Lead the way


I watched Scott Morrison in his press conference announcing updates to COVID-19 restrictions. For the first time in my life, I almost felt sorry for him.

Customarily Morrison comes across as a smug prick, with an unwelcome smirk on his face. Most of what he says and does it couched in political terms. He’s always trying to gain an advantage, as if the prime purpose isn’t the national good, but political gain. For me – unlike many others, obviously – he’s never come across as a convincing national leader. First and foremost he’s a political operator.

That remained true until about a week ago. Then he woke up, I think. He realised he was in the middle of a catastrophe and it was his job to do something about it. He was very late to that understanding, which explains why the response to date has been slow and hesitant.

Last night there was no smirk and no sign of being smug. Instead, he appeared almost vulnerable – the most human I’ve ever seen him. He was caught up in the biggest challenge this country has faced since the wars, and he knew it. He was verbose, as he tends to be, but gone was the political cant. Still, the message was vague.

I think one of the issues we have is about the strategy we should have adopted. All the talk is about flattening the curve – a phrase that will live on in the language long after this. The right strategy to achieve this is hard to know because, essentially, there’s a conflict between economic and physical health. Right now they’re almost at odds. The best way to curtail infection and save lives is basically to shut the economy down – a lockdown. That’s a harsh cure, and one the government has been pussyfooting around. Throughout, they’ve sought to compromise between the two poles.

Personally, I think that’s misguided and probably pointless. My view again is that you have to take the firmest measures and try and stop this thing in its tracks. That’ll save lives and if it means going into lockdown then so be it. Better a sharp shock than prolonged agony, which is what we face without decisive action.

We’re now where we should have been at three weeks ago. That’s three weeks lost, as well as extra lives ultimately, and it means the pain will likely extend longer. I’m sure tougher restrictions will be required, why not jump to them now? It’s this creeping, indecisive process that dilutes the confidence of people.

One thing I know from leading projects that you must be decisive – or at least, appear to be so. I know there’s a lot of conflicting advice in this, the most extreme of pressure environments, but this is not the time to equivocate. You’re not going to get it 100% right in such extreme situations, so don’t even think that, but if you are to err, err on the side of caution. It’s only human to have doubts, but in times like this, you can’t show it. What people want are leadership and certainty. They want firm resolutions and a set strategy. They want to trust you have this is in hand, and that’s not going to happen unless you’re out in front leading the way.

I think people are ready to do the right thing. There are many crying out for it. There’s a lot at stake. Now’s the time to be strong.

Now I worry


There are certain things that make me nervous or anxious, and there are things that don’t. I’ve been working on a critical, high-profile, very complex project the last 8-10 days and it hadn’t occurred to me to worry. It’s high stakes but I guess I just assume that I’ll get it done – and in fact, I take great delight in the challenge. There’s pressure, but I’m just not wired to feel it in situations like this.

Until now. I sent an email over the weekend to the executive group sharing my opinion that we should work to deploy the solution today, given the rapidly deteriorating circumstances. After much to-ing and fro-ing, they agreed to that about forty minutes ago.

We’re good to go, I think. We’ve tested the best we can, we’ve jammed in the enhanced functionality to handle 300+ users, we’ve reviewed and cross-checked and updated. In the real world, I wouldn’t be doing it yet. There’s still functionality to be added, and fine-tuning to be done, but we don’t have the luxury of a real-world at the moment – the world has turned unreal.

I think I’ve made the right call, and I think we’re ready for it. But this is when I worry. I’m almost at the point I’ve done all I can do. I’m waiting, in limbo, the minutes going slowly by while I’m wondering if I’ve forgotten anything. It would be easier if it was happening in the next hour, and not in three.

If it works I’ll get a lot of kudos, and I’ll feel pretty chuffed myself. It feels like a mighty effort, but the effort isn’t all mine. I work with a vendor who has to do all the hard work turning requests into code. They’ve worked every night and through the weekend. I’m very grateful to them and almost proud of what they’ve achieved.

If this works this is something they can put on their CV and brag about to their friends. I joked the other day we’d have some t-shirts made up after this: I survived the COVID-19 live-chat crisis, 2020. Not the sort of joke you want to make right now for, no matter what happens tonight, it’s a lot bigger than this.

