How to Tie Your Shoes

This week marks the official start of the big corporate re-alignment project that I will be flying to New Jersey to participate with next month, and one of my colleagues who has been an integral part of the LMS project is in attendance for some of the preliminary, non-technical meetings that will set the tone and direction for the coming year. Given the high hopes a lot of people are pinning on this project, it's interesting to hear that the LMS that I've worked on over the last two years has been gathering a lot of attention. So much so that my colleague has been asked to deliver some demos and walk-throughs of the project and how it's impacted school operations across Japan. Given that he's been the main project lead since development officially started in 2016, this is an excellent opportunity for him to show off the fruits of his labours. However, as the sole developer of the system, people have reached out to me via email and Skype to ask a number of questions about the future of the project and whether it can be adapted to work for schools in different countries.

"Of course it can be adapted to work in other countries," I tell them. "It's just software."

Wearing Nice Shoes

A lot of people want to know what's next for the project and whether it can survive going from being developed by a single person to a team of people around the globe1. Some want to know whether something designed to be used in Japan can really be used in countries like Mexico, Colombia, and Switzerland. Others think it's an interesting concept, but wholly unnecessary given that we had software that sort of kind of did a small bit of what the LMS is capable of. What I find most interesting is that the questions being asked are the wrong ones. Wrong not because they're born from the typical tunnel vision that afflicts organisations around the world, but wrong in the sense that they skirt around the actual question that people are hinting at but never directly stating:

Why are people — particularly managers and teachers — excited about this tool?

It's this why that should be asked again and again because that's really the only way to understand why so much of the other software that's been created for this company by very smart people around the world has failed to live up to the needs of the people who actually do the work. This isn't to say that the project I worked on is necessarily better. From a technological standpoint, it's downright archaic in how it accomplishes its purpose. From a business process point of view, however, it's perfectly aligned. Considering how I worked in the classroom for almost a decade before developing the LMS with the support of some very smart people, this shouldn't come as a surprise at all. Too much of the software companies rely on are created by people who mean well, but don't fully understand how the processes, people, and cultures within an organisation mesh together to create the businesses that customers interact with. Or, in the case of my employer, students.

One of the key ideas that I hope to share with my global colleagues when we meet in New Jersey is this notion of asking why until we reach the real reason behind a project or a feature request. It's something a former colleague/mentor of mine taught me, and it's been incredibly useful over the years despite the plethora of software projects I've created that served nobody but me.

So here's a simple question: why do so many of us tie our shoes with a knot?

Taking this question all the way back will have us ask fundamental questions about the kinds of shoe we buy, the reasons we buy them, the goals we hope to accomplish, and eventually the reason we wear shoes at all. A lot of the people I've worked with — no matter how smart — have often stopped asking why at the first or second level. When it comes to solving complex problems, this is just not good enough. Problem solvers and solutions providers need to go much deeper than one or two levels. We need to reach the core. Otherwise, anything we create to solve a problem is just an incomplete idea.

  1. to add a little bit of fun, the project needs to change from being a self-hosted tool on a LAMP stack to being written to run completely within the Salesforce ecosystem; a platform I've never worked with. It should be interesting and lead to even better opportunities going forward.

Not Doing Too Good

The last few weeks have been pretty rough as it seems there are too many people vying for some of my time, my experience, my presence, or some combination thereof. These things are often freely available in moderation. When there are too many demands for the same resources, though, constraints can drive a person's stress levels through the roof. This is where I find myself this week.

The Sacred Bridge in Nikko

Being angry and frustrated is not a wonderful thing. Creativity cannot thrive under these conditions, yet it seems that whenever a person is under the gun to deliver before a bunch of arbitrary deadlines, creativity is needed in excess. While it's not at all realistic, I'd really like to take all 26 of my banked holidays at work and go for a walk with Nozomi every morning rather than head into the office where it seems artificial problems wait and artificial priorities jostle for artificial expedition which results in a very real lack of time for larger priorities. When asked why the larger priorities are yet to be completed, people are told about the other items that managed to jump the queue … not that it matters. Apparently, when items are deemed "too important to wait", they are to be resolved alongside the larger projects, as though we all carry with us two or more extra arms that can be deployed in such a scenario.

It's ridiculous.

How many times must a person refocus during the day before they can begin to work on the things they're expected to complete? Given that very little of what any of us does today will be remembered in five years time, why is there always so much of a focus on artificial priorities?

We spend so much time stressed out over the imaginary objectives of people who pretend they own us that we ignore the very real objectives that drive us to get out of bed in the morning. Looking at all the things that are stacking up in front of me, I'm not even sure why I even leave the house in the morning.

I'm not doing too good.

How Long Is A Candle?

In September of 2015, nearly six months after scrapping Version 3 of 10Centuries, I started work on 10Cv4, the most complex and current release of my millennia-long pet project. In December I was encouraged to push even harder to get the system ready for podcasting and, after a few false starts, I managed to release a private version with a few people testing it for a month before opening the door to beta testers in January of this year. Since then, there have been hundreds of mini-releases, some big technical changes, a couple of hurdles, and a whole lot of UI development to make the system more approachable for people who have been trained to be more critical of software interfaces. There's still a lot to be done, including development of a multi-platform mobile application that will be available on Android and Apple devices, but the system is coming along nicely and is 80% of the way to becoming profitable.

