Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is it Still Morning?

I persevered and got it done.

Then I got out.

That was a stressful period. I slaved away trying to find a balance of achieving the stuff I needed to do, hold together the organization, meet the needs of the customers.  All that happened, and a big restructuring came together with several sleepless nights.

New supplier relationships kicked in, customers continued to get what they signed up for, and apart from one or two surprises, everyone seemed to come out happy. 

The balance sheet especially. 

Given that the 'biz' was no longer losing money, I moved on to plan X - escape.  So I gave a couple of months of notice that I'd be leaving, and set about writing down how to do EVERYTHING. That was ready - as was some overlap time - as a new person was acquired, and I made an escape.

The mornings now?  A whole new ball of stressors, but in a better way.  I'm pushing on some new start-uppy potential stuff, and casting about for a new gig in a tough environment.   Meanwhile, things could be a lot worse.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Remember This Thing?

Yes, I've read all the websites and blogs about dealing with anxiety.  If you've launched a start-up or a start-up-like environment you know what I'm talking about.

Strangely I'm going through the most stressful/anxiety filled project of my career and it's not really a true start-up.

This is a very start-up-like environment though.  It involves a small team of staff and a few volunteers in an organization that includes dealing with the public.  I'm rebuilding the business, and putting all the pieces into place. I'm doing everything from marketing to back-end office tools development to managing recruiting to finance and accounting.  It picks up from the points to which I have brought other start-ups.

I'm going to blog a lot about this to help me deal with the stress, so I should develop an appropriate euphemism.   In my previous anxiety-therapy blog entries, I was dealing with the "oceanography."   I don't know what I'll use here, but I'll see what fits as I go forward.  Maybe food services or something.

Now I'm running this company - it's been around for more than a decade, and has some reasonable public-support, but it has been stagnant for a long while, run by fairly marginal sorts.  It hovers on the edge of technology, but it hasn't been a technical leader in ages.   It uses my business and technical skills but in a very operational sense.  My core R&D skills are handy in terms of overcoming challenges - but all the challenges are mundane.

I keep telling myself that this role is a sort of philanthropy thing.  I'll work for a quarter of a normal salary while helping this somewhat socially conscious agency to do a better job and fix all the major problems so it can last for another decade or two.

So I've done a bunch of that stuff.  I deal with a board that is partially meddling and partially apathetic.  I have a staff that is paid rock bottom and performs as one would expect at that level.  I should probably fire half of them, but if I do then I've got to do their jobs while I search for replacements, and there aren't enough hours in the day.  Plus finding replacements at this level means searching for weeks to probably end up with someone just as unreliable and untalented.

No, the only path forward is to fix the organization, make it financially functional so that I can add staff at reasonable pay levels, then turf out the losers.

So I'm well on my way.  Think of the biz as two parts. Let's use a hot-dog wagon analogy.  I've fixed a major problem with the hot-dog supplier and the cart, but I need a better spot.

I've got the street lined up and the, say, city permission to move the truck there, but they're making it hellishly slow.  So I'm sitting here waiting for bureaucracy to follow through.

Anyway, I won't stretch the analogy too far.   It's Monday morning and I'm going to have to get into the hellish work-day activities.

Why all the anxiety and stress in this role?  I'm not sure yet. I guess my reputation is on the line, and there are thousands depending on my organization, plus a handful of staff (even if they are marginally skilled).  That carries some of its own stress.  There is a board and my representations to them that I can fix their organization - which I've already made huge strides toward.  None of this stuff feels particularly weighty on me.

When I dig to find the source of the stress, I keep coming back to my first love - the R&D world, crafting stuff that nobody else has done, working on a world stage in that the patents and prototypes I've fostered in the past are typically the first time those things have been done.   I think my stress is partly that while I'm crafting a new path for this languishing business, even though I'm turning it around and have moved them out of the red and toward a brighter future, I'm not pushing that other envelope anymore.   Life is so short and there are so many interesting things to do, I feel like every day I'm not working in that space, I let other ideas and opportunities drift away.

