Sunday, January 17, 2016

Half Full

Sometime in mid-October my boss called me into his office.

"Ce n'est rien de grave," he said straight off. No big deal.

Just a project which was ill-defined and desperately behind schedule, the team so understaffed that they were calling me in as a reinforcement to do web development, a technical muscle I hadn't flexed for eight years or before I left on my first maternity leave.  I made sure to look concerned and serious, but inwardly I was overjoyed: finally something different, something interesting, something important enough to upend my schedule and abruptly hand off my current responsibilities.  I'd been doing the same thing for far too long and getting good enough at it to be bored.  Now... well, there were many possible outcomes, but boredom was unlikely to be one of them.  The project was slated for delivery by the end of the year.  I told my boss I was willing and even excited to give it a go (to the extent I had a choice), but made sure to set the expectations sensibly low: I reminded him I had no experience with the current technologies, the learning curve would be steep, the analysis had to be rethought from the beginning, and did I mention I had no experience?  He shrugged and told me I had the right attitude, with his own somewhere between flattery and resignation.

I was motivated and determined to succeed from the beginning. Then in mid-November came what are referred to here now as the "events", and I now suspect that part of my coping strategy in the emotional days that followed was to hunker down and immerse myself in work.  I threw myself into the requirements analysis, and when the only thing left to do was to start writing code, I started taking it one slow step at a time.  A simple page took me a day, a page with some basic functionality a week, and I often felt that I averaged one web search for technical help or clarification for every five lines of code.  At one point one of my colleagues from another team, who also happens to be one of the best developers we have, came by my office to chat and survey my progress.

"I don't understand why they gave that to you," he said flatly.  I responded with a mix of sarcasm and indignation which made him explain himself.

"I don't understand why they gave that you given they want it in less than a month," he amended.  Then he explained helpfully that while the average developer can put together a page in one to three days, an inexperienced web developer should expect to spend five or more.  Which reassured me more than it offended, since it corresponded to what I was figuring out painfully for myself... so I hastened to repeat his assessment to my boss.

He shrugged again and said something like, "If we had any choice." I kept plugging along, increasingly determined to prove everyone wrong.  I started working from home many nights and weekends, and slowly the pages started displaying correctly, then working more or less when tested independently, and I could see the day when the whole thing just might function from beginning to end and write something useful to the database.  I wasn't the only one: my office mate had been given another piece to develop and was almost equally inexperienced with the technology.  We complained about it together and threw up our hands or rolled our eyes, it would never be done in time.

And yet.

The day of the demo arrived and I had something -- we all had something -- which worked.  Most of the time.  OK, some of the time.  Under very controlled conditions.  And it wasn't exactly pretty or intuitive, but I was still over the moon.  I did it after all!  I wanted to yell it from the rooftops.

When I arrived at work the next day exhausted but satisfied, the reception was cool.  The boss -- who had spent much of the night before preparing the demo and testing and landing on bug after bug -- was unimpressed, and didn't make any attempt to hide it.  The project lead was equally unimpressed, and looked panicked and deeply disappointed by turns.

"If they'd only started out with 'I can see you made a big effort and got a lot of things working, and that's great,' they could have gone on to tell me it was a piece of shit, I honestly wouldn't have minded," I later told a friend.  "I just needed the first part.  The first sentence.  The piece of shit part may be true, but give me something.  Anything."

I've been working in France for almost twelve years now, I should have known better.  People do not manage here by positivity. Praise is rare. Pessimism is omnipresent. Not just in business but everywhere.

"You know why the French national bird is the rooster?" a French friend once asked me back in Boston, thrilled to have landed in a country where no one yet knew the old joke. "Because it's the only bird which sings while standing in its own merde!"  I laughed politely, unsure of the etiquette to apply when foreigners mock their country of origin, but I didn't get the joke then and I still don't get it now.  Unjustifiably proud of a pile of shit? Really? If you ask me, the French never seem to see how good they have things.  Education and health care which work and work well for the most part, a land of striking natural and historical beauty, and the best damn cuisine in the world, yet all you hear talk of is unemployment, economic stagnancy, and the French football team.

"The problem with the French is they're just so damn negative."

It was early December and I'd met my American sister-in-law for dinner in Paris.  She has been living in France for over a decade as I have.  We'd gotten together for a cathartic girls' night out.  My train had been late, my project panned in a meeting that week, my mood atrocious.

"I just can't stand all the complaining.  All the time.  Nothing else."

And so we gaily went on, two American chicks in an old-style Parisian brasserie, interrupting our tirade only to smile politely at the waiter when he came by and ineptly flirted with us in English.  I don't remember if we managed to turn the conversation around to happier subjects that evening or not, but I remember feeling better when I left, noting not for the first time that I prefer French pessimism to naive American optimism even if it isn't my native tongue.

I let up on the work in mid-December, having discovered that while being invested is good, there is a law of diminishing returns.  Then I took a week's vacation over the holidays. I came back refreshed and detached.  Three alpha versions into the project, I see how much I've learned and how much faster I am at developing and reworking the code, and also at adjusting my reactions to feedback to the reality I live in.  Meanwhile, my boss is starting to be happy with the end result.  By version two, he smiled and said, "Now that actually looks like a user interface."  With the latest, he told me it looked "done," and I had no doubt that it was (something like) high praise.

"On y arrive quand même," I said modestly: we're managing after all. No sense making a big deal of it all, I say, since as I see now, it could always be better.