Dealing with it


Okay, so I decided to document the difficulties in returning to ‘regular’ work after cancer. You’ve endured some rough treatment and been off work for a while, but while there remains physical damage and recovery is ongoing, you’re on the way to healing. Judge for yourself if what follows is a grizzle. For me, I want to get it on record, if only to highlight what not to do.

The first challenge is how work handles it. It’s big news for you, but it’s a shock to them also. Initially, this was done well by work. They were sympathetic to the news and gave me plenty of space. HR was in contact to see what I needed and how they could help me. I was sent a care box and was told by one of the managers that they would handle the announcement within the broader team. That’s where the issue arose.

For reasons still unclear to me, the announcement was never made. Perhaps they were uncertain how to do it or if they should. If they were in a dilemma, they only had to ask me, but they never did. I was clear in my mind that I wanted it out of the way, and the best time to do it was when I wasn’t there. I know it’s awkward. It can be a shock. Best to get it done quickly and without fuss and now rather than later. It never happened.

Some people heard about it. Others I told at different times. Unfortunately, most are still unaware of what happened to me, which makes it hard.

Now I’m working again and encountering people in the office; I never know how much people know about my situation. I tense up a little bit with the uncertainty and when the question comes routinely – “how’ve you been?” – I think twice before answering. Then, if I’ve answered with the truth, I have to deal with the shock and discomfort I generally get in response. I don’t want to have to deal with it and shouldn’t have to.

I’m much more comfortable with the people who know I had cancer. I have no problems acknowledging it or even talking about it, and once it’s out in the open, I feel like it can be normalised. That’s not the case with people who don’t know, which is most. I’m more tentative with them, even stand-offish.

The fact is that someone only has to look at me to know something happened. Get it out of the way. Ask! It might be a little unsettling, but I won’t mind. I much prefer that it wasn’t overlooked or ignored.

Making it more difficult is the damage to my hearing and my speech. I miss most of what is said in noisy environments. It means that I disengage and, more importantly, miss things being said. I’m sure anyone hard of hearing knows what I mean. You nod along as if you’re getting it, straining to hear and watching the speaker’s lips as if that might help. Finally, there comes the point when it becomes too hard, and you tune out. I’m not being rude: I can’t understand you.

What’s even more difficult are the difficulties I have with speech. On balance, this isn’t nearly as severe as my hearing loss, but it’s tougher psychologically.

My hearing won’t get any better, but my speech probably will, and it’s probably not nearly as bad as I fear it is. It’s just, for some reason, how you speak and how you sound is tied up much more in your sense of self and self-esteem. Most of the time, I’m understandable, but there are occasions when my tongue feels thick in my mouth, or my mouth is full of marbles (actually, swelling). It’s a real struggle to articulate at those times, and my speech comes out thick and unwieldy. I’m embarrassed by it.

It means I don’t open my mouth to speak nearly as much as I used to, except with friends. The most significant difference, I find, is that I don’t risk spontaneous utterances. Someone says something which, previously, you’d respond to with a one-liner or a quick reply, but you now remain silent. When I am talking, I find myself casting ahead, reviewing the things I want to say and searching for a simpler way to say them. I was an articulate, well-spoken man. Now I avoid difficult words and words with multiple syllables. There’s no way I could read this post I’ve just written.

In combination, this makes me someone I don’t want to be. If people understood my circumstances, I’d feel much less self-conscious. That’s the original sin.

The other thing that aggrieved me was how I was treated when I was at my sickest and off work. I heard from no one but my direct manager, and I had to contact him half the time. No-one wished me well or checked in on me just to say we’re thinking of you. No-one wished me luck before my critical surgery or when I started chemo and radiotherapy. There were no cards, flowers or fruit when I was in hospital, and maybe I’m old-fashioned expecting it – I just think it’s a box that should be ticked.

I felt forgotten. Abandoned. Cancer is an arduous and lonely business. I needed all the support I could get. I got practically nothing.

When I spoke to my manager – perhaps 5 times over the period (though he did visit once) – it felt like it was a chore for him. I always had the sense he was doing something else and not really listening. Maybe he was – he was flat-out filling in for me – but I would have welcomed even that little bit of honesty.

Then he started to ask when I was coming back to work. It became tedious. I’ll come back when I can, I’d answer. Then he’d ask the next time again. It felt all about that. When could I help them out? It was from a sense of duty, and even guilt, that I returned to work in February – prematurely, I think.

Even then, now that I was speaking to him more often, he was always asking me when I would increase my hours. I got angry with it. I’d tell him once, twice, three times, I will when I can, but it never seemed to get through to him. All the while, I thought all he cared about was work. My health, my well-being, was not a factor.

I know it paints a poor picture of my manager, but in his defence, he was very much under the pump and not getting the support he should have. On top of that, he’s not very good at these things. I sometimes wonder if he has a bit of a savant about him. Sometimes he’s so clueless that it’s almost funny. He retains a naivety that many years of working in the rough and tumble of the corporate world haven’t managed to change. It’s endearing in a way, and I find myself not taking it as personally as I might otherwise.

But then he suggested I should look for another job internally. That was stupid and unbelievably naive. Of course, it pissed me off. I was astounded. Maybe he meant well, but I think really, he figured if I got a job somewhere else, he could replace me with someone full-time. This was at the height of him nagging me about increasing my hours. I don’t think our relationship has been the same since.

