The Elusive Work-Life Balance


Sandra Benson, Amazon Web Services’ Worldwide Head of Engineering, Construction & Real Estate, and and Compass CIO, Nancy Novak, discuss in this episode how female professionals can go about finding the ideal work-life balance.

Nancy Novak: Welcome to the first edition of Breaking Glass, brought to you by Compass Datacenters and Infrastructure Masons. I’m Nancy Novak, your host. And today we’re joined by worldwide head of engineering, construction, and real estate at Amazon Web Services, Sandra Benson. Sandra, thank you for joining us today.

Sandra Benson: It’s a pleasure. I appreciate being the initial guest. So thank you very much for the honor.

Nancy Novak: This should be a very exciting series, and it’s really wonderful to have you kick it off for us.

Sandra Benson: Aw, thank you.

Nancy Novak: So today, folks, we’re going to be talking about the elusive work-life balance. And trust me, I’ve met Sandra for some time, and this should be a very intriguing and entertaining conversation. Being in the construction industry as a female, I think, has a lot of challenges. And striking that elusive balance is one of those challenges. So Sandra and I have known each other for some time. And I’m just going to be asking her a series of questions, and we’re just going to see where it takes us. So I would have to say, just to start us out, frame this, Sandra, what is your idea of work-life balance?

Sandra Benson: Well, I was thinking about this. If you’d asked me that 20 years ago, I’d probably have a different answer than I do now. But so for me at this point in my career, I really think that I try to check in myself on a Friday afternoon, like, “Okay, how do I feel? Do I feel like I really gave myself any personal time? Or was I just on calls all the time? And how do I feel?” And then Sunday night has always been, not before I go to bed, but in the evening Sunday nights, I usually look ahead at my week and say, “Okay, here’s what I got Monday, Tuesday,” that kind of thing. And I’m really trying hard, and I’m not good at it, but I’m getting better at really trying to look at and see, “Okay, Am I working from 8:00 in the morning till 2:00 AM because I’m talking to someone, in Australia? What can I do?”

Sandra Benson: And I’d like to say I work towards a 50/50, but that would not be honest. I’m probably more a 70/30 person, as it relates to work. And the pandemic, ironically has… Well, I thought that would actually make it better, because actually, I don’t know about for you, but it’s made it actually a lot worse. I find I work all the time. Not that I didn’t work a lot, but I don’t know. It seems like every minute is booked.

Nancy Novak: Sure.

Sandra Benson: Yeah. And I used to travel. All my roles in the last 20 some odd years have been global. So I don’t think I really recognized how having just that time on a plane, or just being away, seeing something different… The pandemic’s changed a lot of things for me. I always thought it’d be nice to have a break from travel, but now I’m like, “Can I just please go somewhere, anywhere?”

Nancy Novak: [crosstalk 00:03:13] Right?

Sandra Benson: Yeah, yeah. So, yeah, I don’t know. That’s how I do it now. If I was in my 20s, I don’t think I had much of a work-life balance. I mean, I know you and I have had fairly similar career paths. And I don’t think the word work-life balance even meant anything. I was just straight on. I worked full-time, went to school at night. I don’t think there was a balance. It was just work.

Nancy Novak: We have very similar backgrounds. You’re right about that. But I was really intrigued. When I talked with you last week, Sandra, you mentioned something that I’ve been practicing this week that I would love for you to share with the audience, and that is how you start your days.

Sandra Benson: Okay. Sure. So I’ve been one of those people that I’ve always heard these great things about meditation. And so many friends are like, “Oh, meditation has just changed my life.” And for me, it never worked. I would sit in the room and close my eyes and try to focus on my breathing and set the timer for 20 minutes. I’d look at my watch and be like, “It’s a minute and a half.” So it just never worked. And I still think it’s great as a goal that I’m working towards. But as part of Amazon during this time, we were given the opportunity to have Headspace. And it’s not advertisement for that particular application. There’s lots of them, but there’s another one that I use that has a morning meditation, and it’s five minutes.

