Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Ides of February

The first week of February turned out to be a really bad week.

I was working on several parts of the project where we had seriously underestimated the amount of time they would take. Added to that, Ted was taking too long on his tasks and needed more supervision than I had time to give. And the end-of-February deadline, now just four short weeks away, loomed larger than ever in my mind. All these factors compounded to exacerbate my worries, but I was relieved by the thought of my upcoming three-day weekend, a yearly family ski trip to visit my aunt and uncle in Vermont over Superbowl weekend.

A group of a customer's operators were traveling to Relay Corp. for a week of training so I arranged to have Ted sit in on the training for two days. It was expensive for us to pay for his time while he didn't work on the project, but it was worth it to get him up to speed on our business. At least it got him to stop calling our technology "widgets."

Late in the week Rutherford let us know that we had a meeting with Victor Relay, the President, about the timeline. (It was typical for him to let us in on meeting dates with about 15 minutes to prepare. I've always suspected it was to give himself a preparedness advantage.) I was enthused that we would finally be able to talk about our timeline concerns and project struggles. Our Engineering Dept. felt warm, so I grabbed a drink of water. I wasn't sure if it was pre-meeting jitters or our cantankerous HVAC acting up again.

Victor started the meeting with a very open-ended question.

   "Well, how's the Oswald Project coming?" he asked, looking at me.
   I explained frankly: "Not so good. We're running into some hurdles and it might mean that we'll miss our deadline."

There. I'd said it. It felt good to get it in the open and off of my chest. But surprisingly, Victor didn't follow it up. He seemed more interested in talking about the nuances of the UI than about Our Big Problem. He honed in on a particular part of the project that I had been working on, a representation of a folder-gluer with a symbol underneath it for every trigger position. I explained that in order to finish the UI in the time allotted I had changed the spec from showing each trigger directly under its position on the folder-gluer. The new method spaced out all triggers in a common area and drew a line from the trigger to its position on the gluer when it was selected.

(In the design phase I had shown a mock-up screen with 4 nicely spaced triggers, but the actual software was supposed to be able to support up to 24 triggers. Not that most installations shipped that way, but they could. There was no way to space 24 triggers directly beneath the folder-gluer. Faced with an impossible specification, I changed it.)

   I tried to carry the conversation forward, but he tenaciously held onto this single UI point. "That won't work!" he cried. "How will operators know which trigger they're looking at?"
   He had a point, but so did I. "They didn't know what trigger they were looking at in the mock-up, either," I countered. "This isn't any different."

But he wouldn't let it go. I could feel myself getting more frustrated. I stood up, grabbed a hanging whiteboard and put it sideways on the boardroom table. I drew the screen and drew out my problem. Aha! I'd clearly illustrated why I was right and he was wrong, I thought.

Rutherford quietly snuck out a side door, leaving his notes on the table as if he would come back. It was the second time he'd made such an exit at an Oswald meeting. He didn't return.

This meeting was quickly getting out of hand. Victor changed tack. "I have an idea. How about when the operator touches a trigger we draw the trigger number and the stations that it's assigned to over here," he proposed, gesturing towards an open area in my drawing.

I stared at him blankly. We didn't have a way of finding out what stations a trigger was assigned to, and what he was suggesting was about a week's worth of work. "I don't think we have the time to try to put that in," I said weakly, wishing we could go back to talking about the timeline. My arm-turned-easel was getting tired and my voice felt parched.

   He didn't let up. "It's not too hard. We could just draw it here and here," he pointed again to the whiteboard.
   "Victor, we can put it in, but then we won't have time to work on other things. Besides, it wasn't in the spec."
   "But I don't see what's so hard about it. Besides, you already changed the spec!" He was incessant.

That was it. How could he not see how trivial this was? "I changed the spec to make it easier, not harder! Look, Victor! This isn't important to the project. It wasn't in the spec and it will take time to add it. That's time we don't have. The entire project is in danger of missing our timeline!" Other people in the room became noticeably nervous, but I didn't care. George, who was sitting next to me, tugged at my sleeve to try to get me to sit down. "We're already working insane hours on this project without adding features to it. This isn't the way the project was supposed to go. This isn't what I signed up for!"

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. I was aware of how hot my head felt. "Look," I said, softening, "In a perfect world it would be a nice feature to have. But I don't see how we can put it in and do everything else and still meet our deadline."

Victor nodded, and changed the subject. We talked for a little while longer, and all agreed to meet with him the next day. It was late.

- - -

We got back to work--our 2nd shift--but later that evening Victor called and asked to see me. I walked into his office, a large, well-furnished room the size of Antonia's and my first apartment. I thought I knew what he was going to say but he surprised me. Instead of discussing the obvious, he talked to me about leadership. He pointed out that I had disillusioned my team and offered suggestions for building strong teams. Usually, I would have soaked up that kind of advice. But after our clash I was in no mood to learn. I told him that I thought the project had a 1 in 3 chance of success, and we would do our best. I left his office not knowing where the project was headed, and I wondered if he did, too.

Regardless, at least I had my weekend to look forward to.

The next day, after a fitful night's rest, I felt a little strange. I went into work but my head was in a vice and my bones were being stretched on the rack. Instead of Antonia picking me up at work on the way to the airport as planned, I drove home early take a nap and sleep it off. When I woke up, my fever registered 103°. We needed to leave immediately to catch the flight, but I could barely get out of bed, much less drive to the airport. I was loath to cancel the trip, but we had no other option.

Instead of swooshing down the snowy slopes I spent the weekend bottled up in bed.

On Sunday, I unpacked my unused suitcase. It was the symbol of an unrealized vacation, and combined with the knowledge that there would be no more vacations for a long time to come, it felt terrible. That was one of the worst weekends of my life.

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