I have other issues with work, but they’re not a part of this. Getting sick, as I did, is pretty hard work. You’ve got your hands full just staying alive and getting from one day to the next. You can’t have too much support. But, you get through – what else are you going to do? And it’s thanks to the doctors and nurses, the incredible professionalism of the surgeons and medical science. And it’s thanks to your friends. Sadly, it’s no thanks to others.

I’m willing to move on from it. I’m not someone who harbours grievances. It’s not for me to judge. Karma will look after that. Unfortunately, I’m reminded of it every day at work. I don’t think that’s going to change.

Too hard


I had an odd conversation with my boss a few weeks ago. It was in a relaxed moment when we discussed the changes in the office and the potential ramifications. I asked him the hypothetical: What would you choose if you had the option of doing any job?

I expected him to tell me that he desired something in a quiet corner where he would go about his technical work without interruption. He is a reserved person by nature, happiest; it’s always seemed to me when he has a technical issue to resolve. Naturally, I had my answer also prepared – complete autonomy and in a role that utilised my creativity; in a business sense, business improvement generally, innovation, BPR, strategy and architecture. All very staid.

My boss shocked me by saying he’d elect to do something repetitive that didn’t involve too much thought. I queried him, not understanding, and he clarified: in a factory perhaps, doing process work.

A senior IT manager said he would prefer to work in a factory? I was bewildered – yet, it made some sense, also. I know he likes the safe and predictable. We’re so different in many ways. He doesn’t like surprises and wants to be left alone (well, me too). He’s conservative and reactive and won’t rock the boat. For all that, he’s in a role where a lot is being asked of him all the time. He can hardly do his things without being asked to do others (not that it stops him from clumsily interfering in my work). He’s at real risk of burning out, not that anyone cares. A stint on the production line must seem like paradise in comparison.

We spoke again yesterday, as we do every Friday. Things are tricky at the moment. All the work I was doing has come to naught because of blundering decisions by the CIO. I’m pissed off by that, professionally and personally, but what’s more important is what it means for my future. It means I can’t execute my core function in any meaningful way until about April next year. I’m not the only one aware of that, raising questions about my future. I have about 2-3 hours of work a day now. The rest is fluff.

By comparison, my manager is flat-put, but there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to help out. The problem is twofold. He’s been in the business so long that he knows how everything works, which is okay, except there’s no backup to him and no systems or process to mitigate or manage the risk.

IT process was neglected for years, and much of the focus was on projects rather than on getting the basics right. The result is that knowledge is thin on the ground, and there aren’t processes to alleviate that. Governance is poor generally, and there are products and applications without ownership, which means no one is accountable. In the absence of all that, they come to my manager.

He’s struggling under the weight of it. Push back, I tell him, but he won’t. He explains if he doesn’t do it, who will? My answer is that’s no excuse for poor or missing processes. If he said enough is enough, someone might finally twig that it’s time to fix it. He acknowledges it’s a poor state of affairs. He knows it’s pretty shoddy all round. But he’s a good company man and won’t make waves. He’ll carry on quietly martyring himself, and nothing will ever change.

All of this is antithetical to me. For a start, I’m a process-driven character. I believe in structure and ownership, policies, procedures and accountability. In an organisation of our size, there shouldn’t be grey areas. On top of that, I’m not someone who will accept an unsatisfactory status quo. Blind ignorance or obedience is pathetic, and apathy is worse. Is it too hard? Fuck that. I understand that my manager feels overwhelmed by it all. What can he do, after all? He agrees it’s terrible and should never have been allowed to happen – but what can we do now?

Start. That’s what you can do today. And I know it’s not his job, but at least he can raise his voice. So, it’s a fucking big job. That’s the way it is. Every day you do nothing, the job gets bigger. Make a call. Make a decision. Make a plan. Do something, even if it starts small. You can’t wave it off as too hard. That’s not how life works. Nothing changes unless you make it change.

That it’s got to this state of affairs is the fault of the aforementioned CIO and his predecessors. It’s probably symptomatic of a wider malaise. I understand, in a way. It’s hard work, and none of it is sexy. Projects bring you acclaim (if they work) and are more interesting to work on, but you have to do the small and essential things also.

We got to this stage in the conversation yesterday. I’ve practically disengaged from the company so sour I am with how they’ve treated me and how things get done (or not done) – but still, I roused myself, by reflex, it seems, unable to stomach such timid acquiescence. As John Kennedy once said: do something! Do!

I make him uncomfortable, I think. The differences that once made us complement the other now divide us. He may agree with me in some distant manner, but it goes against his nature. I feel somewhat brutish talking to him these days, even though much of what I say is reasonable. The problem is it goes against the canon.

This makes me uncomfortable, ultimately. I don’t want to be the rebel, the radical, the stirrer. In a well-run organisation, I would be listened to and understood, though, in a well-run organisation, I wouldn’t need to say these things. Ideally, I want to engage and contribute. I’m not a passive bystander. I want to be part of the success, and I believe I have a lot to offer. Ideally, I place no limits on what I can give.