Sandra Benson: The old me would just get up. And literally before I got to bed, I would be looking at my phone, like, “Okay,” seriously. Now the first thing I do is I just turned that on in the morning, and it’s five minutes. So I figure anyone can do five minutes, right? And normally, I hit this snooze button, so I figured five minutes snooze, five minute meditation is about the same thing. But it’s really a good way. It sort of sets you off in a nice, balanced way. It’s a new day, forget what happened yesterday. So for me, that’s my all I’ve been able to do as far as real meditation. I do think there’s a lot of benefit to it. Five minutes is about all I can do.

Nancy Novak: I think the five minutes is key because, like you said, we’re always eager to get on with the day. But I will tell you, Sandra, I was very happy you shared that with me, because the guided meditation, in that short period of time, it does set you in that right tone. And on top of that, it gives you these affirmations to really try to remember during the day. So I appreciate that. Any kind of tip like that for me is really golden, because I’m the same as you. I have a hard time shutting my brain down, and I think a lot of women do.

Sandra Benson: I do too. I think one of the things that makes us great at what we do is we are fabulous. And I think this is genetics really, but we are great at multitasking. And our brains therefore, at least mine, is multitasking all the time. And I don’t even want it to, but it’s going like this all the time. So it just forces me. And it’s five minutes, and I really don’t think many people can say, “Okay, I don’t have five minutes,” particularly before you even wake up. So yeah, and I’m happy to share the link that I shared with you. It’s just one I use, but I’m sure there’s lots and lots of them out there.

Nancy Novak: Great advice, great advice.

Sandra Benson: Good, good, I’m glad it’s working for you.

Nancy Novak: Since we’re both in, not just construction, but the tech industry, I wanted to ask what you kind of thought about, as far as specific challenges, to strike some balance in your work and your life that face women, but in the tech industry specifically.

Sandra Benson: Yeah. I think, for me, and this may sound like it’s going to get back to answer your question, but I know technology has obviously changed so much, where industry 1.0, 2.0, 3… The technology is changing so much and so rapidly that I know for me, I started off, thankfully, not in mainframes. I’m not that old, but the mini computers and then client server and all these kinds of things. And I think, I always felt like I had to keep up on the latest thing. I had to know what was happening. I had to be up on all the latest technology, because, heaven forbid, somebody might ask me a question that I couldn’t answer. And that comes back to work-life balance, because I found that I have my real job, so to speak what I do during the day, but then in the evenings, I’m trying to keep up on everything, all the latest trends, what’s going on, all that stuff.

Sandra Benson: So my work was balanced really heavily, and I had a little bit of life on the other side. Since then, and I hope a lot of people really think about this, and I think once you get to be more senior, Nancy like you and I, it’s like I realized I don’t have to know everything. I mean, I really don’t. That’s what I have a team for. And what I really try to think of at this point in my career is working with my customers on what kind of outcome do they want and help guide them in that way. It doesn’t mean I need to be totally ignorant of the detailed technology, but I don’t have to be the expert on everything. And it’s okay to say, “That’s right. This is where we want to go. Let me bring in this person, who is an AIML specialist,” or something. But not that many years ago, I would have felt like if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to a client. I’m much better. And I will say that that’s given me a little bit more time to focus on the life side of the work-life balance. So it’s just a suggestion that works in my world.

Nancy Novak: No, it’s very, very valid. I was thinking about that as you were saying that in the construction industry, because, as you move through your career, what the young people are learning about in technology, whatever software they’re using to lay out projects and things like that, those are products that the older folks aren’t going to necessarily go learn, but they’re still going to know how to apply them. So having that intimate knowledge on how to use something is not necessarily the same as knowing how to apply it or when to bring in those folks that are experts on using the technology. Because you’re right, it changes rapidly. It’s very, very exponential. But I do know that you and I talked again about having more time for your life side. And I think as we get older in our careers, that we value that more than anything, and time becomes more important. And you have some very amazing ways to completely disconnect that I was very jealous of. And I want you to explain what that means.

