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20 March 2016

Software development, the ADA, and PTSD

This is a long post. Get a fresh cup of coffee.

This week, I requested an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) scheduling accommodation from my employer in response to a work scheduling issue. The issue had come up once before, and when it did I protested-- I explained why the way I'd been scheduled was causing me problems and that it would negatively impact my ability to be productive at work. The official response what that while the way I'd been scheduled was a matter of policy-- that I didn't have a choice in the matter-- my voice had been heard and that they'd try to avoid the situation in the future. This week the issue came up again.

I hold two positions where I work.

One, the original one, is that of a general level one help desk employee. I'm trained to handle support issues via phone, chat, and email. For the past couple of years I've been primarily doing quality assurance, meaning that when the other agents who answer the phones, chats, and emails have technical or procedural questions, they bring those questions to me. I also review every support ticket that gets escalated to a higher support tier to make sure that all of the required information is included and that the right procedures are being followed. Whenever the help desk is open, there's a QA person (sometimes two) working. Two nights a week, that person is me.

The second, that I've been doing since last spring when the team was created, is that of a student software developer. The help desk has its own suite of custom built applications for scheduling, training, coaching, getting information out to employees, and several other things that are specific to the way this particular help desk is organized. This software was originally written by one or two (depending on the specific application) people that worked on it over the past several years. Last spring, an actual software development team was formed; three new people plus the original two. Since then, taking into account some people that have graduated or otherwise moved on, and several new developers that were recently added, we're up to six people. When we added the most recent new people, the existing team members (including me) did a majority of the work to interview candidates, write on-boarding training materials, and decide who would actually be added to the team.

The issue that came up before at work, that led to me requesting ADA accommodations this week, was that on one particular evening last fall I was originally scheduled to work my second position, that of software developer, the entire night. That schedule was changed so that I was working one position (answering support calls) for a time, then switching to software development for some time, then back to support calls, then back to software development.

When I saw that my schedule had been changed to that, "that" being switching tasks several times in the same shift, I protested, and this is where my disability-- PTSD-- enters the room.

One of the symptoms of PTSD is hyper awareness, sometimes described as hyper vigilance (they're different, but they go together). You're always aware of everything. If something moves, you notice it. If someone makes a noise, you hear it. You're never "relaxed" or "at ease". In my case, this comes from spending a lot of time in the military keeping one eye on where my bag of chemical weapons defense gear is and one ear on the speaker that crackles to life every time the enemy fires a missile in my direction. It comes from living and working in places where you don't know who the enemy is-- at any given time, you could be sitting at a sidewalk cafe and a truck can roll by, the driver tossing a bomb loaded with shrapnel at you because you're an American.

This is one of the most important PTSD symptoms in my life-- it makes it very difficult to concentrate on class lectures, where you're sitting in a room of 400 students and everyone is moving and making noise. It makes it difficult to concentrate in places to study, because even in quiet areas people are still moving around and making noise. Every movement, every noise, every bit of stimuli that most people just accept as normal, my brain has to process and evaluate. Is this person dangerous? Is this noise an alarm? Is something bad about to happen?

I've asked for, and received, academic accommodations that grant me extra time on exams. I'm able to my exams in quiet rooms, alone, where there aren't other people moving around and making noise. These accommodations are possible because of federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Help desk quality assurance, where I work, is all about vigilance. I'm listening to the side of the incoming phone calls that I can hear, the support agent side, to see if it's an issue that's affecting a lot of people and is therefore a service outage. I'm listening to see if they're giving the wrong technical advice, or if they're missing some piece of advice that I know about. I'm listening to see if they're stuck, or going in circles and could use some help. I'm listening to see if they're being polite and friendly. I'm also (depending on how many there are being created) reviewing escalated tickets, watching email for incoming support issues, keeping track of our support issue ticketing system, monitoring chat channels, answering questions and mentoring support agents. In this mode, being hyper aware is something of an advantage in that my brain is keeping track of every little thing anyway. I'm not supposed to be zeroed in on any particular thing.

