Driving Ahead and Looking Back

"Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons. You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain though you're thinkin' that you're leavin' there too soon."
Neil Young

What kind of week has it been? Well, the project manager who is my partner on this current client deployment texted me this afternoon and said, "You've had a really bad week."

And she wasn't talking about my job performance.

I don't want to roll into technical details that will bore you and I don't want to say disparaging things about either my client or my co-workers. But this week has consisted of one crisis after another on this project and as fast as I put out one fire, two more spring into existence. It's been a week of playing project Tetris with one badly misshapen piece falling after another, gradually coming at me faster and faster until I feel like I'm going to break.

On Tuesday, I quietly cancelled my vacation plans. My original plan was to take a week off after this project went live which was scheduled to happen in mid-September. So I planned to take the first week of October and head to Yellowstone. I anticipated a quiet week alone, walking among the mountains and hot springs in crisp fall weather. But the project started to slip and before you knew it, that week of vacation was happening halfway between the user acceptance testing and the actual go-live. Still, if we had things on track, it was doable so my project manager kept encouraging me to keep my plans alive.

By this week, I was starting to realize two things - first of all, being off the grid for that week was going to put this struggling project at serious risk. Secondly, I realized that no manager or project manager or even product director was going to order me to cancel my vacation. Modern companies just don't do that, especially companies like mine that take work-life balance seriously. So I pulled the plug myself. No one told me to, no one encouraged me to and no one has even said they're glad I did it. But they are. I'm smart enough to realize that.

The airline reservation is on credit with United so I can use that some future day. The hotel reservation and rental car were refunded (except for one night at a different hotel) so it's not costing me all that much. The only acknowledgement I've gotten is that my actual manager who saw that I had cancelled the vacation request told my project manager, Amanda. Her response was to tell me, "When you get back from England, no matter what our situation is, you take a couple of days. You need rest."

So I guess it shows.

Wednesday, between the technical challenges I was having with the configuration and the full plate of design stuff in front of my crack engineer, Haydn, it was getting pretty stressful. On Thursday, we were pulling 10 hours of non-stop testing and fixing. This morning, I discovered that the reporting variables in my interface had somehow been polluted with stuff from another project. I raised the alarm, thinking this was going to just kill Amanda who happens to be managing another even larger project and working onsite in Boston this week. But by the end of the day, people from DBA, hosting, QA, and engineering had all pulled together and solved all three of my big glitches and Amanda was telling me in a phone call that I had saved the day by spotting the problem when I did.

But I'd much rather have not had to.

I'm feeling my age and it is wearing me down. My company has three really big clients undergoing deployments right now - one for each of our senior consultants. Mine is the smallest of the three, but the client is considered 'strategically important' because they are our first European based customer and apparently their CEO is on a first-name basis with about 100 other European CEOs.

Even though my project isn't as large, it has some special challenges. It is our first European based client and we have built them a server environment based in the UK. Spinning it up has been challenging and filled with problems. As the consultant, my job has been to keep the client unaware of how much has been going wrong. It's been three months of diving catches and careful juggling. I've taken the rap on a few small misses just to keep from throwing other departments under the bus and undermining the company's credibility on a larger scale. It's all part of my job and my manager and PM know the story.

My PM knows I've been through the wringer and I haven't even told her about the sudden bout of back pains that hit me on Tuesday. I was sitting at my desk, hunched over for a half hour on a phone meeting and when I sat up, my back just felt like it was ripping apart. I don't know if it's stress or a kidney stone or what, but for a couple of days, I could barely move around. It's eased a lot in the past 48 hours and think I'm on the downhill side, but on top of everything … well, Amanda's right: I've had a really bad week.

Next weekend is the 40th class reunion for the EHS class of '75. Many of my classmates will be gathering back in El Dorado and I would sure as heck like to be joining them. I will be in England. I fly out tomorrow and spend next week providing user acceptance testing training for the client. The following week the testing starts and with the 6 hour time difference and all, the client felt it would be a good idea for me to stay over another week.

And what strategically important clients want, strategically important clients get.

I know what you're thinking: oh, boo-hoo! Poor Randy stuck in England at someone else's expense! Except it's not that simple. I can't expense weekend travel and entertainment. On top of that, the way things have been going on this project, there's an even chance I will be spending at least half the weekend in the hotel hammering on my computer putting out more fires. Also, I'm not staying in London - I'm staying in Solihull, a suburb of Birmingham a good 150 miles northwest of London. I am sure there are things to see in and around Birmingham, but I just don't know how ready I will be to jump in a taxi and go see them.

So it's not a vacation. Not even close. Business travel usually ends up being more work per day than when we're in the office. Don't get me wrong - I like England and I have a couple of ideas for things to see within range. But it isn't exactly leisure time.

Plus, I'm 57 and tired. So while my former classmates are gathering and drinking and talking about when we were young, I'll be on my own in a foreign country wishing I still was young. Also wishing I could be with them, swapping stories and sharing a few laughs and a few drinks.

Neil Young called the lure of childhood 'Sugar Mountain' and lamented that you couldn't live there after twenty. It's kind of comical to think of that mentality. Do Daltrey and Townshend still sing "I hope I die before I get old" on the Who's 50th anniversary tour? You have to wonder how they feel about it now.

We'll get through this. That was the message today. Amanda actually called me from Boston and the entire gist of the call was that message - we'll get through this. Yeah, that's how bad a week it's been for me: I have managers who are half my age trying to keep my spirits up.

Despite the so-called ravages of age, there are good things about being the oldest living software consultant on earth (or so it seems, at times). Some clients have an instinctive respect for age which is interesting. American clients are impressed with youth but Latin and English clients seem to think a little grey hair implies wisdom. Naturally I play that up for all its worth.

In the meantime, I will be thinking of my friends back in El Dorado. Friday night, by the time they gather and tip a few glasses of cheer, I will be in bed thanks to the time difference. But they'll have been in my thoughts as well as a few memories of easier times, simpler days when the crisis consisted of school competitions and imagined broken hearts.

I plan to toast the memory of friends. It'd be nice if y'all tipped a glass and thought of me, while you're there.