Sandra Benson: Okay. So first of all, what works for me may not work for other people, but, as we just talked about, I can’t just do a regular meditation. I have to do a guided one, because I can’t shut my mind off. So I really found that I needed to do something that I really had to focus on, or I’m going to hurt myself. Couple of those things that I do, I do aerial silks with a Cirque du Soleil kind of thing, aerial yoga. And I love that. I’ve been teaching Pilates for over 20 years and absolutely loved that. But this gives me a different thing. I’m up in the air, obviously anti-gravity, because you’re laying back. The silk, they’re supporting you. But you also know that if you don’t focus completely on that, you’re going to fall 20 feet and break your head.

Sandra Benson: So somehow or another, that forces you, or at least forces me, to focus on only that. And then of course, I have the whole totally opposite world, which is I’ve always loved motorcycles and fast cars. So I have a Harley, and that’s another area that is a 910-pound bike. So it’s also one that I can’t be thinking about, “Well, I wonder what the new technology is or what my clients… ” I mean, I’m just thinking about not killing myself when I’m going around a corner or something like that. So those are things for those of us who are, I don’t know what the right word is, type-A, but our mind is just going lots of times. So I find something that really forces me to concentrate [crosstalk 00:12:08]

Nancy Novak: When you said that to me, I was like… Because I used to try to explain it to my kids. It’s like so that is a way that forces you to be in the moment. Right?

Sandra Benson: Mm-hmm (affirmative), right.

Nancy Novak: So you’re fully present in the moment, which means you’re disconnected from the other things that are distracting. And in today’s world, it’s so easy to always be distracted. It really is, so I think that’s great advice. Even though aerial silks might not be for everybody, there are activities out there that can force you to have that ability to be able to disconnect and focus and be in the moment. I wish I wouldn’t have those examples of when my kids were younger, because I remember telling them… They would rush, rush, rush, rush to this and that. And I was like, “Try to think about being in the moment.” Of course, I was a terrible example of that, so it was hard.

Sandra Benson: I can’t imagine that you were, but I know for me it was easy to say, “Live in the moment,” but I don’t. I had someone tell me once. It was really interesting. It’s like looking backwards is depression, and looking forward triggers anxiety. And so I’ve tried to sort of remember that, but I’m not good at it. But something I did learn and I really focus on it, sometimes I get really stressed. I’m in a meeting, or something’s not going well, and it’s really particularly hard right now. Amy and I, Amy is a friend of ours, we were both doing a keynote, and my internet went out in the middle of the keynote, which is pretty challenging. And I was struggling, and my stress level was up. And somebody had taught me this, and it was like, “Okay, Sandra is Wednesday. It is 4:25, and everything’s okay.” It’s just a little reminder that, “Okay.”

Nancy Novak: [crosstalk 00:14:05].

Sandra Benson: And then, I say that to myself. So they’re little tricks, but they’re the only thing that works for me. Some people may do gardening. But I think the other thing that’s fun with ariel silks is it’s sort of that concept of follow your bliss. Honestly, I didn’t know what my bliss was. I just remember going to see Cirque du Soleil probably 10, 12 years ago and just thought, “That looks so cool. I really wish I could do that.” And then some [inaudible 00:14:34] back and said, “Hm, I don’t know why I couldn’t do that. Let me see if I can find… ” So I don’t think it’s ever too late. I won’t tell you how old I was in that case, but we’ll say I was certainly over 40, and it’s okay.

Nancy Novak: [crosstalk 00:14:50].

Sandra Benson: Yeah.

Nancy Novak: … try new things, and that’s exciting too. And you probably have met new people in that, world. And so I’m sure that that also is very rewarding.

Sandra Benson: Yeah. It’s a different world. I promise you hanging out with people that work in the circus is totally different than people who work in construction and technology. I mean, their lifestyles are like… They just don’t stress. I don’t think I’m good enough to run away and join the circus, but it does kind of give me a different perspective, so [inaudible 00:15:25]

Nancy Novak: Yeah. And I’m a people person, so I think people from all walks of life teach us things, so I think that’s fantastic. I do have a question that’s off the chart. So when we talk about why life balance is important, I mean, I think there’s some obvious things about why this is important to us. Right?

Sandra Benson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nancy Novak: But I feel like there’s a difference between how we view it, through our lenses as women, and how men view it through their lenses. Not that it’s not important to men, but I think there’s just a different viewpoint. Do you agree? Or what are your thoughts on that?

