Context-switching and multi-tasking: It’s got to stop

I used to be detail-oriented, efficient and reasonably productive.  I prided myself on delivering high quality results on or before deadlines and rarely had to go back and fix anything.

In the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’ve been sending out emails with more typos, I’ve released software with more bugs or design flaws than usual and I’ve been significantly more absent-minded than my regular self.  Someone might start a conversation with me but by the time I’m expected to reply, I’ve no clue what they’ve just said because I was too busy thinking about other stuff.  Important stuff.  Like what I need to accomplish next and how I must not forget to research something.

Looking back, I realized this started around the same time I decided to improve my productivity.   As part of my new initiative, I started to listen to the occasional podcasts while working.  Every so often, I’d perk up when something interesting caught my ear but I was invariably too engrossed up in my work to have gotten the full context.  So I’d rewind the podcast in order to hear that section again.  By the time it played again, I’d be once more caught up in my work.  Sometimes I’d go through this routine 3 or 4 times before truly understanding what was being discussed.

I finally clued in that there was an issue when I reached for the rewind button while on a conference call and there simply wasn’t one.  I’d been idly reading an email while others discussed portions of the project I wasn’t intimately involved with.  I snapped out of it when I heard someone ask me a direct question which I was unable to answer intelligently due to lack of context.  Not a good feeling.

Rewind

But knowing that I have a problem is not the same as knowing the root cause of the problem nor does it necessarily indicate how to fix said problem.  It took a while but I believe I have it figured out.

I’ve fallen into a rut where I feel inefficient unless I’m doing something “productive” at all waking moments.  Performing a mindless or repetitive task?  I could be learning something while I’m at it.  Two birds with one stone, you see.  Never mind that half the new material doesn’t sink in properly and my lack of attention causes me to introduce mistakes in my work, I’m being productive!  Multi-tasking is where it’s at, or so I’ve been told.

The Self-Help shelves at my local bookstore are loaded with books that claim to improve one’s productivity and many of them push the concept of multi-tasking.  The media continues the frenzy by making me feel like I should be constantly connected and “in-the-know” everywhere I go for everything I do.

I’m not normally easily influenced by media opinions so I really don’t know where I picked up the conviction that multi-tasking is the solution to accomplishing everything I want to accomplish and still get enough sleep in a day.  However, the conviction is so well entrenched that it will require conscious effort on my part to eradicate.  So from now on, I’ll be paying close attention to the tasks I’m trying to accomplish in order to avoid overloading my circuits.

Multi-tasking isn’t working for me.  Is it working for you?

 

As a woman in the tech industry

I have never met Ashe Dryden but the fact that she can’t point to a single woman like me makes me immensely sad. I’ve never felt that my experience was particularly unique but after reading recent blog posts about harassment and sexism from Sarah Parmenter, Relly Annett-Baker and several others, I’m starting to wonder if I’m the first and possibly last of my kind.

Unlike most of these ladies, I am not a public figure. I don’t speak at conferences, I haven’t written any books or been in the spotlight for anything monumental. I’m just a woman who graduated with an Engineering degree and who has worked as a software developer at a handful of different tech companies over the last 18 years.

Growing up, my father encouraged me to try my hand at all sorts of traditionally male activities. Whenever he set out to build a piece of furniture or do some maintenance on his cars, whether it be tuning the engine, replacing worn brake pads or patching up a rusted door, he’d invite me to join him. Soldering irons, voltmeters, circuit boards and electronic components littered the basement and I was welcome to try my hand at any of it should I wish. Similarly, I was introduced to LOGO and BASIC programming when those were brand new languages.

With a childhood such as mine, Computer Engineering was a perfect fit for me. I was one of 7 ladies in a class of roughly 70 students. You would think the ladies would hang out together but that wasn’t necessarily the case. Most of us made friends amongst our male classmates and never really sought the company of the others of our gender.

Throughout my university years, I considered my male classmates as big brothers I could count on to escort me around campus after dark or to help me with assignments should I need it. Similarly, they knew they could count on me for lecture notes or assignment due dates if they happened to miss a class because of my habit of writing absolutely everything down.