Now it’s at the point where I feel I must step away. It’s not in me to be an unthinking drone – but if no one listens or cares, what’s the point? Circumstances have contrived to put me in this situation. I tried to overcome my distrust and had the door closed in my face without even the courtesy of an explanation. I’m disenfranchised, and I don’t know how that can change.

And if my manager gets hit by a truck next week? The company’s fucked. That’s not my problem, but I’ll send flowers.

Just a man


I went into the office yesterday and was surprised how few people were there. I traversed three floors and reckon I saw no more than 40-50 people. It’s a holiday today so that we can properly mourn the queen’s death, and with tomorrow being another public holiday, we have a four-day weekend. That may explain why there were so few people.

I sat by the window and set up at my hot desk. I went downstairs for coffee as I would before. At lunch, I caught up with a friend and had to queue to get into a busy Malaysian restaurant. In the afternoon, I attended a couple of meetings. By 4 pm, I was headed home.

I was in a benevolent mood. For weeks, months even, I’ve been exasperated and frustrated and sometimes even angry, but yesterday I let it go. Much of what I felt had been personified in my boss. We’d always got on well, but my absence from the job had exposed to view his feet of clay.

Meeting with him yesterday, I chose to see him as the man he is. I put aside my objections and frustration. I accepted him as a flawed individual, as most of us are. I let go of the disappointing realisation that he was not the man I thought he was. I had imposed that upon myself but judged him for it.

We’ll never again be the close colleagues we were before, but we don’t have to be. I don’t see a long future in my current role, and I had decided to roll with the punches rather than stand and fight back, which, as ever, was my instinct.

Objectively, I think I have legitimate cause for complaint – but complaining does me no good. And, up close to the man again, I saw the tiredness in him. He’s not quite up to all that is being asked of him, which is a lot. That’s the fault of his managers, who expect too much of him and take his effort for granted, and his fault for allowing it. It’s human nature also that he has felt vaguely threatened by the likes of me – a sharper intellect and much harder edge. He’s fought a rearguard action understanding, I think, where he fell short and looking to shore up his position. I can’t blame him for that. At the end of the day, he’s just a man.

I plan to reach out to him further. I want to share a drink with him and some of my disappointment without judgement. It must be tricky managing someone like me, smart and opinionated and full of energy. In that regard, I tend to be a purist, casting judgement on those less worthy.

I sometimes think of us as the tortoise and the hare, though I’m less inclined to rest on my laurels than the hare. He’s the loyal company man, and I’m the individualist seeking perfection. He’s humble; I’m aggressive. He plods along steadily achieving, whereas I’m given to imagination and inspiration. He’s incremental; I believe in the quantum. He’ll go around when I seek to push through. And so on. Once, it made us a good team.

I sometimes wish that I wasn’t so hard-edged and could blend in more readily. I don’t know how that happens, though, or how it can be. I can’t imagine being different and often find myself wondering at the passive nature of others. How is it that we’re different? And, what does it feel like to be like that? On balance, I’d rather be the way I am. We only have one life.

This is my nature, but having survived cancer, it has a different shading now. My inhibitions have loosened. I feel the urge to be the rock star, notwithstanding my physical limitations. Having come close to death, and with it lurking still in the background, there seems little value or point in holding back. I feel it infuse me with a kind of reckless passion that I’m incapable of expressing adequately. If I’m to do something, then I want to do it all the way – but what is it I choose to do?

I wish people understood. I wish I could explain it. It’s that inadequacy that has me accepting the situation with my boss now rather than fighting it. We’re imperfect beings, and I should remember that more often.

I feel as if I’ve painted a grim picture of myself. Perhaps that’s accurate, but I think there is much more to me. I may inhabit an alpha personality sometimes, particularly at work, but many people know me very differently. I believe they see me as kind and generous, thoughtful, gentle and compassionate. I hope that’s true of me.

Forward planning


When I was on holiday, I spent several hours over a few days constructing a complex set of spreadsheets to map out my financial situation and project into the future. I’m at the stage, particularly given my recent illness, where I have to consider how I live in retirement.

I mapped out several different options based on income, with variable factors such as the annual return on my superannuation, CPI, and standard of living.

To a degree, I was pleasantly surprised, though there are plenty of caveats on that.

To start with, I’ve accepted that I have to work for the next 10 years at least to build up my super balance. To be safe, I’ll need to develop a side hustle I can continue into retirement – I’m looking at $10K annually, but hopefully much more.

I’m lucky to be with a super fund with the highest growth over many years. That has a huge bearing on the outcome – more so than gross salary. They’ve averaged over 9% returns over the last 10 years, and that’s despite virtually zero growth over the previous financial year. The difference between 8% and 10% of annual growth equates to years of income when I’m retired.

I’m not sure generally how the pension factors into this. As someone with few assets, I’ll likely qualify, though I’m unsure to what extent. It’s changing all the time, regardless. For the moment, I’ve left it off. Anything I get from it will be a bonus.

It’s hard to see myself becoming a homeowner in the next few years, so I’ve assumed I’ll continue on as a renter. That’s a bummer. I want to live reasonably well and have factored in a decent holiday overseas every three years.

As for expenditure, I’ve mapped out what is likely to be the major capital items I’ll need to buy – a new (preferably electric) car, a replacement TV, washing machine and fridge, all of which are over a dozen years old currently. In addition, I need a new couch, and I’ll look to replace the current TV unit and coffee table – big, heavy items in solid wood – with something lighter and smaller. There will be other bits and pieces, including a dog, which I want sooner rather than later. What I know is that these are purchases I need to make before I retire and while I’m still earning a salary. That’s where the salary becomes essential.