Sandra Benson: Yeah, I do. I think that those things are merging more. I don’t think is as separate as it used to be. It’s not the husband goes off and works and comes home and says, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” which knowing me would never work. So I don’t think it’s that anymore. Sorry. I guess what I do think is that we feel so responsible. It’s hard to turn off. It’s somewhat like what we talked about before, but I think there’s a piece of it as little girls we’re people pleasers. And I think generally, I’m sure that’s not true for all, but most women I know really kind of are. And because of that, we want to do everything we can to help other people. And I had someone tell me a long time ago, and I really liked it, and it was like, “There’s nothing more important to you than you’re being happy.” And I thought, “That’s a really selfish way to look at life. I mean, I should be giving this and volunteering there.”

Sandra Benson: And their point was really very valid. It’s sort of like the airplane air mask thing, but it’s really true, which is if you’re not happy, you really can’t give much to anyone else. Men, maybe they just know that. I don’t know. I mean, maybe we should have a man on here to ask that, but I think that-

Nancy Novak: [inaudible 00:17:29].

Sandra Benson: It just seems they’re a lot easier. I mean, how many times have you come home, and husband’s been working, and he’s tired and he just zones out watching TV, and he’s asleep in 10 minutes. And I’m sitting there going, “Okay, I got this to do and that to do and that to do.” Maybe it’s a sleep gene. I don’t know.

Nancy Novak: I did find it fascinating how quickly my husband can fall asleep. I’m always fascinated by that. But I do agree with your introduction statement that they’re blending more. And I do think that because society is changing that you’re going to see more of that. And I think that is great, because I think men want to be at the ball games and with their kids. A lot of them, thank God, love to cook, so there’s no reason why we can’t normalize that a little bit more. And then you’re going to see, I think, behaviors that are more similar, which is great, which is really great. So [crosstalk 00:18:24]-

Sandra Benson: I’m sorry, just one other point on that, because I hear so much trashing of the millennials. And personally, I don’t really like that term. But you hear that, “Oh, they’re really not interested in working hard or any of that,” but I don’t think that necessarily. What I do think is they have a much stronger understanding and appreciation of life. We work to live; we don’t live to work. So when I hear people trashing millennials, I’m like, “Well, maybe they actually are onto something that might’ve been good for us to have thought about.”

Nancy Novak: I am with you 100%. They want to have meaning in their life, and they want to feel like they’re contributing, and they want it to be more holistic. A lot of it, I’m very forgiving in every generation, because different circumstances just breed different ways to feel about stuff. But I think that’s a very, very good comment that you made. I do have one that I am hoping is going to be a lively conversation here. And that is when we talk about work-life balance being a priority, do you see this in the business world leading us to a more inclusive environment in both the construction and the tech world?

Sandra Benson: Okay. Well, and I’ll probably speak more to construction, because I grew up in construction with technology, but I still think of myself more as construction. So I do think so. I think, just even the added [inaudible 00:20:03] we just spoke about, I think that work-life balance thing allows women to think that they can do pretty much anything that they want. And so I think all that part is really good. But also, I can’t think of many good things about the pandemic, to be honest with you. But one thing I do think is interesting is it allows people to work when they may not have been able to before. Not that they could not before the pandemic, but it’s much more acceptable now. So geographic issues are sometimes a challenge or cultural issues. People are in different countries. And in different countries, the roles of men and women are not the same. We somewhat take that for granted a little bit here in the States, I think.

Nancy Novak: Oh yeah, [inaudible 00:20:56]

Sandra Benson: Yeah, so I think, this whole idea of being able to work remotely, that probably is more on the technology side, but it doesn’t have to be. I mean, virtual desktop in construction or design and that kind of thing. So I think that that is very helpful. And I don’t know how to say this, but also we’re living longer. And we’re working longer. And hopefully most people are working longer, because they enjoy what they’re doing. And I think technology allows us to bring people in from different experiences, so we’re seeing, as you know, in construction. It used to be you would never rise up in construction unless you grew up in construction and technology. But now, we’re beginning to see people from other industries come into this industry and say, “Well, wait, why is it that way? Why does it always have to be that way?” So they have a different view.

