Getting better

Sometime round about the beginning of Autumn 2010, I started feeling not quite right. It was hard to put my finger on what it was though – I had hypertension, an upset stomach, overall unhealthy, quick to anger, forgetful and generally emotionally unwell. The problems nearly always surfaced around the office, and a colleague was the one who finally diagnosed it as stress. Stephane had commented that I was quick to over-react to simple questions, and complaining a lot more about work than was really reasonable. As someone who was unfortunately familiar with stress, I think he was more able to pick it out.

It was a surprise to me. I’m a very chill person by nature, and had never really felt stress before, and it had been at least a decade since I had been introduced to a new emotion. Stress, as it turns out, is the kind of thing that builds up slowly, and can take you by surprise. It also is the sort of thing that you can’t just shed. Like Christmas kilos before beach season; what snuck into your life takes a long time to shoo out, even if you’re trying.

I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and chalked it up to work. I’d been working on a project that was going gangbusters in terms of users and reach, but was bleeding resources like a stuck pig. As much as I was happy to be in demand, I couldn’t meet it if I was the only person left working on the project. I tried taking vacation, working with management to change things, investing time in hobbies, home life, church life, whatever, and the stress-o-meter continued to rise. Slower than before, but it was still going up. I hadn’t reached burn-out yet, but I was very close.

So, I quit. I decided that if work was having such a negative impact the best thing I could do was cut it out completely. I signed up for a 1 year sabbatical, with the intention to resume my old position after 12 months, and moved to the other side of the world. I didn’t stop working entirely, but I did make a dramatic change in my work environment, and responsibility levels. I also did everything in my power to not talk about the previous 6 years or so of my work life, hoping that shutting it out and starting over would make me better faster.

And 12 months later… I wasn’t better. This was my second big surprise.

A year felt like a long time. And as far as years go, it had been a great one. I spent all of my free energy on making Xavier’s life awesome, and by consequence had spent 12 months having an absolute blast myself. We soaked up a ton of vitamin D, met a lot of happy people, completely reversed our financial situation (from debt to solid savings) and ‘discovered’ a lot of wine and friends along the way.

But, the stress wasn’t gone. I know this because around the end of January 2013, I spent an afternoon going through the motions of planning a move back to my old job like I’d originally planned, and I had a remarkably violent reaction. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as vomitus of the psyche, but this is what happened, and it took several weeks to wash it all off again.

So I did a bunch of other things. Some of the things that I probably should have done in France. Things that really weren’t that important in the grand scheme of it all. But things that got me moving again. And, as of this past Thursday, I can say that I am fixed. This time for real.

I know this because on Thursday someone sat me in a room and started talking about the hideous, boring, terrible things that I spent three years in France talking about. And I didn’t die inside. I got excited. I literally jumped from my chair to help them explain their ideas, to draw pictures for them, to refine things, and to cheerlead where I could. I knew this stuff, and wanted to share my experience with them.

And at the end of all that, I felt good. Not because I’d helped someone, or because the result of their project was anything super interesting. I felt good, because I didn’t feel bad anymore.

That was really nice.

It took about two years of active recovery, and I still have to actively manage my stress levels, but I think I’m finally getting better.

Update on the work front

As most of you know, I’ve changed jobs and companies since moving to Sydney. Last Thursday was my one month anniversary of the new position, and so far it’s refreshingly different.

For starters, I kind of feel like I go to nerdy kindergarten each morning. Everything is brightly coloured, there are fun names for everything*, nap rooms, toys strewn down the hallways, and signs everywhere that happily remind us to eat our veggies / wash our hands / get some sunshine / etc. Nerdy references abound — at my last office, Ryan North and Randall Munroe were obscure cartoonists**; here they are fashion designers. And while I’m not getting paid to play with Lego, there is a 2m long Lego Star destroyer currently being constructed a few pods away from me. It’s pretty much how I imagine grad school must be.

