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.

Natural and assumed selves


One night last week while I lay in bed reading I had classical music playing in the background. The first piece was by Ravel – his Piano Trio in A Minor. Tinkling piano is overlaid with sinuous violin – very Ravel. It’s a thoughtful, quiet piece that draws you in with the sense that there’s something going on beyond the music.

I would pause occasionally in my reading to listen more closely and the thought occurred naturally in me: this how I want to live. But what did that mean? I think that I wanted to live with music like this playing a more central place in my life – slowing me down, encouraging me to be thoughtful and to peer into the depths that the hustle of everyday life keep us too busy to look into. I wanted to be present, in the moment, as I was as I listened to the music.

I probably could have said the same thing at multiple stages of my life, though mostly there were other things that drew me away. This time, it feels as if the time is right. I’ve reached the end of the path and, if I chose, that’s the direction I could turn to.

The next day I had an early appointment at the hospital, after which I went into the office, where my team had gathered.

That afternoon I had a meeting with a vendor we have an vital relationship with. Also there was the head of digital, and my direct boss, B.

I used to have a great relationship with B. He’s a very decent human being, affable, intelligent, mostly authentic. The relationship soured a little bit when I was sick. As I’ve written, I felt neglected and sometimes forgotten. When we spoke it often felt as if he wasn’t listening completely. I felt he was a stooge for the company, more inclined to their interests than mine. He was certainly very clumsy with some of his language and behaviour.

It took the gloss off our relationship but I excused most of it on the grounds that he was very busy covering my role as well, and that he was just one of those people poor at managing awkward situations.

I returned to work in February to find the project he had inherited in my absence had been mismanaged. Conscious of my part-time status and the fact that I was no more than an interested bystander now, I tried to influence and direct the best I could to plug the holes and get the project back on track. I even had to step up at one stage and managed to get a few things done.

Overall, it was too late to make much difference, and I felt at times as if my interventions were seen as unwanted interference. I understood that and was sympathetic – it was an awkward position for both of us. Sometimes I was ignored, at other times my suggestions were rejected (wrongly, as it transpired), and occasionally they would be followed up.

By the time we met with the vendors last week I felt uncomfortable to the point of being disenchanted. By that time the go-live date had been postponed twice, and issues had emerged threatening the next deadline. The issues were those I had warned of and raised months before but had been fobbed off or ignored.

I sat in the meeting and realised that I had lost faith in B. He sat there with a grin on his face making comments that were not quite correct. Beside him, I was more incisive and direct – I know the product backwards. Then there was the head of digital, who favours B.

I understood why. B is a nice guy. He’s reliable and he won’t rock the boat and there’s a little of the unconscious martyr in him – you can load him up with work and he’ll get it done without complaint. He’s smart too, though it’s of a particular type. He has a technical mind and that’s how he sees the world. He’s blind when it comes to the operational, and even the functional. His thinking runs in a straight line, which is great for some roles, but not for others. Above all, he’s biddable, and I think that’s why he’s in favour.

What’s strange is that I started in my role appointed by the previous head of digital. He was disdainful of B and planned for me to take his place. But then he left. I wasn’t unhappy. I liked B and I was pretty sure I didn’t want his job.

But now, sitting there, I felt a kind of disgust. Not for him, but for the situation generally. I had realised a little while before that I was tired of hiding my light under a bushel. No-one knows what my experience is or the range of what I’m capable of. For the most part, I’ve kept silent, unsure of what I wanted.

With my health slowly returning I realised that I no longer wanted to hide away. I had no ambitions. There was no scheming in it. I just wanted to be honest with myself and others. And I sat there listening to people who knew a fraction of what I did, while I had a fraction of their authority. Let me tell you, it’s frustrating to listen to uninformed nonsense when you’ve made a living off what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, the project went live. It was good enough, no more. I was embarrassed to be part of it. This morning, as I lay in bed, I had a delegation of key stakeholders contact me rather than B, reporting issues. I can only guess they came to me knowing I would do something about it.

I spoke to B and ended up telling him he had to do a better job. He’s my superior. He hung up. I dealt with the issues while he spoke in platitudes. He laughed with the vendor. He spoke of what a good job had been done and how we must celebrate. Pardon me if I’m churlish, but I want nothing to do with it. I can’t celebrate a project done badly with mediocre results.

