Most stories begin at the beginning. This one doesn't. This story begins before the beginning. Confused? Don't worry, it will make sense eventually.
The Beginning (not the real one)
After leaving school at sixteen without a clue of what to do with my life, I stumbled across a computer course at a local college and found my "calling".
It was during this time that I realised I had an aptitude for figuring out how things work and for recognising patterns. These skills lent themselves to a career in technology, and thus my journey began!...Or so I thought.
While studying at college, I excelled in computer programming and communication skills, which are more closely related than one might first think. After all, programming is essentially communicating with a machine by giving it instructions in a language it understands. This realisation sparked off a fascination with language and the history/etymology of words and phrases, which I hold to this day.
After college, I took my skills to local government where I started working as a 'filing clerk'. I didn't find this work particularly satisfying or enjoyable, but I did enjoy the feeling of being an "adult" (I was only 17) with a "proper job". However, this feeling didn't last for very long. I soon found myself wanting my job to be more "fun". What I mean by that is that I had a burning desire to enjoy the tasks that my day-to-day job was comprised of. I remember reasoning to myself;
"I spend 36 hours per week working. If I don't enjoy what I'm doing, then that's an awful lot of wasted time. I want to do work that I enjoy so much that I'd pay to do it, instead of getting paid for it."
My solution to this problem was to introduce the knowledge and skills I obtained in college into my day-to-day work. So I wrote macros, created templates, and set up clever spreadsheets (I mean, seriously clever spreadsheets) in an effort to make my job easier and more fun. Admittedly, this was for purely selfish reasons to start off with, I was keeping myself entertained. I was "playing". However, it didn't take long for computerised labour-saving devices to start making a real impact on the work of the wider team in the form of time and efficiency savings. This got noticed and, more importantly, appreciated. I even earned the nickname "Excelcius". So, much to my delight, my "playing" was encouraged and my role gradually became more and more technical. Also, I came to realise that I got a real buzz when one of my technology solutions simplified a colleague's job, thus making it easier. Their smiles and words of heartfelt gratitude became addictive. It still is.
A Year Or Two Later...
I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night after an extremely vivid dream. I immediately reached to my bedside table and grabbed the dictaphone that I had recently started taking to bed with me (I'll explain why later). I turned it on and recorded the following sentence;
About six months prior to this event I'd started developing desktop software, and for the past several weeks I'd been working on a pet project at my job. It was an instant messaging program that would allow my team to send popup messages to each others screens and to reply to them. I'd gotten stuck on a particular part of the program's code. It kept generating errors and despite my best debugging efforts, I couldn't isolate the bug to a particular line of code...Until I dreamed the number 2945. It was the line of code that contained the bug. I recorded the number so I wouldn't forget it.
The next morning, I rushed into work, switched on my PC, went straight to line 2945 of my program, made a slight adjustment (all before taking off my coat) and my program worked! I was absolutely ecstatic! But only for a while. Then it hit me:
"I'm dreaming in code! How sad is that!?"
The experience of debugging programs in my sleep was not a one-off. I was sleeping with a dictaphone because I would often wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that I wanted to preserve until the next day. But this kind of inspiration had taken a physical toll on me. I was always tired because I hardly got a good night's rest.
I took a long and hard look at myself. I was forced to admit that programming had become an obsession. I had become mentally and physically detached from the world around me, I had started to care less and less about my personal hygiene and physical appearance, and I was spending an increasing amount of time on my own. I was constantly preoccupied, off in my own world, daydreaming about code, subroutines, and variables. The process of creating technological solutions to make people's jobs easier had disconnected me from the very people I was trying to help.
At this point you may be thinking that my evaluation of my situation is an exaggeration. If so, please consider this.
In addition to the programming projects I was working on at work, I was also working on a project or two at home. One of them was a computer game for my daughter. She was almost 2 years old at the time. The purpose of the game was to teach her mouse and keyboard skills in a fun way. A well-intentioned project, I'm sure you'll agree. However, I can't even count the number of times my daughter tugged at my trouser leg, wanting to play with me while I was at my desk working on the project. And what was my response to her?
"I can't play right now, Daddy's busy."
How sad! How much better it would have been if I had left the project, played with my daughter, and taken the time to teach her mouse and keyboard skills instead of denying myself that precious experience, and delegating my responsibilities to a piece of software!
I had lost my way. Something had to change. And this is where my story really begins.
The Beginning (the real one)
Fast forward a few years and I'm no longer working in local government. I've found that freelance work gives me more opportunity to "play", or do enjoyable work. And I now understand that I like people more than I like things, no matter how "cool" those things may be. So I've given up programming and coding. Or more accurately, I do as little of them as my line of work allows me to get away with. Don't get me wrong, I still love technology, gadgets, and "cool stuff" but I no longer allow them to take me away from the people I try to help with them.
Has this change been beneficial? Yes. Not too long ago I was doing some work in the education sector. I was working on a school's IT infrastructure when one of the school's administrators asked me for help. She needed to extract some information from an Access database and then sort and present the data in a very specific way. Faced with this challenge, what would the "old me" have done?
Instead, I drew on the lesson I learned from ignoring my daughter to make her a computer game, particularly the regret I felt for missing out on the opportunity to sit with her and teach her something.
This is what I did:
I cannot put into words just how satisfying I found this exercise, and when I eventually left the project at the school, this is what "Lauren" said to me:
"I'm really going to miss you, Riley. You've helped me so much with my work and you've given me so much confidence. I'm doing things that I never thought I'd be capable of. Thank you so much."
I welled up inside. That feeling I had at that specific moment is why I do what I do. And I've carried these experiences forward and applied them to the way I work, which can be summed up this way:
"I work WITH PARTNERS, not FOR CLIENTS."
I hope you enjoyed reading my story. If so, please feel free to read more of my stories and experiences.
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