Tag: work

5 Interesting Reads – 9/11/2021

Here are some of the more interesting reads I’ve come across the the last few weeks. Let me know if any of these stand out for you. And if you have interesting reads of your own to recommend, please drop them in the comments.

  1. After “hearing” many of our kids’ classes while they were remote last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what eduction is today, and what I wish it would be. I think Seth Godin is on the right track with his “Modern Curriculum.”
  2. James Fallows has an interesting piece on presidential speeches, “Eloquence is Overrated.” In it, he writes,

effective orators sometimes succeed by making their language practically invisible. For them it serves as a pane, allowing the undistorted meaning to shine through.

This reminded me of how Isaac Asimov described his own writing style which he called his theory of “the mosaic and the plate glass”:

There is writing which resembles the mosaics of glass you see in stained-glass windows. Such windows are beautiful in themselves and let in the light in colored fragments, but you can’t expect to see through them. In the same way, there is poetic writing that is beautiful in itself and can easily affect the emotions, but such writing can be dense and can make for hard reading if you are trying to figure out what’s happening.

Plate glass, on the other hand, has no beauty of its own. Ideally, you ought not to be able to see it at all, but through it, you can see all that is happening outside. That is the equivalent of writing that is plain an unadorned. Ideally, in reading such writing, you are not even aware that you are reading. Ideas and events seem merely to flow from the mind of the writer into that of the reader without any barrier between,

I. Asimov, p.222
  1. Cal Newport recently had a great piece in the New Yorker on “Why Do We Work Too Much?” It touches on a feeling I’ve often had, what Newport describes as “a nagging sense of irresponsibility during any moment of downtime.” Also worth looking at is a follow-up he did, asking “What Would Happen If We Slowed Down?
  2. Ryan Holiday writes about the importance of his nighttime routines as a means to set him up for success the next day. This is interesting in part because he outlines 9 things that he does that align with practices of great stoics from ancient times. It was also to read it in the context of my own evening routine.
  3. Fiction: Adam-Troy Castro has a heartbreaking story in Lightspeed Magazine, “Judi.” Adam-Troy lost his wife, Judi not long ago. It was sudden and unexpected and the story reflects that. I knew Adam-Troy casually, and had breakfast with him, and his wife, Judi at a World Fantasy Convention years ago. There are wonderful people.

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The Downside of Vacation

There is a meme I have seen floating around the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet that goes like this:

For an American on vacation, I did pretty good. I didn’t check my email or Teams messages for the entire 10 days of my vacation. Of course, I was not “away camping for the summer,” but for me, not checking work email for 10 days is a big step. Indeed, I didn’t really even think about work consciously for the ten days that I was on vacation. I was proud of myself for this. Even as I write this, I have no idea how many emails await my attention when I get back to my (virtual) office first thing Monday morning. No one from work called me or texted me or messaged me, which means there was no crisis that couldn’t be handled without me. That also, is a good thing.

There is, however, a downside to a vacation like this, one where work doesn’t enter my consciousness for ten days. In a way, this kind of vacation is a kind of preview of retirement, and in some ways, not thinking about work foreshadowed what it would be like when I am actually retired and don’t have to think about work any more. Of course, I have to get back to business on Monday, but for a brief period, it felt to me like work no longer existed. That, to me, is the definition of a good vacation.

Still, you know how you feel when you see an early preview of a movie that you are really looking forward to? One of those short previews that comes out eighteen months before the movie’s release date. It’s a minute-long preview, but you spend half an hour watching it over and over again, and thinking to yourself, I can’t believe I have to wait eighteen months before I can actually see this movie! It seem like a lifetime from now? This is what my vacation felt like to me. I was more present than I usually am on vacation. I took only a modest amount of photos in order that I focused on the moment, enjoying my time with my family. Work didn’t enter my mind, and that gave the the false sense that work didn’t exist, that I was done with work, that I never had to go back again.

