Snapshots of Life
I get up at six twenty and I’m exercising by 6:30, still half asleep. This is usually the best part of my day. From seven twenty to seven forty I’m getting ready for work, then I’m doing the 1 mile commute to the office. I have an 8AM meeting to discuss open issues with our Operations staff and I can’t be late. During this period, I’m thinking tired, pessimistic thoughts, like: I can’t believe I’m starting another week already. It never ends. I’m sure you know how this goes.
After the Operational meeting we have a team meeting with Cthulhu. We go around the room and talk about what we’re working on and what needs to be accomplished by the end of the week. Cthulhu never fails to add items to our worklists and micromanage our approaches.
Usually between ten and noon, there will be at least one new issue reported by our users (application teams.) There are new software releases for many different internal applications every week at the company. Most bugs on the new releases are discovered during this window. So there’s a mad scramble to begin troubleshooting these issues.
If I have any free time at all, I’m taking a look at open items from the previous week. Are there outstanding issues to work on? Tickets open with vendors? Am I behind on any project work? Yes, of course I’m behind. I’m so behind that I know that I’ll be working a lot of evenings just to do the bare-minimum required of me to maintain pace. There is never any hope of completing all tasks on the task list. The best you can do is to work on the ones where you know you’re going to absorb a mighty beating if you don’t get them done on time, and try to ignore the rest.
During any and all of these activities, my instant messenger box starts popping up with questions from teammembers, application clients, and occasionally even mighty Cthulhu (although he usually prefers to physically show up in my office). It’s incredibly jarring.
You ever watched 10 minutes of a movie, then switched to a different movie for 15 minutes, then back to the first movie for another 20, then to a third movie for a while? Switching between a million competing tasks is sort of like that — draining. What you want to do is leave the channel tuned to one movie and finish it, but if you did that, you’d be pissing a whole bunch of people off, so yeah, you’ll be continually multitasking even though you know damned well that humans are not very good at it and it makes you a less efficient worker.
At FinancialCompany, it’s better to be less efficient and liked. The alternative is to be efficient but have others perceive you as unresponsive. Perception is everything.
There are two nights every week which have mandatory evening work. The evening work consists of ‘application changes.’ For the non-tech readers, you can think about this like a website update. Behind the curtain, we take applications offline and work through a set of procedures to upgrade hosts to serve the new apps and content. Then the developers and testing teams will validate that the new applications are working as expected.
Tuesday is one of these evenings. Around four in the afternoon I’ll meet up with my teammates and we’ll divvy up the work. I might take application A, Statler grabs B, Beaker does C. We typically do the upgrade around 5:30, finish the actual work by 5:40, but have to stick around for another 30 minutes or so just waiting while testers validate the releases.
Having to do a chunk of work and then just sit around, trapped until someone else gives an ‘all clear’ is a core staple of this particular job. We call this Hurry Up and Wait. If you’re really lucky, you’re out of the office by 6PM.
Wednesday Is Meeting Day
It was rare for me to have fewer than six hours of meetings on Wednesdays. Sometimes I had nine hours booked — eight through five, solid. If there were outages, I’d get pulled out and then slip back in once things were resolved.
Due to the overwhelming amount of time donated to meetings, I found I nearly always had to work two hours or more that evening on a variety of items. Terrific.
Thursday’s Team Meeting
It’s Thursday. We’ve already had a team meeting on Monday, but a lot has happened since then. Schedules have been thrown off due to unexpected issues and new ‘priority’ work requests.
Monday meetings are usually pretty straightforward. It’s usually a rehash of the previous Thursday meeting, with the intent to light a fire under everyone to go nuts on their worklist.
Thursday meetings, not so much. At this point in the week, Cthulhu has been speaking to his own manager (our director) and also his peers, about This and That, where This and That are new problems, new projects, new solutions, and new directions. In short, he’s forgotten, to some extent, about work he’s already assigned us and instead is more interested in Brand New Stuff because it’s shiny and he wants to take some action on them so that when he bumps into these people again, he can provide an update and look awesome.
