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.