Every day I walked two miles to work, up and down the immense hills of San Francisco. During my walks I tried to anticipate how the day would go. Would I be crazy busy? Would I be able to do what they needed me to do? Was I capable of success?
Downtown, there was a relentless bustle of people crawling over streets and sidewalks, each with their own agenda, their list of Things to Do, their own thoughts and worries, pushing from place to place. Patterns were established: coffee and bagel purchase, perhaps a bottled water for later.
By nine I’d be settled in my tiny gray space, logged in and ready for action but with virtually nothing to do. I had to wait for Mike to show up to give me directives. He tended to show up around ten, face flushed, tense. I figured out why later: Every morning when you get in, the first hour is the toughest. You have a backlog of calls and customers to respond to. If you don’t give them a touch immediately, they will blow up later in the day and call your manager.
So Mike would stop by and give me a few things to do. Install this product. Run this example. Read this document. After a few days I started to come up with things to do on my own. Still, I was surprised by the lack of structure on the training program. Mike spent about an hour a day mentoring me, and the rest of the time he frantically worked on a set of customer problems that all needed resolution ASAP. I could see how stressed out he was, and I was getting nervous. I found that the nervousness was okay, actually — it helped me to focus on my training because I knew I was going to get thrown into the alligator pit soon enough. I wanted to be as ready as possible.
All of that being said, I was surprised at the slowness of the first month.
And things weren’t just slow for me. I looked around the office and it seemed like people weren’t really all that busy. I somehow had this idea that there should be endless physical activity and noise in an office, people rushing from place to place with stacks of papers, others passionately debating subjects in hallways, romance and backstabbing and life being lived. But when I looked around me, what I actually saw conflicted with my expectations. Folks sat at their cubes, stared at screens, and occasionally typed something or moved their mouse a bit. The heavy lifting of work was happening internally, inside peoples’ skulls. To an outside observer, these people looked relaxed and decidedly unhurried.
It was only later that I found out that the stress lives below the surface, invisible unless you’re looking for it. And of course you’re only looking for it once you already know it’s there. There are signs. Sign 1: Inability to talk about anything other than work for a minute or two. Sign 2: Rapid blinking, potentially accompanied by sweat on the forehead or upper lip. Sign 3: Too many browser windows open, none of them attached to time-wasting sites.
But in that first month, these tensions and pressures remained largely hidden to me. To my untrained eye, people looked lazy and happy. I found I would do training for a couple of hours and then, after my brain was tired from reading technical documents and looking at code, I would go outside to unwind a bit, watching people pass along the sidewalks, pigeons strutting around malls, sturdy buildings standing tall underneath an enduring expanse of sky.
At the time, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for this. I thought: Holy shit, this is the life. I have absolutely made it. Sure, it’s gonna be stressful, but that’s okay. I’m not afraid of a little hard work.
That thought didn’t last long.