I’ve projected my lifestyle and savings based on my current salary, a midpoint about 20% higher (which I should be able to achieve and which I should be entitled to currently) and 50% higher, CPI adjusted. It sounds like a lot, but I’ve earned that much before and, in fact, much more. I know it’s possible to achieve that, but I wonder if I want the responsibility to go with it.

I finished the novel I’ve been writing while I was away. The next step is to get it professionally edited and look at getting it published. Worse comes to worst, I’ll self-publish to Amazon as an ebook. I think it’s pretty good, however, as do others, so I’m hoping for more than that. I look at any income I get from it as a bonus, though it probably won’t amount to much more than beer money – which is okay. I like beer, and I might even earn enough to afford champagne instead.

I’ll shortly move on to writing my second novel, for which I’ve already completed the first draft. Writing is hard but easy if that makes sense, and I have plenty of ideas. I expect I’ll never stop doing it, and maybe that’s where the $10K will come from. I’m considering setting up a Patreon account, though I’m wary of it. It feels too much like charity.

I visited the office yesterday, which was a novel event and cause for reflection. The offices have been renovated and re-opened, and there was an air of celebration.

I’ve been thinking about work a lot, obviously. My intentions remain unchanged. I hope I make it through to January when I qualify for long service leave. If I depart then with that, and about 7 weeks of accrued annual leave cashed in, I’ll have a handy cash amount to alleviate some of my liquidity issues. I may even manage to sneak a holiday – though, thanks to the eye surgery I need, I’ve downgraded that from 6-8 weeks in Europe, as I hoped, to maybe two weeks in Japan. Europe can come later.

Ideally, I will find another, better-paying job. I don’t know how prospective employers view cancer survivors, but the market remains buoyant. I get a lot of enquiries, though mostly for project management roles, which I hate. Now is not the time, though, neither because of my LSL nor my health, which I want properly stabilised before I take on another role.

I was asked yesterday by a supporter of my work what I want from my job if I were to continue. The easy part of that is a fair salary. I despise them for their pragmatic cheapness. But when I thought about it further, other things came to mind.

I’ve proposed an ambitious roadmap for development over the next 18-24 months. The recommendation is to move from the on-prem to a cloud application, with a list of functions to be configured within it over that period. In terms of salary, I’m a minion, but I’m also the sole architect of what will be a transformative business project if approved. The person I spoke to yesterday is the advocate for it, taking it to the steering committee. I provide the IP, and she does the sales job.

I realised that if the proposal was rejected, I couldn’t continue. I’m chips-in on a new, cloud-based platform. By comparison, the current platform is a dog (no offence Rex). To continue unchanged when the benefits of shifting are so stark would make my position untenable. For the record, I expect it to be approved, more or less, despite conservative apathy.

Then, though I said nothing, I thought I couldn’t continue in the current structure as it is. I need to get away from my TL, who seems more like a duffer every day. In any case, what I do doesn’t logically fit in his team, and it shows. I was always the guru at this – live chat and chatbot – and I brought it with me when I took the role in his team.

The problem is that he knows a fraction of it but ultimately can decide what we do with it. I need separation and autonomy. He’s already stuffed it up enough and has been clagging up attempts to develop it. They’re my three conditions if I was to remain.

It’s probably 50/50 if I do stay. A new manager started yesterday, and a re-structure is very much on the cards. And I have some influential supporters and advocates. I was off 6 months with cancer and returned part-time, yet I gained some gloss with stakeholders because I managed to save something from what had become a bin-fire of a project commenced when I was away.

There are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes. That’s life, I guess. How my health – cancer – plays out is another question mark. As I tell my friends, I’ve got to figure another 30 years at least.

For the moment, unfortunately, I’ve had to cancel my cataract surgery because I can’t afford it. It’s situations like that I have to get beyond.

Resisting the matrix


Now that it’s Saturday morning, I can look back on the week with a feeling of acceptance that was absent throughout it.

A lot happened. I was in Sydney for the start of it and it was interesting and a good diversion and I came back with my head full of conflicting ideas. Through the midweek, there was the sobering medical news, which culminated in confirmation that both my hearing and eyesight has declined, and I have a cataract thanks to the radiotherapy.

Towards the end of the week I experienced frustration with work. I had returned from the conference with a clear idea of the way forward that was at odds with the prevailing thinking. The more I looked at it, the more certain I became.

No part of me is a dilettante. I’m rational and logical, but I’m also passionate and committed. I want to be in the thing I do. I have great faith in my powers of analysis and have learned to trust my talent. It may sound immodest, but I stand by my judgement because I have looked deeper and with a critical perspective.

For a moment I was caught up in what I concluded. I was in a position to influence, but not change things. I’m as near as anyone to being a subject matter expert, but my expertise is secondary to the status quo. It’s easier to do nothing than it is to do something.

Logically, I sit here today as near as certain that my take is correct, but I’m almost certain that nothing will change. I spent much of the week examining the issue and driving the point. I was busy with calls and emails and speaking to people. I could not accept doing nothing: and this is why.

