Charles Harries

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On effectiveness

Some meandering thoughts on what it means to be an effective person in a tech career.

Always thinking about effectiveness. Maybe the overriding concern of the past 3-4 years or so. Since getting into tech.

Men in tech seem extremely preoccupied by effectiveness. Extension of the general self-help/productivity schtick that we're all obsessed with. Really fine-tuning our whole selves to squeeze the last drop of experience out of everything that we do. Wringing ourselves dry and then blogging about it for clout.

Blog posts about not taking a day off. Blog posts about forgiving yourself for taking a day off. Blog posts about how taking a day off makes you more effective on the days that you don't take off. Blog posts on recognising burnout; blog posts on not being able to recognise burnout; blog posts about how good I feel now that I'm not burned out anymore.

I lie on the sofa and my ineffectiveness eats me alive, piecemeal, squirming the whole way down.

I'm at my best when I'm up on my feet, or in my office chair, working on a problem. At my best with a tech-related podcast in my ears. At my best when I'm moving forward. Stopping fills me with dread and anxiety. Stopping gnaws at me until I'm all raw and ragged around the edges like a well-loved dog toy. (Except for dogs are lovely and anxiety is decidedly unlovely.)

When I think of how old I am, something drops out in the pit of my stomach and my guts make sounds that the ear wasn't designed to hear. When I think of how old I am and how much of my useable effective lifespan I spent not doing the thing that I spend all of my time doing, now. When I think of how old I am and how much of my useable effective lifespan I spent not turning my time into spendable assets, into things that can be enjoyed and taken pictures of and reminsced about with rosy spectacles. Yuck.

When I think of the things I haven't done; the things I don't do; the things I won't do. The things I might do, if I don't have the discipline. The things I'm doing right now, that I oughtn't be; the things I ought to be doing but can't find the wherewithal to just get up and.

The difficult decisions to make, the hard conversations to have, the things I want people to understand but can't find the words or the phrases to express myself.

When I think of the Twitter posts reading "Good work gets noticed." When I think of the thought leaders writing, "Put in the graft; talent will be recognised." The thought leaders writing, "Never finish the week with nothing." When I feel that I'm firing on all cylinders and no one knows who I am. When, maybe I only have 2 cylinders in the first place, so all the hard graft in the world isn’t going to get me off the line faster than a mid-range Volkswagen. When I think that I just don't have the displacement to generate the engagement.

When I think of the navel-gazey stuff I've written, the self-pity I've felt, re-reading paragraphs I've just written. When I write weird prepositional phrases joined end-to-end with full stops: no intervening, anchoring phrasal roots. When I finish a sentence with the word and. When my navel-gazing folds back in on itself as a meta-commentary on the Navel Gaze. When I don't know what I'm trying to say.

Encouraging

Writing like this is encouraging. On my worse days I feel like I've become some sort of weird human content mill, just trying to churn out usefulness without any real concern for consumption. The couple of blog posts I've done about job listings at big companies (well, bigger than I've ever worked for) don't feel useful to me, except for as an exercise in writing about dry content. I don't think there's much to take from those posts that couldn't be presented in a bulletted list, probably with fewer than or equal to 4 bullets. Maybe that's why open job posting have so many bulletted lists.

But that's the process of learning and growing, isn't it? Doing something awful, and then coming back to it some time later with revulsion, and doing something marginally better, sometime later. That's how I get better at things:

  1. Do the thing that I wish someone else had done for me
  2. Realise that the thing didn't solve the original problem, or it did solve the problem but not it in the way I wanted it to
  3. Repeat

It's worked out pretty well for me so far.

It feels like part of getting better at writing code is talking less and less about code. I'm not sure yet what I'm meant to talk about instead. But I can see the trend. First an engineer talks about functions, and then they talk about programming paradigms, and then they start talking about approaches or something. By the time that engineer is a senior at Stripe, who knows what they talk about?

All to say that things trend upward here. I think the concern is less that things aren't trending upward so much as that they're not trending upward fast enough. Am I going to die before I'm good enough to work at Stripe? Am I going to run out of useable brainpower? Am I going to become stuck in my ways and gradually wind down? Should I be investing more seriously in Go? How do I market myself better? How do I attract an audience to my work?

Certainly not with blog posts like this.

I walked across a moor with Sam

Halfway up the moor we climbed over a stile, and I stopped to relieve myself in a furrow on the other side of the wall. Sam continued on a little ways; a mother sheep and her lambs scurried out of the way. I continued on after her.

A light wind picked up, jostling the trees in a plantation nearby, jostling the tall strawish grasses that grow in boggy moorland. Sheep bleated off in the distance. The wind blew. A far-off tractor groaned through a town down below us somewhere. It was very quiet.

Sam walking through open moorland above Westgate in Weardale.
Sam walking through open moorland above Westgate in Weardale.

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