No, Indiana Jones Was Not Here

We have four “urban” chickens who, every spring and summer, lay more eggs than we can possibly eat without a steady diet of omelettes and French toast.

One of their passions (and chickens have few passions besides eating and henpecking each other), is dust bathing. My husband built the chickens a pretty nice chicken run where they have access to dirt to scratch for bugs and dust bathe in luxury.

As of this writing, the chickens have bathed so deeply into the run that when they lie down and flap their wings, you only see the drift of dust passing overhead.

At first, they dug up an inexplicable layer of lava rock. Then today I noticed that they’ve dug up two toy cars and what looks like a part of a Nerf dart. Also, a lonesome domino turned up in the dead grass just outside the run all on its own.

I know that the people who lived here before us were childless, but the house is sixty years old and has seen a lot of owners and I wonder who it was that lost an ambulance and a green sedan in the dirt out back under the cyprus trees and I wonder whether those items were ever missed, the way I miss the small treasures I lost as a child.

I’m looking forward to the chickens digging yet deeper, The Great Escape style, and seeing what else they find (besides a way out again).

Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch

Because of my other side projects I don’t exactly have the funds for a professional copy of Visual Studio. Therefore, I’m working in Visual Studio 2015 Community Edition. Not only had I never set up a new project in VS2015CE, selecting from its panoply of project options, I hadn’t set up any project in ages because on my current job, the project had already been set up when I got there. And while I’d shoved that project into a few different SCMs (currently residing in Atlassian’s Stash), I’ve only gotten a little practice setting up Jenkins–which is, to put it kindly, mysterious and arcane.

Hence, the “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” frenzy: repeatedly setting up a project, creating an object or two, creating unit tests for those objects, setting up the repository on BitBucket, and configuring the project in Jenkins so that it builds and all of the unit tests pass. And then tear it all down. And do it all over again the next possible night (remember: work/life and life/life balance happening here). Without any notes or StackOverflow Googling.

Except for the .gitignore. No one should be expected to write a .NET .gitignore off the top of their head. There are more valuable things to fill one’s head with. Like Jenkins configuration.

I understand that Jenkins is a fairly broadly used product. It’s not exactly “industry standard” because what does that mean in software anyway, where there are so many interchangeable or nearly interchangeable offerings? But, without quibbling, Jenkins (and tools like Jenkins) are useful and de riguer to the point of being passé, ready to be usurped by the next generation of tools. Because it doesn’t end here and it never will, or else my Dad’s old Honeywell manuals from the 1970’s would be of use to me.

We all live in the here-and-now, so my short-term goal is to get a tiny spike project with unit tests running on Jenkins in as little time as possible. Once I get Jenkins down two or three times and can discard the copious Jenkins notes, I’ll start running the stopwatch on my phone and see how low I can go time-wise.

Now, am I cargo-culting? I wonder. How does repeating the same steps over and over help anything? I’m not sure. Will I be refining my spike solution as I go, slowly growing an architecture that I like? Maybe. Will I be learning how to smoothly navigate and manipulate Jenkins? Hopefully, because the Jenkins navigation is counter-intuitive to me. Bragging rights? What a weird thing to brag about. To be confronted with starting up a new project without drawing a complete blank? Yes. Especially in an interview.

So it’s not just “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” today, but it’s “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” for a lifetime, because things are always changing, and new tools will become standards that will become sad, outdated kitsch in time (like Dad’s Honeywell manuals). This particular “Wash, Rinse, Repeat, Stopwatch” iteration represents just one slice in time–one snapshot of what is currently standard–but the underlying ethos is a necessity for the job. Dad may have made it to 75 by staying in COBOL as it became a rare and valuable skill to large companies (banks) that couldn’t excise it, but I can’t expect the same fortune. Nor do I really want it, though I’d still like to be working at 75.

An Open Floor Plan vs. a Small Private Office

I’ll admit it: I lost a fair amount of work time today. I share a small office with two other people, neither of whom were present when I arrived this morning. So, I settled down, fired off my morning “chores” email to my son, and dived into a small feature that had been bugging me for too long with recalcitrant jquery problems. I did a fair amount of work.