What next?


It’s probably a week since I last wrote and here as everywhere it’s been an eventful week.

I think it’s inevitable that we’ll be lockdown soon, but I think that was pretty clear a week ago, also. The difference is that the virus has spread so much more since then and finally our political leadership, and much of our community (not all), have woken up to it.

Unfortunately, the government here didn’t take the threat as seriously as it should, and so it didn’t prepare as good governance would suggest. As a result, we’re short on testing kits and protective wear. Doctors are screaming out for supplies that are very slow to arrive. It’s saying fuck all that we’re more progressed than the states (which fucked up big time), but we’re still far behind where we should be – in terms of testing, medical preparedness, isolation protocols, even common-sense practices such as screening at entry points. And well behind on policy.

I figure the government has been about 10 days behind the curve when it needed to be in front of it. We’ve been playing catch-up throughout, and it’ll cost lives. I’m almost certain they’ll declare a lockdown this week but had they done that even a week ago then much of the worst impacts might have been mitigated. The infection would have been much better contained, and the spread much less. Unfortunately, there’s an exponential factor in this which means the best we can hope for now is slowing it down – but we lost a significant advantage by not acting sooner.

To compound that has been the messaging, which has been pretty poor. Apparently, there’s now an information campaign going, but I’ve yet to see an add. There’s been little clear and definite advice, and the PM was still politicking about it last weekend. He’s one of the worst offenders. At a time when the critical nature of this virus had to be highlighted, he said he was off to the footy.

I used to think Australia did these things well, but not anymore. The combination of poor leadership/government and a public service decimated by political partisanship means there’s hardly anyone running the shop. The one exception is the premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews, who is firm and decisive and a very good communicator. Thankfully he’s my premier, so maybe we have a chance.

After working from home last Monday, I was back in the office for the rest of the week. The pattern is supposed to repeat this week, but I don’t expect to get back to the office again in the short term.

I’ve been crazy busy, almost to an unhealthy state. As of yesterday, I’d worked 13 days in a row, and many of those days for 10-12 hours. Typically I’d wake up at 7am and be on the phone, be on the go all day, and might have my final call at 11-12pm with India. I’ve almost given up on a decent sleep because my mind has been so busy with the challenges I had to overcome. I’m on the phone all day, or sending emails or messages, and racing up and down the stairs. I forget to eat and drink and have actually lost a few kilos in the last seven days. I’m thinking all the time, coming up with solutions, then workarounds when the technical gets in the way, coordinating people and seeking answers.

Realistically, I can’t go on much longer than this, but I don’t expect I have to. I hoped to be in a position to press the go button on Friday, but not quite there. I’m working this weekend, but not as much as last. We’re targeting a cutover tomorrow afternoon and should hit it.

In normal circumstances, we’d delay, but all this has been a rush, and I’d rather deploy in a managed scenario than be forced to do it in a hurry. Effectively, we’ll be making adjustments in the production version, but at least 350 people will have access to it, which means effectively that the business can continue in a work from home situation. I’m confident that 80% of what we plan will be in, and 100% of it by the time we need it. I can monitor and tweak before it hits the big time.

I’ll be relieved when it happens, but it has to work. I’ll be busy watching over and maintaining it for a while, but there’ll come a time when I can take a step back.

It’s a funny thing to say given the current situation, but I’ve earnt a fair bit of time off in lieu (ironic as I already have 7 weeks of accrued leave, will be working from home anyway, and can’t go anywhere). I need the time, though. As I mentioned, I’m starting to fray at the edges. Last night I felt like I hit the wall. I was in bed with the light-off by 9.30 and sleep until 7am – the best sleep I’ve had in months. I think once the job’s done there might be a bit of a collapse as I’ve been running on adrenalin. I’ll need to detox then because my head is full of this stuff and it needs to be cleaned out.

Apparently, I’m earning a lot of kudos with the bigwigs. They’re hanging on my progress, and I read echoes of my updates in their daily reports. This is ironic also. Not that I’d got around to documenting it here, but a couple of weeks ago we came to an agreement that I would get a promotion and pay rise by May. I’ve earned it even more now, but the reality is I might be lucky to keep my job if it all truly goes to shit.