Yes, I would have preferred not needing to be escorted around campus after dark but given that one of my male friends was assaulted on his way home from a night class, it obviously wasn’t safe for anyone, regardless of gender, to wander around campus alone after dark.

I’ve worked for a half-dozen different software companies since graduation and have never been treated in any other manner than professionally. No, I’ve:

  • Never been asked to make or otherwise serve coffee.
  • Never been asked to take the minutes at a meeting unless it was a rotating responsibility and it happened to be my turn.
  • Never been groped or otherwise inappropriately touched.
  • Never been subjected to derogative or suggestive language.
  • Never been noticeably privileged or negatively impacted due to my gender.
  • Never considered myself unfairly compensated by any of my employers.
  • Never felt that the value I brought into any discussion was viewed as of lesser quality than that of my male counterparts.

I’ve been privileged to work with excellent people in safe and professional environments and I’m saddened to hear that my story is such a rare one.

Are you satisfied with the state of your career?

I was chatting with a colleague recently when the topic of satisfaction with the state of our respective careers came up. Both of us are software developers with similar backgrounds, at least a decade and a half of experience behind us, married with families, and reasonably financially comfortable.

His immediate answer to the question of whether he felt he was where he’d wanted to be at this point in his professional life was a resounding yes. Mine was an emphatic no.

Nowhere close.

When he prompted me, I made a desperate attempt to justify my answer but the words I heard myself say lacked conviction. I spoke of the potential I’d repeatedly been assured I had and that I hadn’t lived up to. I spoke of the expectations others had had of me and how I’d consistently come short. Even as I uttered the words, I was painfully aware that my arguments were specious. Rather than explaining why I, personally, wasn’t satisfied with my career’s progress, I was detailing the multitude of ways I felt I’d failed to measure up in the eyes of others. None of my justifications had anything intrinsic to do with me. I had ceased to be a sentient individual to become a mirror for the people who had influenced me in the past.

Putting aside external expectations, I truly do feel I haven’t ticked enough items off the list of accomplishments any self-respecting software professional should have completed midway through their career. So as an exercise, I decided to sit down and attempt to express a new answer; one that placed me in the driver’s seat.

In my early dreams, the ones fuelled by teachers and other influential people, I had envisioned myself at the bleeding edge of technology developing the next greatest thing. I’d be an expert in a particular niche area, contributing to or outright authoring technical books, providing training, and possibly even speaking at the occasional conference.

Delusions of grandeur? Possibly. But I knew I had the potential; I’d been told often enough.

I got married while in university and, within 5 years of my graduation, I was the mother of two children and working a four-day week at a company that specialized in asset management software. Though I could speak with some authority about inventory replenishment algorithms or the impact of two digit years as the end of the millennium loomed, the world was leaving me in the dust. The fastest and brightest minds were eagerly jumping on the internet bandwagon while I was adding functionality to or tweaking what was even then considered legacy code. Already, a large portion of the dream had evaporated.

The next few years found me working my way up to development manager by way of technical lead. I did my best to juggle career and family life but my career lost more often than not till I reached a point where the career simply had to be put on hold. My children needed me at home.

I spent five years as a stay-at-home mother though I took on part-time contract work so I could keep up my programming skills. The strategy worked but this was not a period of professional growth for me. By the time I felt that my children no longer required my presence at home, I was so far behind that I no longer considered myself a senior developer. I eventually found a company willing to take a chance on me and hire me as an intermediate developer. That was three years ago.

I’ve been struggling ever since to catch up and learn as much as I can but I’m still far behind the people I consider my contemporaries.

Am I where I thought I would be? Not even close. Do I regret it? A large part of me believes I’ve done the right thing and is satisfied with what I have accomplished. And yet a small but vocal part of me can’t help but yearn for the future I might have had.

I was recently reading the November/December 2012 issue of The Writer, a magazine about the craft of writing, and found the following advice by author Diana Abu-Jaber: “Don’t worry about other writers’ successes or where you thought you would be or should be by now or the latest disappointments. That’s not a winnable game. Wish everyone well, applaud for their triumphs and work, work, work!”

That’s advice I’ve decided to take to heart. So how happy am I with the state of my career? Taking all factors into consideration, I’m satisfied. Now, off I go play with some of those new fangled tools I keep hearing about but haven’t yet had a chance to try.