That being said, I don't get anything done during a QA shift that requires sustained concentration for any period of time. There are slack times, often, but I can't do homework. I read stuff online, but I have to save articles and papers and such to read later because I can't properly focus on them with everything that's going on. There are times when I need to document things that happen during a shift, and it can take a lot of effort to ignore everything else to get that done. An email that would take someone else fifteen minutes takes me an hour, because I'm constantly distracted and I constantly have to try to refocus. (It should be noted that between support calls, or between QA things that need to be done, non-work related things like homework and reading Reddit are okay where I work.)

I have some flexibility in when I work; every semester each of us submits an availability schedule, and I always specify that I'm only available after 1700. This is partly because I'm just a night owl anyway, partly because classes tend to fall during the day, and the rest because the call volume at work after 1700 is much lower. There are a lot less people moving around, and so there's a lot less noise and commotion. I can manage doing what I do, at night. I'm not so sure I could manage doing the same job during the day.

I also always request night shifts for software development work, for the same reasons. We don't have dedicated space to do software development-- the office is an open office, and there are several desks set aside for "project work" (which generally means anything that's not answering support calls). While there are times when the office is very quiet, it's mostly not-- there are phone ringing, people talking, people moving around. It's a call center. I do my best to deal with that in several ways. I sit in a corner of the room, as physically far from the main sources of noise as I can. I wear foam earplugs, and on top of that I use over the ear Princess Leia-esque headphones with music playing.

I have learned, through therapy and research and experimentation, that I can concentrate on something given a reasonably quiet and stable environment-- but that's only a part of the solution. I also need time.

Another of the things that PTSD fucks up about does to my life is that I have a strange relationship with time-- events that happened years ago show up as flashbacks, where it can be 2016 here but I'm feeling exactly as if it were 1991. I don't have a sense of "20 years ago" versus "three weeks ago". It's for this reason that I struggle terribly with appointments and work schedules and class schedules. My iPhone tells me when it's time to leave to go to whatever place I have to go next, because it has the capability to do so. When I enter an event on my calendar, I'm able to specify travel time-- so it beeps or buzzes at me that I need to leave at 16:25 to get to work at 17:00 on foot. If I don't enter an event on my calendar, or something I need to do on my reminders list, I don't remember it. It's not that I don't care about doing it-- remember, I'm a veteran, and from being military, being five minutes early is the same as being ten minutes late. So I put a tremendous amount of effort into making sure I have alarms and reminders set, and keeping a routine that I can manage. I obsess about it, because being late to places really sucks-- especially work.

Programming-- writing software-- requires a ton of mental effort. You're creating something in your mind, an abstraction of something in the real world. You're translating that into code-- statements and syntax that has to be perfect or it won't work. Then you're getting that typed into an editor, and if you miss a semicolon, or include one too many, your program won't run. Maybe it's zen, or "the zone", but whatever you call it, there's a magical place where you have the entire scope of the problem in your head, in front of you, and only then can you implement your ideas and build what you need to build.

Now, take all of that and add on that your brain has to process every noise, every movement, every change in your environment. Each of these stimuli can lead to an emotion, or a memory, or a full on flashback. If a PA system clicks on-- any kind, any where-- my brain instantly looks for where my chemical warfare gear is, because in the Desert there was a PA system that only clicked on if there were missiles inbound. No one cared about the message that missiles were coming. You only needed the click.

I know myself well enough now that I know it will take time between sitting down and starting up my computer, and actual code being written. I have some small things that I do, a ritual that I do whenever I turn my computer on, that tells my brain that "hey, we're switching modes into hacking now". I learned about kanban to keep track of projects and tasks, and we use Trello for keeping track of the projects the team is working on. I keep an engineer's notebook, a work diary, using Evernote, with the last entry for a day being what I need to work on and where I need to start the next time I work.

