Progress is Never Permanent

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays

As anyone who has worked on a software project of any size or complexity can tell you, things just have a tendency to… decay. The more people work on it, the more technical debt loaded onto it, the slower it gets and the higher the rate of what I refer to as butterfly bugs – you make a small change in one place, and all hell breaks loose elsewhere.

So we add tests – unit, integration, functional, behavioral. And coding standards. And static analysis. And release management. And documentation. And continuous integration. And still the apps keep breaking; the sheer complexity of what we build means it’s almost entirely inescapable.

Then we come to upgrade to a newer version of the framework, language or runtime, perhaps for security patches, long term support, or just cool new features. And suddenly the way we were doing things is no longer supported, or no longer best practice, or no longer scales. And we have to refactor previous work, without breaking the rest of the application. But it breaks anyway, And we fix it.

This is progress – messy and a lot of work, sometimes moving forward; sometimes just to stand still. Entropy comes for us all, and everything we do.

A couple of months ago, I left my job of almost six years for ethical reasons – the company had been acquired, and our once inclusive and welcoming culture was massively undermined in the name of “efficiency” and the thinly-veiled application of right wing, capitalist ideology. The breaking point for me was the effective disbanding (through defunding) of the Employee Resource Groups – officially sponsored organizations intended to support those colleagues from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Prior to the acquisition – in fact, on June 22nd 2022 – I was perfectly happy, in the best job I’d ever had, with the best colleagues and management of my career so far. I felt valued, and felt that those around me with less privilege, tenure or experience were treated like equals. While I wasn’t unaware of issues with the company, I guess I had slipped into complacency, and felt very comfortable. And then the wrecking ball came, in the form of a right wing CEO and ruthless COO. Now most of my colleagues in engineering and beyond have scattered to the winds.

I handed in my notice at the end of August, with a job to go to; the day after I was informed that that position had fallen through. I was, of course, quite hurt – but ultimately decided now was the time to strike out on my own, and incorporated my own company. One that I’ve pledged to run ethically in all areas, to look after employees (should I grow enough to have any!) and society as a whole, where I can. Two months down the line, it’s definitely a struggle, but I have faith that I can do things – and do things right.

And as I mourn the loss of what once was – as well as a lot of the political upheaval in the wider world – I came across the quote at the top of this post, and it resonated with me.

Just as we need to maintain our code, we need to maintain our relationships and organizations. When we spot people hurting we need to step in. When we spot things fraying or creaking under load, we need to tend to them.

We need to avoid complacency, and step out of our comfort zones. When we spot ways to improve things, either for ourselves or others, we need to not only make those changes, but find ways in which we can keep an eye on them, always questioning whether they’re the right solutions, and asking “What next?”

Like painting the Forth Bridge, our job is never done. Otherwise, our work – and ourselves – will rust away and slip beneath the waves.

Share Your Presence This Christmas

On December 23rd, it will be two years since I wrote to a counsellor and said “I’m not happy.” Since then, I’ve seen Jo pretty much once a week for fifty minutes at a time.

I’m not going to lie. It’s not been easy. As someone who spent 33 years of his life not talking about myself – not really anyway – I almost resented it. I dodged some appointments, dreading it. I was combative with her; closed. I wanted her to drive the conversation and ask all the questions – I had to plan what I was going to say on the car drive over, panicking that I had nothing.

But the fact remained that on some level I knew I was hurting, that something was pretty wrong – that for some unknown or specious reason, I was unhappy, and had no way of identifying or fixing it on my own. I knew I’d be resistant to the experience, so I set up an obligation. I’d go and see her, because otherwise I’d disappoint her.

As time went by, this experience didn’t change – I’d be stand-offish, double-guessing every suggestion of hers, trying to out-silence her. No progress, no openness, nothing. Sure, I shared some big news pieces with her, frustrations etc. but it was all just something to get done and get over with.

Then, in November last year, something clicked. I stumbled on a topic that was so emotive that I realized I had to talk about it – but it was five minutes from the end of the session, and there was no time left. So I resolved to talk about it next time – and said as much in the session. Another obligation.

The next week I was totally different – trying desperately to hold back the tears as I relayed the story of a trauma I went through a year and a half earlier. That I talked about it a month after being made redundant from my job of the time was probably no coincidence – I was opening up emotionally, letting the deep, negative feelings out finally, revealing the seething mess I am underneath to someone I know nothing much more than the name of.

Since then, I’ve made a little progress – certainly in dealing with her, or relating to her, as Jo puts it. I go to sessions willingly, and I even walk through the door and up those stairs without a clue what to say. But there always is. And there’s so much more work to do – I feel like I’ve broken a lot of eggs, but I’m still a dozen or two off starting to make an omelette.

I’ve realised that for the longest time I’ve been lonely – even when surrounded by people, I can feel so very alone – and that my self-esteem has hit rock-bottom, and has actually been there for a long, long time. There has been an undercurrent of negative feeling about myself throughout my life, but a lack of introspection, an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and a huge focus on the happiness of others (at the expense of my own) has covered that up.

Ironically, that last point – selflessness – has led me to be selfish, to cover up my feelings with those I care for and love for fear of darkening their lives, and perhaps to cause them to reject me. My very inability to relate to them, to share myself and my vulnerability, has led to them distancing themselves from me, and ultimately contributing to the very rejection I was desperate to avoid.

The thing that I’m only coming to realize – and just starting out on accepting – is that it’s OK to feel bad. It’s OK to reveal your feelings to others. If I have something negative to share with someone and they react poorly – that’s their reaction to own. And telling others how I feel – to share my vulnerability – brings me closer to them; I get just a little closer to feeling accepted by them, warts and all.

And that’s where community comes in too. When I wrote about loneliness earlier this year, my fellow PHPers stepped up. They shared their own stories and fears, and I came to start to feel like perhaps I have another family. A group of people just like me, people with fears, self esteem issues and things weighing on their minds other than backwards compatibility issues and whether you should use static methods or not. I got offers of friendship, offers to go out, to visit other countries – and just a small part of me started opening up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I’m not alone.

So, this Christmas, whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Pastafarian, please take some time to check in with those you like to spend time with – go to your local user group, take your colleagues out for a meal, even make new friends – and maybe share a little bit about yourself.

You never know, you might just feel a tiny bit happier.