My whole plan was to spend maybe a year in this 'food services' operation. Rescue the org, pursue one or two 'exciting' new directions that are a bit closer to my past R&D space ('oceanography!' lol).   I need to keep my eyes on that prize and work a parallel plan that includes my exit.

The good news is that the stock market continues to thrive and my diverse and meticulously crafted portfolio surges ahead from the doldrums of late 2008.   Even though that doesn't treat my stress levels, it does remind my more logical intellectual brain that I'm in a stable position financially in spite of my tiny salary in this project.

I'll probably continue to dump my story here as self-therapy going forward.  I'll try to celebrate my successes in this role, and not do the endless-brain-loop on the large forces that stand in the way of progress.  My typing here should save some of my loved-ones the hassle of listening to my broken-record replays, and provide some reflective references for the future.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Side Projects - Good thing or...?

My main now almost 2yr old project has been a tough slog. I've made a ton of progress, but I'm facing some waning enthusiasm.  I've only shared the results with a few people who give it high praise.  I need to start shopping it around to the appropriate folk, but I was hit with an energy sapping dry period where my network access was knocked out just at the same time as I finished a collaboration with a University group.  The resulting frustration sapped my energy and eagerness.

I've started a couple of side projects just based purely on their intellectual interest, and they have gone reasonably  well. They are short period things, so I can achieve a fair bit in a short time. It's really that barrier - achievement cycle that drives me... and I guess most researchers.   You know at each challenging road-block that many people who have independently came along the same path have been turned away. As you overcome the challenge, you are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment.

Still, working as a lone-gun on a project means you don't get any peer recognition for the work. It's pretty pure in the sense that you are encouraged only by the personal elements.

Yet I worry about whether all the substance of my effort will be for nought.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Each Month Maybe?

As things get busy, I've been letting this slide. Also as things get quiet.

Okay, it's no big surprise.  There are very few blogs with a single author that continue to thrive years after starting up, and I'm sadly average.

Still progressing in my project, though my thoughts are often about how it's unlikely to go anywhere.  Finding funding and finding collaborators is more effort than I can muster.  Still I pursue the vision in the hopes that after I stabilize it, I can get a bit of attention that way. If nothing else, I'll have an interesting little freestanding service that maybe pulls me in $50 a year or something above the cost of running it.

And the vision is still exciting. I'm doing something that nobody else is doing, or can show a means to accomplish with today's technology.  That's gotta count for something. 

Researchinator strangely plugs along...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rotating Hats

Hat shifting has been happening more rapidly as I near exposure time for my project.  Shifted from Django work to python/app work now back to javascript/AJAX/Django today.  I'm trying to make content within a page change without the rest of the page changing.  I've done that already for inserting some media into the middle of the page, now I need to recreate that but for some hierarchical navigating.

That also involves traversing a database to figure out the levels of hierarchy.  This could get a bit messy, so will invest the time in planning rather than just jumping in.

Researchinator swaps hats from lethargic blogger back to worker...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Riding the Wave

The transition from winter, such as it was to spring has brought a good solid couple of weeks of sunshine and above normal temperatures. Plus the days here in the northern hemisphere are getting longer.  I know from several decades of experience that with this period comes unexpected positivity.

My strategy is to ride that wave of positive energy for the win!

Researchinator sez that is all.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Your Work Buddy Really Helps

Working for long stretches on your own has a few pitfalls, a few challenges and several benefits.

The benefits are obvious - no interruptions, intellectual freedom, total ownership of successes (and failures) and flexibility in work methods.

The challenges are pretty easy to figure out as well - but if you haven't done a large project on your own, some of this might be new.