One coworker emailed in that she’d been forced to commute to Bellevue and back and would be late. My other coworker was on a bus back from Vancouver, B.C., after doing an organized Seattle-to-Vancouver ride. So I had the place to myself for a good long time and I did get some stuff done.

Then my coworker who’d been diverted to Bellevue (or “Across the Water,” as we think of it) arrived. She got down to work as well, doing all of that Monday morning getting oriented, organized, and prepared to face the week.

It was all quiet tippity-tapping of keyboards for a while and then–I don’t remember who started it–we began chatting. And because we have a small, three-person office, there was no one there to disturb with our happy, tangent-filled discourse. We chatted, I confess, for quite a while.

Since our company contracted from three to two floors in the building, a lot of dynamics have changed. Our leadership had spoken enthusiastically of building more synergy from more people rubbing elbows, but they were speaking in general and not in relation to our particular situation.

Formerly, we sat as a group of five or so (the number undulates with a delightful stream of visitors, graduate students, post-graduate students, and others). We were also seated in a wide open area right next to the Help Desk folks (all pleasant) and, just beyond them, the Systems folks. Once in a while conversation would cross-pollinate across groups. Most of the time we chatted by caste. But the fact that you knew other people were within hearing range not only cut down on the loudness of any conviviality, it cut down on the length of it.

I’m mostly an introvert. Why do I sound like I’m advocating for an open floor plan as an aid to productivity? Well, I’m not. For one, not only has our group been cut into two subgroups on opposite sides of the building, we’ve lost the friendly camaraderie between ourselves and the unrelated IT groups that we used to share our open space with.

Most frightening of all is that one of us in our small office will be leaving permanently for India in December. He’s one of the kindest and smartest people I’ve ever known and he comprises 1/3 of my office. When he leaves, who will come and sit at that desk? How will that change the solid, stable chemistry built by six years of working together, sharing our ups and downs and inside jokes? Could the remaining 2/3 of us swallow a “poison pill?” Could we transform such a person? With so few people inside such a tiny area, we have no way to diffuse the tension.

Endless expanses of drab cubes is definitely the wave of the past, but oppressive walls and tiny pockets of people isn’t the wave of the future, either (our office is shaped like a Tetris block). Rather, the obvious answer is that not only do you need an open, collaborative space, you need one that’s flexible enough to offer some privacy (private phone call, anyone?) in addition to allowing folks who might not otherwise work together to rub shoulders.

I sit and think of December with a mixture of hope and dread: dreading the loss of a great co-worker and hoping against hope that whatever fresh blood comes along and occupies his former desk can help us make another, fresh whole that will keep our tiny office functioning, both during work and during play.

Who knows, maybe we’ll get a real winner and even host another Open House and have champagne and snacks, like we did when we first moved in. We got a liquor license and posted it proudly in our little Tetris block and everything. It was a great party–too bad you missed it.

Good News, Bad News; Either Way it’s 8th Grade

My son begins 8th grade in a few weeks and over the course of the summer we’ve had a few “talks” about how this was the last year his grades wouldn’t be on the transcript he would send out to colleges. He took this news with the amount of alarm that you would expect out of a thirteen-year-old: zero. Or at least he pretended zero. Everything I’ve read (and I panicked after his 7th grade year and read multiple books over the summer) points to the notion that “bright but unmotivated” kids are often perfectionists who fear failure and therefore don’t even try, ending up with that facade of “couldn’t care less.”

Our son sailed through seventh grade, sunnily assuring us that he had no homework because they were allotted time in class for it and he’d done it already. I believed this because I know the school had a “low homework” attitude. It was possible that–given enough time in class–he was truly finishing things up.

How could I be so stupid, you wonder? Well, aside from his convincing smile, I was unconvinced. Essentially, we were running an experiment to find out what would happen if we kept our hands off. We assumed he’d be mature enough to at least crash-land his 7th grade year fairly well the same way he’d crash-landed 6th grade.

Then, at the end of the year, I got an email from one of his teachers saying that my son had failed to turn in a two-chapter take home test. She asked us to encourage him to return it ASAP. I looked her name up in the directory, since I never can remember which teacher is which (I’m just bad with names of people I’ve never met that way). It was his algebra teacher. Now, I knew my son was having a hard time in algebra, partly because he didn’t have a textbook–he was at the orthodontist the day they handed out books and they were short so (in short) he didn’t get one.