I can't schedule something for later if I'm doing software development. There can literally be no end in sight, because if there is, my brain will focus on where I need to be next instead of what I need to do now. It's such an issue, my not having a sense of time or being able to keep track of it, that it's become a trigger that keeps me from concentrating. On one hand, it takes me time to get myself settled down and into a space in my head where I can focus on coding. On the other hand, once I'm there, I'm there until I either finish what I'm doing or I run our of coffee or I get too tired to continue. I can't look at the clock, because if I have to look at the clock I'll lose focus and not be able to get it back. I'll think about what I have to do next instead of what I'm doing now. That headspace that I need to be in to code will be impossible to reach, much less maintain.

Long story short: I need long, uninterrupted, no-end-time-specified blocks of time to effectively write code. (It turns out this applies to studying for classes as well.)

This week, I was scheduled to do software development at work from 1700-2300 Thursday evening. I intentionally chose those hours (I work the same hours on Tuesdays) because it's after the noisiest and busiest part of the day at work, and because the help desk closes at 2300. If I'm working on something, and I'm in the middle of it, and I need to stay past 2300 to finish it, I can. I don't have to worry about what happens after-- generally, it's that I go home, watch some TV, and then go to bed, but that's not on any particular schedule. Provided I can manage the noise and activity in the office, which I've figured out how to do pretty well, I can get a lot of coding done.

Except this week, where I was switched from software development to answering email and chat support calls from 2100-2300. I got an email from work in the afternoon on Thursday, stating that this would happen. It included a note of consolation that since chat support ends at 2200, if email volume was low I could work on coding for the last hour, from 2200-2300. The reason given for the switch was that for an unspecified reason, there was no one to cover chat and email for that time.

I replied, essentially saying the same things I'd said when I protested the first time last fall-- that I found it extremely difficult to task switch between jobs, that I'd get very little to nothing accomplished both during the time I'd have to work on coding and during the time I'd be answering chats and emails. The entire evening would be wasted. Yes, I'd be there, but I wouldn't accomplish anything. My reply was the first time I'd said outright that I have a disability, that my disability is what prevents me from being able to effectively switch from one task to another quickly, that this was why I was protesting the change.

I didn't get a reply, and I still haven't. The email was from a particular person directly to me, so I don't know if that person didn't see my email or if they saw it and just ignored it.

I was pulled from working on software development to answering non-existent support requests simply because I was there to be pulled. It's a stated policy where I work that people can, in fact be pulled from project teams to do general help desk duties when necessary to make sure that the help desk can do its job-- helping customers with technical problems. The person who altered my schedule this week was following that policy. I'm a veteran. I understand this kind of thing-- during my time on active duty, I got pulled off my primary tasks lots of times to be on work details. Once I spent a summer week riding shotgun with a Turkish fuel truck driver who spoke no English-- my sole purpose for being there was to make sure that the fuel was actually delivered, and putting my initials next to the entry for each fuel delivery stop.

Except that pulling me off of my software development project work to do chat and email support calls this week wasn't necessary. There was in fact someone working that night that was trained to handle chat and email support calls; the person working in the quality assurance role. It's a prerequisite for doing QA that you're trained and practiced in phone, chat, and email calls. On weekends, there's not a chat/email support agent even scheduled. The QA person handles chats and emails on weekends, in addition to their normal duties-- I do this every Saturday night.

The total workload for chat and email support from 2100-2300? Two support tickets. One was a customer who replied to an already resolved issue to say thank you-- it didn't require anything beyond marking the ticket as resolved. The other was spam, an incoming email that had made it through the filters. Again, marked as resolved. (Both support tickets could have been ignored, and they'd have been auto-resolved on their own by the ticketing system.)

This is why, for the last part of that shift, I sent another email to the powers that be explaining yet again why I suck at task switching, but this time I included everything. I stated that I was requesting under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that as a flexible scheduling accommodation, I never again be scheduled for more than one task on the same day. If I'm software development, I'm that for the entire day (or in my case, night). If I'm QA, then I'm QA. I also explained that I have PTSD, a disability that's covered by the ADA.