Sandra Benson: Definitely things like Alexa or Siri, any of those kinds of things, but think about if you an executive in the hospitality travel area industry, you come in and you’re like, “Well.” You could come into an AWS or any type of technology company and come in with some really great ideas that we wouldn’t necessarily think about, like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do this, this or that,? Or-

Nancy Novak: Sometimes it’s even better, isn’t it, to get someone who’s not, I guess, conditioned in a certain way. Yeah. That’s amazing. Yeah, I was actually thinking. I think you and I talked about this last week, but technology and construction, right? When I was at school, I had a minor in construction technology. What it meant was the science of building, not digital technology. I mean, gosh, when I started, there were no computers on the job site. There was no such thing as an app. So technology itself, the word and the term has changed and it means something so different now than it used to. And I do hope that technology allows us to become more inclusive. I mean, I really do. And I hope that some of the large firms are seeing the value in having that inclusive workforce and trying to normalize more of the family leave and other things that might make it more possible for, not just women, but men, to be able to take care of an elderly parent or a spouse or or their family. Right?

Sandra Benson: Yeah. People think that it’s just the people have children, but in today’s world, I mean can’t tell you how many people that are in sort of that sandwich, where the kids are maybe just now leaving or haven’t left yet and their… I mean, those people are struggling. And that’s a challenge. So specifically technology in construction, which is I know something that’s near and dear to both of our hearts… I think I was talking to Peggy one day. I called it the dusty job site. Everyone used to think of it as the dirty job site. But technology is actually allowing people, autonomous vehicles, and that kind of thing, to sit in a construction trailer and to move three or four dump trucks at a time. And for them, it’s like playing a video game or whatever it is. So it’s more productive. It’s safer. And as you know, we’re facing labor shortages. And I think in that case, you start seeing some more inclusivity as well. So there’s still perceptions we have to work on in construction. I think other areas of technology, we’re a lot further along, but construction is a little behind, so.

Nancy Novak: I’m hopeful. I’m a glass-is-half-full person. I’m hopeful that… It’s been a few decades that we’ve stayed status quo related to things like production, which is really why Amazon sought you out is to become more productive. And part of doing that is being innovative, which is what I do. And to be innovative, you need all different thoughts. You need a diversity of thought, a diversity of experience, diversity of background, because otherwise you leave a lot of talent on the sidelines. And that’s one of the things I find fascinating too. This is not a question to be covered, but I’m curious about it. So I built data centers, and Amazon does a lot of data centers. Data centers is a one of those interesting businesses, because it’s not that old compared to construction. I’m pretty sure you and I both remember when you build a building and you have a computer room in it with a CRAC unit. And the computer room was the data center for the facility. There was no enterprise data center. There was no on-premise specific data center. There was no cloud for sure. And there definitely wasn’t an edge product.

Sandra Benson: Right. That’s right.

Nancy Novak: So as I look at the tech world and I think they’ve rapidly changed and improved, and I’m really hopeful that we’re going to be able to learn from that as the construction industry.

Sandra Benson: I think so. And I think that’s also where even people, and in this case we’re talking about inclusivity, whether that’s women or anything else is, is some of the best… Actually, this came up in the conference that you were involved with this week. But it’s like, “Where do you find the best analytics people?” Because it’s all about data, and we’ve known that for a hundred years. But no one says, “You should go to the construction sciences people,” necessarily. Find someone who specializes in analytics. I mean, think about your son, that really specialize in analytics. And analytics for construction is still analytics. It’s data. And it’s giving us where we are and hopefully predictive, and then hopefully prescriptive. So, I think that’s going to open the door, at least in our industry a little bit more as well, where these people are just data scientists. And they can pretty much pick up and move from different industries and, to a large extent, can come in with broader visions.

Nancy Novak: Yep. Yeah, the transferable skills are there. I do agree with you. I think that is going to help us to be able to think more inclusively and bring more talent in from areas that we hadn’t sought talent before. So I think that’s super exciting and hopeful. So, just to kind of wrap it up, Sandra, is there anything that you want to touch on specifically? So impart some words of wisdom on, not just why it’s so important, but how do you set boundaries or how do you achieve this ideal balance? And is there such a thing as an ideal balance, I guess?

