One of the difficult things about working in this industry is that it’s hard to keep your toolset sharp. You start out with the power of the “select star” statement, some lock picks, and the ability to tell an hour of jokes at three AM on a long night waiting for some code fixes to prop to the test servers; then a month later the CTO has signed an agreement with some guy he met at a whiskey tasting night in Southwark and next thing you know it’s all Mongo DB and Cucumber and hordes of brogrammers making the lunch room unsafe for human habitation. Halfway through the year “works with scrying devices including: mirrors; pools of water; forked sticks; animal innards” is suddenly added to a feature set and you’re just completely lost. The “bros” have managed to get themselves enough training budget for three days of the latest and greatest while you’re trying to improvise a dowsing rod using two pens held together with bluetack. And the pens are out of ink.

If this hasn’t paralyzed you into depression – use of irony and laughing at catastrophic live failures can be a sign this is on the way – you know that there’s a tribe of half-orcs that have been training up to take your job, but at the kind of wages that can only be affordable when you supplement your food supply by pillaging nearby hamlets … in parts of the world whose greatest claim to fame had been, until now, producing previously unknown species of tulips. Your skill set may be completely out of line with what’s needed in one or two short years, and by short I mean you spent so much time unbending paperclips, working weekends, and going to forced jollility company do’s that you weren’t able to upgrade your skills. No employer really wants you to, anyway, at least not on their dime; it’s cheaper to just get in the orcs.

So you need training. You need to learn what’s coming. You need to know what weapons people are fighting with now. And, believe it or not, you REALLY need to talk with other people (actually just “sentient creatures, species undetermined” – as long as they can communicate, you can learn from them) to learn how THEY’VE fought the same kind of battles you’ve fought, or will fight. Because, really, if “Hey, what’s that behind you?” WORKS as a diversionary tactic, there’s no shame adding it in to your personal arsenal.

The next problem is how to get good training. There’s a million places offering you opportunities to, basically, watch people try to convince you that Orcish freeware is the new black; but your time is limited. I’ve been lucky enough to make it to Asgard twice, but burning enough incense to qualify for time with heros and demigods is a feat few can do regularly.

Which brings me to this: affordable, practical training with people you WISH were at a whiskey tasting with you. I exchanged a pocket full of magic beans and got into the SkillsMatter’s London Tester Gathering that’s taking place over two short days this week. Whether you’re halfling, elf, paladin, apprentice mage, or just a swordsman looking to try out those neat new Japanese poking sticks, they’ve got all sorts of really practical classes that will expose you to new approaches or help you refine what you know. I looked at the people who are teaching them (Tony Bruce, Martin Hall, Alan Richardson) and they’re all guys whose tomes of cantrips have proven useful to me in the past. As a bonus, I went to the first one of these shindigs two years ago (took my whole raiding party, including the cleric/healer) and thought it was a really useful event. A lot of it is hands on, so I’m busy mumbling through my defense against the dark arts spells over the next few days and making sure I’ve got the right software loaded.

But, seriously: when the only other really good conference is in the near 2000 gold piece range, two days for 295 electrum pieces is pretty damned good. In fact, it’s so good, I’d say it’s beans … magic beans. The kind you can convince even a company with just a tiny training budget to pay for. Why wait? Sling that longbow over your shoulder and let’s go hunting!

It’s easy to fall into a humming endless sameness, of up and in and do and listen and finish and leave and sleep. You lose your sense of accomplishing any goal other than making it to the end of each day, then somewhow managing to make it to the start of the next day.

But for me, it all changed the day my boss’ boss came to work riding a polar bear.

I’d spent day after day fashioning a mithril chain blanket, supposedly a more effective defense than a mere firewall for DOS attacks. In the tradition of the modern office economy, I’d made a project plan, scoped the effort, found resources (human, financial, and some kind of exchange with some Elbonian dwarves who were willing to sell us smithed mithril at former European bloc prices in exchange for building them a comprehensive payment processing system that accepted multiple currencies, Paypal, Bitcoin, electrum pieces and first born children), and managed it on a daily basis.