The truth, of course, is more like that one-minute movie preview. My vacation was a preview of what my retirement would be like, but the actual retirement doesn’t take place for another ten years. There is an uncomfortable period of reintegration that has to take place, where I slip out of vacation/retirement mode and into work mode. It is much easier to go in the other direction. We visited Niagara Falls on our vacation and I imagine this reintegration like a droplet of water trying to make its way up the falls, fighting the 60,000 gallons of water flowing over the edge every second.

We are encouraged to take vacations and to separate work life from home life (harder and harder to do while more and more people are working from home). It seems to me what is missing from this is a kind of reintegration program that eases us back into our daily routines once the vacation is over and we are back on the job. I suspect I will spent a good chunk of time reviewing hundreds of emails to look for the twenty or so that actually require my attention. Then, too, it will take time for me to review the notes I left for myself to remind me what I was working on and where I left off on various things. Those notes help, but there is one thing that will taunt me all day long, something that I’ve never been able to escape, no matter how present I can be in the moment when I am on vacation: a little voice, whispering in my ear throughout the day, telling me, “You know, last week at this time, you were cruising along Route 20 in upstate New York, not another car in sight, surrounded on both sides by fertile farm land.” Or it will whisper, “Remember just a few days ago, when you wandered through that 170 year old mill?” Like a postcard from the past, that voice will taunt me with: Wish you were here.

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I Am A Writer

Four years ago I wrote about my dread of answering the question “what do you do?” when asked by someone about my vocation. I used to tell people “I work with computers” but that was vague. I don’t like saying that I am a project manager because it sounds to me like a made-up job. At the time, I wrote:

There are occasions when I am asked the question, when I’d love to answer, “I’m a writer,” and just leave it at that. Of course, telling someone you are a writer leads to other questions. Besides, I don’t make my living as a writer. And when people ask “What do you do?” they are asking how you make your living.

Something clicked in the way I think about my vocation and avocation recently: one of those ah-ha! moments that made me realize I could answer this question honestly, and directly in four words and feel perfectly comfortable with my response. The four words are:

I am a writer.

As I pointed out four years ago, this tends to elicit further questions, but in the years since, I have answers that I am more comfortable with.

In my vocation, I primarily write code, although there is often more involved than that.

In my avocation, I write both fiction and nonfiction.

For plain fun, I write this blog, which has been around for 16 years and has over 6,700 posts.

Do I make my living as writer? Well, yes, I do. The part that pays the bills is the part that writes code. I have written about the similarities between writing code and writing fiction, and so I feel justified in my position on this. At the same time, I don’t feel like I am being disingenuous because I have also made money writing fiction and nonfiction. All told, when I put everything together, the common thread throughout all of my work is writing.

I think I knew this subconsciously all along. I think it is why I altered the subtitle of the blog years ago to read, simply, “Writer.” It really doesn’t matter what I am writing, that’s what I do. Or to put it another way, I write all kinds of things and “writer” is the most succinct way to capture everything I do.

It feels good knowing that I can now answer the question, “What do you do?” with “I am a writer.””

BREAKING NEWS: I Have the Weekend Off!

ARLINGTON, VA. This is just in: having successfully rolled out the big software system I’ve been working on for the last 441 days, I have the weekend off. These are my first days off in a month. I worked 126 hours in the last 2 weeks alone. I am tired, worn out, elated, relieved, and happy that I have a couple of days off where I don’t have to think about work. Really, I don’t. The rollout was clearly as success. After giving a briefing to my department management today I was asked to brief senior management, which I take as a good sign.

This really was a team effort. Much of my team, alas, doesn’t have the web presence that I do, such that it is, but I want to call attention to the most talented programmer I’ve ever worked with: John David Parsons. If you are a writer, looking for a tool to help inspire your writing, you should drop what you are doing and check out his Story Ghost, which he’s somehow managed to build while also building a complicated corporate system as well, all during the middle of a Pandemic. It’s definitely worth checking out. It’s also on Twitter at @storyghostai.

For now, I’ve ordered pizza and wings, had a few beers, and I am going to enjoy the weekend with my family.