What about you? Are you where you thought you might be by now?

 

 

 

One Thing I’ve Learned Today: Joining the community is hard work!

Blogs have been around for a long time now and until recently, I was convinced I had missed the boat. So many people were publishing excellent content on flashy and often well-designed web pages, how could I hope to compete?

 

I regularly read various technical blogs but lately, I’ve started to feel like I’m on the outside of a fascinating community looking in. It took several invitations like this one before I gathered my courage and took the plunge.

So here I am, a newbie in a world of pros. Tonight, I figured out basic things like how to change the theme on my WordPress out-of-the-box blog page. I added the RSS feed and social media (the few I’m connected to) icons though I’m not convinced I like them yet. I’d much prefer if they stayed put. I also created a new Facebook page to go with the blog. I now feel more connected but utterly flummoxed at how many hours it took me to research and learn about everything so I could configure things almost just right.

So now that I’ve finally made a step towards joining the “community”, will it accept me? Will it think what I have to offer is good enough? Is it sufficient to create a blog and regularly write to it? Is it truly a case of “if you build it, they will come”?

Somehow, I suspect that joining the community is likely more a journey than a destination and that the hard work is yet to come… 😉

At least one thing I’ve learned today…

In the hopes of keeping up with the ever-changing world of software design and development, as well as any other area of life, I’m going to try an experiment: I’m going to attempt to post at least one thing I’ve learned each day on this blog. Hopefully, this will slow down my inevitable obsolescence.

So today’s pearl of wisdom was a bit of a ah-ha moment for me. Since I started working in the software domain, immediately after graduating from a program that claimed to have prepared me for it, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the speed of change. Programming languages mutate, tools and libraries multiply, methodologies come and go, and the only constant is that what I thought I knew yesterday is only barely good enough today and won’t cut it for tomorrow.

I listened to Scott Hanselman’s Hanselminutes podcast with Iris Classon and heard Iris mention that men tend to celebrate new knowledge whereas women tend to lament the extent of the what is yet to be learned. That’s me to a T.

Well, starting today, I’m going to celebrate my successes each day! Feel free to join me!

Bare with me! On second thought, don’t.

When online, I read mostly technical blogs or news articles. Occasionally, I’ll search for answers to a particularly thorny household conundrum and end up on aquarium maintenance forums, recipe web sites, or online encyclopedia depending on the original question. Everything I view could easily be rated as “Family Viewing” and yet, it’s uncanny the numbers of times that, as a reader, I’ve been begged — nay, pleaded with– to “bare with” the author of a certain piece of online wisdom.

Nudity with a stranger? Not interested.

I hate to think how pervasive an invitation it must be on the X-rated sites…

Where have all the dreams gone?

There was a time when one could look at an image of an exotic destination, an unreacheable lifestyle, or an adrenaline-inducing activity and dearly wish to one day experience it in person. Visiting the Great Wall of China, swimming with dolphins, feeling the rush of driving a Formula 1 car around the track. Dreams they were and, for most, so they remained. Were people less fulfilled because their dreams did not necessarily all come true? I don’t believe so.

Nowadays, people have “bucket lists”. Visit the Alhambra? Yes, that’s on my “bucket list”, you’re likely to hear from someone around you. Go sky-diving? You guessed it. It’s item number 14 on someone else’s “bucket list”. What at one time might have been wishful dreams have now been reduced to a prosaic “to do” list; one that resides in a bucket, no less.

I only realized last week how much I truly despise this recent addition to the collection of commonly-used English expressions. I understand that a “bucket list” contains the items a certain person might wish to see or do before the end of their life, or as the saying goes, before “kicking the bucket”. The problem arises from the fact that I’m a very visual person so to me, to “kick the bucket” means exactly that. In my mind’s eye, I see a person standing on top of an overturned wash-bucket, neck through a noose, just about to kick said buket away so their miserable life can finally end.

Where a dreamer longs for the chance-of-a-lifetime to do something out of the ordinary, a modern person creates a “bucket list” and ticks items off as they have been completed. A lifelong journey full of tingly anticipation versus a laundry list of stuff to get done.

 

Call me old-fashioned but I’d rather be a dreamer.