28 December 2015

Winter Storms

The first major storm this winter is doing its thing (snow, cold, sleet, freezing rain). Me, I'm in the basement of the building where I work-- the office I normally work in is being remodeled, so we've redeployed one floor down. It's the early days of the break between fall and spring semesters, and so it's fairly quiet anyway. With the storm, the only people on campus right now are us, custodians and facilities people, and a few students who find the walk in to campus worth it to find a quiet place to read, study, game online, or whatever. If I wasn't at work tonight, and even if there wasn't a winter storm outside I'd still be here, I'd just sitting somewhere else in the building.

It's a little disorienting, being in a different office. The room is actually a classroom normally used for short training classes, things like Introduction to Excel, with rows of workstations and an instructor station with a wall sized projector up front. People, including me, are naturally resistant to change. I talk a lot about the apple cart that is PTSD, where even a little change can have big effects. Coping with PTSD relies a lot on routine. Unexpected events, just like unexpected noises, upset the apple cart. Moving into a new space at work was not unexpected, but it's still a change to get used to.

That this room is a room in a basement of a concrete building that's meant to be pretty sturdy (it's also the home to a lot of servers and network equipment, as you'd expect from a computer science building) probably doesn't mean much to the rest of the students who work here. It's just another room, perhaps a mild inconvenience, or a welcome change of scenery. We were here for a number of weeks earlier this year while the first phase of remodeling was done upstairs. NBD.

In the Desert, there was also a room in a sturdy building where I worked at least part of the time, and it looked a lot like this room-- much bigger, many more people, lots more noise. People were planning and executing the air power portion of Desert Shield and Desert Storm in that room. I was responsible for making sure that some of the equipment in that room worked properly. It was rare that I actually sat down in that room, since the chairs were occupied by Air Force officers, but I spent a lot of time there.

It feels odd to be in a room that reminds me so much of a similar room so many years and so many miles away. This room seems far too quiet, far too calm. It's an important room-- if any of the campus's systems go down, we're the people that users will call. When people need technology related services, or have questions, they call us. When the shit hits the fan, we're the fan, so in that regard, this room's mission is similar to the mission of the room in the Desert; just as working in IT user support overlaps a lot with my former job as a radio repairman. If you'd told me in 1990 or 1991 that I'd be sitting in a room like this in Wisconsin in 2015, I don't know that I'd have believed you. Yet here I am, and the skills-- some of them very tangible, some of them less so-- that I picked up in the Desert often come in handy here. Maybe it's not so odd after all.

I mention all of this partly because being in such a room, in a basement, looking across rows of workstations with a big honkin' status screen projected on one wall is triggering-- in my head I can see that room in the Desert. I'm there. I recognize some of the officers and some of the other technical people there. I can see the workstations and some of what's displayed on them, I can hear the conversations. I can smell the coffee being brewed on the other side of the room, and I could really go for a cup of it right now. Am I bothered by this, does it affect me? It does. I'm not completely here, I'm partially somewhere else.

I'm fighting the PTSD, and the depression, a lot lately. It's been hard. My time in Wisconsin is getting shorter each day, since August 15 2016 is it. That's when my apartment lease is up, and that's when I'm outta here. There are a few different forces at work; the number of places that are triggers that remind me of things I'd rather forget. I'm transferring schools, which has its own collection of fears and doubts for anyone. I'm going to need a new job, which also has its own problems-- do I have enough education and experience? Am I an intern candidate, or a full time candidate (this actually has come up, and indecision has meant that I'm not called for either). It's all filtered through the PTSD and depression, which makes even simple things hard some days and really hard things damn near impossible.

In thinking about all of this, I've slowly been realizing that as an employee I'm probably pretty unique and a little hard to classify. I have an associate's degree, and not a bachelor's degree, but I've taken enough classes to add up to a full degree (I'm way over 120 credits) including all of the normal classes that make up a computer science degree. I have professional experience as a programmer-- people pay me to write code-- and I also experience hearing people's problems and complaints about software and hardware. I've worked on globe spanning, mission critical, it works or people die communications systems.

And I've delivered a lot of pizzas, and a lot of envelopes and packages. I've also washed a lot of dishes, restocked a lot of kegs of beer and cases of whiskey, and sold a lot of diesel, cigarettes, and Colt .45 (the malt liquor, not the firearm).

On Facebook, there's a group called Hackathon Hackers, which matters in this context only because there are a great many subgroups; one of those subgroups being HH Coding Interview Prep. It's there for people that participate in hackathons who are applying for internships and full time positions to ask questions, compare notes, etc. A great majority of the people in this Facebook group are college students, although there are a number of professionals that lurk and/or speak up from time to time; software engineers, human resources people, recruiters, and even the author of Cracking the Coding Interview.

I've been lurking for a few months now, as I've very tentatively been getting my own job search going. I'll take what help I can get, right? Most of the posts in HH CIP are along the lines of "Hey I have an interview in two days with Company X, any hints appreciated", usually with a few replies from people that have in fact interviewed with Company X and either been hired or rejected.  These posts sort of tweak a nerve for me, and I've been trying to place exactly why. It's a natural thing to try to get an edge, get that little bit of information that gets your foot in the door, right? You could say I'm doing the same thing by following the posts in the group.

Perhaps it's just a little annoying to see smart people posting and saying "gimme the answers". Gimme, gimme, gimme.

An important part of my current job involves the words "I don't know".  When we get calls, we have a substantial in house knowledge base to find answers in as well as plain old Googling. My job is answering questions when the people answering the phone can't find an answer, and if I don't have (or can't find) an answer, we escalate the question or issue to someone who can. When I'm coding at work, I'm constantly looking stuff up-- I use RFCs, language references, cheat sheets, Stack Overflow, GitHub, even my own code and documentation.

For the record, I do own a current edition of Cracking the Coding Interview, too. :)

It is more than a little scary to be jumping into the fire pit of trying to find a tech job that I'll like, that pays well enough, and that can accommodate a veteran with a disability. The system that's in place doesn't seem designed to promote people like me; but then again I'm probably pretty unique and I probably don't fit well into most pigeon holes anyway. This is just how it is. I'm learning as I go along.

I don't know where I'll be this time next year. I'm aiming for California, but whether it's San Francisco or LA or some smaller city I've never even heard of, I don't know. I can't tell you what company I'll be working for; Google? Facebook? A startup? Somewhere entirely different? Who knows. That's part of the fun (and the frustration) of life.

What's all this about, ultimately? A few things. Me trying to work myself out of, or at least, to a shallower version of depression so I can get something actually accomplished, mostly. That there's a winter storm outside means I'm on alert; I'm fascinated by the weather, and I'm also finely tuned in to survival (what if the power goes out? got that covered). Time is short, and getting shorter, and I'm going to need a job if I'm going to eat so I need to find one. Maybe, hopefully, a change of location will let me move past some of the things that I keep getting snagged on here.

Oh, yeah, and I'm really tired of winter.

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