Boxing Octopus

Social Issues

#BellLetsTalk and Mental Health in the world of Software Development

Today in Canada, it’s “Bell Let’s Talk Day”. A day of national recognition and awareness of mental health issues set up by one of the country’s big three telecom and broadcasting companies. On this day, if you tweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, send a snap on Snapchat with Bell’s “Let’s Talk” geofilter, or send an SMS from a phone subscribed to Bell’s mobile carrier service, Bell will donate five cents to various mental health initiatives. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but last year the #BellLetsTalk hashtag was the top-most trending hashtag in Canada. Bell also puts some serious star power behind Let’s Talk Day. Canadian Olympic Medalist Clara Hughes was instrumental in kicking off the first campaign years ago, and it’s now attracted names like Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Smith, and even Alice Cooper. For my five cents, it’s possibly the most effective awareness campaign since people started dumping ice-cold water on their heads in the name of ALS awareness.

With all that said, I’d like to talk about how all of this applies to my own experiences with mental health, and how working in my field can lend itself to serious challenges when it comes to mental health.

Working in software development can be extremely stressful and demanding, and I don’t think people outside our community understand how quickly and easily it can be for someone to burn out, and how common mental health issues can become as a result. Society has come to a point now where we depend on technology like an infant depends on its mother. We cannot live without our smartphones, our day-to-day financial transactions are almost completely digital now. And at the heart of all that technology, lie the people who build it, and make it all work: Developers, Sysadmins, DevOps Engineers, Security Engineers, and more. With that in mind, as a Developer, Sysadmin, DevOps engineer, or as a Security Person, you are essentially tasked with keeping the company you work for running; you are the gears that power the machine.

In the software world, aside from normal project deadline stress, you’re also often dealing directly with clients. Aside from dealing with clients, you’re also often dealing with fixing stuff when it breaks, sometimes at crazy hours because you’re on-call. And sometimes, in nightmare scenarios that happen more often than you might think, those all converge. Here’s a fun little scenario to demonstrate a little of what I mean:

So you get that crazy-hour on-call page; it’s your manager, and they’re telling you that a client’s service has gone down. So you look into it, and while looking into the problem, you discover that a developer managed to push some bad code into production, which caused the outage. So now you’re worried that your manager is pissed, that the client is pissed, you start realizing that you’ll have to take time in lieu in order to catch up on sleep so that you don’t fall asleep at your desk the next morning, but that means you’ll have less time to work on the project which is due next week, you start having thoughts that all (or part) of this could cost you your job, you’re worried that the dev you just called out because of their bad code is going to lose their job and you don’t want that on your conscience. Meanwhile the dev is worried about the same things, your manager is worried that this will make them look bad, that they didn’t provide you with everything you and/or the dev team with everything they needed to prevent this scenario from happening, that they could lose the client, and the client is worried about losing money because their goddamn service is down, and everyone is starting to fantasize about running away to a small thatched roof hut on a small, remote island off the coast of Borneo…one little mistake has now resulted in a tumult of potential mental health triggers.

Oh yeah, there’s that too…the constant dread that “one little mistake” will set off the very scenario I just described. Sure, companies nowadays are striving to put processes and tools in place to help take some of the pressure off, but that still doesn’t eliminate nightmare scenarios like the one I described…far from it. Nor does it eliminate the constant dread and anxiety. To sum it up, working in software is a constant juggling of chainsaws, but the gasoline from those chainsaws all too often makes you want to sneeze.

With all that said, I will say that I am glad to see and hear about growing numbers of companies really making an effort to build cultures around their software teams that are committed to dealing with stress and mental health in a constructive, supportive manner.

I’m also glad that the community itself has come forward to provide places where people in the industry can talk about mental health within the context of the industry; because it’s one thing to go to a therapist, or talk to a friend…but unless those friends and therapists are also technical or work in the same field, you often end up feeling like you need to generalize when describing stressful situations, which can lead to you feeling like you weren’t able to express yourself fully, which can be really frustrating. So, to be able to bounce ideas and feelings off of colleagues and other people in your field can be (pardon the pun) just what the doctor ordered.

So to all my friends outside of the software field, now you’ve had the chance to see a little of what we deal with in order to keep your shit working. You’re Welcome. Also, encourage us to talk about what we do. Take an interest. Even if you don’t understand all the technical stuff at first, you’ll discover how much we appreciate immensely the simple effort of TRYING to understand what we do. If you’re already doing this, thank you. It really does mean a lot.

To my friends/colleagues WITHIN the industry, don’t ever feel like you have to suffer in silence. There are resources and people out there that can help, and if you can’t find those people, start a group of your own; because I can assure you, you’re not alone. And if all of that fails, I don’t mind personally lending an ear…so Let’s Talk.

Social Issues

Boxing With Broken Knuckles

In the days following the election, I’ve stayed pretty quiet when it comes to commenting on the whole mess (and it was a mess, but more on that later). I’ve stayed quiet because, as spiritualist Ram Dass once said: “The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear”. I needed time to step back and really try to understand what brought us to this point. With that said, now that I’ve had some time to digest and reflect, I’ve realized something: Trump’s win is all our faults; we did this to ourselves, and there are a number of reasons why.