Life Cycle of a Career

A friend of mine is retiring on Friday. He is about 10 years ahead of me in the career life cycle. He started at the company about 2 years after I did, and he is now retiring after 25 years. It has been a long time coming for him. His wife retired about a year ago, and he’s been talking about retiring for several years. And now he’s done it and Friday will be his last day.

It is a bittersweet thing for me to see him retire. When he started with the company, I was 24 years old (I was 22 when I started there). I was still relatively new to the I.T. world (back then, the term “I.T.” wasn’t used yet) and it seemed anything but certain that I’d be at the company for very long. A quarter of a century later, he is retiring and I am well into the late innings of my own career.

I can remember so clearly–as if it was just the other day–the runs we took after work in the park on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica in the late 1990s. I remember the time we went to see Harlan Ellison give a talk in Marina del Rey and how flustered Ellison got when Donald Sutherland walked into the room.

We were both younger back then. I didn’t think of my work in terms of a career. It was, especially in the mid-90s, during the Dot Com boom, a lot of fun. Things were changing so quickly. We worked in a much more informal environment than what we have today. An we had a core team of great co-workers, many of whom were also long-timers, and all since moved on or retired.

I think I have said this before but the downside of a long career at the same company is seeing those colleagues and friends I’ve worked with for so long fade away, one-by-one. Some are claimed by other companies and opportunities, some by retirement, and too many, sadly, by death.

With the departure of my friend, only one person remains in my group from those early days and she was a big part of the software system we successfully rolled out earlier this week, after 14 months of remote development. There are other people still around from the mid-1990s, but none that I worked with on a regular basis.

I’ve heard it said that the curse of longevity is seeing all of your friends and family fade away as time stretches on. It certainly feels true in terms of the longevity of career at the same company. On the other hand, I just finished up the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on, which just goes to show that there is always something new over the horizon, and you never really now how things will turn out, and what surprises await there.

A Developer’s Logbook

Working scientists use logbooks to record their work so that they can (a) reproduce results, and (b) establish priority in discoveries. As a working developer, I use a logbook, too, which also serves two primary purposes: (a) capture what I did during the day (sometimes in order to reproduce things), and (b) as an index to more detailed notes for specific things.

My logbook had evolved over the years. It’s present incarnation is a text (markdown) file in Obsidian. For work, I use Obsidian’s Daily Note feature for my logbook. I have one logbook “page” for each day. I have this logbook page open on one screen at all times. Usually my Obsidian window is split with my logbook on the left and other notes files on the right. Here is what a typical screen looks like:

My screen with my logbook and other notes open in Obsidian

Yesterday I mentioned how I was in crunch time for a software system my team has been building for the last 13 months. We go-live on Monday and we are preparing for roll out. We are in what I call the “junk drawer” phase of the project. I think of it like moving houses. All of the big furniture had been moved and all that is left is the stuff in the closets and junk drawers. That’s where we are. Yesterday, my workday started at 7am and ended at 12:30 am (this morning!). Here is my logbook entry for yesterday:

Yesterday's page from my logbook

Those of you who spend your days making software are probably familiar with the pattern of these last few days before roll out. Those who aren’t can at least get a little glimpse of what these days are like for me.

As you can see from the logbook, I finally got to bed around 1 am (about 4 hours later than normal) and I was up before six this morning so that I could get in my morning walk before taking my girls to school and writing this post.

Now it’s back to where I left off yesterday. I have a new blank “page” open in my logbook and I’m ready to fill it.

All I Can See Are Flaws

On Monday we will roll out a software system that my team has been building for the last thirteen months. In nearly 27 years with the company, this is the software that I am most proud of. It is a system that coordinates new hires, people who are changing jobs or transferring locations, and people who are separating. It involves integration with many other systems, but it really does save people a lot of time over what they do today and it smooths the process for a person starting at the company on their first day, or leaving on their last.

