I like the sound of big machines. Sat somewhere by a window, looking out, listening to the steady, soft humming of a bus motor, an airplane, a train, I will fall asleep within minutes. The big machines calm me down.
I dislike the sound of the small machines. The alarm clocks, the calendar reminders, the notifications on my phone, the reminders on my computer startle me. Even though I’m the one who saved the appointments, who set the reminders, who's ultimately responsible for them: as soon as I save them, they get detached from me. I can forget about them for a while, focus on something else, until the machines bring them back to me. This is how what I set out to do, turns into something machines tell me to do.
The small machines determine where I am at what time, and who I am with. They break my days apart into smaller and smaller fractions of time: tiny purple and turquoise boxes on grey background, with some empty space in between. Work boxes are purple, personal boxes are turquoise.
The small machines give my life structure and rhythm. On good days, I feel like this rhythm gets me into a good flow. On less good days, I feel like someone who walked through the wrong door and accidentally became part of a Riverdance performance.
(I can’t dance, let alone tap dance.)
The role I work in has a state of constant context switching built in. Most of the time, this excites me. From time to time, it makes me tired. I also know that my resources – my time, energy, emotions, headspace – are limited. So I shift boxes:
Nine months ago, when I started work in my current job, I took some time, a pencil and a piece of paper and drew a table. I added weekdays to the top row, the time to the left column, and started planning out my weeks. With minor adaptions after the first half year, I’ve been using this schedule for nine months now.
In practice, it looks like this: My Monday mornings and my Fridays are blocked by default. Sometimes, I’ll use this time for longer meetings or as wiggle room for rescheduling meetings. Oftentimes, I spend it doing heads-down work: working on longer documents like proposals, providing input or feedback, preparing meetings, responding to emails. I treasure this time, and I enjoy it a lot: It allows for an entirely different way of working, thinking, focusing. Oftentimes, I’ll end this time feeling like I crushed it. And that feels great.
Then, there are the other times, and they usually start on Monday around midday, and end on Thursday evening. These are the times I spend with people. As much as I enjoy the feeling of crushing it when I get bigger to dos out of the way: These people are the reason why I do what I do, and why I love what I do. The conversations I get to have with them remind me of that.
My times for heads-down work are not better or worse than my times spent with people. They’re just fundamentally different: I can finish my meeting preparation, submit a document, ship a proposal, and be done with it for the time being and move on to something else. – On the other hand, I consider my work with people never done. And there's a reason for that.
The fundamentals of being there
The scenario of going through the wrong door and accidentally becoming part of a dance performance is – sort of – how I got into management in the first place. But that was a long time ago. One of the biggest reasons why I stuck with it are the wonderful people I get to work with. I get to be the person who empowers them, supports them, even if it’s just by removing whatever is in their way (and making sure I don’t become what’s in their way). I get to work on helping them feel productive (and what makes people feel productive is a very individual question).
Ultimately, much of my work is just about being there. Being there for someone, and taking care of things with them, or for them.
Sometimes, being there begins with reaching a purple box, opening an application, making sure my microphone and camera work, and saying hi. But these are the rudimentary technicalities (and not even these always work reliably). Much more, being there is about being present: about hitting the pause button on everything else, and being right there with this one person sitting across from me, or in front of another computer that’s 800 or 8,000 kilometres away; being and staying there for the next 45 minutes.
Other times, being there means receiving a message and dropping all else for a while. And then, there are times like these, which make me want to be there even more. In times like these, there’s not much I can do for the people I work with. But at least I can try to be around and listen empathetically, try to show them that I care – and do all I can to make things better in the tiny area that I can influence.
There's much more to it, but: being there is the essence of my work. Being there is my biggest task, it's what it all comes down to. It doesn’t always mean I’m there immediately. It rarely means I’m there in the sense of physical presence. But it matters to me that the people I work with know that, eventually, I will be there. For me, being there is a big part of being reliable, of continuously working on the relationships and building trust with the people I work with.
Being there is nothing that’s ever done. It doesn’t have much to do with being or feeling productive, but it’s a big part of how I measure how good I am at what I do: I don't look at how productive I am – I look at how much I am there. And being there is not a checkbox I can or would ever want to tick off and move on from.
Being part of an ever-evolving, ever-changing organisation made up of fantastic humans, and never being quite done: that’s the job. Some days, it’s Riverdance for someone who never understood how to dance; other days, it’s still Riverdance, but a version in which I manage to seamlessly join the crowd, and my feet move to the rhythm.
Versioning my way to tap dancing
I love music, but I never learned to properly deal with my big feet. And sometimes, I still feel like I'm only pretending, and all of this is fine. What's not fine is the big machine. This industry is fundamentally broken, but I'm a part of it, I contribute to this system. So, alongside many others, I'm trying to fight it and change it for the better.
And I'm trying to change for the better as well. I like to think of myself in versions, because if there’s one thing my years in this industry have taught me, it’s versioning. My biggest goal has always been to become a better human. Not a “good” human, not a “perfect” human. Just a better one.
So I go with versions: minor version, major version; I iterate: minor changes, major changes. But I don’t do product management, project management, release cycles, and I don't have proper testing set up. So sometimes, I deploy breaking changes to production. Sometimes, I run into critical bugs that I don't know how to fix. Sometimes, a major release happens, and I’ll only notice it months after the fact. Sometimes, big parts of my infrastructure shut down with no alerts triggered. And sometimes, there's a power outage.
My progress is slow, and that's ok. In the end, I'll still get to a version of myself that knows how to dance. And, if all goes really well, I'll get to a version that is there.
Even though I really hope that being there never means I accidentally walk through the wrong door and become part of an actual Riverdance performance.