For what it’s worth, I intend to self isolate when this job is done. I finally got some loo paper, and all I’m missing now is some tonic water to go with my gin. I ordered another monitor this morning so that I can work effectively with my work laptop at home. I’m just about ready to do it. For how long do you reckon? I think months, and what the world looks like after that I don’t know.

Full-on


I feel like I’m living in a bubble. I’m working from home today, upon instruction, and every chance will be tomorrow as well, and perhaps forever after that. I also worked all weekend – about 6 hours on Saturday and 9 hours yesterday (starting at 9am and clocking off from a call at 11pm). I’m wearied by work, but there’s also all this current hullabaloo to deal with.

The reason I’m so busy is that they twigged at work that maybe we should be doing something to prepare for working from home, about ten days after I said it’d be a good idea. Most of the work to enable that falls on my shoulders. It’s a funny thing, for the last few days it feels like all roads lead to H.

The reason for that is that the alternative to phone-based customer service in circumstances like this is live chat from home. I’m the man who implemented live chat and chatbot way back when and has more knowledge of it more than all the rest of them put together. Suddenly this is the solution the business is gunning for. Up till now, there might have been about fifteen live chat agents across the organisation – we’re now looking to increase that by over 2000%.

Adding complexity to that is that we’re two entities containing very distinct and separate business units, requiring different things. For point of comparison, we recently added a live chat segment to a pre-existing team. That project was over three weeks. We’re now attempting to re-architect the whole chatbot, add 350 users, add in another two live chat sites, add some routing complexity, and hopefully complete some testing, all in the space of about five days.

I love it. I’m in my element. I was struggling a little last week, and then this came along, and I’m off and racing. My brain is teeming with ideas, I’m figuring out what must be done on the fly, making calls, sending emails, building prototypes, dealing with problems and people, chivvying them along, guiding them, assisting them, and asking for assistance.

There’s no-one else who can do this. If I wasn’t there, they’d be fucked. They’d probably get something done eventually, but it’d take a lot longer because they’d need to figure it out first, and it wouldn’t be nearly so elegant. So okay, I’m blowing my own trumpet, fair call, but this is the essence of it. I love being the man. I always have. I don’t feel the pressure. It’s all a buzz for me. All opportunity. All excitement. This is mine, let me show you what I can do. It’s very alpha.

I missed this. I was flat, and even though I had to work all weekend, it turned me around. I’ve spent all this time designing solutions and mapping out requirements and jobs to be done. I’ve sent a million emails. On Saturday, we hit an unexpected hurdle, and that gave it another dimension again – both good and bad.

It happened, and once you know what’s not possible, then you’re left with what is, so pretty quickly I framed a workaround in my head. I couldn’t just do it though, I had to go through channels. So I escalate it to my manager. When he hasn’t responded hours later, my instinct is to be decisive, just do it. But then he says fine, and rather than making a decision then he organises a telecon yesterday morning with all the executive staff. I understand why, but the outcome was the same. I explained the situation, gave them my opinion, and ultimately that’s the solution we’re deploying.

It’s true, I’m a bit maverick. Times like these, I get reminded of it. I’ve always been a popular team member, but not always what they deem a great team player because my style is less consensus and more about pitching ahead and getting things happening before dragging everyone after me. I think some of that’s old school because I figure things out quickly, though not hastily, and conclude a plan of action. Once that’s done all that’s left is to do it. Except, in this day and age, you have to follow a process and that’s perfectly understandable – except it gets in the way of me doing things. And all that was in my leadership profile the other week.

So in this there’s the good, I’m challenged and my mind whirrs and I come up with a solution and how clever am I, I think. But then I’m reminded that while I have all the knowledge I’m still not the one who makes the decisions. And I’m reminded of the invisible constraints around me. And reminded, too, of a time when it was different.

All of this has to work, of course. I might bollocks it up altogether. We’ll know within a few days, and until then it’s frantic.

After that? Well, I think the world will be truly surreal after that, and it’ll be a good and necessary thing to be in a bubble.

By then the solution I’m putting together should be working. I’ll do some maintenance, but expect a letdown.

All of this is likely to be academic because with each passing day the situation gets direr. Today I was at the supermarket by 7.15 to pick up some loo paper, but the shelves were bare already. No surprise, and at least I’ve managed to get myself on a waiting list since (who’d a fuckin thought…?). It may be months until I get back in the office, or it may be tomorrow.