Motivation can be an issue - just getting the initiative to start the day. Focus can also be a challenge - it's not hard to get distracted by interesting little things along the way and find yourself miles from where you were headed (can anyone say Twitter?). Thirdly, there's the challenge of planning and finding the right amount of planning. It's tempting to form a rough idea of a direction in your mind then pursue it without writing anything down. When you don't need to explain to anyone, it might seem a reasonable path forward. But then you'll find, it's easy to forget (or mis-remember) the chosen path, weeks after you decided on one.

On the pitfalls front, mistakes are less easy to find when your work doesn't have to 'plug in' to someone else's work. As well, our brains are much more happy working 'multi-modally.' That is, not working only in internalized mode, but in others such as speech, written words, images, diagrams. All these other modes of operation allow our memories to be better 'cross-linked,' making our memory and learning more resilient, recallable and less prone to errors. We naturally get these multi-modal crosslinks when we work in teams. We write and publish documents that are shared. We talk in person or on a phone. We stand around and sketch diagrams on white-boards. All these things strengthen our vision of what we are doing, where we are going.

An invaluable tip for managing the work-alone situation is to build in a work-buddy system using simple electronic tools. When your project involves computer work, and you are on the machine all the time anyway, a blog or even a simple text file is a good means to invoke a virtual work-buddy to help you along.

More casual than a workplan, less onerous than a formalized logbook, a work-buddy log can keep you on track, focussed and maintain some continuity from one day to the next.

I don't find it so useful in long term planning. A small, more formal document is still better for that from my experience. Setting long term goals still seems to benefit from gantt-chart-like tools where you can visualize concurrent tasks, and linkages. But for the near- to mid-term, I've worked well with this work-buddy log approach.

Style and Structure.

The most important part of the blog is establishing a simple structure, but simplicity is key. If there are more than four or five elements to the structure, you'll forget them. So what I use is

  1. Dates - they are the backbone of the whole system. So making them standout is important. I use a double underline, because some of logging is done in a text only file (for rapid access). On my online (but private) 'blog' based Work-Buddy log I let the system do the dating for me, so I can concentrate on the rest.
  2. Plans. I make numbered short plan lists whenever I can think of two or more things I should be doing, then I hammer away at that list.
  3. Bugs - I log any bug in my development work with an all-caps BUG: tag so that I can easily find them again.
  4. To-do's - I log any thing I should remember to do, but don't need to do right away, with a TODO: tag. Again, I can find those easy.
  5. Finally, accomplishments. I start lines that highlight an accomplishment with a text arrow '->;' This is a minor but important thing.  It may sound silly but typing that arrow becomes a kind of 'reward' for completion of an item. E.g. a bug fix, a listed goal or a todo item.

With those elements I manage to create a structured place where I can describe my thinking process and work through details of how to move forward. Often, I find that just articulating the makeup of a problem in conversational-toned writing will lead you to a solution.

I get excellent continuity between work sessions by wrapping up my days with a "First thing tomorrow..." instruction to myself.   It's sometimes hard to recall where your mind was as you wrapped up the day, and a verbose instruction about where you want to start your day is very helpful.

My comment about a 'text-only' file is worth highlighting. While in a development environment, I'm working with text files that are computer code, thus having a text-only file in which I'm logging my progress and thoughts is a very easy, light-weight way to keep up the work-buddy system. If I had to switch to another application, or a browser to log things, it might just put enough of an impediment in my path that I wouldn't do it.  Plus a document with fancy titling, styles, margins etc might also be enough of a deterrent. Let alone opening a large behemoth like applications (hello MS Word) before you can start logging.

When working on other things (e.g. web-based projects), I do use the browser based blogging approach.  In a tabbed browser, it's very easy to have one of those tabs be an open blogger session.   A blogging account set to private (so you're not sharing your detailled design details with everyone) is a good way forward.  For some, privacy might not be an issue, and getting occasional comments on your thoughts might prove fruitful (or distracting!).

Which ever way you approach it, the ability to review your recent thoughts, or solidify thoughts enough that you both retain and apply some rigour to them is a very helpful tool when working on large projects by yourself.

Researchinator turns to the work-buddy to see where we left off...