This, for the record, happened in Seattle Public Schools: there are not enough textbooks for each child to have one in some schools. His middle school is one of the wealthier schools (as supported by PTA dollars). It has a world class music program built by the parents, but the school district cannot be bothered to allot them enough textbooks per child.

So, I was cutting him some slack in algebra because of the no-textbook-thing, though I thought a native of the digital generation should take to his “online textbook” like a fish to water. There was a textbook available for him to use in the classroom, so I figured he just put a lot of effort into finishing (mostly) during class.

But the take-home test made me livid. The algebra teacher had a no-make-up policy and here she was practically begging me to make my son turn in this two-chapter test. Upon returning home that night, I interrogated my errant son, who replied that he hadn’t quite finished it and so hadn’t handed it in–knowing there were no make-ups and no late work allowed. Clearly, he wasn’t thinking clearly.

He finished the test, turned it in, squeaked by, and when his grades came his father looked at them and suggested that I not bother.

So now here’s the bad news: we just sat down with our son to explain to him that mother is going to be monitoring his schoolwork every damn day. Every day will be “planner bingo,” with something written in for each class, whether the topic they covered or the assignment due or what they plan to discuss the next day. Something–anything that mother happens to deem valid. Then, mother and son will organize all of the papers that came in that day, devise a study plan, and mother will sit at the dining table and work quietly on her own work while son and daughter do their assigned work for the day. I will be there from start to finish, no cut corners, no skeletons in the closet, nothing out of place, everything ready for the next day.

Here you may ask: why me and where is my husband in all of this?

I’m the study hall monitor because my husband is the chef and the dishwasher. If you think he’s getting the better end of the deal, you’re wrong; I hate to cook and touching cold, wet, slimy dishes turns my stomach. And I’m forever grateful to him for taking on the yucky stuff.

The good news then, is that even though we’ll fumble and stumble a bit, I have that secret love of planning things, so I’m sure we’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. From there, I just have to make sure he stays on task and does his best. And everything I’ve read assures me that organization and staying on top of things are key to good self esteem and, more importantly, self-efficacy (the sense that you are capable and resilient in the face of what life throws at you). And from there, the grades just magically follow.

We hope. We’ll see. I’ll report back later on how this actually turns out.

If you’re interested, here are the highlights of my summer reading:

  • That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week ~ which taught me that my son was not alone in his disorganization and inspired me to sit down with him to get him organized. We’re implementing some pieces of the author’s tactics in modified ways.
  • The Price of Privilege ~ while we’re not one of the uber-wealthy, absentee-daddy, power families often referenced in the book, I found this one so compelling that I wrote fifteen pages of notes and went over them in two sessions with my husband and son as conversation starters
  • Teach Your Children Well ~ by the same author as The Price of Privilege.
  • Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be ~ a book about the bubble of madness surrounding college admissions, esp. the Ivies. The book contains a sweet collection of anecdotes about kids who had to go to their 2nd choice or even fall-back colleges and who found they actually got a great education. My blood pressure must’ve dropped a good ten points reading this book.

“Mystery Project” or “What is in the Bucket?”

There is now a bucket on the lower shelf of my nightstand. It contains several balls of yarn, knitting needles, a crochet hook, and a round loom.

I sat and worked until my back ached.

Why?

Because the family White Elephant Gift Exchange theme is “hand-made” this year. And I was certainly using my hands, although it was my back that felt it the most.

What am I making? What will it look like? I have a bad history with yarn–will it even be something that can be readily identified by a noun in the English language? I don’t know yet. All I know is that the yarn is pretty colors and soft to work with. The theme is “hand-made,” not “useful.” God forbid anyone comes up with that as a theme some year.

However, my family should be afraid. They should be very afraid of this impending monstrosity. Someone will get stuck with it come Christmas day.

At least it’ll be small and easy to ship home.

Waiting for Updates

Among the other bits and pieces of my life that I’m trying to pick up again (I sat for a while and knitted today), I’m reopening my Windows machine and trying to get a fresh start on my programming side project.

This meant not only 26 Windows Updates but also Visual Studio 2013 Update 5. You can tell I’ve been using just my Mac for a while. Shopping, mostly. I’m still trying to get my novel-writing back up to speed.