So we return to where we started. I want to live differently. And I’ve lost faith in B, and quite possibly my job in general. These seem to be compatible notions. In theory, at least.

In the real world, I’m not so sure. In the real world practicalities apply. I have to make a living. I have to earn a wage. What’s especially important for me is to put aside as much as I can for when I retire. That’s an urgent requirement.

In the real world I have to put up with B, I think. I’ve lost some respect for him, which makes it hard, but I still like him as a person. The sensible thing would be to stick to the original plan – hang in there until I qualify for long-service leave – maybe a year? – then defongerate.

Maybe then I can begin to live differently. I’m still as smart as I ever was and no-one disputes that. There’s a lot I can do, though it’s much too late to change career. What I can do now is prepare myself for different things and perhaps begin the transition, mentally at least. I know some things I must do and there seems no good reason why I shouldn’t start now.

It means that I have to be patient though, as well. I’ll be honest, upfront, I’ll be myself, but there’s no value in rocking the boat too much at this stage. What feels strange is that I’m very good at what I do, which seems very different to how I want to be. My assumed self is accomplished and authoritative, but what I long for is to be my natural self – or so it seems to me – who is a very different man.

There is a new head of digital starting in July so who knows what changes that brings. I know right now that if anyone attempts to clap me on the shoulder for a job well done on this project, I’ll shrug them off. Unearned praise is no recommendation.

Back in the big chair


The big digital project at work was due to go live earlier this month, but was postponed for a few weeks because the vendor was behind schedule. The new go-live date was set for next Thursday, the 28th. UAT started just before Easter and, after Easter, the project manager decided to take the week off (which I consider irresponsible).

That was last Tuesday. There’s already been negative reports coming out of UAT, but they escalated last week. Defects were being reported, as expected, but the critical issue was the instability of the UAT environment, which meant that testing veered between difficult and impossible. It was hugely frustrating and we fell days behind in the schedule, without getting to the bottom of UAT.

We had discussed options around project go/no-go the week before, when it was more of a theoretical than a practical consideration. Now it became a burning question, and it fell to me to resolve it.

Of course, it should have been the PM making that decision, but he had his feet up somewhere nibbling on an Easter bilby. Theoretically, it then fell to the woman who had been the hands-on PM, liaising with the vendor, scheduling training and UAT, and managing development. This was over her head, though. It was not a decision she wanted to make, though she agreed with it. She had neither the exposure nor the relationship with the executive stakeholders who would have to be informed of this. Nor did she have the confidence to make that call alone.

It was natural for me to step up, though I relished it no more than she did. Already delayed once, a further delay to the project would be unpopular and potentially controversial. From an organisational perspective, this is a big, potentially transformational project, with a lot riding on it.

No-one knows the work better than me though. Had I not got ill, it would have been my project. All the same, I’d done all the lead-up work and negotiated the scope and cost of it. My absence meant I was on the periphery when I returned, but I still knew it better than those doing it. On top of that, I know the execs and they know and respect me. And, I enjoy being in the hot seat.

It was obvious we had to delay. Even the vendor accepted that. I made the decision without setting a new date. That would be contingent on certain milestones being met. I contacted the key stakeholders to let them know what was on the cards and why, then sent out the email making it official.

That left the great challenge of getting UAT back on track. We had no satisfactory answer why we had problems with it. I escalated with the vendor demanding from them hyper care until we got the problems resolved.

In addition, there were a few functional and admin holes that no-one had addressed and, having assumed control of the project, I sought to plug them.

This was a lot of work and very demanding. It was poor, if not unreasonable that it had been left to me – recovering from cancer and only working part-time. It involved a lot of meetings, a lot of phone calls, emails detailing what needed to be done and how, reassurance and some cajoling of the people doing the work (very industrious, though naive), plus communicating with the operational stakeholders who’d been neglected throughout (and who’d made their thoughts clear).

Effectively, I took over the project and did it as I thought it should be done. In many ways, it was like the previous project I described just last week. I’d explained then the temptation to take over, and ultimately rejected it – but here, now, it had been forced upon me. I didn’t mind.

It was hard work, and particularly so that it required so much talking.