Waiting


There’s a movie from the fifties called On the Beach, based on the novel of the same name by Neville Shute, which is basically one of the first movies made about the end of the civilised world.

It stars Gregory Peck as a US submarine commander and set in my home town, Melbourne. Peck and his crew have been marooned here after a catastrophic war that left every inhabitant of the northern hemisphere dead. A cloud of radiation is slowly drifting south, and killing every living thing in its wake.

Life in Melbourne goes on. They watch and track as the cloud that’ll bring their death comes ever closer, encroaching upon the north of Australia, and coming ever nearer. People react in different ways, knowing a death they can’t escape is getting closer every day. Some go to the edge. They party hard or partake of extreme activities they’d have never considered before. Others fling themselves into relationships. Others again, unwilling to face the inevitable, take their own life.

It’s quite a good movie. Very interesting.

I recall it now because there’s a sense of that with COVID-19 encroaching upon us. It’s not as deadly as that, nothing is guaranteed, but there’s been the same kind of slow-motion, creeping observation of it, with little we can do to stop it.

Its epicentre was Wuhan in China, and slowly it’s radiated out from there, spreading further every day. It’s taken hold in some places, and in other places, it’s been beaten back to a degree. It’s far from contained, still spreading, and the worst is yet to come.

Though there are still only a few hundred cases here, it feels as if it’s finally reached us. I think that’s a general perception. Last weekend I was out for 11 hours in public eating and drinking at The Stokehouse and the Espy. I was surrounded by people and gave no thought to it. On Sunday I went to a 50th birthday party, and there were over 70 people there. As I told Donna this morning, lucky your party was last week – this week would be problematic. And, you know, if the party was tomorrow I reckon a good number wouldn’t come.

The NBA is suspended, and the Melbourne Grand Prix cancelled. A cricket match at the SCG last night played to empty stands. And from Monday all gatherings of over 500 people have been banned.

At the supermarket today it was chaos. A couple of weeks back it was eerie because there seemed so few people wandering the aisles, but it had the feeling of the calm after the storm had swept through emptying the shelves. Today there were people everywhere, and trollies filled to the brim, though many shelves were empty.

I bought what I could. It was all quite disturbing, even unsavoury. I scolded myself for not taking the opportunity last week to buy more when I could. I refused to buy into the panic though, out of pride and disdain. And so when I might have purchased more than a single bag of pasta or rice or a single tin of tomatoes, I stuck to just the one. I’ve not seen a roll of toilet paper for weeks, let alone been able to purchase one.

I’m in a reasonable position, nonetheless. I’m single so what I’ve got goes further, and after going hungry when I was broke, I’d got into the habit of buying reserves of things anyway. It means I have plenty of rice and pasta and sugar and butter. I have long life milk enough for a few weeks. I have coffee, meat in the freezer, as well as a few meals there ready to eat. I even have more than a dozen eggs and plenty of cheese of all sorts. Rigby’s dog food gets delivered, but still, I have ready to go. And just by chance, I’d stocked up on dunny paper the week before the paranoia hit, so I’m good there, too. For what it counts I’ve also got about 150 bottles of wine and maybe 20 stubbies of beer. I’m good enough.

On Monday we’ve been asked to work from home to trial our readiness for it. I figure by the end of the week, one way or another, it will become routine – and so it should. I think it’s sensible now to minimise the risk of infection in the hope that it halts the spread of it. Better to act sooner than later.

There’s a strange sensation in the air. A ran into friends as I was going to the shops this morning and we had a laugh at it, but we’re all caught up in it now because we must be. There’s a bunker mentality and a great sense of uncertainty. None of us has experienced anything like this before. What does it mean? What will happen? There’s a level of fear attached to it.

I can foresee a day soon when most places are shut and the streets near empty, but in every house huddled families keeping themselves occupied and isolated. Imagine that! And imagine what it must feel like to be one of those in the high-risk categories – the elderly and unwell. It must be terribly scary for them, and for their loved ones. I guess we all should be scared a little.

Interesting times


I was in a meeting last week when I asked someone from our Ops department (where I used to work) if there are any contingencies in place if and when COVID-19 became widespread. He looked at me as if I was daft.