The big up side of the new place is that there is a really relaxed feel around the office, which is something that’s unusual for my sector. I think it’s because the tech staff really get a lot of leeway to do what they want. You have to come to work each day, but things like equipment, travel expenses, hours, the projects you work on, etc. are all pretty open. Here, the culture is built up around giving the dev teams a lot of creative freedom – and with sufficient freedom comes a sense of ownership that makes the work feel less ‘worky’ and more like a fun personal project. The unfortunate side effect, of course, is that the line between work and home can be very, very blurry.

As for the actual working process – it’s hugely different than I’m used to. The biggest thing is that there are very few deadlines or schedules as far as I can tell (possibly a byproduct of having no release dates — or maybe it’s the other way around), and changes just get pushed live when they are done. Projects do have time bound goals, but the idea of working to a date is notably foreign. The other big difference is that this is very much a web company. Almost all of my tools – business or development – are accessed via a browser window. The only exception is the actual writing of source code, which is done via the terminal (also different). For a lot of my day-to-day work, this really does require a lot of relearning of pretty basic tools.

To be totally honest, I’m not sure what I think of it. I think I’m still adapting. It feels very fast and loose compared to my last company, but the heavy handed processes are also the reason that I quit. This way of working is very much how I worked through University, so it’s not completely foreign to me. My 22 year old self would have fit right in. But, I’m not 22 any more, and my opinions around work, working methods and working culture have changed. Possibly to the point that I need a rocking chair and a shotgun – I’m not totally sure. In any case, for all of the things that feel odd, I can say that I haven’t yet seen a truly bad idea. Which is heartening. Things are different, but that’s all. I can adapt to different. Especially if different means remote controlled flying fish balloons, taking a plane to lunch, or having fake cats dangling from the ceiling.

*My favourite is the set of four rooms: Give you up; Let you down; Make you Cry; and Say Goodbye.
**OK, less obscure in Canada. But pretty unusual in France and Germany.

27 days and counting.

This week marks two important milestones.

This past Saturday, the clock rolled over on our last month in France.

On Thursday, we will hit our Parisian three year anniversary, and potentially my last day at the office, depending upon what the prefecture has for me.

As of today, my countdown is set to 27 days in France, 19 days left at the office, and 55 days until I start work in Australia. And there is so much to do!!

On the move again.

A couple weeks back I quit my job and bought 2½ one way tickets to Sydney.

Surprised?

From the people I’ve talked to in the last few weeks, I guess this was seen as a bit of a surprise, but this was a long time coming. Sarah and I first started contemplating a variant of this plan back in October 2010 (or maybe October 2008, depending upon how far you want to dig).

You see, when we first moved to France, we made a choice to stay here for at least two years, no matter how homesick, down or lonely we may get. We didn’t set a max, but the government gave me a three year visa, expiring in November 2011, that seemed to make a pretty good upper boundary.

So, last October we hit our two year mark, and we started asking ourselves how much longer we really wanted to stay. We didn’t feel totally done in Europe, but we knew that if we stayed one more year, it would easily cascade into six – in 2011 I would renew my visa to 2014, at which time I could apply for a passport, and in 2016 I would qualify for a French pension. But were we really happy here? Well, kinda yes and kinda no. Once the consumerism withdrawal subsided, we noticed that the quality of life in France is exceptionally high and we came to really appreciate a lot of things about living here. However, not everything was rosy. There were a number of negative things in our lives at that time as well, things that I won’t get into publicly – some were due to the environment, some due to work, and some were social. And finally, we really wanted to do the kid thing, and while we were happy to raise children in France from 6 weeks to 6 years we didn’t really want them born or educated in France.

So, with all of that, we devised a plan.

  1. Leave my job via a 1 year sabbatical.
  2. Move to an English speaking country (other than Canada, USA, England, or South Africa). 
  3. Find a job.
  4. Have a kid.
  5. Find a new, better apartment in France and move back.
We did this. We just did it backwards.

Marketing is (not) exciting!!