I’ve explained how speech is much more difficult for me now, how it wears me out and how I fear I’ll be misunderstood. Now I was taking the lead, asking questions of the vendor and detailing the help we needed, as well as setting priorities and tasks. I wasn’t aggressive, but the need was pointed. They had let us down and only they could resolve the technical issues. Each hour that passed was critical. We have a hard deadline of about three weeks. If we go beyond that then go-live can’t happen before July.

There were times last week I wished I could stick my hand up someone’s back and talk through them, but no-one would let me. On one occasion I apologised for my ‘afflicted’ speech and briefly explained that it was the effects of my treatment, and it would eventually get better.

It’s like I don’t have full access to my mouth. Some words come without effort, but many times I have to concentrate on enunciating somewhat clearly. It’s the one thing I remain embarrassed about, and frustrated about, too, as communication was one of my strengths. Normally I talk much as I write, though more sparingly. Now I find myself thinking about what I have to say and taking verbal shortcuts.

Ultimately, we made progress. The overlooked parts of the project were updated, and stakeholders were listened to. Unfortunately, UAT went slowly, and it was only late on Friday that the problem was finally identified: the vendor had sent us files with an error in them.

The good news is that finally, we had an answer, and with it, a solution. We got sent new files to upload. But the question was, why were the original files released to us without being properly checked for quality? And why, after all our complaints, did it take them so long to review and find the problem? They’re the questions I’ve left with the Sales Manager.

Not only did I return to full-time work last week, but it was also very intense full-time work. One night I was asleep, fully clothed, by 7.20. I greatly enjoyed the challenge. It’s invigorating. I got immense satisfaction at re-aligning the project and fixing the things that had been annoying me. I got to put my stamp on it and was instrumental in getting the project back on track.

I’m not ready to do that permanently as yet, though. I don’t think I can sustain that effort for too long, not yet. I’ll be glad to hand it back to the PM on Tuesday. I’ve done my bit. I’m satisfied. I expect we’ll go-live in the next fortnight.

Let it go


A couple of years ago, when I was healthy still and Covid had begun transforming the world, I was flat-out working on a desperately urgent project to get around the restrictions the virus had imposed upon us.

It was a strange time. I remember not long before, perhaps around the end of February, I’d asked one of the managers if they had any contingencies in case Covid hit the worst-case scenario – which it did and more. He smiled at me as if I was making a joke, but within weeks I was working on the most central of hastily cobbled together contingencies, and inside a month we’d left the office and were working from home.

Before Covid hit I was responsible for the maintenance and development of the company’s chatbot and live chat platform, and the structure surrounding it. I knew it very well. I’d designed and built most of what we had, right down to the scripts the AI would deliver and the policies that governed the process.

When it became clear how much damage Covid was likely to inflict, the ability to maintain a connection with our customers through the web became critical, especially when our customer facing employees were sent home.

There were great pow-wows about what we could and should do. It required a transformation of the functionality and logic that dictated chat performance. Everything came to me. They were desperate times and no-one had the knowledge I had and there was not the time to ramp up a proper project. I loved it.

They knew, more or less, what they wanted of it, but only I could properly conceive of it. I saw it in my mind’s eye like a complex 3d model. It would have seemed nonsensical to most people, but it was absolutely clear to me. It fell to me to re-architect the solution and manage its redevelopment.

This would have been a 3-4 month project normally, but our goal was to get it done in three weeks. That required a lot of hard work and a few creative short-cuts to achieve. I felt energised by the challenge of it. Exhilarated, even, and it brought out of me the mercurial aspects of my character so often dormant otherwise.

In that mode, I felt augmented as much as I did inspired. I saw things in absolute clarity and had faith that all was within my power. I never doubted success. Whilst much of the challenge was technical, it would be impossible without the buy-in and support of the people doing the hard yards building it – the developers, some in Australia, the rest in India. I was very aware I had to get them on board early and I sought to inspire them by the scale of the demand to get the best from them – to outdo themselves. I wanted them go be proud of what they did and motivated to do more.

In that state of mind, I bypassed exhaustion. I worked for 21 days straight, often for 10-12 hours a day, dealing with the onshore team in the daylight hours, and the Indian team when it got dark. I slowed down very quickly once it was done, but not before.

When I think back to those days it seems characterised by constant motion. I think I was on my feet 90% of the time, because it was apt to the work was going, always moving. Probably 60% of the time I was on the phone to someone checking on this, asking about that, suggesting one thing, urging another, and so on. The rest of the time I was either racing up and down the stairs when I was in the office, or at my laptop working on a spreadsheet or a design document or sending emails.

