Unconventional

The word “unconventional”, when used in the pejorative, reveals more about the user of the word than the subject itself.

A lack of imagination can inflict a tremendous amount of damage.  When we lack imagination, we tend to let fear, uncertainty, and doubt drive our decisionmaking and our responses.  We allow ourselves the luxury of remaining still in our reasoning rather than moving toward a place of understanding and growth.

Rather than dismissing something out-of-hand simply because it lies outside the bounds of convention, turn a curious eye toward a single question: “Why is this unconventional?”

Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome.  Maybe being more unconventional is what we really need.

You don’t need…

You don’t need anyone’s permission.

You don’t need anyone’s “final answer”.

You don’t need anyone’s approval.

You don’t need anyone’s negativity.

You don’t need anyone’s doubt.

You don’t need anyone’s fear.

Now that you know what you don’t need, what do you really need to do the work?  I’d bet the list is a lot smaller than you’d think and found more readily than you want to admit.

There’s more how-tos, tutorials, instructional videos, raw materials, and collaboration available to the average person than at any other previous point in human history.

So what are you waiting for?  What do you need?

Mental Health & The “Technology Industry”

My relationship with the “technology industry” has been contentious in many ways.  I’ve been diagnosed with and am currently undergoing treatment for PTSD, struggled with depression, and have intermittently contemplated suicide.  Constantly fighting with myself, battling Impostor Syndrome, and pushing back against my own unrealistic expectations of things is as exhausting as you might imagine.

“The industry” has talked at-length in recent years about figuring out ways to reduce or eliminate burnout, and it’s been helpful as far as exposure is concerned.  What hasn’t improved is the actual effort around improving things.  Organizations can talk all day about giving people more breaks, encouraging contributors to take more vacation time, refer them to specialists, and add more “perks” like nap rooms, alcohol, spaces and activities to socialize, but addressing the root of the problem requires getting into the sharp, thorny thickets of human emotion and understanding the human costs of doing business–a subject that few organizations seem interested or able to engage in.

I had a recent conversation with someone that travels in the same circles that I do in the New England technology industry after they posted an article about an Uber engineer that recently committed suicide due to work-related stress.  I took great pains to point out to them that the tech industry does a great job of increasing visibility–but that’s generally where the effort stops.

Let me be clear: visibility does not solve problems.  People solve problems.  Engineering problems, people problems, organizational problems, global problems.

Just because you know someone is close to burnout doesn’t mean that their situation is magically going to improve.  It requires communication.  It requires an immense amount of trust.  Effective communication and trust require vulnerability.  Vulnerability veers into territory that most organizations, whether explicitly or implicitly, generally steer individuals away from.  While organizations might make “diversity” and “inclusivity” core pieces of their mission statements, the actual work that ends-up going M.I.A. is the actual skills around having difficult conversations and how to provide support for each other.

In my own experience, the organizations I’ve worked for have actively avoided all of these conversations and haven’t built a reasonable framework for disclosure or discussion.  A significant number of the experiences I’ve had so far basically boil-down to some variation of the phrase “don’t let it become a problem”, implying that not only do the organizations not care, but that there are also potential consequences if the individual “can’t keep a lid on it”.

Organizations make it easy and expedient to avoid communicating with each other about the things that make work-life balance possible.  On top of that, there’s always the implication in larger or cut-throat VC-funded organizatons that the point of the business existing in the first place is (ostensibly) to make money.  “Human costs” of doing business are so poorly defined and nebulous that making them part of the overall calculus often results in nothing changing.  Unless an enterprising soul is able to tie the costs of “toil” (in the parlance of Toyota) or “unplanned work” directly to a revenue stream or cost-center, the business, to be utterly blunt, just doesn’t give a damn.

“That’s what we hire you for!  You do work, we pay you.  End of story.”

All things being equal, it’s been implicit rather than explicit that there’s a core belief in every tech organization: “if you can’t hack it, you have no place here”.  Which further implies that there isn’t support availble internally for problem solving, training, or even simply to “check something out with someone”.  I’ve completely lost count of how many times I’ve wanted to walk over to a Product Manager or an Executive and ask them why de-prioritizing a change to reduce toil was a good idea.  Or how the calculus of employee churn compares against expected costs in a given group or department (hint: it doesn’t).

How do you re-engage an employee who’s lost in their own head?  How do organizations make it okay for someone to have feelings and work on their problems while still providing value as a contributor?  How do we provide real culture in organizations rather than cheerleading sessions and frivolous, alcohol-laden socialization?

We need to create connection.  We do that by helping everyone to understand their inherent value and to really appreciate their contributions, no matter the size.  When we are able to help connect people together and help them realize that the code or the product is just a MacGuffin for connecting people together in pursuit of something greater.  Whether that’s self improvement or improvement of a product or the world writ-large, that’s what we really need.