And then one day Uberboss came in on the ultimate carbon neutral transportation device, all white fur and shiny teeth and gleaming blue eyes. His helmet looked great on him – it showed off his beard – but he’d completely changed his mind about the defenses I’d been building for the last four months. Suddenly me and the only other woman on the floor were supposed to turn it into a couple of chain mail bikinis. And we weren’t supposed to be defending the core code base … no, suddenly the most important thing we could possibly be doing is raising the company profile, so that we could get some more investor money.

That’s right, he wanted us to be booth babes.

Now, I’ve attacked invasions of sentient species without question … shared my test plans with hostile “friendlies” I suspected were stealing the bodies of the homeless people in the nearby alleys … posted fake cheerful tweets and blog posts when I couldn’t find a positive bone in my body or any of the animated corpses running the financial team. But not only did he want me to cut up a cloaking device I’d poured my heart into (actual blood was involved but was nothing compared to the endless revisions of that damned Powerpoint presentation I had to give) … but now I was supposed to “big up” Lovecraft Software while 1) freezing my butt off in 2) unfunctional supposed protective gear while 3) men assumed we were ignorant because we were, well, women. And I didn’t take up sword fighting just so a bunch of assholes could check me out and make hunr hunr noises: I did it because it was fun and I liked excitement and I had a bad-assed sparring partner to work with twice a week. And she didn’t want to wear the bikini, either.

Suddenly, I just didn’t care any more. The endless arguments about trying to make things right, the horrible compromises I’d made, the knowledge that without the application of my own blood in three months time that the mithril would magically disappear and my team would be back to fighting off hordes of imps (released when the accounting software did its nightly batch run) using the plastic cutlery we’d stockpiled from the company picnic. Sure, the dwarves were going to get my first child, but I knew darned well that if I didn’t reproduce, the agreement would die when I did.

I opened up a wormhole, tripped a monk seal that had been sunning itself so it fell through, and let the polar bear blunder its way across the office on a killing spree. Then I spoke the words that unbound our careful mail work from its symbiotic connection to my soul. Finally, I took the Stapler of Power – the one I’d inherited from the old test manager – and smashed the RFID memory chip in my ID badge. It had been carved from flakes of fossilized Shoggoth and set of a tiny, black flare that left a smell of burnt hope in the air.

I was free. Time to update my resume and get back on the job hunt!

It’s that time of the year when across the multiverses (at least the ones in which Christianity is celebrated) the online retailers are having a code freeze in order to give people a chance to shop freely. This is a wonderful time for us, when we sit around and go OH MY GOD OH MY GOD CUSTOMER COMPL… oh wait no we don’t care (unless it really is a catastrophe in which case we do care and will sit here for 24 hours at a time until it’s fixed). And so it has been at the HP Lovecraft Institute of Software Design, where our content management system has been … frozen, and we have all been moving slowly.

But … there’s something I’ve been a bit suspicious about. It’s the slowness. It seems to have affected the whole office. At first I thought it was just me, something bought on by the horrible collapse of my immune system that set in shortly after the American election season passed. But then I realized … it’s not just me that can’t think very well anymore … everyone I work with has slowed down. (Except for the people who gave notice – I’m not sure how they got immunity, but I wish whatever they had could be served to me in a cup like Lemsip.)

Now that I’m coming out of my own coma, I’m testing this theory. It appears that in order to maintain the stability of our code, which is abysmal to begin with, we had to put in some tweaks. Our code is now being held together with transdimensional duct tape. In essence, we are borrowing the power that is keeping us from falling apart by tapping into other universes and using THEIR power to stave off OUR entropy. Slowly, ice is creeping across distant planets … delicate life forms are being wiped out … oxygen is escaping from the atmosphere of worlds that are spinning more and more slowly … all so OUR code can hold itself together.

