Odyssey: Day 8

You didn’t miss the first seven, I’m just jumping in here. I’m spending September on the most advanced, complex and challenging professional project I’ve ever done, so I’ve decided to journal my month in order to 1) keep myself sane, 2) maintain a light, let’s say rosy-knuckled grasp on my humanity, and 3) maybe build up a little momentum and keep this up after the 30th.

The project is technical in the extreme, but I’ll give a shot at making it accessible to non-technical readers. (God knows if I have any non-technical readers, or, for that matter, technical ones. I’m probably just talking to myself here.) Let me give you a bird’s-eye view, the way an entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might help you make your gentle acquaintance with a spiky topic: imagine a house.

The house has a couple of rooms, and they fit together a little awkwardly. The kitchen is pretty old. It’s well-maintained, and it’s got all the modern appliances—a fridge, a Keurig, a toaster that tells you the weather and whatnot—but take a close look at any part of the room and it clearly shows its age. Still, it’s perfectly serviceable and in good hands. The real problem is the living room. It’s small, it’s awkward, the paint is ugly, we hate the furniture, and everyone stubs their toe on that corner by the coffee table. Also, it has a tendency to burst into flame and kill our guests. So we’re demolishing the living room and building a brand new addition to the house. It’s the sum of all our architectural skills: clean, elegant, functional, rock-solid, big bay windows with an easterly view. There’s just one catch: we had to build it on a remote mountaintop deep in the Burmese jungle. It’s the only place where the exiled gnostic monks know the secrets of harvesting the all-natural space-age polymer we need for our state-of-the-art smoke detectors. Hence, we have to not only finish building the new room, but assemble a fragile sequence of trains, boats, helicopters, cargo planes and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons in order to get the damn thing home.

For almost three years now, my development group has consisted of exactly two people: my friend and colleague Ben, and myself. And Ben’s availability for the project has been somewhat limited by his being put in charge of running two departments in addition to his actual job. So for the better part of the last year, it’s mostly just been me, building the house, in the spare moments between fiery-hot deadlines. But lo, good things do happen sometimes: I now have not one, but two new developers in the office, talented workers and decent humans both. For the first time, I have a bona fide team. Indeed, as the (relatively) senior developer in the office and the person who built the original framework that we’re building upon, I am effectively the team leader, which of course is equal parts liberating and terrifying. But confronting impossible tasks is a thousand times less crippling with a couple of extra brains in the room. So we’ve got that going for us.

It’s a fraught thing when you make a job out of something you like to do. When it works it feels like a heist—it’s easy and fun and you can’t believe you’re getting paid for it. But it comes with deadlines, expectations and consequences, and when the balance tips it’s a lot like a kayak flipping over. I have many moments, whilst arguing with my anxiety-riddled brain trying to make it go, when I’m like wait a minute: you like doing this, you want to do it, why the hell are you fighting me? A few weeks ago I spent an accursed Friday afternoon desperately clawing my way through a very routine and unthreatening web form build. Then, on the way home, I got an idea, stopped at a Starbucks with my laptop, and in less than an hour had banged out a full-featured plugin that parses and displays Markdown documents. The key distinction, of course, was that I didn’t need or particularly strongly want to do it. I suppose the trick, as always, is to somehow reverse the rule. Four hundred and thirty-fifth time’s the charm.

Now, will I have such a paltry modicum of discipline and willpower that I’ll get a bit done this weekend? Or shall I twist my neck and crack my skull tripping headlong over even this diminutive earthbound bar? Find out tomorrow!