What is the point of programming all day and then coming home and coding again at night. Well, I’ll confess that sometimes I don’t really code at all during the day, for reasons ranging to an absurd amount of outside appointments to database cleanup. It is, after all, database cleanup season, didn’t you know?

The real point is to have a chance to program sideways from how I normally do. I have a very established set of patterns that I use at work and I would like to hone my brain against something outside that box, where I’m free to roam or dally and do more than just the swiftest thing possible, reusing the identical technologies. It’s like a short-order cook settling down on his or her off-time to slowly and methodically cook something complicated from Julia Child, savoring the whole thing.

And so here I am waiting in “grey bar land, “although the bars aren’t technically grey anymore–fashion is so fickle.

Oh, great. Now I need to restart.

How Moo Cards Make Me Confront My Professional Identity

My daughter is enough of a social person that I keep considering buying her a set of Moo cards with our contact info on it so she can hand it out to the kids she meets at summer camps, school, etc. There is a school directory, but I’ve had more success hand-printing business cards (or when I want to really catch someone’s eye, a postcard) and handing that out. So sometimes I play around with the Moo site, trying to convince myself that I should just invest in a set of 50 or 100 “Let’s Play” business cards for my seven-year-old. They’re actually pretty cute.

What is less cute is that during this process, I inevitably get drawn into toying around with cards for myself. I already have corporate business cards which are nice but unnecessary in my current position and really don’t describe me beyond contact details. Then signing up for an intensive, four-day seminar in Software Product Management in mid-September (which included a group lunch and a networking reception) made my Moo ruminations much more urgent. What use was handing out something that was nothing more than my job title and corporate contact info?

Let’s not point out that I’m not brave enough to hand anything to anyone unsolicited. In my Palace of the Mind, however, I envisioned myself as sociable, gracious, and articulate at these occasions and even in the classroom.

Suddenly, I’m confronted by the front of a Moo card with several blank lines, each one with a pale grey suggestion of what you should fill that empty space with. Okay: name at the top, that’s easy; it’s a nice name: easy to parse out and spell or say. But then comes my job title. And then I have to wonder “who am I?” because my official title of “bioinformatics systems programmer” isn’t particularly accurate or informative. It’s about as compelling as my shoe size.

Well, the naked truth is that I’m a Web Applications Developer. But beyond that, filling in the lines of the Moo card to make a sort of haiku about who I want people to remember me as becomes a real challenge. I show my husband my attempts and his reactions range from “ew” to “*shrug.*” Having worked alone or as a consultant for so much of my career, my soft skill set rivals my hard skill set and hard skill buzz words move so quickly anyway that it’s the soft things that I want to be remembered for: my knack for designing systems out of vague or off-the-cuff requirements; my agility in the face of feedback; my dedication to both my bosses and my end-users.

Then there’s the dark underbelly of soft skills: my delight in dealing with my end-users (even when they’re reporting bugs or user errors); my joy in helping my coworkers; the thrill of data coming together to make a solid narrative of information; the secret passion for planning and organizing.

But these soft skills are the things I long to put on the Moo card in efficient, evocative four or five word phrases. I am not my tech buzzwords: I am so much more, but I doubt my ability to ever articulate that in a job interview.

Because the sad news is that I can’t stay where I am forever. Our current government contract has two years left, after which we may or may not be renewed–if a renewal is even offered. But even then, I don’t think I can stay forever–not thirteen years in the same place where where I have no hope of an actual promotion, where I have no hope of working with someone in the same tech stack and exchange ideas, where software is a hair-on-fire end to the means, not something to be beautifully crafted for its own sake so that it’s durable and resilient.

And so, with two years to go, I have time to invest in who I want to be: to find a path. Do I want to double down and be a coder’s coder, the kind who is isolated from stakeholders and clients and has her velocity measured and compared in sticky notes? Can I branch out and find a programmer/analyst position? A position as an analyst alone? I’m not so in love with coding that I couldn’t be happy churning out user stories and flow charts and other artifacts. Product management eventually? Project management? My current project manager is so competent, she inspires me.