I had a sense of righteous certainty that translated into frustration and mental agitation. I had been drawn into it, as I’m prone to be, by wanting to achieve something that was right and the challenge of overcoming the obstacles in my way. I admit, there is much of the purist in me in those moments – the evangelist that will brook no contradiction. The idealist in me takes over from the pragmatist.

I will continue to prosetlyse my case, because it is the right thing to do, but I have come down from my high horse. By the end of the week I felt discouraged and cynical. I felt sour with the belief that nothing would change, no matter the overwhelming case to do so. I questioned my purpose. Then, randomly, the thought occurred to me: I’ve been drawn back into the matrix.

What does that mean? It’s the realisation that this isn’t really what I want to do. This is not the person I want to be. I’d been caught up in the battle, unable to see past it.

It’s fine to care and to be passionate, but I know well in the scheme of things that the outcome of this little battle means nothing. And I knew in that moment that there’s something personal in this: I don’t like to be thwarted, not when I’m right. But then, it matters little really. And I remembered, as I stepped away, this is not the life I choose.

There is food for thought in the months ahead. I’m almost certain that this isn’t the place for me long term, but I have to be patient in the meantime and accept what I cannot change.

There are likely changes ahead, as mooted a couple of weeks ago. Things are restructuring and there’s clearly a cost-cutting drive in progress. For every three people who leave, only two are replaced. Those remaining are placed under unreasonable pressure. New managers will likely bring different priorities and agendas. There may be opportunities there, but just as likely are dead-ends.

I’m well regarded professionally, but I suspect also seen as someone insubordinate to titles and policies (which is true – I aim to be honest to myself and speak out when I think it’s due, regardless of audience. I think that’s as it should be.) From a distance, I seem a hard man. Closer, an affable and considerate colleague. I know I have some strong advocates in the business who value my perspective, work ethic and ability. And, in my area, there’s no one who comes close to my level of knowledge.

How much does that count? Probably quite little. No one is irreplaceable, even when it’s damaging to do so. The water closes over very quickly and soon it’s as if you were never there. It’s the way of things.

It’s good to remember that. The world moves on. So do you. I’m never going to be less than committed, and I don’t want to be, but if I’m to continue in this line of work it’s probably with an organisation better aligned to my values and energy. The question to be answered is if this is the line of work for me still, and if there’s anything else I can do?

I’ll know the answer to that in the fullness of time. Now, it’s time for coffee with a friend.

Toil


The routine these days is pretty simple. I’m up early and out of the house by 7am. I get the train to Prahran, where I walk to the hospital. I’ll be there for about two hours before the return journey begins. I hope to be on the 10.30 train and home at around 11.

Once home, I fire up the heating and sit in front of my desk to do my allotted hours of work. Unfortunately, that’s where I run into trouble.

It’s hard to adequately describe my almost complete disinterest in work these days. It was different a few months back when I worked fewer hours and was full-on trying to fix a project going off the rails. I grumbled a bit, but I was pretty engaged. It was a decent challenge, and I felt some ownership of the outcome. Finally, though, the project was fully implemented, and outside a few housekeeping issues, we’re in BAU – and it feels so fucking mundane.

I probably felt this before but put it to one side. It was different when we went into the office because there were other distractions and because you would work with others on these things. I still work with others, but the connections are much weaker. And the big thing is that I’ve survived cancer. A lot of things seem a bit pale after that.

The challenge now is to hang in there. It might get a bit more exciting in a month or two when some new projects come online, but until then, I have to push myself. I know this isn’t the long-term answer, but I just need to get through to January for now, which is when my LSL kicks in. All bets are off after that.

There’s a possibility that things might change before then. Both the head of the department and the head of digital have either left or are leaving. No replacements yet. That comes after a new CEO started a few months back. It means that many things could change, and some undoubtedly will.

There may be a new broom going through the place generally, but regardless, you can be sure that the new appointments will have their own agenda and priorities and possibly new direction. What we do, how we do it, and who does it may change. A restructure is possible, but at the very least, I expect there’ll be a review.

Out of this, there’s the possibility that people will choose to leave or be asked to. New management like to put their stamp on things. What that means for me, I’m not sure.

I’ve been around for a while, as has my TL, and that probably makes us a little vulnerable. But maybe all that happens is that we get switched from Marketing to IT. I’m not too concerned. If they want to offer me a package, then I’ll consider it, depending on what the number starts with. Then again, they may be wary of giving the guy with cancer his marching orders. I reckon it will become more apparent by November. They’ll want it sorted by Christmas.

Next week I’m going to Sydney for an AI conference. Given how rampant Covid is, I gave reasonable consideration to pulling out – but it’ll be good to get away, and it might be interesting. It could be good networking also.

While I’m there, I’m catching up with an old workmate I haven’t seen for over ten years. Had we lived in the same city, we’d have become great mates. He’s Swedish and was head of practice when I was in IT Consulting. We’re very alike – independent-minded, like a good time, affable, amiable and hard nosed. He’s married now, has a young daughter, and lives in Coogee, where we’re meeting. It’s where I lived when I was a bub.

Maybe I’ll have a chat with him about work. He was always a great advocate for me and a very generous character. It will be good to have a few beers with him.

Where from here?