I went on to explain that the reason I didn't bring this up as a request for accommodations as a disabled person when it first happened last fall was that I don't want people to look at me as a disabled veteran. I want them to look at me as person-- as a coworker. I don't want to be the crazy vet with PTSD that has "special needs". (Although, and I noted this in the email, that cat's out of the bag now.)

Think about this for a minute: when you hear "disabled veteran with PTSD" do you think quiet, polite hacker who wears software vendor t-shirts with socks and sandals and listens to synth pop while coding, or do you think Rambo? Who do you read news stories about-- the veteran who spends his time trying to be a better programmer, or all of the veterans who commit suicide or commit crimes? I'm already different-- I'm more than twice as old as the majority of my coworkers. I've been where I work for almost seven years, which for a student worker is an eternity. The last thing I want is for people to think I'm some special case that has to be handled with care lest something bad happen.

If you have a mental health related disability like PTSD and you're a software developer, do you disclose the disability and ask for accommodations? Or do you just suck it up and do the best you can? There are consequences either way. For me, having my schedule changed and being ignored when I explained why it was a problem was the first factor. That the same thing happened again several months later was the second.

The final factor was that even after I'd explained why making me task switch was a bad idea, and even after I'd finally summoned the courage to explain that the problem was because of a disability, I didn't even get a reply. Everyone where I work is always connected. We all have smartphones, we all keep close track of email, texts, social media, and instant messages. Of the seven people-- student and staff team leads-- who I sent that email to late Thursday night, no one has taken the time to email back and say "hey, we got your email, we don't have an immediate answer but we're looking into this".

Just like when I was an airman and had to spend a week riding around in a fuel truck, I know that as a student employee I'm at the bottom of the food chain. In the scope of a large university, I'm an  interchangeable part-- one student leaves, you don't put much thought into hiring a new one, and there's a new one every semester or every year. Even so, I applied for, and interviewed for, and was hired above other people for, a position as a software developer. I may be just a student employee, and may look like just some old guy who's still trying to get through college-- but I'm not just some yahoo that walked in off the street to reset passwords either.

I don't like the idea of having to make a formal request for accommodations, whatever "formal request for accommodations" really means. I've had to do that for academics, and it was a quite difficult thing to have to do. It's a difficult thing to have to talk to every one of my professors at the start of each semester and make arrangements to take tests in quiet rooms and get extensions on assignments and have a particular desk reserved. It's even more difficult to raise a fuss when your accommodations letter says "take exams in a quiet room, alone" and they try to stick you in a room with five other people anyway-- which happens quite often. I digress.

If I have to provide documentation, which I expect I will, I'll have to make an appointment at the VA mental health clinic-- which means it will probably be at least a week or two, probably longer, maybe much longer, before I'll be able to get there to explain to someone what's going on and get yet another letter saying that yes I have this disability and that yes I am eligible for accommodations. Every time I have to explain all of this is difficult; it's emotionally draining to deal with the idea that people you work for, at a place that you actually like working for, have to be compelled by federal law to treat you with respect as a disabled person instead of just respecting you as a person.

Maybe the powers that be will take another look and see the problem and correct it, and I won't ever have to task switch like this again ("ever" meaning the remainder of my time here, which isn't even that long. I'm moving to California in August). That's what I hope happens. I just want to do my job, finish the software development project I'm working on, and then maybe knock out some other pending projects before I leave.

As far as answering the question (or, the choice) of whether or not to disclose my disability to an employer-- I wasn't expecting to have to answer that question this week, I was expecting that I'd have to deal with it later, after I'd found a new job somewhere else, months from now. Given what's happened this week, my answer is firmly yes. As much as I want to believe that people will do the right thing, give you the benefit of the doubt, etc., it's too often not true. I have both rights and responsibilities as a disabled person-- I have the right to reasonable accommodations at work, and I also have the responsibility to request what I need in order to do the best job I possibly can. Neither does anyone any good if I keep my disability hidden. And, if that means I need to fight for what I need, so be it-- that's nothing new either.

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