So far, it seems to be working. But obviously there is a cost. And it’s clear that our little “cheat” to get through the holidays was anticipated ages ago. Yes, indeed, tomorrow the bubble gum will snap, and the poorly written spells that have held us in place will bounce back, causing the end of this universe, as anticipated by the Mayans over a thousand years ago. It’s a little embarrassing that we played right into this without realizing it. On the other hand, we’re not really a company that learns from history: and we’re also one that will always take the easy way out if it’s available. I suspect somewhere in a great Godly plain someone places a rook on a giant chess table, and down here someone saw it as an easy capture, thus setting our entire universe up for checkmate.

Yes, we at the H.P. Lovecraft Institute apologize for causing the end of life as we know it. But we wanted to make sure you all had an easy time shopping. And that’s what it’s all about, right? And with that, Merry Christmas, and if any of you figure out how to disconnect our power lines into the world of Nyarlathotep before 2:30 AM EDT, I’d be really grateful if you just went for it. My team is willing to let it pass without any QA; we don’t want the tequila drinking at our annual tamalada to be disturbed, because, when discorporation happens, I want a belly full of of masa and a head full of imaginary mariachi music. The end of the world: lick it, slam it, suck it!

One of the major problems I’ve been dealing with lately has frequently seemed to me to come down either to living in parallel universes that briefly touch or to the tracks of time looping too closely together. When I hear people asking for conflicting things and then repeatedly coming back to the same problem they keep blaming me for (it’s always “Why are things taking so long? Why can’t we release this sooner? Why do we want to make such a strong containment field for a second level mind rotting mold – can’t we just spray the inside of a jam jar with Lysol and call that good?” followed by “Why didn’t you test that? Don’t you always try all four thousand arcane summoning languages when you’re verifying the address validation fields?”), I am not sure if I’m reliving the month of July all over again (same on the inside, gloomy office building, but the outside now features less sun) or if in one universe eveyrone wants something fast, and in the other universe everyone wants things done right, and I’m the one that keeps getting shifted between the two. The alternate is that people want two things that are in conflict and that they’ve never read the really basic stuff about how you can have TIME COST or QUALITY but not all three fixed. IT’S A TRIANGLE PEOPLE AND THE GLOP HAS GOT TO MOVE SOMEWHERE.

So I’m in a world where the glop stops here, on my lap, and I can’t figure what the fuck to do about it because, try as I might, I can’t get locked into one of the universes that is run by sane people and every day when I open the door and walk in I have no idea if it’s going to be normal boss or the one with three heads breathing fire, nerve gas, and electriity (and on the good days I think they eyes might be seeing eldritch beings floating behind me, only they’re actually imaginary as opposed to the real ones I get in Flaming Boss Universe). I have all of the insanity to deal with and it doesn’t want to go away. No wonder I keep having group outings to buy bacon sandwiches: each bite is proof of a better universe existing somewhere, if only in my mouth.

All seemed to be truly lost when I did some simple arithmetic and proved that, basically, now that my left hand man had been sacrificed to Mammon, it was going to be impossible to ever reduce the heaving mass of evil down to something that wouldn’t randomly wipe out the grain harvests of entire nations every time we did an upgrade. My thought was to lock myself into a titanium lined garbage can with a few hundred Jane Plan meals and keep the lid down tight until the Christmas season was over. By that time I figure the universe would have reorganized itself so many times that I might actually emerge into one of the more positive world, possibly one of the ones where people believe in refactoring code AND good bagels are readily available. Or, you know, I could walk into the world in which the government has decided to trade away all workers’ rights legislation in exchange for a handful of magic beans.

And then … it seemed that the god Mammon did speak to me. For lo, the following things did occur:
1. In a bloody duel to the death between lesser mage one (fire breathing) and lesser mage two (Wondertwin Powers Activate!), I used Elixir of Elderflower Tea to placate the second, and was given an audience with Ultimate Lord of Darkness but mis-sold it as a chance to trial run a presentation I was hoping to give to a test conference in two months time. I quickly donned my runic robes, grabbed a +2 magic harp … and darned if the magic harp wasn’t into bebop, JUST LIKE U.L.D.