This morning, my inbox was warmed by an email from our marketing team, letting me know that, tomorrow, the company will be launching a ‘New and Exciting Marketing campaign,’ and asking us to ‘keep [our] eyes focused on the marketing website for exciting details.’

I don’t know why they send these emails to the development staff. I’ve never actually seen a marketing campaign that I would consider to be ‘exciting’. My excitement levels are elevated by lower compile times and hot fixes; not flash animations and buzzwords.

The best idea I could come up with for something that would get me excited would be the ‘Help us help ourselves (to dinner)’ campaign. During this campaign, anytime a customer buys a product, a developer gets a steak. Maintenance renewals are paid out in beer; a sixer for each year of the agreement.

I don’t know if this kind of campaign would improve the company’s bottom line in anyway – but it’s certainly a marketing idea I could get behind.

Taking the Train to Deutschland

This morning I’m taking the train East, to Germany. Including an 8 hour haul from Edmonton to Vancouver through the Rockies, this is the second time in my life I’ve travelled by train. This trip takes about 1/3 the time though, thanks to the high speed TGV line that runs through Western Europe.

In the few minutes that I’ve been on the train, I’ve been convinced that this is vastly superior to air travel. There is no line to pass security, no border authentication, and no wait to get on board. I showed up 25 minutes before departure and the guy at the gate told me I was here too early and that I should take a coffee and come back in 10. Awesome. That said, the train left very promptly at 6:58 as the ticket noted, so I don’t think I’d push my luck.

The seats are huge and get comfier by ticket price. The lowest class seats are slightly more spaced out than a Greyhound. As you move up in category you get desks, tables or even a private room (which seems to be reserved for Children to yell in and has been, blissfully, sound proofed).

The scenery on this trip is a refreshing change from the grey, grey and grey that I’m used to looking at in paris. Mostly it’s grassy hills but there’s also a lot of trees and huge fields of yellow, flowering plants (does anyone know what this might be?). It reminds me an awful lot of Rural Ontario.

Wherever I just passed is a tiny town of maybe 100 single story houses with brick or thatched roofs. A river, (which is really just a creek with high aspirations) runs through the centre of town, dividing rolling fields of golden flowers on the West bank from grassy pastures dotted with hungry cows and sheep on the Eastern side. Above the rows of houses stands a single church with a three story steeple, and grassy green hills as far as I can see, to the North.

[Update] I think that we just stopped in the city of Lorraine, which would make sense because I am pretty sure that it’s a primary-agriculture region of eastern France.

I would love to share picture of all of this, but unfortunately the pocket camera I brought with me does not have a 300 km/h mode. Most of the pictures come out as a blurry mess. Sarah and I have talked about taking a trip out this way to Alsace, maybe we will bring the beefier camera then so that we can snap some pics of the scenery.

Human Resource Refactoring Redux

Some time ago I commented that my company was planning  job cuts. Since then, a few people have asked around to see if we’ve been affected so I figured I should probably update the situation here as well.

I’m happy to say that up to this point we are not greatly impacted by the changes.

That said, it could still change. Specifics of the job changes haven’t been rolled out here in full force just yet. Getting things done in France is unbelievably time consuming. Here’s an example of why:

In my office we have, what is essentially, a Union. The Union has a legal right to express an opinion on any job change (lay offs, promotions, title changes, new manager, etc) before the change is expressed to the employees. The Union doesn’t have much power to impact the result of the change, but they do vigorously excercise their right to an opinion. Recently, they’ve been going through an election of sorts so the job discussions have been tabled until the new group is elected. This means that talks will start around the beginning of June. However, if talks take longer than 5 weeks, it will be July, and people will go on Holidays. No discussions can really happen during the summer, so they will be put off until September. Sooo… I will probably hear the result of the January announcement around October.

Results outside of France have been trickling in, and there has been some indirect impact, to be sure. However, I still have a desk, a chair, a computer and, most importantly, a paycheque. I’m happy with what I’ve got.

[Note: Comments disabled on this post. Please feel free to email me any comments.]