  1. Social Media is an Echo Chamber.
    For a myriad of reasons both positive and negative, by design and by pure happenstance, social media has become a tailored experience. Unfortunately, as a result, we now have to contend with the concept of filter bubbles. It’s far too easy to simply fall in line with people who are like-minded, meaning we only ever hear one side of the story, bringing me to my next point…
  2. Filter Bubbles Rob Us of Perspective.
    To quote something Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani said recently on Twitter: “We thought the Internet would give us access to people with different points of view. Instead, it gives us access to many people with the same point of view”. Without differing points of view, we soon fall into a state where we cannot fathom why anyone would ever take an opposing viewpoint. To understand how this happens, consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Those trapped in the cave, when presented with anything outside the purview of their severely limited experience, would, almost, as a rule, feel threatened by this alien point of view and therefore reject it as a matter of course. Now a lack of perspective is one thing, we all lack perspective in some way; we’re all of us guilty of ignorance because not a single one of us is all-knowing, and nor can we be. But the problem remains that we are robbing ourselves of the chance to gain some much-needed perspective; and that, after time, leads to the following problem…
  3. Lack of Perspective Robs Us of Empathy.
    The less we interact with other people who have differing points of view, the less chance we have to consider what may have led people to garner these opinions. It’s as plain as that. However, beyond being stripped of the ability to empathize, we also lose out on ANOTHER critical skill…
  4. Lack of Perspective Weakens Our Ability For Critical Thought.
    I don’t think I need to explain this one any further. How are you going to question your own beliefs if your beliefs are the only ones you hear?

So, we have now been left without the ability for critical thought, the ability to empathize, and we live in a world where we hear nothing but our own worldview parroted back at us at one hundred and forty characters per second. Where does that leave us? What kind of personality thrives in such an environment?? The answer, quite simply, is an Internet Troll. We have all of us, denigrated ourselves to the level of Mean Girls of the Internet, squealing and snickering at anyone who seems even the least bit different. Still unsure how we got from a perfectly sensible person to a shit-stinking troll? Lemme tl;dr it for you:

  • Without the capacity for critical thought, we cannot question our beliefs.
  • In an echo chamber, bereft of the capacity for critical thought, and of the ability to empathize, we mistakenly affirm that our beliefs must be the “right” beliefs because they are vox populi. And since we are the only voice we hear, other voices must, therefore, be “wrong”.
  • Going back to Plato’s Cave, we will instinctively lash out at “wrong” opinions.

I guess what I’m trying to get at with all this long-winded prattling, is that we all need to start actually LISTENING to each other. We’ve lost this very important skill, and without it, we will continue to dig this hole we’ve started for ourselves that will one day become so deep that it’s just not possible to climb back out. So let’s all of us, take Ram Dass’ words to heart, and learn to shut the hell up, and listen, for once in our lives.

Social Issues

Scarred and Scared: The legacy of 9/11

We all have our stories. Where we were at 8:46 am when the first plane hit the first of the Twin Towers in New York City. Some of us were sitting comfortably at home, just starting our day. Some of us were at school, listening to the school’s PA system gave details of the attacks; and unfortunately, some of us were at, or near ground zero. Some of us KNEW people who were at ground zero. Some of us LOST people who were at ground zero. But whatever your story, whoever you knew or know, that day, you were changed. That day, we all were changed…and not at all for the better.

Unfortunately, though we wish (and sometimes, somewhat ignorantly claim) the enduring legacy of 9/11 could be heroism and humanity in the face of adversity, it is, in my opinion, far from that. I hate to say this, but to me, the true legacy of 9/11 is a world that was left scarred and scared. Damaged from the initial shock of the audacity of the attack, and traumatized by the jingoism, violence, and xenophobia which followed. Many of us have blamed George W. Bush and his administration, and we felt that after he left office, things would get better. But what has happened since? Ed Snowden uncovered the NSA’s data mining dragnet which has yet to prove it ever helped catch a single terrorist, war continues to tear through the middle east, and many Americans still fear and/or hate their non-white neighbours. America’s borders grow increasingly tighter and more inflexible, and racism has reared its repugnant, ugly head. The end product of all of this (whether any of us has realized it yet) is a country racked by bigotry, facing what could be the most catastrophic presidential election in American history. Having said all that, I believe that the war on terror is over. Bin Laden et al, they got what they wanted. They ruined America. The terrorists won.

We lost Al Qaeda and ISIS’ game of hatred and bigotry. We lost because it’s a zero-sum game. Nobody benefits, nobody wins. Al Qaeda and ISIS are exercises in practical nihilism through bigotry and hatred. They are Nietzsche’s abyss, staring back into us as we stare into them.

So if we are on the losing side, where do we go from here? Simple. We accept defeat. We couldn’t beat them at their own game. And yet, there’s a game which they can’t win, a game which I believe, we still can. This game has but one rule: treat each other with respect; show empathy, mindfulness, consideration, and tolerance. In the final words of Jack Layton, former leader of the National Democratic Party of Canada: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

We are in DESPERATE need of change in the world, no doubt. Barack Obama promised change, and many people chide him for not delivering enough on that promise, but as Mahatma Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” We must change ourselves if we wish to see the change which Obama promised.

So let’s change the rules. Let’s win the game. Let’s be hopeful and change the world…let’s change September 11th from a day of anger and mourning to a day where we all decided to start caring again.

Social Issues

45mm Echo Chamber

So here we are again. More shootings, more violence, more people dying for ridiculous reasons. Every time this happens. I sit here and scratch my head, trying to make sense of something inherently senseless. Trying to find a way to put into words something inherently unspeakable.

I could say something about Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas…I could claim the cops were at fault. I could claim the people who got shot got what they deserved. I could say there’s a problem with gun violence in America. I could say there’s a problem with race relations. I could blame video games for glorifying violence. I could blame music for glorifying violence. I could say “let’s pray for everyone who lost loved ones in this horrible tragedy”. I could say “Black Lives Matter”. I could respond to that by saying “All Lives Matter”.

Truth is, I could say any or all of these things, and what I say could get thousands upon thousands of likes, shares, retweets, reblogs; what I say could go viral. But none of that would make a difference…because at the end of the day, no one is listening to one another, and THAT is the problem.