I was very demanding, like a benevolent, though insistent, dictator. I had to manage stakeholders and from some required decisions to be made, “like now”. I always knew the right answer but would let them come up with it. If they were incapable of making a decision I would do it for them. If they made the wrong decision I would ignore it and do the right thing.

It’s all very well working your butt off and looking heroic, but it doesn’t mean a thing if when you switch it on it doesn’t work. After 21 days we got to that point at about 9pm on a Monday night. We turned it on – and it worked! It didn’t stop working and it required no significant adjustment. It was a remarkable achievement and we were recognised for it.

Last year, we decided it was time to upgrade to a new chat platform with something a bit more and with a lot more bells and whistles. We began sparking to an alternative vendor, with me leading the way.

I spent the first 6 months of the year in heavy consultation with our account manager wrangling requirements, functionality, timelines, and cost. I worked and re-worked a proposal for the board explaining what we planned go do, why we planned to do it, what the benefits would be, and how much it would cost.

After 6 months of intense work it was approved and we just had to set start dates. And then I got sick.

I was gone by the time the project kicked off. It was my project and I would have been the central figure in delivering it, except I couldn’t. My place was taken by two who had no direct experience of chat and only basic knowledge of it. For me, it was like handing over the blueprints of the house I’d designed to other people to build.

In all the time I was away, I had little to do with it. I’d occasionally hear something, but no-one consulted me or asked my advice. It was meant to be implemented by December, but by the time I returned in February it was still ongoing – and remains so. With a bit of luck, it will go-live on the 28th.

The predominant sense when I returned was disappointment. A lot of critical things had been overlooked or not been considered, there was confusion over the scope, and I felt the vendor had taken advantage of some lenient supervision. None of the nice to haves I’d identified with the account manager as things we’d try to implement through the project had been done, despite an extra five months on the project (to be fair, the account manager, who was very good, had left in December and not been replaced).

The ‘house’ I’d designed was half-built, there were rooms in the wrong places, half the walls were off square, the floors not level, and key plumbing was missing.

What do you do? I’d returned from cancer and was only working three hours a day, and felt pretty ordinary much of the time. As this post demonstrates, I was pretty invested in the solution and felt I owned it – but now I had to accept it wasn’t mine anymore.

I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I wondered how much I should care, but in reality the concern and care I felt was reflex. I did what I could to guide and inform and put in a lot of work speaking to stakeholders and writing emails and explaining what exactly needed to be done to catch-up, and how to do it.

Now we’re less than a fortnight from the big day and for some of these things it’s too late. The general sense around the business is that the project has become a mess and we’ll just have to deal with it.

I find it hard and very frustrating. I attend meetings and sometimes I speak up and at other times I bit my tongue. Making things infinitely more difficult are the problems I have with my speech. I feel quite embarrassed sometimes, but regardless it’s hard work getting my point across. It’s easier to remain mute.

Now I fight the urge to act. I feel like picking this thing up and carrying it across the line as I did two years ago. I remember the feeling and know it’s possible to do a lot more, but also that it’s too late for that. And anyway, I’m not capable now because I can’t speak it.

I should let go. It’s not my responsibility. If there’s one positive out of this it’s that I can’t be blamed for what will be a mediocre outcome, at best. That’s not me though. I don’t really think that way. What eats at me is that it should be better.

Let it go. Soon, when I’m back to full-time, it will be mine again. I can make a difference then.

Unbowed


I visited the office on Friday for an all-team meeting. It was to be the first time meeting everyone since well before my cancer, and so I’d targeted it as something I had to attend.

I didn’t know what everyone knew of me, and figured there might be a bit of innuendo and mystery about my health status. I wanted to clear that up. I attended, not so much for myself, but so everyone could set eyes on me and see for themselves. I wanted to get it out of the way and move on.

I’ve been asked if I was nervous: not at all. It’s strange in a way as I have moments of self-consciousness now when strangers set eyes upon my imperfect visage. I’m much better looking than I was, and much better than I expected, but I still look a bit beaten up, and there’s a permanent blood stain at the corner of my nostril. One look at me and you know I’ve been through travails, and may be still. I dislike the attention.

