Friday, December 31, 2010

As the Passing Year's Last Embers Flicker and Fade...

Yes, I am still alive.

No, I have not abandoned this blog.

Yes, I have been horrible about not posting.

No, I don't know whether I this post will mark an increasing frequency of content.

There's a lot of catching up to do, and I fear that this might quickly degenerate into something like the enumeration of all things seen in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"[1], so bear with me.

Current Status

Physically, I am finishing the year on a down note. I'm staying in for New Year's Eve, opting to listen to the folk radio programming on the nearby university's fine arts station for my entertainment.

I have been ill for most of December, and it has taken an even harsher turn the past week. The symptoms started around three weeks ago. I attended my employer's [2] holiday party, which was held in one of the rooms in an upscale steakhouse in town. This is an old building, so it was spacious, with tall ceilings. Over eighty people were present, so the noise level being what it was, I carried my own conversations at a volume well above the comfort level of my larynx.

The steakhouse chased us off shortly after 1 am, so a remainder of us walked to a very smoky martini bar in the heart of downtown. So I endured a couple hours of smoke inhalation, followed by a half-mile walk back to my car at 3 am. The temperature had plummeted, causing the precipitation from earlier in the day to freeze and slush. I spent most of the next day asleep, recovering from a very long night. Fortunately, I cut myself off from alcohol consumption around 10 pm, so I was sober, albeit very tired, by the time I did put the keys into the ignition.

On the following Monday morn, I was running late for my bus, and I had to run to make it in time for my ride into town. The run took place in bitterly cold air, single digit temperatures, so my lungs were on fire. Over the next week, I developed a cold that moved into my lungs, most certainly morphing into bronchitis. Since then, I have coughed so much that my chest and back muscles ache from the repeated strain of each hack. This week, I developed a fever, and have been able to retain some semblance of humanity with the help of generic NyQuil and Ibuprofen. I'll probably have to see a doctor on Monday if things haven't improved.

I took the last two weeks of December as paid leave. I had accumulated 32.9 days of paid leave through a lack of vacations. It worked well as my kids were off from school during that time, so I've had them staying with me during the holidays, which saves the X the cost of a sitter. I had hoped to take them do to something fun at a local museum, but my health didn't cooperate much the past week. We did do some christmas shopping together. There have been plenty of movie nights, which they love. I took them shopping for new coats, and we've spent some time putting together their Christmas gifts.

The Struggles of the Workplace

My employer continues to plod along. Since the VP of Ops took over the management of post-sales accounts, the bleeding of clients has subsided. They still have a lot of goofs over there who are willfully non-technical and all to prone to wig out over small issues. The sales team has been a train wreck, with many months falling far short of their targets. Most of the people who were hired on at the beginning of the year have been since let go. The ones who remained have not closed enough deals to cover their base pay. I look for there to be some major bloodletting over there with the new year. That's not to say everything has been a disaster. The company will gross probably a few hundred thousand over last year's numbers, but we're going to be only about half of the number that they were planning on hitting during budgeting last year.

My team reaches the end of the year a bit behind on its development schedule and way overworked, but we are definitely on an upswing.

We went through a lot of candidates trying to find a new IT guy to replace the one we lost in mid-June, but we managed to hire on someone new for mid-September, just in time for the departure of the Systems Engineer, the guy with the most knowledge about setup and operation of the production environment.

The software engineer we hired in February and I split the task of monitoring and troubleshooting on wayward servers. Things held out okay for about a month until mid-October, when we had an extended disruption of service that resulted in a several hours of total outage. The problem was prolonged by our misunderstanding of how the configuration of the load balancers at the front line functioned.

The ordeal started around 1 am on a Friday morning, which happened to be a time when I was still up from the previous day. We troubleshot almost non-stop over the course of the day. I finally had to turn in at 5 pm for a three-hour nap since I had been functioning without sleep for almost 36 hours. When I returned from slumber at 8 pm that Friday night, they were still at a loss as to how to lessen the load on the front end servers. I then walked through every step of a request and figured that the problem was in the handling of rerouted requests between data centers. With that information, we were able to get some help from the former system engineer. We wrapped things up 10 pm, almost 21 hours after everything started.