I got an invitation on Wednesday to apply for a role heading up an AI implementation. I was equally tempted and intrigued. It might be interesting and just the challenge I need. I can’t do it, though, not until I’m properly healthy and working full time, not until all my appointments are done, and I feel I have the energy – both physical and mental – to do a job like that justice.

The broader question is whether that’s the path I want to continue along? I tend to think it isn’t, but what else can I feasibly do? A role such as this at least has the virtue of being vaguely interesting, as well as being nicely remunerative.

There’s plenty of work around at the moment, but it’s a bit like the old phrase for me: water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. A couple of months back, I had an inquiry about whether I’d be interested in joining a consulting firm. The answer to that these days is definitely not, but I couldn’t anyway.

I’m scheduled to work six hours a day at the moment, but I struggle to manage that with my daily hyperbaric sessions. That’s okay, I’m much in credit, and they owe me.

I struggle, regardless. Now we’ve reverted to a BAU phase, it’s not motivation that’s the big problem, but interest. It all seems so small.

It seems to me that I rouse when presented with a challenge, or a problem to solve, or when cleaning up the mess that’s been left me (with a waspish shake of the head). I struggle with the day-to-day ordinariness of the role.

The problem is, I don’t feel ready to take on a bigger project. There was a decent project in the offing, but when it was diverted, I was happy. It’ll be someone else’s responsibility, while I’ll act as the SME and cast before them my hard-won experience and pearls of wisdom. I’m beginning to think that’s the perfect scenario for me going forward.

I dislike project management, always have. Compounding that these days is that I doubt I have the necessary stamina to do it properly. There’s a lot of talking required for a role like that, and that’s a problem, too.

I had a bad day with my speech on Wednesday. My tongue felt too big for my mouth and sounded like it too. Yesterday was better. Today, somewhere in between.

A lot of it is in my mind – I feel unco when talking becomes difficult. And it does get difficult. I need to concentrate hard to get the words out intelligible. It becomes tiring, and the more tired I get, the harder it gets.

It’s Friday; I don’t need to worry about it now – but I will have to before too long.

Disengagement


For the last couple of days, I was at an offsite session with work. It was a very instructive period.

On both days, I got there about mid-morning as I was coming from my hyperbaric treatment. It was held at a plush venue in one of the office towers in the city. The last time we did this was about March in 2019, and then Covid struck.

It was the usual mix of activities – strategy sessions, games, presentations, guest speakers, team exercises, and reviews. Back when we had it last time, it made for a change from the daily humdrum, but these days it’s quite novel. We hardly see each other anymore, and any gathering is unusual. On top of that, so much has changed, the department has grown, and there are many new faces.

Typically, these events are upbeat and self-congratulatory, and even a tad gung-ho. I’ve never been a great fit for this kind of event because I’m of a different nature. Bear in mind I’m an IT person working in Marketing, and we’re pretty much oil and water. I can tolerate the happy-clapping, but I will never be passionate about making money for other people. That’s the subversive in me coming out.

That was true again this time, though more pronounced than previously because of my recent experiences. Where before, I might have shrugged my shoulders at it, I saw it more cynically yesterday. I was there, slightly damaged, feeling a bit of an outsider, looking at it all as if through a pane of glass.

I actually do well at some of the activities because, by nature, I’m more direct. I feel too cool for school sometimes, but then I get impatient and intervene. Sometimes – previously – I’m coercive, working with people to draw out the essence of their idea and gently coordinating until a solution is achieved. Yesterday, I was more strident.

Later I wondered if my cynicism was unfair. People take meaning from their work, and they’re lucky. It’s not for me to judge that. I may have loftier notions, but who am I kidding? To each their own. I was always out of step – happily so – but I feel foreign to it now. My own is different.

This was only the second time I’ve been with the extended team since I got sick. I’m healthier than before and, in many ways, seem roughly normal. I don’t think about it a lot, but it becomes awkward at times.

To start with, I don’t know what people know of my recent trials. When they ask how I’ve been, what do I say? It’s a real downer to tell them I’m recovering from cancer, but I don’t want to lie either, and if they know and I say nothing, aren’t I being disingenuous?

It pisses me off there was no official notification back when it all started. They said they would but never did. Had they done so, the sting would have gone out of the tail long before. People would be curious, but they may just as likely be happy to see me up and about.

I have no problem with people knowing. It’s the truth, after all, and I’m alive still, so it’s a better story than it might have been (I wonder sometimes what story work would have come up with if I had perished from this?). And, I’d rather be open about it than hiding it away. It actually does me some good to talk about it.

It turns out that some people knew, and others had no clue. Many had noticed my absence and thought something was amiss but didn’t know what. For me, nothing could be worse than rumours and innuendo, but in the absence of hard information, that’s what happens. I can’t tell you how pissed off I am about how it was handled. All the pressure was put onto me.

And so, it came up yesterday, and I faced the dilemma several times, not knowing exactly how to respond. In every instance, I was honest – but you don’t know how much to say, and you’re conscious of what the other person is feeling and how awkward it is for them to respond, which becomes difficult.

What’s ironic is that we had sessions about exclusivity and accessibility on Thursday, some of which felt personally relevant and was a reminder of how none of that happened with me.

We had drinks last night, and it was another interesting and instructive experience. I found it hard because with my diminished hearing, I had to lean in hard to make out what people were saying amid the background noise.

