Sunday update #2: This one’s personal

If you’re looking for the Downtown news (and my weekly bashing of the Tennessee Vols), scroll down to Sunday update #1. This is going to be an update of what’s been going on with me the past week or so.

A couple of notes before I get started:

First of all, I am not writing this to impress anyone. What I have been doing the past week or two is going to differ from what a lot of people think I “should” be doing. That is fine. If you wish to respond to this via email or text or PM, you are welcome to. The wide variety of responses I received to my post two and a half weeks ago really helped.

Second, I want to make it clear that I am not bashing any former employer or any person I worked with. Actually, the last two jobs I held were with great companies and the people I worked with on web development are amazingly talented. I was the square peg trying to fit into the round hole.

The job

So, I have now worked at a law firm down the street from where I live for 7 days, working 9 AM to 1 PM. I really enjoy it, and I am not just saying that in case the people for whom I work read this. I truly like my job. It gives me a purpose and makes me feel much better about myself than I have felt in a long time.

Basically, I see my role as to make sure the lawyer I’m working for doesn’t have to deal with technical minutiae, so that he’s able to spend as much time as possible building his case. I am happy to wrestle with things like footers on Excel worksheets so that he doesn’t have to.

I try to arrive by 8:55 every morning. I’m of the belief that arriving early is on time, and arriving on time is late. Since there’s no vehicle commute it’s nobody’s fault but my own if I’m not there on time.

I don’t have my own office; rather, I am at a desk in a large conference room that is sometimes used by the attorneys to collaborate on cases. Still, though, 98% of the time, I am by myself in the room. And for the first time since 2010, my workspace has four walls and a door.

I can stand up in my workspace and I don’t have other people looking at me.

Anyone else in the office can stand up in their workspace and they won’t be looking at me.

There are periods of 20-30 minutes of total silence at times. When I do hear co-workers’ conversations, they happen in a space I perceive as different from the space I am in, which makes them a lot less intrusive.

I cannot tell you what a difference this makes to my sanity.

Most people seem to be able to adapt to cubicle life, and I’m happy for them. But I’ve never been able to. I would guess my productivity would be reduced by 30 to 50 percent if they had me in a cubicle in my current job.

You know, a doctor can write a prescription for an emotional support dog, and restaurants, public transportation, businesses, your apartment leasing office, etc. have to honor it. I wonder if I can get a doctor to write me a note that I need four walls and a door where I work to preserve my mental health.

But anyway, I appreciate the opportunity that the law firm has given me, especially because they took a chance on someone without a legal background. You’ve probably seen the meme that it doesn’t cost anything to show up early, do extra, be coachable, etc. That’s the philosophy I try to carry with me from 9 (or really, 8:55) to 1.

IT and me

By IT I mean information technology, not a movie character.

In 1994 I got my Master’s degree in computer science. For the next decade I got to work on some fun projects.

In 1994-1995 I wrote software to be installed on touch-screen laptops that would sit on crash carts in hospitals. If would advise doctors on what to do when a patient needs advanced cardiac life support. I programmed rules like, if the patient is in this arrhythmia, give 1 mg epinephrine, and if that doesn’t do anything give them 1 mg atropine, and if that doesn’t work it’s time to get out the shock paddles. (I may not have that in the right order. It’s been 25 years after all.) It felt really good, knowing that the work I was doing was saving lives.

In fall 1997 I was in my fourth year teaching math at the University of Memphis. All the time I would have students come to me, and ask., “Paul, I made 89 on the first test and 86 on the second test. What do I need to average on the remaining tests if I want to make an A in your class?” and I would sit down and do the math with them. I got asked that kind of thing so much that I decided to build my students a tool they could use to do their computation. I had a place where they could enter their grade on each test or assignment, and how much weight that test or assignment counted toward the overall grade. I then had them input their desired target grade – so if they were taking a class from me and wanted an A, their target would be 90 (unless they were taking calculus from me, in which case I lowered the criteria to 87. Calculus is hard). My students loved it. It meant the time they spent worrying about their grades could now be redirected to learning the course material, which made them more likely to get the grade they wanted.

In 2000 I worked for a company in San Diego for a bit. I used server-side Javascript (yup that existed back then) to build e-commerce applications that allowed businesses to bid on government procurement contracts. Eventually I had to move back to Memphis, but while it lasted it was a lot of fun.