Since March of this year, I've been working a lot of long hours in order to pull off what many people at work are calling "the miracle of the century." Creating and deploying a new piece of software from scratch to polish in less than six months to replace tools that have been in use and under development for years. A lot of the people I'm working with are incredibly motivated and work hard to accomplish all of their goals on time, and a few have — until recently — openly slowed the team down by remaining willfully ignorant of the project until it was too late. This is typical in most large organizations, and is compounded when working across borders and timezones with people who have never met each other in person. Yet, despite the hurdles, the local team has pulled together to accomplish some really amazing things.

Two months ago a client who I had done a lot of work for in 2013 and 2014 came at me with a new project request. It sounds interesting, and it could prove to be a huge hit in Japan given the rise of the "gig economy" in local communities. I've been offered the position of lead developer, which would likely transition to CTO should investment actually come through after the initial project is built and demoed in Tokyo this fall. At this point my role is strictly consulting, but I've been given the opportunity to hop on board for weekend and evening development sessions which would reduce the time between software releases by a wide margin.

In February 2017 a long-term project is set to begin. One that is going to be more complicated and more demanding than anything I have accomplished to date. Leading up to the start of this project I'm investing a lot of time in learning new skills and putting most of them to use almost immediately. This new project won't pay very well, and might never break even when examined from a strictly financial point of view, but it's one that I've been looking forward to starting for a very, very long time.

No, I haven't forgotten that I'm married and also have a puppy who desperately needs human attention at all times. My family takes priority to the vast majority of the projects I'm currently working on, though I do tend to ask for a few hours every weekend to turn some ideas into software and to read a book or two … or do some podcasting … or cook.

Burning the candle at both ends? Me? No. I chopped that candle up into smaller pieces and am burning many little ones!

Lit Candles Lighting the Way

A bad analogy is like a leaky screwdriver.

— Hugo¹

Sitting around doing nothing is very hard for me, and I actively avoid it at all costs. Idle hands are the devil's playthings and, while I don't particularly believe that the demigod synonymous with evil will make use of my body, I do see examples of people who are capable of so many things and have great ideas but zero ambition to actually accomplish their goals. People are free to use their time however they choose, of course. Who am I to judge? What I do know, however, is that I would not like to look back in seven days at what I did during the previous week only to shake my head.

So I work …

… and work …

… and work.

No, it's not particularly healthy, and this is a topic that I've touched on numerous occasions with blog posts lamenting approaching burnout, mental exhaustion, and generally feeling bad about myself. This is a lifestyle that I've chosen, but is it the right one?

Can't Nobody Hold Me Down. Not even me.

Over the last decade or so I've tried a number of times — to no avail — to slow down and relax. Occasionally this would involve disconnecting from the Internet where it seems that everybody is always doing something amazing, when really it's just three or four percent of everybody who's doing something amazing. When I see others achieve, I want to achieve, too. As childish as it may seem, the thrill of recognition is just too great to ignore. One cannot compete with everybody, though.

Other attempts to relax have involved me reducing the amount of time I sit in front of a glowing screen, opting instead to use more analog devices such as pens and paper, allowing for a less rigid, more organic creative process to take hold. This is generally a wonderful thing, but it's hard to then transfer that creativity from freeform paper to something that can be shared and appreciated by others.

Occasionally I've even taken the drastic measure of removing the software development tools from my computers so that I instead focus on writing, or communicating, or simply playing a game to unwind and relax. This tack rarely lasts long, though, and is pretty much impossible now that I'm being paid a full-time salary to write software during the day. The development tools are rather necessary at this point.

So why fight it? What purpose would preventing myself from going in six different directions at once actually serve aside from introducing distractive thoughts actually serve? Exploration of other pastimes? Spending time in places where I am physically present but cognitively elsewhere? Forcing myself to confront the demons of self-doubt that ceaselessly whisper into my subconscious ear? Wouldn't some measure of success and recognition address that last issue, thus validating the excessive efforts that are being put into a number of projects, both large and small?

And this is really the crux of the problem, isn't it? I don't feel I've accomplished anything worth being proud of and, when something does gain some modicum of acclamation, I shrug it off thinking that I don't deserve any praise because there are other five other people I could point to who are doing the same thing, only better.

10Centuries cannot hold a candle to WordPress or SquareSpace. The gig economy tool has long been the domain of CraigsList and AirBnB-like sites. The LMS I'm building at the day job? Well … that's something that might garner a whole heap of recognition in the education sector, but only because there are 20 very dedicated people working on the project and all the existing commercial products are just awful. The big, long-term project that starts next year … both excites and terrifies me. What if I'm not good enough?

People who have known me a long time will probably scoff at this endless cycle of self-flaggelation. Sure, the things I create may not be to the same standard as the offerings provided by others, but they do offer something unique — something that other tools either do not or cannot implement. This is what I'm told right before the ever-helpful "cheer up!" comment that comes across more as exasperation than encouragement … though I won't fault them for trying.

So here I am, writing a blog post just minutes to midnight trying to sort out why I can't sit still or limit myself to just one or two projects instead of some ridiculous number. Believe it or not, posts like this do help me contextualize what's going on in my head, and nothing here is new to me. I know I need to wield better control over my time, and I know I shouldn't say "yes" to every project that lands on my desk. I can't take more than a day of doing "nothing", and that's just fine so long as I make sure the people around me are taken care of. I should get out more, too.

All of this I already know, but that desire to do something great demands the lion's share of the pie. What I really want to know is how to satisfy that seemingly insatiable need. Maybe when the mind is less concerned with trying to accomplish something, it will actually come to pass.

1. Hugo who, I don't know. The quote comes from an episode of The Ubuntu Podcast.