2. U.L.D. saw that the “if I only had a brain” joke slide was actually a desperate plea for investment in test automation … DISGUISED AS a free improv on “Night in Tunisia.” The room full of big execs was sitting there, nodding their heads, the smoke coming out of the censers waving in harmony … and as I walked out of the room I had two wristbands of artifice placed on me, like Wonder Woman getting her Amazonian birthright restored. The U.L.D. was pleased. Woohoo! And as they say, that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee, if you can time travel to 1985.

3. The next week I went into a meeting (it’s called “resourcing” but it’s really “putting you off until you give up”), received some electrified darts of disaster from the organizer … which bounced off of my wristbands and embedded themselves into one of my tailing invisible horrors (never know which days those have decided to manifest themselves). The tagged horror followed me back to my desk and stood there, moaning piteously, until I removed the dart. But this gave me an idea. I gathered up all of the spent darts from the previous month’s meetings (it wasn’t difficult to figure out where they were based on the moaning level), then waited until the person who ran said meeting went on vacation the next week. Then 4. I represented my idea, lightly enchanted with an accompanying plate of chocolate chip cookies … and flicked darts into everyone there. My piece de resistance: telling everyone my project would SAVE THE COMPANY MONEY.

By the end of the week, when I tugged the little strings attached to the darts, everyone was nodding their heads like Pinocchio at the puppet show, or the press corps in Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. My project was approved, everyone agreed it was necessary, and with a little bit of magic with colored markers, it had been squeezed onto the schedule for the end of the year. Who would think that when I thought I needed a major alteration to people’s pictures of reality, that all I needed to do was to appeal to greed in order to become the great puppet master? I’ve still got a huge stock of the Jane Plan meals to get me through Christmas, but hey: they’re saving me money, and maybe even helping me slim down. Or they would be if I could keep away from the bacon sandwiches. But life’s too short to make certain sacrifices, especially when it’s your team that starts buying them for you.

Somewhere in a parallel universe to mine someone is dreaming of a dusty plain. I look out from mine and see the dead on the ground, victims of too much infighting. When faced with an enemy, we turned on each other. I am left standing with my few trusted team members: I’ve somehow managed to not buy into the “point fingers at who I’m willing to have exterminated in order to protect myself” management mantra, and my worthy sergeants and foot soldiers are still standing. But I can feel them drifting away … not abandoning me, just trying to find safer places to hide.

Then from a distance a column of dust rises into the air. As it gets closer, I realize what is approaching me is the most feared mobile metal object of all times: a clown car. Contained within the Herbie the Wonderbug exterior is a carnival of horrors: twenty four developers in Juggalo clown paint.

The car pulls up in front of me. The door opens. I am dragged inside, kicking and screaming, into the swirling madness of the clown programmers.

They want one thing and one thing only. They want me to test their code. Because, you see, you CAN test quality in if you shove hard enough.

It’s another scary day at Lovecraft Software. The chief necromancer was listening to a groveling status report from a bunch of his lesser flunkies describing the architecture of our billing database. As near as I could tell, when some of the more obscure settlement features were ran, the entire thing would freeze up. This had been managed by the creation of a sanity-stealing demon horde emitting from the computer terminal if anyone happened to check to see if the batch job was running. The necromancer roared, “How dare you deliberately misarchitect this!” Of course, my problem was that I hadn’t noticed it was happening (I was fortunately always out to lunch when the key process crapped out), but for once the blame was being placed on the people who had made it work wrong in the first place and I was feeling the schadenfreude all the way to the bottom of my shoes.

Comically enough, the NEW way of handling it is that they’ve built in a class three imp that is released with a paralysis dart they use to stab the person sitting in front of the monitor. The freeze still happens, but the user recovers (an hour or two later) and is able to continue making sure that all of the various magical things that accounting departments do can take place. Given their reputation for unresponsiveness, this is considered to be a change that will be invisible to our end users.