From 2001 to 2003 I worked for a household products company in Arkansas. I used Visual Basic and VB.NET, Classic ASP and ASP.NET, to modernize their website and build applications. I built an electronic Bill of Lading that allowed them to do business with Walmart. I eventually left the company because the commute was putting too many miles on the car, but it was fun while I was there.

From 2004 to 2006 I worked for a company near Appling Road creating rebate websites for national companies like York, Panasonic, and Wrangler. I wrote them in ASP.NET/VB.NET whenever possible, and Classic ASP/Visual Basic when not. That job was really cool because I was an account manager as much as I was a programmer. I’d often spend time on the phone with the client company’s marketing director, going through the details of how their rebate program worked – and oftentimes, they had not thought through the process themselves and I had to walk them through it. It was very rewarding when I finished a website and handed it over to a client.

When I built those websites in 2006, at the beginning of the project I would think through how long I thought it would take to complete, then I would pad it by 30% and give that estimate to the client. I wasn’t trying to be deceitful by doing that; I was just giving myself some breathing room in case anything unforeseen came up. So, for example, if I thought a project would take two weeks, I would probably tell the client 2 1/2 to 3 weeks. Then when I got it done in two, they would be impressed that I got it done ahead of schedule.

Now let me tell you about some of the things I didn’t have to do in the years 1994-2006, when programming was a fun activity I enjoyed and I was thrilled that I got to do it for money.

When I was writing those rebate websites, I wasn’t assigned a “sprint” where I was given the amount of work I thought I could get done in a week. I simply told them how long it would take and then I went and did it.

I didn’t have to record the number of hours I worked on the project in an online ticketing system, so a project manager could track my time.

I didn’t write part of the code in the data access layer, and part of the code in the data model layer, and part of the code in the business logic layer, and part of the code in the controller, and part of the code client side, and parts of the code in 8 other places in the project.

I didn’t use a server-side framework like Entity or Zend or Laravel.

I didn’t use a client-side framework like React or TypeScript. (Although, I have to admit client-side frameworks are a lot of fun.)

I didn’t use Twitter Bootstrap or a similar framework to make my sites mobile-friendly. (Although, I have to admit Twitter Bootstrap is really cool.)

I didn’t have to follow SOLID object design principles.

I didn’t program against abstractions rather than concretions.

I didn’t use models and views and controllers and ViewModels.

The applications I wrote weren’t RESTful.

If I wanted to set up a new development computer, I got out the CDs and started installing stuff. I didn’t go out and find a recipe that Chef or Vagrant could use to spin up the environment.

I didn’t write unit tests against my code.

In most jobs I held before 2006, I didn’t push from dev to test and from test to prod.

If I needed to create a database table, I opened up the SQL Server or MySQL console and created the table. I didn’t write a migration.

If I needed to populate a database table, I opened up the SQL Server or MySQL console and used the import tool. I didn’t write a seeder.

I didn’t use dependency injection in those days.

I never once heard the term “Agile” as applied to web development.

Okay. Every one of the things I described above are absolutely software design best practices in 2019. I am not disputing that in the least. Nor am I saying we should return to the way things were in 2006. That would be backward. Nor am I trying to put down anyone who follows those practices and really enjoys what they do for a living.

However, all the modern IT practices have caused me to feel a disconnect with the products I create. Programming in the enterprise isn’t fun for me anymore. I find that for programming in the enterprise, I don’t even have one percent of the passion that I have for writing this blog.

I know there are going to be people who respond, “Suck it up, buttercup. There are lots of people who have jobs that they don’t enjoy. You can too.”

The thing is, when I was home from college during the summer of 1988, my mom came home from work many days crying. She had no energy; she was too worn out to function, almost. She was an executive secretary at the Arkansas Gazette, which at the time was being sued by the Arkansas Democrat. That caused her work life to be very stressful and something she didn’t enjoy – but she’d been there 28 years and didn’t feel like she had any other option. I thought to myself, I never want to have a job where I come home from work feeling like she feels.

(The Arkansas Democrat won the suit and the Gazette had no choice but to sell out. The newspaper became the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)

When I was a little boy, the cat was bad and I whacked her with a broom. From that day forward, the cat was terrified of the broom. If someone as much as picked it up, she’d scurry under the bed.

(As an adult, I regret terribly that I hit an animal.)