What are the costs of an employee burning out and leaving?  What is the impact of constant, interrupt-driven events on engineering teams?  What, if anything, can help drive more meaningful interactions between individuals and teams to help take emotional risk from lethal to livable?  How can we take suffering, whether silent or not, out of the picture and instead figure out how to uncover an individual’s “joie de vivre”?

We could start by inculcating a culture of “acceptance”.  Rather than telling or implying to someone “shape-up or ship-out”, we can make room for them.  Ask them what’s going on.  Talking about our personal lives at work is only problematic when the organization makes it a problem.  When fear overrides our common and innate ability to empathize.

To reiterate: businesses don’t like risk or liability.  Personal lives are rife with situations that organizations, whether out of risk-avoidance or cowardice, tend to want to avoid any discussion or mention of.  Human life is exceptionally complicated, with some being more complicated than others.  If we’re not able to talk about what is creating disharmony in our lives, whether it’s personal or professional, like actual adults, then we’re missing the point of working together in the first place.

We could continue progressing through improving communication.  Telling someone that their decisions are creating an unfair burden or that they felt as though they couldn’t speak-up is key to improving the working life of anyone in technology.  Being able to talk openly and honestly about the causes of their stress, whether it’s too much work, feelings of powerlessness or uselessness, or a lack of improvement, being able to respond to and mean what you say goes a long way.  Being able to say “I can see where you’re coming from”, “I didn’t know this was a problem”, “I’m sorry things aren’t going well”, or “I want to help you, tell me how I can help” can help many people in very meaningful ways.

Lastly, we need to start building a culture of “work to live” versus “live to work”.  The technology sector lionizes the hard-drinking, quick-developing, move-fast-and-break-stuff, up-til-3am-saving-this-client’s-butt type of employee, but does little to really incentivize or provide meaningful feedback for people who contribute in a more healthy way.  If the technology industry were serious about work-life balance, there’d be less emphasis on balance-sheets, PNLs, and work-hard-play-hard engineering culture, and instead would make work-life balance their core, internal mission.  Unofficially, where I work currently likes to play with the phrase “No Capes”, but we’re still a long way off from making it a reality.

The technology industry needs to more clearly understand that there is more to be done.  It’s not enough to simply acknowledge it and move on.  It’s not enough.  Organizations need to implicitly, and intimately, understand the impact of work-related stress as it relates to mental health and the health of the broader organization.  Where organizations seem to fail most is making it safe to even start the process–so I encourage you to bypass the organization entirely.

Start with your peers.  You know at least one who probably has a lower threshold for frustration or someone who’s probably having a tough time with things.  If you really care about them, ask them how they’re doing.  They just might surprise you and tell you that they need help with someone that you’re good at or have experience with.

You probably then want to start thinking about your group or your organization.  How can you do better to support people that might be suffering in silence?  How can the group or the organization make it easier for people to get help and to sound the alarm when they’re overwhelmed?

Finally, what can the organization or the business do to make their operations more sustainable?  Are the human costs of technical debt or procedural gaps justified when the quality of life for employees is compromised?  I’d argue that no cost is too high in maintaining a high quality of life for any employee, regardless of position or function.  But the important part is starting the discussion.

We can all do more to help improve the lives of our peers, our friends, our coworkers, our communities, and our loved ones.  If we can at least start the conversation, then we might just be able to improve the lives of the ones who need help the most, but might not have the voice or the words to ask for it themselves.

Climbing & Mental Health

To say that climbing has given me a reason to live isn’t hyperbole.  When things get tough, when I’m not able to “show up” for people, when I can’t handle anything–that’s when I go climbing.

The climbing gym is my temple.  My meditation is the climb.  The motion, the focus, the effort; in combination it becomes my zazen, my moving meditation.

You really get to know someone for who they are when they’re at the absolute peak of their effort.  When they hit a wall, when they’re way out of their depth, what’s their reaction?  Do they put one-hundred-percent focus and effort on the motion?  Do they analyze their options?  Do they “just go for it”?

What’s your reaction when you fall?  I’ve experienced so many varied emotions after taking a long fall on a climb that demanded more than I thought I had.  More strength, more strategy, more technique, more everything.  Anger, despair, even cacophonous laughter (my climbing partners might instead argue that I bordered on mania, but that’s a whole different discussion).

Climbing is the magnifying lens through which I can truly see myself.  The way I respond to others (and myself) under stress and in the face of repeated failure gives me a clearer picture of myself than my mental illness would let me normally see.  It points out in no uncertain terms that I am most definitely not a failure, that I am worthy, that my efforts aren’t in vain, and that I’m progressing.