I had no fear of that returning to work. I probably looked forward to it, and not only because I could tick the moment off. I wanted them to see me and know that no matter how tough it had been, I remained strong.

That’s more or less how it worked out.

I was early and went for a coffee. At the cafe, I ran into some women from the office who gushed over me. They asked questions and proclaimed how well I looked, as if surprised. One was kind enough to be shocked when she heard my age – she thought I was at least ten years younger, or so she claimed, and that’s with the beard I have now and the misshapen bits. Now, that’s more like it.

I was bright and even a little provocative. A tad raffish, and even a little flirtatious. I enjoyed the attention.

Upstairs, once we all collected, I had people greet me or pat me on the back as they passed by. I didn’t seek attention, nor to make anything of what had happened to me. I was there in the same capacity as everyone else, and when I came to talk to some made sure it was as much about them as it was me.

For a while, I’ve wondered where I’ll end up at the end of all this. Lately, I feel as if I’ve got a better idea of that.

For want of a better word, I’ve felt more vibrant. Serious illness tends to make you more insular. If you’re like me, you gather all your strength and will to resist it, physically and mentally. It takes discipline, but in the act of it you withdraw further into yourself and become – unsurprisingly – self-absorbed.

I don’t know why it’s changed, but I feel myself looking outward more often lately. I have no doubt about my strength or capability. In ways, this experience has given me insight into the stuff I’m made of. At the same time, I feel as if it’s cleared out some of bad habits and ways of thinking that were holding me back before.

Looking back over the last 8-9 years, I feel as if I experienced a series of traumas that inhibited me. I hate to admit to that, but the evidence is pretty clear in my inability to properly settle or believe in good things. It affected my personality as well, something that seems clear now that I’m feeling differently.

There’s no doubt I was scarred, and for good reason. But there’s no bigger scar than when you survive stage four cancer, and it appears to have over-written the previous scars in my mind. And surviving – well, it’s the best sort of scar, no matter the fear that led up to it. I’m a survivor.

I felt that on Friday. I stood there feeling dignified and strong. I felt people checking me out and I wanted them to know that – but it felt true.

I still don’t know what course I’ll take once I’m free of this, but feel sure I’ll be direct and uninhibited in my manner. I’ve always been direct, but in recent years it’s been tinged with anger. That’s gone, I think. I’ll be true to myself, without any second-guessing. It’s just a moment in time, but I feel elevated in ways – just as smart and strong as I ever was, but with a calmness now that was missing before (people have always commented on how unflappable I seem, but in recent years I often seethed beneath the surface). With that comes an openness, and even warmth, absent since my mother died.

All this is talk and there’s a long way to go, and there will be setbacks. But, at least, I can see now how things can be.

Just quietly, when the cancer is behind me, I have a feeling I might do great things.

The working day


I’ve agreed to work four hours a day, not because I want to, but because I need the money. In reality, I’ve been working around 5 hours a day for the last month, but I’ve been unwilling to increase my hours because I feared it was not a commitment I could keep. I have good days and bad, and sometimes work is the last thing I feel like doing.

I’ve been told by people both inside work and out of it that I take it too seriously. It’s the habit of a lifetime that I’m honest and diligent. I believe in earning what I’m being paid – never mind that work has mucked me around. That’s for them to answer to.

Because I’m on reduced hours I’ve thought my work has to be pure – if I’m being paid for three hours, for example, then I work for three hours without distraction or interruption. It’s silly, because back in the office I’ve never worked a ‘pure’ 8 hours. There’s always someone to chat to about the footy or what they did on the weekend, time taken getting a coffee or browsing the internet, and so on. And, I figure, that’s okay. Somehow, I hadn’t extended myself that same licence working at home and recovering from cancer. Not that I’ve changed my ways – yet.

I’ve found my groove surprisingly quickly and feel satisfied that I’m adding a lot of value in the time I give. It’s probably helped that I’ve found and had to fix a lot of gaps in the project they were working on. I have to be careful to step away. By inclination I’ll always look to assume control, but that’s not my place now. I do my thing, I say my piece, and step away. I guide much more than do.

Regardless of the minor satisfaction that work occasionally provides, I’ve pretty well accepted I don’t like the place. The treatment of me plays a big part in that, but so too does the kind of revision that near-death forces upon you. I may feel this way about any place – so much of it seems trivial and hyperbolic to me now. Everything passes, and this weeks drama is forgotten next week. I’m not sure if that’s a perspective that would be welcomed.