But anyway, the thought of going back to enterprise IT terrifies me as much as the broom terrified my cat.

So here I am, two months away from my 50th birthday, and I guess you could say I’m having a midlife crisis. A friend told me, “Paul, you’re one of the smartest people I know. Somewhere out there there’s a career you would love that would pay you a million dollars. You just have to figure out what that is.” That’s the problem. I don’t know what that is.

As I’ve written before, I’m a connector of people, I’m an inspirer of people, I’m an excellent communicator, I’m an excellent teacher. I want a career that uses at least some of those strengths. Enterprise IT really doesn’t.

Baby steps

When I wrote my post two and a half weeks ago, there were people who apparently thought I was going to give up drinking completely, start seeing a therapist, go to 7 AA meetings a week, and never set foot in a bar again. I can’t do all of that at once.

The biggest stressor of all was that the request for a distribution from my VALIC retirement account was being held up in some unknown red tape. The anxiety I felt over that was so intense that all I could do was go out and drink. The anxiety was so great that I couldn’t even call VALIC or the University of Memphis and figure out what was going on. It was a catch-22.

The job at the law firm absolutely saved me. For one thing, it brought in enough money to cover my August rent. It also put me in a mindset of getting things done. On Tuesday, my fourth day at work, I was enough in that mindset that I was able to break that cycle and call the University of Memphis’ HR department after I got off work. They figured out the problem: I last worked at the U of M so long ago that I’m not in the system. They said they would have to pull the microfiche to verify my employment, and that it would take several days. That’s not ideal but it was still a relief. I filled out a new copy of the VALIC form, scanned it, and emailed it to the University of Memphis HR department. When they verify my employment, they are going to fill out their section of the form and email it back to me along with a termination letter. I will then print out the form and the letter, fax it to VALIC, and a few days after that I should have my money.

I still go out to bars. That’s where all my friends are. I will never be able to give that up. And yes, I still drink. Maybe the day will come when I’m able to go to a bar and just drink a Coke or a virgin cocktail (Lord knows that either one of those taste better than beer). I’m not there yet though. If you are disappointed in me for that, I understand. Just please don’t lecture me. Offer advice or suggestions if you want, but don’t lecture. That doesn’t help.

For the first three days I had my job, I was still drinking to get to that third beer or shot so the anxiety would be dulled. But after I made the call to the U of M on Tuesday, the anxiety was largely gone. That was a step in the right direction. Since then I have been able to get full nights’ rest, instead of waking up at 4 in the morning terrified. Since then, when I have gone out to bars, I haven’t been drinking to dull the pain, and I’ve been better able to enjoy the company of friends.

I’ve made another baby step. I no longer feel the need to spend every minute of the day, other than when I’m working or sleeping, at a bar. The fact that I’m sitting at home at 3:04 on a Sunday typing this is evidence of that fact. I have not been out yet today. Sundays are the days with which I wanted to start this process of weaning myself from the bars, because it has become the least fun day for me to go out. The crowd at Blind Bear gets super random and often I’ll be sandwiched in between people I don’t know. Pontotoc gets super crowded, which is testament to Brad’s popularity, but it’s just not as much fun now that Sunday brunch there has been widely discovered. So I don’t mind staying home until 4 or later.

I’m working on cutting back on the weekdays too. I get home from work at 1. Since my friend John usually gets to the Silly Goose at 3:30, I wait until then to go out. He doesn’t go there at all on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I’ll wait until 4:30. That will give me time to write in my personal journal, run errands that I have put off, and work on a consulting project I still owe a good friend.

Like I say, be disappointed in me if you want, call me irresponsible for going to bars at all if you want. You wouldn’t be wrong to say that. But, I have to take baby steps. I have to deal with my problems in my own time, in my own way. I can’t do what someone else thinks I should do. I’m not them. I’m proud of the progress I have made in the past two and a half weeks.

One of the most absurd things I have been told is that people in the service industry are not my real friends, that they care more that I continue to tip them well than they care about me. I don’t buy that for one second and I find it insulting to many people I love. As a matter of fact, the person who made the connection that led to my job at the legal firm owns a bar and knew that if I took the job, I’d be spending less time there.

So, that’s what’s going on with me. I am by no means fixed but I am far less broken than I was two weeks ago. Thanks for reading. If you want to leave feedback, email or text me or PM me on Facebook.