The other side of that is that I found myself having to try extra hard to make myself understood. One guy had earlier told me how much my speech had improved since the last time he spoke to me a few months ago, which was gratifying. I’m probably overly self-conscious about my ability to speak clearly, but in the noisy environs of a busy bar that becomes very relevant. I could see people struggling to understand what I was saying, and a little bit of me died each time.

What happens? You begin to disengage. You don’t put yourself in that position of embarrassment. It runs counter to the articulate and social person I’ve always been. I feel diminished.

Shortly before I left, I got talking to one of the women there, someone I’ve always liked, a thoughtful, sensitive person with great depths. She knew I’d been away, but not why. I told her. The bar had emptied a little by then so I didn’t have to strain so hard. I sensed that she wanted to talk to me, but in the end, I walked away.

As I walked to the train afterwards, I regretted that. You know how sometimes you think of things you should have said after the moment has passed? Generally, I say those things at the time, but they’re in the way of wit. Last night I regretted not being more open with her.

I have this great idea of being more transparent and authentic with others. It appears one of the great lessons from this experience – and yet, with a sympathetic audience, I failed.

At the time, you feel awkward. I’ve experienced the hardship, but I don’t want to make it about me. I know how tricky it is to respond to something like that, and I don’t want to burden others with my story. Yet, I feel there are some people happy to learn.

I had the chance to be quite honest last night with someone I respect and who has the sensitivity to accept and understand, and I walked away. When it comes down to it, I feel embarrassed, which is not something I deserve.

Maverick pragmatism


The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and it’s certainly warmer than it has been lately – but I find myself out of sorts.

I had my morning therapy which, in hindsight, always seems a bit of a blur. Outside of unwanted dramas, such as I experienced the week before last, it’s pretty uneventful, if not downright dull. I travel to the hospital in the dark, I lay quietly for nearly two hours, wiling the time away, and then I return.

On this occasion, it’s the return that has left me sour. Reversing out of my parking spot at the station, I heard scraping and got out of the car. It seems my front bumper had caught on something, and the momentum had wrenched it out of position on either side. There’s no serious damage and is easily repaired, I expect, but it’s annoying.

Home now and back at my desk working. I feel very unmotivated, but it’s nothing to do with what happened earlier.

I visited the office last Friday for a change and had lunch with my manager while I was there. Later, we had a discussion in which we had opposing opinions. The experience crystallised views that had been forming for the last six months.

My illness, if that’s the phrase, has left me ambivalent about the point of work. I know I need it to pay the rent, etc., but I can’t get excited about the actual work. In principle, anyway. This has always been in me.

I’ve always had a bit more of a detached view than most and was aware that it didn’t amount to much when you thought about it. To counter that, I had personal ambition and the sort of innate competitiveness that can turn the most trivial into a contest. I had to do it, and that being the case, I wanted to do it well and get all I could out of it. As it happened, I would often experience the joy of doing a job well. That remains true.

I still feel it when I get involved. I feel the surge of a looming challenge and want to overcome it. And, when I do, it’s very satisfying. It’s a pleasure of the moment, though, like being on the winning team when the siren blows. It’s good, but I question the value of the team.

Recent experience has emphasised that. The value of many things is open to question now, but in reality, all I’ve done is travelled further down a road I was already on. And I’ve become more actively conscious of it. Where before I might have given a frustrated shrug of the shoulders, now it is something urgent I must act upon.

I have become a bit of a maverick outsider, talented and respected, but consciously outside the system and somewhat disdainful of it. Again, much of this is by nature but more pronounced now. I suspect I always knew I could get away with more because I was smart and used it. And I’ve never been interested in belonging – just the opposite, probably. It suits me to come swooping in with the answers and then sit back with a satisfied air – though I probably seem more aggressive than that.

I’m conscientious and hard-working and fair-minded, but there’s something of the hare to me. My manager is the tortoise, which is why we made a good team. He plods along at a steady pace, making the occasional clumsy blue but utterly reliable in the sense that he’ll keep going without dissent or complaint. He’s a team player and company man.

He also does all the stuff I have no interest in doing – budgeting and admin, managing staff and responding to senior management. I’ve done that in the past but am long past it now. I realise that I may appear all care and no responsibility. I have the luxury of being a maverick and even being outspoken occasionally. My situation has added a layer of tolerance.

I’m glad that I don’t have that responsibility. Even if I were perfectly fit, I wouldn’t want it. That’s my limit now. I can manage doing the things I’m interested in and not anything I’m not (mind you, that’s the best use of me also). It doesn’t mean I don’t take responsibility – I do and am prepared to hang my hat upon my performance.

Perhaps by nature, but also by virtue of his role, my manager is a pragmatist. I think I’m pragmatic too, sometimes harshly, but I’m also a bit of an idealist. That’s a virtue of being a maverick.

We had a discussion, if not an argument, about how the piece of work we did – live chat – was being used. It’s very poorly used by a section of the business, and it offends me in two ways – that I’ve gone to the trouble of building this, and they abuse it, and because I think it shockingly unprofessional.

My manager shrugs his shoulders. Not your problem, he says. He’s like a tradesman who does his bit, and if the whole remains faulty, it’s not his problem. The difference is that I invest in the whole. I’m not just interested in whether my bit is working or even if the whole is working; I’m invested in the outcomes and how well it is used.

