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A Typically Manic Day

6 min read

This is a story about predictable unpredictability...

Man in a tree

I messaged a trusted friend at work: I'm sleep deprived and manic... can you sneak my laptop out of the building, should I make up an excuse to bunk off work, or should I just come in and pretend like everything's fine? He told me to message him in the morning.

I woke up at 4am, when presumably the deadly cocktail of sleeping pills, tranquillisers, sedatives and alcohol wore off enough that my mania re-asserted itself. Even my dreams hadn't been sweet dreams about nothing... my mind had been working overtime to find elegant solutions to hard problems.

By 7am - when I usually get up - I realised I could force myself out of bed and face the day if I wanted. However, the only restful part of any 24 hours for me, is the period when my intense dreams are done and I can have a second period of sleep, which is pure bliss. The alarm clock is perhaps responsible for more human misery than any other human invention, including bombs and guns and instruments of torture.

There were no small cans of Red Bull for sale at the office canteen, so I guzzled half a litre of high-glucose high-caffeine energy drink. As I feared, I spoke far too much; too loudly... I lost all subtlety, tact and ability to hold my tongue. In short: I was everything you don't want from a work colleague who you have to spend 40 hours a week in a small room with.

As with many engineers - or those with a tendency towards the technical - I started pulling things to bits. Something had been broken for a week or two and nobody knew how to fix it. People were losing sleep and the shiny shiny new system was starting to look like an unreliable heap of junk, not the perfect thing that everyone imagined they would create, given a blank canvas.

I skipped my lunch. I said "just give me 5 minutes" to so many people, while I continued to pursue my new obsession: I was going to be the hero who solved this problem which had defeated so many others.

Before I knew it, the cleaners were hoovering under my feet and the building was looking pretty dark and empty. I went out to the car park, where luckily my car wasn't parked, because the compound was fully secured - I was locked in.

In my mind, I achieved something noteworthy. I found and fixed the problem they said that nobody would ever be able to do - it was too hard; everything that could be thought of had already been tried.

I shared the news with my colleagues, all long-since departed home to their families. Most people write 1-liners "fixed the bug". I struggled to not write an entire essay on why the shiny shiny new system is actually a piece of shit that should be rebuilt; repainted on that blank canvas. Of course, nobody really wants to read a message with 6 paragraphs. Nobody really wants to be told that a fundamentally shit decision at the start of the project has flawed the whole damn thing. Nobody really cares that much, except me.

Actually, I'm being unfair. Some of my colleagues have been seized by manic moments and decided to embark upon one-man missions to reach that engineer's nirvana: the most elegant system imaginable. My colleagues kindly indulge me when I say "errr.... why hasn't this been done properly?" and they tell me the age-old tale of the decision to cut corners, because it's "tactical". We roll our eyes, and dream of the day when we're really given that elusive blank canvas.

A few years ago, I single-handedly rewrote an entire system - belonging to one of the UK's big 4 high street banks - over the course of about 4 days, mostly without sleep. I learned nothing. What I ended up with was elegant and beautiful, but it'd be like hanging a Monet in your 3-year-old's bedroom - it'll soon end up with crayon and felt tip pen scrawled all over it. It was an arrogant and stupid waste of time.

Today, I rebuilt what my colleagues had built, so that I could learn why they made the decisions they made. I put myself in their shoes, and I walked the same path that they must've walked, when they built the shiny shiny new system.

There's a short answer and a long answer. Tomorrow I can say: "I know where the bug is and I know how to fix it". That's the short answer, and that's the only one anyone cares about. Tomorrow I want to say: "I know where you took a wrong turn, and I know how we can make things perfect; elegant" but nobody cares... just get the damn thing running, no matter how flawed and unreliable; no matter how ugly it is when you peek behind the scenes.

It wasn't that long ago I was given a blank canvas for the first time in my career. You know what I opted for? Ugly simplicity. I built something that was the complete opposite of elegance. I built something where just about anybody could see what every nut, bolt and widget was there to do. You know what else I learned? When you've actually got to make a whole entire system from the ground up, you never ever anticipate the things that are going to ruin the perfection - the decisions that seem great at the time, but eventually mean you'll never achieve a completely elegant solution.

All I can say is, at least my mind is occupied on days like today. There hasn't been a moment to consider just how terrible I feel. There hasn't been a moment of boredom.

I'm glad I got up and went to the office, even if I've made it abundantly clear to my colleagues that I'm an unstable nutcase.

The world needs unstable nutcases.