It occurred to me that there is something even more remarkable about this piece of software. The very first meeting I had on this project was back on February 3, 2020–before everything began to shut down due to the pandemic. The first of what was ultimately 37 requirements meetings was held on April 21, 2020. The meeting, while involving people from all over the company and across most of our locations, was done remotely at this point. And since then, we haven’t had a single in-person meeting on the project. The entire software system was built remotely, with people working from home. Of course remotely-built software is nothing new in the open source world. But I think this could be a first for my company. And I’m really proud of the result.

That said, I am in a mode that is probably familiar to many software designers and project managers on the eve of releasing a product you have been working on for so long: all I can see are flaws.

I have a long punch-list of things that I am trying to get done between now and Monday and they all seem to be flaws in the system. These are not fundamental design or structure problems. This is more like a spot on the windshield that you missed while cleaning it. But it is all I can seem to see at the moment. I am so happy with what we have done with this system that I want it to be perfect when it goes live on Monday. And anyone who has ever used a computer knows that no software is perfect.

Still, I think it is useful that my brain is only seeing flaws at the moment. It allows me to focus on those things that matter, and not worry about the stuff that is already in done and ready to go. It means that every day, the system is getting a little bit better.

I was incredibly lucky on this project. I had a great development and testing team. It has been one of the best things about working where I work that I get to work with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I learn from them every day, and I have been really impressed with how well our core team has worked remotely over the last 13 months. I’ve lost count of the number of “co-programming” sessions we’ve had that have worked out so well.

We’re in that final push now. This past weekend was the third weekend in a row that I’ve worked. Yesterday, I put in 11 hours, and I couldn’t sleep much last night because the stuff I have to get done was running through my head. So I was up before 5 am this morning to get started and maybe quiet my mind a bit. Four more days, and one more weekend to do, and the system will be live and in the wild. I am feeling unusually optimistic about this system–which is why I am glad that at the moment, all I can see are flaws. I think that will help to ensure we release the best possible system we can come Monday.

My Busy-ness Number

There ought to be a measurement, like the temperature, that we can use to easily indicate to family, friends, and colleagues how busy we are. It would be nice to be able to say, “Sorry, I can’t meet for lunch, my busy-ness number is at 8 today.” There are all kinds of tools and gadgets that try to measure this. You can look at a calendar for instance, to get s sense of busy-ness. Last month, our family calendar (not counting work-related events) looked like this:

Family calendar

There are other measurements, too, I’m sure, but none give a good sense of immediacy. How busy am I right now? That’s what I want to know.

It was sunny when I went for my morning walk, early today. The sun was right on the horizon as I walked east. When I went for my afternoon walk, the sky was completely overcast and the sun was nowhere to be seen. It got me thinking. Back when I was flying, I remember studying weather and there were different meanings for cloud cover. The clouds could obscure none of the sky, a quarter, of the sky, half of the sky, etc. It was a good, simple measurement that reflected reality in an accurate and useful way.

Upon arriving home, I returned to my office and looked at my desk. Ever since moving to the new house, I’ve had the fortune of having the u-shape I have always wanted for my working area.

My u-shaped desk

What I noticed about my desk, was that it was like the overcast clouds that had rolled in: much of it seemed to be covered, and in disarray. I tend to turn to the desk to my left to write things down, open books, read magazines, etc. but that part of my desk is hopeless at the moment. It is covered in to-do lists scribble on legal paper, with piles of books, and magazines and Post-Its and other stuff.

Desk in disarray

Whenever my desk is like this, I am usually overwhelmed. I start making lists. I begin to wonder if the critical things that I am working on are more important than clearing up some surface area. That’s when it occurred to me that I have the perfect measurement to gauge my own level of busy-ness: desk-coverage.

It works like cloud coverage and is measured in eighths. A completely empty surface is a “clear” desk and a sign that I’ve got some time on my hands. Next, there is 1/8th coverage, then 1/4, then 1/2. You get the idea. Between 1/4 and 1/2 might be called “partly covered,” and 5/8-7/8 would be “mostly covered.” 8/8th would be “overcast.” The closer to overcast I am, the busier I am. I’d estimate that right now, I’m somewhere between 3/4 – 7/8th covered, which puts me in the “mostly covered” category.

