Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Winning the battle against myself


After leaving high school early to go to college, I spent a lot of time figuring out what to do with my life. (Sure, almost no one studies something then does it forever, but you don't know that when you are a young overachiever.) I finally majored in Japanese, because I loved the aspect of taking on an entire culture; from linguistics to nuances of language to sociology to history, it was fascinating.

When my studies and time in Japan had ended, I had a choice:  go to grad school for a PhD. or find a "real" job. I couldn't bear the thought of 8+ more years in school; I needed to get out into the world and see if I could make it on my own.

I worked in college administration for a while. Then, a chance reunion with a friend from college lead me to a technical support role at a software company. She had always relied on me to fix her printer and so on, so this seemed like a no-brainer. I started learning UNIX, printing, graphic design software, networking stack internals, and more. It was amazing.

One of the meta-lessons from this job was the importance of quality in software development. Seeing the problems our customers encountered first-hand made me want to fix them before they shipped, so I moved into QA. In QA, I saw bugs that wouldn't have existed if we had better process, so I moved into project management. The company was small and the engineers were smart - they didn't really think they needed project management, and eventually I figured I could use what I'd learned in the video game industry, following a long-time dream to be a game developer.

The Project Management Nightmare

I've always been "the organized one" - as the child of a serial procrastinator, it was a skill I mastered early on. My passion for quality and customer satisfaction in software, coupled with my desire to force things to be "done right" made me think project management was the perfect job.

Then I came to understand the dark side....conflict.

You see, as an only child of a divorced parent, I had to endure very little conflict in the home. In the real world, I was bullied mercilessly my entire school life - from kindergarten till I left high school. To me, conflict meant something was really wrong. It was to be avoided before it turned into name calling or a beating.

Of course, that ignores the basic truth that conflict management is a critical part of leadership. There is no "perfect" conflict-free business...and if there was, it probably wouldn't succeed. Every business needs differences of opinion in order to arrive at the best decisions. Sometimes those differences feel like white-knuckled conflict (and sometimes they actually are), but regardless, these are a necessary part of business.  However, because of my fear of conflict, each time I faced some significant challenge -- the departure of the manager who championed my position, or layoffs that hit everyone in a group by me -- I ran away. I found a new job, hoping the next one would be better. And each time, it wasn't.
Of course it wasn't! I couldn't be in a project management role without experiencing, and directly handling, conflict.


In 2012, my mother (the aforementioned single parent) had a heart attack caused by an infected emergency dialysis port. She was in the hospital for a long time, clinging to life. We moved to her apartment complex to support her in recovery. For a year I balanced my work (thank heavens my employer allowed me to become a remote worker!) and supporting her recovery.

Except it wasn't really recovery. She needed the emergency dialysis port because her kidneys were failing. End Stage Renal Failure has no cure, and no one in healthcare seems to particularly give a shit when an elderly patient is dying because that's what's supposed to happen.

I watched the light inside my beloved mother -- my life-long best friend & the other half of my soul -- slowly dim, until she passed away in early 2014.

"Can't Pick Up No Crown, Holding What's Holding You Down"

I will never in my life experience anything as awful, difficult, completely gut-wrenching as what I went through in that year. Thank god I had support from those close to me, but in the end it was all about me & her. I feel as though I lost half of my self, and will never get it back.

And yet, out of that experience came a strength that I didn't know I had. I came to understand something a dear friend, now terminally ill, says about the opinion of others:  "What are they going to do to me that is worse than what I'm dealing with now?"

Today, I am at a career crossroads. I've talked about programming for years, but it's not a skill that comes easily to me no matter how much I love it. I just have to accept that, shitty as it is...

I think I have the insight, and the internal strength, to utilize the skills I have -- the ones that come so naturally to me I can't not do them -- to help my colleagues make better software and to help make the company better so they can continue making better software:  I am a Project Manager.