I think the danger of COVID-19 is less than the panic-stricken reaction to it would suggest. That’s not to say COVID-19 presents no threat, which clearly it does. The infection rate has just about reached the exponential factor, which is why I don’t think it’s going way for a while and will get much worse before it gets better. Fatality rates seem to be somewhere between 1%-3%, the variance likely a factor of population demographics and treatment. In itself, it’s far from being a death sentence, but if enough people contract the virus then potentially that’s still a lot of people – the elderly, the infirm, the unhealthy mostly. And that could be many hundreds of thousands, even millions, across the globe.

Quite logically, everyone is doing their best to limit the spread, which is why we have travel bans and quarantine periods – and, just this morning, the whole of Italy being locked down. There are already sporting events going on in empty stadiums, and one of the biggest tennis tournaments outside the grand slams has now been postponed. Locally, there are schools sending students home as precautions.

All this may well slow the rate of infection, but I expect the virus will take hold nonetheless – and we should be prepared for this.

It’s the consequences of the virus which cause the greatest concern. World markets have plummeted. International trade has drastically slowed with China locked down. And, of course, we’ve seen the panicked reaction of investors in the market, and the general public with panic buying of so-called essential items. The shadow of the virus looms large ahead of any real impact on health.

Governments have a role to play in this, and the Australian government has been slow to react in any substantial way. I think by now there should have been a campaign to educate the public, to allay fears around essential supplies, and to advise in case of infection. On top of that is the critical stimulus required to keep the economy going as it begins to tank. That’ll be interesting as the government had ruled out – for political reasons – a package such as the Labor government successfully deployed during the GFC (and which staved off the worst effects of that). They’re also saying that there’ll be no increase to Newstart which, besides being a longstanding moral imperative, would be an extremely effective measure to stimulate economic activity: if you give money to people who have none and are struggling to get by, then they’ll spend it.

Much of this should have happened long before the threat of a coronavirus.

Practically speaking, I think we must expect that COVID-19 will ultimately take hold here as it has in other places. In due course, I expect there’ll be lockdowns across the country. There are already discussions around sporting events being played in closed stadiums. It only takes a few more (and increasing) cases of the virus for business being shut down selectively. And if it’s not the business enforcing protocols around sick staff, then it’s likely building management will do so, and the authorities.

Then you look at such critical services as the public transport that channel hundreds of thousands of people every day into our hubs. They’re a fertile ground for infection at any time, but with COVID-19 taking hold, are as dangerous as any sporting ground, and probably more so.

On top of all this is the social disruption we’re already witnessing, and the potential for stigmatisation.

We’re not at that point now, and it may never get to that stage – but I expect it to become a lot worse here and abroad. At the current rate of infection I reckon we have about 6 weeks before it gets to that point.

This is why I asked if there are any contingencies. It only takes one person to come down with COVID-19 in Ops and the whole area will shut down – that’s a critical function at the busiest time of year. (Pumping my own tyres, I suggested that chatbot and live chat – which agents can log into from home – were options to upscale).

I don’t worry about myself. I’m not downplaying the health risk, but I don’t fit the victim profile. That doesn’t mean that life won’t be turned upside down by this. I can foresee a time when anyone with any cough or cold is asked to stay home as a precaution. And if there’s a case of COVID-19, or if services are cut, then many of us are likely to be trapped at home.

For me, fortunately, I can work from home via VPN. I’m guessing that’s not currently an option for 90% of the workforce. And, more or less, that makes a lot of what I might do moot as I work in a channel.

Interesting times ahead.

I’d back Bernie


There’s a lot to unpack with all the things going on around the world at the moment. COVID-19 is the headline act, and that’s a situation that’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, even if there’re elements of the absurd in the case. Then there’s the significant drop in the oil price, and what potentially means across the world. Then there’s the good news story from the ‘G last night where over 86,000 attended the final of the Women’s World T20 comp – and saw Oz smash India. Finally, there are the Democratic primaries, which is what I want to touch on today.

Last time I wrote on this I was hoping for a Warren/Klobuchar one-two. I was distrustful of Buttigieg, sympathetic towards Sanders, and thought Joe Biden wasn’t up to it. Since then it’s come down to a two-horse race – Sanders versus Biden.