The answer taunts me from just around an unseen corner. The only truth that’s staring me in the face is that I can’t move on to a job where I’m pigeonholed as a coding robot that lives in isolation and executes minute tasks that have already been described in excruciating detail. I have to be a stakeholder in my own project, contributing more than just lines of code but ideas and interact both with the project owners and the end users. Tall order, but like my husband says, “you only need one.”

And maybe that’s the perfect closer for my Moo card: Lisabeth Cron ~ Web Applications Developer ~  [contact info] ~ “You only need one…”

Reboot

In my WordPress admin, the metadata for my “About” page implies that I started this blog seven years ago. I wrote a couple of posts and stopped. The blog was meant as a way to keep in touch with my family, who moved from our longtime home in Seattle to the Phoenix area. I couldn’t get them to read it and so now I just write them a card every Sunday and drop it in the postbox on my way to work on Monday. Problem solved.

Since then, I’ve been busy. My young daughter (whose infancy coincided with the original incarnation of the blog) required a lot of attention. I went back to work when she was a year old, my personal resources were stretched, I had a lot of personal ups and downs and they didn’t seem like things I wanted to publish or even tell my mother. So the blog died.

I have no shame in rebooting the blog (look at how the movie industry is trending right now: the reboot is so fashionable). I rebooted it several months ago, but life got in the way and I got out of the rhythm of my life, which is a delicate balance anyway.

Then, still out of balance in late May, I literally lost my balance, fell while trying to plug a laptop in and dislocated my right shoulder. It takes a minute to pop it back in, but six to twelve months to truly heal. Foremost, I lost the ability to merely care for myself: from getting in and out of my clothes to getting anything to eat to driving. Sadly, I lost my ability to type for several weeks (it still hurts unless my arm is supported properly) and I became

If you happen to come along and find it, you’re welcome to it. If you find something you like or that amuses you or that you find achingly familiar, then I’m happy that I’ve written something that has connected with you. I will try to categorize well, keeping my family stuff from my work stuff from my novel writing stuff. If you don’t like it, don’t worry: not everyone likes the same things, and that’s okay.

2 gripes related only by the fact that they involve the internet

Gripe 1:

I just reopened my Facebook account after six years in order to monitor my 13 y.o. (and I keep forgetting to stalk him on Instagram, darn). At first, I was logged in like I’d never left–on a machine that didn’t exist six years ago, no less. Then I hit a wall. And I had to log in. With a password from six years ago. Needless to say, I was suddenly plunged into “reset password hell.” Part of it is that I don’t trust Facebook and it flusters me. Part of that is that…I hate resetting passwords.

Then I thought, “I should probably download Facebook to my phone.” Which means I have to reset my AppleID password because I never remember my AppleID password. What makes it worse is that my husband set up my Apple account with an email alias I don’t use. So it makes it even harder because it claims it doesn’t know who I am until I remember I am who I’m not. And then I have to come up with a password so complex that it’s a crap shoot whether I’ll ever be able to type it in on the phone’s keyboard.

(Note: I realize, of course, that 13 y.o.s don’t actually use Facebook except perhaps to wish Grandma a happy birthday (if they’re unusually thoughtful), but I mean to keep it that way by having my Eye of Sauron on his account.)

Conclusion: Passwords must die. Or just make resetting it simpler and automatic.

Gripe 2:

I spent a couple hours on the internet today, searching around for js packages to potentially include in my front-end stack for my side project. Some of the documentation and blog posts I read were good (React had a great page that made it really click for me), some of it was mediocre, some of it was pure puffery, and some of it was stultifying pontification. Kind of like a cross-section of real life.

What I hated was that a lot of it was REALLY HUGE. As in: the LETTERS AND HEADERS WERE VERY VERY LARGE. What is this trend? Thank goodness I’ve got a relatively small screen at work, or else my retinas might have been damaged by the sheer invasiveness of the letters, some of which are quite pointy. I confess, I’ve increased the font size in my report tables lately because my project manager uses reading glasses these days. But font sizes up in the 80’s or 120 or something? If I’m that hard-of-seeing, there’s a zoom button for that. If my fabulous PM can rock the zoom, others can too.

Conclusion: GIGANTISM should not be the central theme of your blog design.

Bonus gripe:

WordPress’s dictionary is too small.