacked on to my 2 week vacation request.
So here's the one thing you need to take away from this:
You are more valuable to your employer than they are to you.
It is nearly impossible to hire a good developer. Talk to anybody that's ever had to do any hiring in this industry and they'll tell you that there are simply no good candidates out there. It will take at least 6 months effort to hire a developer that can find his arse with both hands. If you are already in the door and delivering code, you can be assured that your company does not want to lose you. Sure, they'll do their best to make it sound like they don't care about you. They might even utilize the industry standard "Layoffs Are Coming!!! Panic NOW!!!" motivational techniques. But believe me, if push comes to shove, they'll find a way to keep you.
Tell them you're planning to take 2 months off. Don't ask. Tell them. Make it clear that you're going to go regardless of whether there's a job waiting when you get back. They'll accommodate you. Trust me.
A few Caveats to the above:
- You're not going to get paid for those 2 months off. You'll get the first 2 weeks or whatever paid for, but from there on out it's just a leave of absence. You'll need to save up a pile of cash ahead of time. If you've dug yourself so far into debt that you can't float along a measly 2 months without pay, I guess you're out of luck.
- This only works once every couple years. Don't get into the habit of storming into the boss's office every 3 months demanding another month off. You'll soon find yourself with all the free time you need.
- This only works if you are actually good at what you do. Take a quick self assessment first: Can you code your way out of a sack? Honestly? Cool, go for it then.
- This only works if you are prepared for the possibility that your employer will call your bluff. You may very well end up without a job as a result of doing this. If the prospect of having to look for work is that scary to you, then you should probably just sit tight and book that 5 night package holiday to The Bahamas. But then, if the idea of unemployment is really that scary, it's likely that you were fibbing a bit on that self assessment above. Jobs are plentiful for the truly skilled.
February 28, 2007