So here’s most of what happens in these meetings. I’ll use Beaker as an example here because he struggled the most both keeping up with everything and also pushing back on Cthulhu.
BEAKER PROVIDE AN UPDATE ON THE TASKS YOU HAD MONDAY SHARE WITH THE TEAM
Um, well. Actually so I didn’t make too much progress on project A yet, I’m hoping to start…
WHAT IS THE REASON IT IS NOT COMPLETE
So Monday we had an outage and then Tuesday another outage plus I had to fill out the incident report paperwork for those service disruptions and Wednesday we had six hours of meetings, oh and plus Tuesday night we had an upgrade for…
NOTED WE WILL DISCUSS THIS FURTHER OFFLINE THERE IS A NEW INITIATIVE FOR YOU TO WORK ON WHICH IS <initiative>
Are you going to wait for me to finish the other stuff I we were just talking about? Which is more important?
EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT PRIORITIZE YOUR TASKS EFFECTIVELY AND COMPLETE THE WORK
This was typical: We would ask Cthulhu for guidance regarding prioritization and the response was WORK ON EVERYTHING. There was an implication that the real problem was that we were stupid, or lacked effective time management skills. Another oft-repeated response: WORK SMARTER.
After meeping a bit, Beaker usually looked like he wanted to cry. His face would turn pink and with wide eyes he’d stare at his hands in silence. Everyone in the room felt uncomfortable, except the boss, who appeared, if anything, pleased. I want to share here that Beaker also a) had a horrible commute, about an hour and twenty minutes each way from New Hampshire, and b) had two young kids, one of which was autistic and required a lot of extra attention. These circumstances would have made just about any other manager soften somewhat, but not ours.
Cthulhu wasn’t just an inter-dimensional badass diety. He was also a world-beating prick.
FinancialCompany’s trading applications get released on Friday evenings.
We start at 6PM. Events typically run to about 8:30.
Rather than focus on the work itself, I want to describe how you’re feeling at this point. It’s your fifth day of hell in a row, and instead of going home at a regular time to decompress, it’s typically the very worst day of the week for you. You’re already completely exhausted, and yet at this time of weakness and fatigue you must now do some of the most complicated work on the professional menu.
And these events are tightly monitored. You’re on bridges with VPs, Directors, and lots of folks from other centralized teams, all working together to get things done.
Hopefully you’re home by 9PM, at which point you’re looking for some rope and a hook that can support a fully grown adult’s weight.
There’s about a 30% chance you’ll get called at some point on Saturday morning to fix something from the Friday evening work. This is because some tester found an issue later on. You’d then either a) revert back to the previous application, or b) apply some kind of fix (patch).
Even on mornings when you didn’t get called, the knowledge that it was fairly likely made it difficult to unwind and enjoy your day off. You worried that if you just, say, drove out of state at 6AM in the morning that you’d be explaining to Cthulhu why you can’t help them at 9AM when you do get that pageout or call on your cell.
I won’t get into scheduled weekend work or other off-hours calls because I’ve discussed it a bit in a previous post in the series, and it’s much the same — just more frequent.
A Vacation Day
I took every day of vacation allocated. I believe firmly that every employee should always take their full allowance. It’s part of your compensation, plus it’s good for mental health to unplug and recharge.
But due to the Veil of Cthulhu I started to have an increasingly difficult time enjoying them. At my previous gig, with SoftwareCompany, I relished my time off. To unwind, I’d go do something I’d never done before, hang out with a friend, read a book all day, or exercise extra hard, go hiking, whatever.
At this place, it was different. It was like I couldn’t unplug from the wall socket that connected me to work. I desperately wanted to think about things other than FinancialCompany but I couldn’t. My brain was in survival mode — it thought that it was absolutely critical to continue to think about my obligations and rejected most attempts to switch gears and decompress.
For example, on one of my days, I drove down to Connecticut to see my mom. She’s a green thumb, and was showing me some new flower that she’d managed to grow in her yard’s garden.
I looked at it, and could not, for the life of me, see any beauty.