I get a lot of that from my consulting background when success was measured by performance. We’re building tools, and it matters very little if there’s a green light when you turn it on, if the tool is improperly used, or if it doesn’t achieve what it’s intended.

The pragmatist in me says I should let it go – be like my manager. I can’t be, though, even when I question the value of work. That’s because whatever value I find is in the quality of the work I do. It’s pointlessly empty otherwise.

I feel sure I’m coming to a crossroads. My immediate priority is to make it to January next year when I qualify for long service leave. Now that’s a pragmatic objective. After that, I’ll have to check where I’m at. The reality is, I can afford the luxury of being a maverick at work and being tolerated for it, but I can’t afford to be so cavalier with my life. I have to survive.

I imagine there must be a way to reconcile these disparate elements, but I don’t know how as yet.

Overtime


After all that, back to work.

Work has been busy. After all the issues and delays, we finally went live with ‘our’ project last week. It went as well as could be expected in the circumstances, which is to say that there were bugs and blips, which we’ve been working through since, but the core functionality works.

The go-live was greeted with a glee I thought inappropriate, but that may be that I’m a grinch. In my mind, this has been a very poorly run project, and there’s hardly cause for celebration or self-congratulation. If nothing else, celebration was premature given the work that still had to be done.

I’ve been working 8-10 hours, and that’s true even on the day I had to visit the Alfred to discuss my hyperbaric treatment. That night I worked till 10. I get paid for four hours a day.

In a sense, I don’t mind. I feel a sense of obligation to get things right – obviously, a sense not everyone shares. I enjoy the challenge of getting things right, and though it isn’t officially my project, I feel some ownership. As it will all revert to me to manage when I’m back full-time, that’s understandable.

What I resent is the expectation that I will do this, which is worse when others decline to do the same. I feel a bit used, especially when so much of what I’m doing is saving the PM’s arse.

Besides the various functional problems we’ve had to address post-live, another serious issue emerged a couple of days later. Without going into too much detail, we’re replacing one application with an alternative app and the general brief that it should be ‘like for like’. For the most part, it is – my design and architecture have been replicated in the new app. The fundamental difference is that they’ve added a contact form upfront, but no-one bothered to check with legal to see if that was alright, particularly regarding the privacy statement.

That’s a rookie mistake. It should have been done months ago if not last year. As I tell the guys, you have to tick all the boxes; otherwise, it will come back to bite you on the arse. So, of course, when we belatedly informed legal (after an argument with the PM), they told us that yes, it has to be fixed, and you have a week to do it.

For much of the project over the last few months, I’ve felt like a backseat driver. I could yell things from the backseat, but I didn’t have my hands on the wheel. Some of what I said was ignored, and some of it – belatedly – was acted on. I was absent for the first 7 months of the project, so I didn’t know all the discussions and decisions made, and none was documented. Some I was able to deduce, but so much more you don’t see until it’s in a production environment.

The PM stuffed up the legal thing, and it will cost money to fix it. I don’t think he’s told anyone above him, and our argument was about whether we should take it to legal at all. He wanted to quietly fix it. Me, I want to do these things by the book – besides, I might think what legal will say, but I don’t know. Let the experts do their job; we’ll do ours.

I find it hard to be angry with the PM. He’s a nice guy, and he’s out of his depth. He knows it, I think, which is why he’s made himself scarce, and I’ve had to work 8-10 hours every day. He hung up on me the day after we went live. I was still in bed when I got a call from a delegation of senior Ops stakeholders reporting problems and wanting to get them resolved. You may ask why they came to me rather than the PM, but maybe the answer is self-evident by now.

I did the right thing and called the PM to advise him of the conversation. We’re looking into it, he said. Well, I replied, it might be a good idea to tell them you’re doing that. You can tell them, he said, with unexpected heat. But I don’t know what you’re doing! I responded.

Managing stakeholders has been a problem throughout. The project team are poor communicators and seem oblivious of the need to keep stakeholders informed – not as if it isn’t project management 101. If nothing else, people need reassurance. Projects that impact your job are stressful for the people concerned. Best is to keep them informed all along the way and bring them into the conversation. Silence makes them nervous, and they begin to fear the worst.

So, yeah, I’m sooking a bit. It’s just that I’ve been trying to get the half-day I’m entitled to and maybe a day off in lieu, but I can’t do it because the PM isn’t pulling his weight. The guy who urged me to work longer when I still felt crook from recovery has taken two half days off in the last week and has now come down with Covid. It’s not that he was doing much when he was online, but it means I have to step up to save his project.

I don’t know if people understand, but up to the last couple of weeks, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t feel unwell by conventional standards. You get conditioned to it and work through it because you must. I lost the hearing in my right ear again yesterday and earaches with it. I thought, okay, I’ll take it easy Monday. I woke up with my hearing restored (and I think it’s okay), but I’ve got no choice but to work a full day because there’s no-one else available.

By my reckoning, the business owes me between 80-100 hours of work I haven’t been paid for. It would be easier if they weren’t so fucking blase about it.

Hopefully, by the end of the week, everything will have settled. I’ve done a lot to make the PM look good, but I also think that a lot have recognised my value through this, and I can only hope I get some reward for that.