With that said, this weeks drama is giving me the shits. How is it possible that you can overlook the stakeholders when you’re running a project? I’m griping, as this one of the things I’m having to rectify. But surely it’s PM 101 that managing expectations and keeping stakeholders happy is a priority?

Bad vibes


About the middle of January, I contacted the office and told them I thought I’d be able to return to work from January on a limited basis. They were happy with that. I was uncertain but felt I had to do something. I was feeling a bit better at the time, and there comes a time when you feel you need to move on. Plus, there’d been gentle pressure from the office to come back. We agreed on 3 hours a day.

By the time I started work in February, I wasn’t feeling so well. I had expected the congestion to have cleared up by then, but it persisted. On top of that, the head pain had become worse (because a plate in my mouth had become misaligned, I think). I’d been on occasional, low-level, over the shelf pain killers but had been forced onto the heavy-duty pain killers I was forced into taking around the clock.

I made the best of it at work and coped okay, though the pain killers heavily fatigued me, and I couldn’t predict when I would be available for work and when not.

About the middle of the month, I had another conversation with my Team Leader. He wanted to know what I would do for March and was pushing for 4 hours a day. By this time, I felt pretty worn down and had actually considered reverting back to zero hours until I felt better again. I said none of that. That would be a last resort. Instead, I was busy arguing with my TL, who seemed unwilling to take no for an answer. I got quite angry in the end and told him emphatically that I couldn’t commit to something yet when I didn’t know if I could honour it. Okay, he said, we’ll talk next week.

By the time we were due to talk a week later, I was ready to admit that I was considering going back to zero hours. Of course, if my health improved, I would look to increase my hours, but it was not something I could promise.

Instead, an email popped into my inbox from the TL announcing to HR and management that I’d agreed to continue on for three hours a day in March, increasing to four hours by mid-month. I was bemused. We’d never even had that conversation, let alone agreed to it. Instead, he’d gone off and unilaterally decided on my behalf.

I let it go. I wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t worth the argument. I knew that if I chose to, I’d work the hours I was able, which would be it.

Last week, I contacted the TL and updated him on my situation. I told him I had been considering going back to zero hours. I told him I couldn’t be as reliable as they would hope, and there might be some days I couldn’t work at all. I tried to explain how I was feeling, but it made as much an impression as in previous times. Fuck all.

Then, because I had lost trust in my TL and wanted to put it on the record, I sent an email to the HR manager telling him the same stuff.

On Friday, I had a one-on-one with my TL. As always, he asked me when I thought I might be able to return to full-time work. I told him I didn’t know. It could be in a month, it could be in several. I don’t think my doctors know any better than I do in this regard, and I’m constantly being urged to be patient. Cancer is no small thing.

My TL then suggested that I check out the internal vacancies as they come through on email in case there was something I might be interested in. I was taken aback. I think I made a joke of it, but afterwards, I was fuming. The inference was clear – if you can’t work with us FT, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

I wasn’t surprised. I’d always got on very well with my TL. I thought he was a decent, good-hearted type. I don’t doubt that he is. Unfortunately, now I’ve come to believe he’s also naive and weak, and so, so disappointing. I’ve never got the support from him I’d have expected throughout my illness.

I’m speculating, but I would guess my TL had a conversation with his manager about my ongoing availability. I get that it’s uncertain and that they need to make plans, but that’s the way it is. It’s worse for me, guys. And so, I presume something was said about encouraging me to make my position vacant.

Yesterday, I sent an email to the HR manager reporting the conversation and how it made me feel pressured, disrespected, and disposable. I reminded him that I wasn’t doing this for fun and that a little empathy would go a long way. I also an assurance that my position was safe. Once more, I needed to get it on the record.

I imagine there would have been some conversation behind the scenes once my email was received, and maybe some well-earned bollocking of my TL for being so clumsy (he’s guileless and without the sophistication to present it more tactfully). Of course, none of that could be admitted to me, and the email I received apologised for the misunderstanding without really bothering to explain it. He reasserted that my health was the primary concern and my job was safe. Very well down and exactly what I expected, but I had put them on notice.