I think that from now on, when someone asks me for some of my time, I’m going to look at my desk, and say, “Sorry, can’t do it. my desk is partly covered today, but the forecast is calling for overcast tomorrow.”

25 Years and Counting

25 years ago today, I started my first job out of college. I’d graduated about three months earlier, and spent the summer after my graduation continuing to work in the dorm cafeteria office, where I did some computer work. Meanwhile, I looked for full-time job.

I graduated with a degree in political science and journalism, and really had no idea what I wanted to do for full time work. I was good with computers, having grown up learning to tame them, and when a job came up with a company looking for computer people to work at the corporate “helpdesk”, I applied. I was eventually called for an interview. That interview lasted all day. Then, nothing for several weeks.

Eventually, I got a call offering me a job. It came with a salary, and benefits, and I was really excited about it. I took it. My first day was on October 17, 1994.

Fast forward a quarter century. Today, I am still working for the same company. My role has changed over the years, as has my location (in 2002, I relocated from California to Virginia), but I still work for the same department as I did when I first started, although it has gone through a number of name changes in the 25 intervening years.

When I tell people I’ve been with the same company for 25 years, the response I get is a nearly universal, ” That’s unheard of these days.” All I can say is that I wouldn’t really know, never having worked anywhere else since graduating. I will say that longevity is fairly common where I work. In fact, I am not even in the top 100 in terms of longevity. Indeed, even within my own department, I am 16th overall in terms of how long I have been with the company.

My kids asked me this morning if I liked working there, given that I have been there so long. I smiled, and nodded, and said, “Yeah, I guess I do.” When I first started, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the first year. Everyone else seemed so much smarter than me. Now, they still all seem smarter than me, but they tolerate me, and I’ve got to admit, I think I’ve finally warmed to the place.

I’ve always been the slow, but steady type, after all.

Finished with the slide decks (approaching 16 hours)

All of the slides I need to create for the training presentations are done.  The total count of presentation slides for the 3-day training session now stands at 501!  I have also now gotten so good with PowerPoint that I could probably produce a full-length feature film with it.

Still have lots to do.  Next up is going through all 501 slides and making sure they’ve got good notes.

I’m at a low energy point at the moment.  My knees ache.  My right wrist and thumb has been giving me some trouble the last few days (Kelly says its because of all the typing I’ve been doing–maybe so).  And bed is starting to sound really good right about now, but I’ve got to press on.

Coming up on twelve hours

I’m hoping to have the last of the training slides done by 9 pm, at which time I’ll take a break for an hour or so.  But I’m coming up on twelve hours for my day so far.  If all goes well overnight, twelve hours from now most of the work will be done and I’ll just be more or less waiting for the meeting in the early afternoon to turn stuff over to pubs.

Kelly and I headed out for a walk at 6 pm, my last fresh air for the evening.  Still gorgeous out, warm, breezy, I’ve got the windows open in the office.

And it was still light out until a little while ago!  Daylight Savings is back!

I feel like I need a shower.

Late afternoon (9 hours into my day)

Still going.  I’m more than 2/3rds of the way done with Day 3 slides and I expect to be complete done with the slides by 7 pm.  I left the office at about 1:30 and took a 2 hour break.  Sarah came over and Kelly and I went with her and her dog, Oliver, up to the dog park in Shirlington.  It’s really nice out again today.  Overcast, but still warm and breezy.  We spent about an hour at the dog park and then came home.  I had a late lunch and then headed upstairs to continue work.

Looks like the evening will be spent on putting together the exercise books and quick reference sheets, as well as a few other things like annotated screen shots and a procedures guide.  Then I break the slides down into their component slide desks, and make pass through each deck to make sure the slide notes are complete.  Finally (probably sometime early tomorrow morning), I put together two massive slide decks and convert them to PDFs.  These are what goes to our publications department to be produced.