You can imagine what life was like for me after that. My team and I conducted a lengthy postmortem and I filed the largest outage report of the company's history, weighing in at over fifteen pages. Most reports did not exceed two pages. The weekly management meetings weren't pleasant as I had to answer questions about what I was going to do to make sure this didn't happen again. The outage report contained a good sized list of lessons learned and action items we would need to implement.

A couple weeks later, the president and CEO managed to lure my ex-boss, who left us in the mid-summer of 2009, back as a contractor. I was glad to see him coming back because I knew he was a sharp guy who could help us get the recommendations implemented. Indeed, when he was weighing the decision to return, he asked me whether I would be willing to stay on if he came back because he enjoyed working with me. But on the other hand, I was worried that the president and CEO would decide that services were no longer needed.

Fortunately, that proved not to be the case. My ex-boss took on most of the managerial meetings that made my job a drag, which freed me up to be more involved with coding. I continued to lead my team and hold them accountable for meeting commitments. With some complications from a failed database server in early November, the ex-boss took it upon himself to rework our system configuration and deployment to reduce inconsistencies and human dependencies. By the end of the year, we had completely new servers in production with the new and improved management infrastructure in place.

Another thing we were able to do at the end of November was find a great candidate for the System Engineer role. He had been involved with maintaining high-traffic, production website and was already familiar with many of the technologies we used, which made him a rarity for this area.

All told, we now have a pretty solid team that I love working and socializing with. I just wished that the rest of the company could find its bearings.

The Struggles of the Home

A few weeks after I wrote my last post in this space (mid August), the X opted to bring the kids to my house rather than me come meet her somewhere on the weekly night out with the kids. Not only that, she let herself into the house and started to forcibly clean up my cluttered house. She said that she was worried about me and thought I wasn't functioning. Still, she seemed to take joy in throwing things away, especially things that I would have recycled.

Soon thereafter, I changed medications from escitalopram oxalate to desvenlafaxine after indicating to my doctor that I had suffered several unpleasant side effects from the first prescription. That has seemed to help me uplift my sprits. I did some additional housecleaning and hired some cleaners to do a deep down clean of the whole house. I actually moved back into the master bedroom, getting a frame for my mattress. I bought a second mattress for the daybed/trundle combination so that the girls could sleep in beds of their own.

I had one big jar from my past in October. One of my coworkers at a former employer killed himself after becoming despondent with a long struggle over health issues. He was only a year older than me. We were good friends at work, maybe not super close, but we had lots of deep and funny conversations only true geeks could love.

I traveled to the Land of Lincoln to attend a memorial service. It was the first time I had been there since leaving about five years prior. It was good to see some other former coworkers. One of the unexpected aspects of the event was that the deceased party's entire book collection, which was very large and of high quality, was on display and free for the taking.

Soon thereafter, I started giving myself permission to buy new books on things I saw myself wanting to learn over the year to come. Part of this was an act of rebellion against the default stance of non-indulgence that I had taken for so many years. Another part is longer-term strategic -- namely, I see this year being a major turning point at my employer -- either they figure out what they are going to do, or I will need to find work elsewhere. I need to invest in my own skills to keep the doors open.

To that end, I invested in new computing hardware, based on purchases of on-sale components. It may not have the raw power of a gamer's dream machine, but it certainly can pull its own weight. I finished assembling the components earlier this week. It has a quad-core CPU, three hard drives that are set up in a RAID 5 array, and 8 GB of RAM. The goal was to create a machine where I could set up and run virtual machines for development and testing.

As of this week, I've also broken down and gotten a smartphone -- an HTC Droid Incredible, which was free with 2 year contract with my current phone provider. The touch screen keyboard is taking some time to get used to,

The X got her home broken into in early December. The burglars made off with her TV, the Wii and its games, and her laptop, which had many pictures from 2009, which she had not backed up. She has responded by getting an alarm system installed and adopting a black lab. Oddly enough, the burglars did not take the kids' handheld game consoles, her digital camera, or the desktop computer.

Looks like we've got ourselves a new year, and it's pouring down rain outside. I'll close up for now. If you have other questions, please leave them in the comments. The best of wishes to all of you who continue to check this site for updates.

[1] -- Don't get me wrong, no one can touch Dylan's work as a lyricist, I just want to make sure my narrative provides context in addition to facts.

[2] -- No, I haven't changed jobs yet. More on that in a bit.