All but Warren of the failed candidates have come out in support of Biden, and on the back of that a lurching campaign got back on track, and he took the lead on Super Tuesday.

Joe is seen as the safe option, unlikely to spook the voters. He’s a nice seeming bloke who was Barack’s 2IC and has a moderate agenda – shifting the status quo, rather than drastically altering it.

I have general, and more specific reservations about him as the Democratic nominee. For a start, I think he’s past his best. Even in his prime, I don’t know if he was ever foreman material. Joe wouldn’t like me saying this, but I think he was born to be the amiable and reliable sidekick than leading man.

He’s not as sharp as he used to be and stumbles very obviously on occasion. You might think against an opponent like Trump – basically, an idiot – that something like that wouldn’t be so damaging. The problem is that Trump has the blithe confidence of the truly stupid, combined with an utter lack of moral rectitude. You can bet he’d launch some blistering attacks on Biden, and I don’t know that Joe has the tools anymore to retaliate.

So much of politics these days is perception. About 40% of the American people think Trump is a genius, and most of the rest think he’s a moron. Those opinions are pretty well set, now. In between perhaps, there’s about 15% who’ll make up their mind along the way. Right or wrong, many of them will be persuaded by the more forceful personality. It’s a ruthless game, but any sign of weakness or defensiveness or uncertainty will be punished at the ballot box. You have to be full-on to win.

No two ways Biden is the much better man than Trump and would be a better leader because of it, but he has to win the contest to get there. Trump is a pig; Biden is courtly. Trump will throw the kitchen sink, but I’m not sure Joe has the wherewithal to combat that. Once maybe, but I think there’s doubt in him now, and he hasn’t the same wit and agility he had when Obama named him as running mate. In the face of withering attacks on his competence by Trump, who we know has no shame, how will he react?

I’m looking in from the outside, desperately hoping that the Democrats put up someone who can knock Trump off. Push comes to shove, I’m not sure Joe Biden is up to it.

I’m not sure if he’s the candidate America needs, either. The country is damaged and hurting, the political system is near broken. I think it needs more than an amiable but doddery leader playing nice taking them forward. It needs healing. And the many broken parts of it broken need to be fixed.

Sanders is the outsider even within the Democratic party. He scares them. They think he’s too much of a wildcard. He’s too progressive, and they’re too careful trying not to scare the voters by keeping to the middle of the road, but it’s this kind of thinking that led to Trump being elected in the first place.

Voters flocked to Trump because he was different and because he wasn’t a part of the system. They were sick of being played for mugs by the political establishment trying to set an agenda without any regard for what the people want. The election of Trump was a vote of no confidence in the system. You might think 4 years of Trump would have cured voters of that, but support for him has been surprisingly resilient. Now the ‘system’ is trying to shoehorn in another candidate to battle Trump – someone moderate and inoffensive.

The big part of Sanders’ problem is that his policies are deemed too radical by American standards and, of course because he is constantly branded as Socialist (he’s not), in a country where socialism equates to communism (which it shouldn’t).

In many parts of the world, the seemingly radical policies of Sanders are the norm. I don’t think there’s a civilised nation that doesn’t have universal health care. Once, in Oz, we had free university tuition, but it’s free still in the Scandinavian countries. And his ideas around tax are human-centric, rather than big business focussed. That’s long overdue.

I actually think that Sanders might be what America needs – someone who changes the conversation utterly. I think it’s beyond the point of patching things up, it needs to be re-made. It needs a dynamic and egalitarian mindset, which I think is at the heart of social democracy (which is where Sanders really belongs). There’s a lot that ails America, and much of it that trails the world in policy and philosophy.

Can Sanders win the presidency? You can bet that Trump would come out against him and paint him as a communist. That’ll work with some, but mostly rusted on Trump supporters, I would think. What Sanders has is the passion and fire that Biden so clearly lacks. He is motivated by belief. I’ve no doubt that he has it in him to bite back at Trump much more vigorously than Biden.

I like Joe Biden, but in my view, I think just about any of the other candidates would be a better match-up against Trump than he is. I’d have backed Warren – clever, industrious, progressive, but in her absence, it should be Sanders.