In the past, PTSD would take my thoughts into some really dark places.  I wish that I could say that my worst days are behind me, but I know that really difficult days can appear anytime.  There is no schedule, no “tell”, no signal or sign.  But working through those days and experiencing them while climbing has given me an appreciation for the sport and the people who engage in it that I didn’t have before I started climbing.

The most rewarding climbing days aren’t necessarily the days I send a 5.12 on lead or figure out the “intended beta” for a boulder problem.  It’s the times I’ve been able to work through fear, push past adversity, and really have the support and understanding of my climbing partners that make those days really shine.

It’s telling to me that the most intense and intimate experiences I’ve had in my life have been in conversation with other climbers.  There’s an intensity there–a camradarie and openness that’s cultiavted when you’re “out on the sharp end”.  When climbers get down to brass tacks and really communicate, it’s utterly without pretense and completely unvarnished.  If you’re doing something dumb, you’re going to find out real fast.  If you’re progressing and pushing, you’ll know it.  It’s helpful to have someone else right there beside you.  Even bouldering by myself these days, my life and my attitude are improving by degrees.

In short, I don’t think there’s another group of people on Earth I’d rather spend my waking hours with than climbers.  There isn’t another pursuit that I can think of that I’d rather give my time and effort to, especially when it’s given me so much back in return.

Advocacy

No one will ever be able to advocate for you.  Not me, not your boss, not your partner, not your squeeze, not your parents–literally no one.  Because no one will know what you want or how much you want it.

No one except you.

When you really want or need something, you have engage your own sense of agency and ask for it.  Even then, sometimes asking isn’t enough.  “Better to ask forgiveness” only applies when you’ve slighted someone or failed to learn from a mistake or lapse of judgment.

Some people will try to tear you down, rip the excitement right out of your grasp.  They aren’t your advocates or your friends in that moment.  In some cases, they might mean well.  They might be looking out for your physical or emotional wellbeing, but it’s up to you to decide whether to do it anyway and learn the lessons or to ask why.

But make no mistake: the second you let someone else make decisions for you or abdicate your responsibility to advocate for yourself, you’ve already given away your power.  You have the ability to make yourself heard and to make your needs and desires known.  You have agency, just like everyone else.

It’s up to you to use it.

Pride In Common Work

From the outside, it seems as though American society plays a lot of lip-service to the idea of what I would call “common work”; trades and labor specifically.  People pay a lot of attention to the rates of college graduates, advanced degrees, and technical or scientific expertise–but the same kind of attention and respect is seldom given to the silent majority that does things with their hands.

What happened?  When did we become more concerned about the output of unseen hands on computers and sensitive equipment than with the number of mouths fed, bodies sheltered and clothed, and hearts mended?

I wish I had been given the option by my parents to find a trade in addition to building my technical acumen.  Technical expertise only extends so far in a world that still straddles the fence that separates “modern” and “post-modern”.  Had someone told me that they could be as proud of me for swinging a hammer as they would if I helped find a cure or treatment for something, I’d have probably rushed head-long into both worlds.

If I ever have children, or if I’m ever in a position to mentor or be a god-parent, I’d tell them what I wish someone had told me a long time ago.  Building homes for the homeless, finding cures for cancer, making ends-meet doing roofing, or exploring the far-flung reaches of Earth and beyond; I’d be proud of them all the same.

For me, it wouldn’t be about the outcome beyond that person feeling fulfilled and happy.  It’d be about the effort and the joy it brings.  Being happy with anything less would hurt them, and demanding or expecting anything more beyond that would be setting them up for failure.  Accepting them for who they are and what they choose to do is probably the biggest thing I could do.

So what happened here?  When did Americans become so unhappy with the prospect of labor and trade skills?  Maybe it’s the idea of “American exceptionalism” still playing itself out long after it was declared dead.  Who knows.

Queerness

I don’t know how other people describe something like queerness. I guess that’s the point of the word really—different. Is my bisexuality a problem or is it just one facet of who I am that gives context and texture to the person that I have become and will eventually morph into?

My life, being not-quite-straight and not-quite-gay, gives me pause. I have to wonder sometimes if the reason I wanted a “straight-acting” life was because I was afraid of repercussions. Afraid of being labeled. Afraid of other people making judgment calls about who I am as a person without getting to know the innumerable other facets that make up a more complete picture of me. People might know me as a climber, a faggot, a metal-head, a hot-head, or some flavor of geek or nerd; but I wonder how many people know the real me. The one who wants to show affection, the one who wants to encourage and push his friends and chosen family to succeed, the one who would love nothing more than to find a home that contains only what is needed and nothing else.

Do I want to make that “unknown me” more visible? I want that more than anything else in the world. I want to make it possible for people to see more of me, and maybe they could see more of themselves in the offing.