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Career Advice

How This Working Mom Embraces a Parenting Balancing Act

Insight from Kensho's Danja Spoja

If you're on a Zoom call with Danja Spoja, you may notice the guitar that makes it into the frame.

It's there on purpose, she says. "It's a reminder for me to take a break and strum it," explains Danja.

That doesn't mean she actually does it all that often—"How many times have I done that? Four times," she says, laughing—since the Team Lead of API Services and mother of two is kept pretty busy.

But she keeps it there as a symbol of the balance between good intentions and what's actually possible. It reminds her to do her best but to not expect perfection.

We sat down with Danja to hear about how she approaches motherhood, and how she's navigated the pandemic as both a parent and a team lead at market data analytics firm Kensho.

Finding her path

Danja's first introduction to the world of programming came when her dad brought home a Commodore 64. "It was the thing back then, especially in my country where computers were not that common," explains Danja, who grew up in Croatia and came to the U.S. almost 30 years ago. "It was a dream of mine since I was a kid, to come to the United States," she says. "That dream was pushed into reality by the civil war that my country went through in the nineties. My parents felt it was a good opportunity for me to explore that dream a little closer."

There was a brief moment in childhood where she thought she might want to be a ballerina, but Danja ended up studying mathematics and computer science. "I loved the ballet, just not the pain and suffering," she says, laughing. Math was a better option: "I really enjoy writing code," explains Danja.

A part-time job at a software engineering company turned into a full-time role by the time she graduated college, and Danja explored various roles, deepening her technical understanding and taking on bigger and bigger scopes of work, until a Kensho recruiter reached out.

"Kensho sounded very interesting from a technical perspective, and when I came on site, I was really impressed by the people," says Danja. "They were amazing then—and they're still amazing today! My Kensho teammates are exceptionally talented and also such kind, respectful people."

Danja also liked how family friendly Kensho's culture was, since, as a mom of two, good work-life balance was especially important to her.

Creativity on and off the job

Part of Danja's job requires creative problem solving, collaborating with people across functions and projects to assist other teams and keep evolving her own. That same creative problem solving has been useful for her and her husband as they manage parenting during a pandemic.

Danja says she's grateful that her daughters, ages 15 and 9, are older. "It's been invaluable that they're that age; they're older and can take care of a lot of things by themselves," she explains.

Like many of us, Danja and her family have found ways to keep themselves entertained at home during this pandemic: baking and cooking, everything from empanadas to fresh bread; reading; enjoying the outdoors; experimenting with at-home haircuts (done mostly by her husband, who Danja says successfully gave their teenage daughter the Miley Cyrus-inspired mullet she'd been wanting); and playing piano.

Danja herself is a fan of Bach and is working on picking up some new classical pieces. Her younger daughter is learning the piano too, along with the violin, and her elder daughter is learning the guitar. It's part of Danja and her husband's deal with their kids. In a house where no one watches TV on weekdays, Danja's younger daughter can earn screen time on her personal device by practicing instruments. "15 minutes of instrument playing is 30 minutes of playing on the device," says Danja. "She's like, 'Okay, that's fair.' And I say, 'It's more than fair! It could be one to one instead of one to two,'" she says, smiling.

6 tips for working parents

Though Danja has plenty of tips to share, she's quick to note that she's not supermom, she doesn't have it all figured out, and she does not mean to suggest that it's all smooth sailing at the Spoja house all the time.

"I'm so keenly aware that this has been a really hard time," she says. "It's been hard for working parents for a long time, even before the pandemic."

But still, that disclaimer aside, Danja has some advice for other parents trying to balance their work ambitions with their family goals:

  1. Communicate openly. "Open, honest communication, whether it's to say 'I'm overwhelmed' or 'I need to step away,' has become even more important," says Danja. Remember that you're not alone, she adds, and that other people are probably struggling, too.
  2. Be kind to others. "Understand that we're all in the same predicament. If someone's having a hard time with something, it's not because they don't like working with you, it's likely because they have other outside things affecting them," she says. Showing kindness to each other can bring you even closer with your colleagues, she notes.
  3. Set boundaries between work and home. This works best with older children, notes Danja, who has an "on air" sign that she puts on her office door when she's not to be disrupted. "The kids know that they should only come in when the 'on air' sign is up if there is an emergency. And even then, they should first call 911, then come in," says Danja, laughing.
  4. Be clear on what your must-dos are. Danja uses a small notebook for this purpose. "I feel the pleasure of crossing things off," she says. At the end of every day, she writes down what she needs to take care of the next day, then updates it as she makes progress. "Sometimes I have a solution that's not yet implemented, but it's resolved in my head or in my little notebook, and that makes me think, 'Okay, I know what's going to happen tomorrow,'" she says.
  5. Set a routine. Her family's routine has become connecting at breakfast and lunch, with her daughters self-managing through school, then music and activities. For Danja, extending that routine all the way into what's for dinner has taken another thing off her daily to-do list. "It helps you in the middle of the day, since you're not going, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to feed my family?'" says Danja, whose family looks forward to homemade pizza on Fridays and burgers on Sundays, alongside other day-specific treats.
  6. Prioritize sleep. Sleep instead of watching more TV, and sleep instead of doomscrolling for another ten minutes. "Everyone knows how much sleep they need to run optimally," says Danja, who keeps her own doomscrolling to five minutes in the morning where she checks the news, including pandemic updates.

Danja's most important tip is less of a specific recommendation and more of a general way of being, and it's this: "Be honest with yourself. What is that balance of work and life that's acceptable to you?"

Personally, Danja recognizes that both her family and her career are important to her and that to manage each well, she needs a job that lets her focus on her family. For her, that means one with flexible hours that doesn't require extensive travel.

"Family is very important to me, so I've had to balance that with the types of choices I make professionally," she explains. "For some people it skews more heavily towards, 'I just want to be in the middle of it, working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.'. It's great. That's fine. That's the choice you make. You just have to understand that there will be sacrifices...and you have to make sure you have your support system in place."

Coming to Kensho made sense for Danja, who brought up in her first interview with her now-employer the fact that flexibility was important to her. She was excited to join based on the strength of her interviewer's response. "My values and Kensho's values are aligned," says Danja, "and that allows me to do well and to enjoy my work every day."

Learn more about Kensho and their open roles.

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