Sandra Benson: Well, I think that might be the more interesting question. I honestly don’t know that you really can. This is controversial, but it’s what I think. I think it’s incredibly hard to have a true ideal balance. I really do. I think that you can get pretty close. Do I think you can ever have 50/50, maybe. If someone has been able to figure that out, I’d love to learn from them. And what I mean by that is I think at the end of a month or a quarter or something, you can say, “Well, was my life pretty balanced?” But you really can’t look at it every day and go, “Okay, four hours a day is my life. And four hours a day is my work.” So I try, and I know you you’re the same, I love my job. I think have the best job in the world.

Sandra Benson: So to a large extent, what I do is still part of my life because I enjoy it. And I think that’s important to start with, but, I don’t know. I know for me, when I was a little girl, and this is horrible, but I grew up in the South and the South is quite different. And I had wonderful parents, and my mother used to always say, “Well, come on in here, honey. And I’ll teach you how to cook,” or sew a button on or whatever. And I remember being this obstinate little girl, which probably some people would still say I am. And I’m like, “No, I am never going to cook. I’m never going to sew. I’m not going to be a house wife. I’m going to be a big executive flying around the world and live in a big high rise in a big city.”

Sandra Benson: And I thought it was so interesting, here I am. That’s what I do. I still don’t know how to cook or sew a button on, but I’ve done all the other things. And I bring that up, because I don’t think you should get stuck in that. But I do think, and you have a daughter and I think your son… I don’t know for me, I had sort of vision, I guess, as a little girl, what I thought I wanted, and it’s worked for me. But I also think that, maybe for some people, maybe they think they want to go down maybe a different path, and they can change. I think that’s a good thing about our world now. You’re not pigeon-holed in. You can-

Nancy Novak: A little bit more flexible. Yeah. I mean, you have a self fulfilling prophecy basically. And I love the fact that… I don’t want to underestimate the fact that from the era that we both came from, to really buck the system that way, was pretty amazing. And you’re right. But having had that vision that you had allowed you to fulfill your dreams. And so I think, I think go big, go bold, and dream big with that, and be disruptive. I think that’s what you present to the younger working generation. I think it might be a little bit easier nowadays, because it’s more normal, but it’s still a struggle, especially in our industry. So I feel very encouraged, and I’m hoping that the audience feels encouraged that construction’s for everybody.

Sandra Benson: It is.

Nancy Novak: Sandra Meyers and I have had fascinating careers. It’s an industry you never stop learning in, right?

Sandra Benson: No.

Nancy Novak: You never stop learning. And if you’re a learner and you like people, I highly recommend it. [crosstalk 00:31:37]

Sandra Benson: I have to thank you, because we got such great… Honestly, for me, probably for you, in the early days, I don’t really felt like… I mean, I don’t want to call them mentors, but I didn’t really have a lot of people that were in similar situations. So, people like you, we can sit and have a conversation. We don’t even have to have questions. We can just sit and talk, because we’ve lived it. And it’s nice to have that. And I know you do a lot of work with this. I do the community construction at Georgia Tech. I try to show, in this case, women that you can be as feminine as you want to be. You can wear pink. You can have blonde hair. You can do whatever you want to do. And those restrictions really aren’t there. And I loved that this is called Breaking Glass. I like to hope that you and I maybe made little cracks in the glass, so that you don’t have to break it, but you still got to keep knocking on it. And I hope those people to reach out to us. That’s actually what enjoy right now more than anything.

Nancy Novak: Yeah, no, I agree. I mean, the glass symbolizes this invisible barrier that we want to make, not just… Invisible, yes, but a barrier, no. So that’s the hope, and I really do appreciate all the work that you do, Sandra, because you’re one of my dear friends. I feel very good about our future in the business. It’s a great time. It’s a great crossroads in a time for us to make some good, positive change. So just in closing, I just want to thank everyone for tuning into this edition of Breaking Glass. Make sure to follow Compass Datacenters and Infrastructure Masons on social media. And please stay up to date for our next edition. Thank you so much, Sandra.

Sandra Benson: Thank you, Nancy. I appreciate it. Good to talk to you.

Nancy Novak: Great talking to you too.