I don’t know how it will affect my relationship with the TL. It won’t make much difference to me, but if he tries to justify his words, I’ll call bullshit. As you may expect, I’ve been left with a nasty taste in my mouth.

I need to get out of the place once I’m healthy. There’s a bad vibe. I got no support from them through my treatment and only cursory communication. I felt as if my TL wasn’t listening half the time, as if he was doing something else. His disinterest was hard. I felt forgotten in general, right down to being overlooked by the organisation a couple of times handing out vouchers and the like.

It’s a cruel thing when you have cancer. You feel isolated at the best of times, and I was doing it solo. I like to think I’m self-sufficient, and I am in many ways, but I’m also human. You need to feel acknowledged. You need to feel as if you matter. I got none of that.

The current plan is to hang in there long enough to claim my long service leave – about a year. I’ll clear out then. Let’s hope I make it that far.

Out of sight…


Let me tell you about work. I’d be interested in your opinion.

I haven’t worked a full day since early July when I was diagnosed with cancer, though I worked a bunch of half days through the month. I haven’t received any pay from them since early in August when my sick leave ran out. I’ve been on unpaid leave since and have had no income pending insurance finally coming through later this month (other than a Centrelink benefit recently paid).

When the news of my cancer broke, I got calls and emails from the head of the Marketing department and the manager in charge of the Digital arm of that, where I sit.

They were sympathetic and understanding, made the right noises, and even sent me a small care package.

The last time I heard from either one of them was July 7, the Digital manager, who said he’d make a low-key announcement to the team advising them that I would be away for a while with an unspecified illness. I was fine with that – these things need to be managed – but it never happened.

Much to my annoyance, I occasionally am contacted by people unaware of my condition, regardless of the out-of-office on my account. I either fob them off or find myself telling them of the situation. It pisses me to repeat this unsavoury news again and again when it should have been properly handled.

I find it a little ironic that it pisses me off. I’ve always been one to proclaim my independence and sense of privacy. I kept worlds separate, letting only select people enter one from the other. And here I am complaining that the most intimate details of my life haven’t been shared (to be fair, all they need say is that H is crook, he’ll be off work for a while, we’ll keep you updated, leave him alone in the meantime…).

There’s very much a practical consideration in this, though. From a work perspective, don’t people need to know I’m unavailable? And I hate that the burden of sharing details has devolved to me in the absence of an announcement. I have enough on my plate. It feels unprofessional and vaguely disrespectful.

Quite aside from that, it’s been over 3 months since any management has been in contact with me. After that first flurry, no checking in, no wishing me luck heading into surgery, no checking how I went coming out of it, no cards, no flowers, no bowl of fruit, no nothing. I’m hardly surprised the dept head hasn’t been in contact, but I’d speak to the Digital head each day in the office, and even WFH, we’d catch up every week one way or another. But now, zilch. Out of sight, out of mind.

Am I wrong to think this unusual?

Do they have any idea of how I’m going? How could they?

I’m in contact with random people in the office I consider friends and sometimes help out my direct colleagues. My team manager checks in with me occasionally on a personal basis, but the last time was a month ago when I shared two lines with him.

It’s no secret that I’m disenchanted with my work. I was mighty pissed off when the pay-rise came through much less than mooted and without a word of explanation. My faith was wavering before then, but after, I felt betrayed. I realised that our values were misaligned. I value authenticity over pragmatism and believe it pays. And how can there be trust when actions don’t measure to words?

Then there’s this, and it’s easy to think they’ve practically forgotten me. Am I unreasonable?

Ideally, I wouldn’t return to work at the same place, though it’s not straightforward. I’d love to get a better-paid job at a more agreeable organisation, but it would have to be good. I’m due long-service leave in a bit over a year, and I’ve factored it into my future plans. It would be hard to sacrifice it.

I know I can’t really return to the role I had before. The world has moved too far, both for me and the business. I’m out of the loop, and it would take weeks to get up to speed again for about 50% of my role. I’ve no interest in it anyway. It seems terrible trivial in light of everything that’s happened to me in the last few months. That part has been backfilled – let them keep it.

That’s where the opportunity might be. I intend to confront the Digital manager on my return about what happened to my pay rise and promotion. The compromise might be an evolved role more to my liking and with a matching salary. That’d be enough to keep me until my long-service leave matures.

All of this is still a few months down the track – probably around January. Still.