The cause of the chief necromancer’s rate was NOT the deliberate misarchitecture: it’s that, when the accounting departments of our clients slowly went, one by one, batshit mental, we weren’t getting our money from them. Now, well, our software won’t work any better, but we’ll still get paid.

And I think at times that we’re not making any progress at improving our software.

There are things you don’t want to see and sometimes it’s not from the code or the customers. It’s from the management. And a particular kind of horror comes from HR. No, I’m not talking about getting leave sorted or changing your insurance policy. I’m talking about the kind of cold, black, wet horror that happens when you walk by their computers and they shut them down quickly and are too much in a hurry to talk about margaritas. HR does not want margaritas? The world is coming to an end.

What’s worse is when you see a meeting with all of the Cs (the TO and the EO and the FO) and HR is in there, too. Finance and HR and the big hitters in one room talking with serious looks on their faces only means one thing in my book. And it’s not hard to figure out what that one thing is when your burn rate isn’t just above your income but above your banking. Those little lines crossing have to be brought back down to reality because the bills have to be met or it’s all going bye bye.

Thing is, we’re in an unusual situation here. Our stakeholders aren’t just VCs and the boss’s old friends. In the darkness from which some of our company updates have been held, I think I’ve seen faces with more than the usual numbers of joints in the jaws. And occasionally gills. In fact, I know that the fourth bathroom downstairs has some special suits in it for those occasions in which the very atmosphere of the room has to be changed to accommodate beings from other dimensions. There’s even a special (dark grey) suit with electrified silver mail in it that deflects those crazy serrated teeth the third round investors have in case the sandwiches are late in arriving. You’ve really got to be impressed by the sang froid of the guys in sales to do presentations wearing them, I’ll give them that.

But if I’m reading things correctly, we’re not just looking to deal with balancing the books by reducing our cash outflow. See, some of our investors want a little bit more. They want to feel our pain. They want us to bleed. And then they want to drink it.

I’m glad at least we’re not dealing with creatures who want virgin sacrifices, because even though developers have a certain reputation, I don’t think we can satisfy that requirement. But there’s no way getting around the fact that when some people go into the little room with Frank, Jane, The Big Kahuna, and the creature with a blur instead of a face, they’re not only not coming back in the building, they’re never going to make it home.

To top it off, housekeeping is going to totally hate us, and this means something really, really bad: no toilet paper in the ground floor toilets. It’s passive aggressive but I suppose they need to convey their displeasure somehow.

The printer in the special room is grinding out overtime this morning; all signs say it’s time to take a three hour long lunch, and possibly invest in a pair of earplugs for when the screaming starts. I might as well pick up some pocket tissues while I’m out; I’m not going to be caught up short again.

Things have been confusing at work lately. Clearly, my team isn’t hitting quite the right sweet spot with our testing. Maybe we focus too much on the GUI and not enough on “client installed software and entire customer service team fell face first on their keyboards, then sat up speaking Babylonian.” (The Dev team said they could wait for an upgrade. At worst I had someone turn into a half-elf, but they said the pointy ears were worth tolerating due to the increase in charisma points. When I asked the PM to clarify, she decided it was a “feature” and okay to ship since no one ever reads the release notes anyway.)

We don’t know how these things happen; you go in with a clearly defined game plan, then suddenly the goal posts are moved and you’re having to explain that running the exact same set of tests that failed to yield any useful bugs against an earlier release isn’t actually likely to yield any useful information. But I’m beginning to wonder if something critical is changing underneath: if the burden of so many patches, hacks, and sub-standard coding choices is actually warping the fabric of reality. It may just be our reality, but I’m afraid it might be catching. I’ve heard my chief troublemaker say on more than one occasion that we’re just going through the same crap as we always have: but last week a lead programmer said we’re now repeating the same mistakes faster and faster. Then an order came on high that directly countermanded an anti-chaos order from merely a month ago. So now I think that we’ve gotten into a loop of such complex mathematical construction that we’ve succeeded in making not just a loop, but an environment in which two realities are existing simultaneously: one in which we are getting marginally better, and one in which things continue to get worse. Unfortunately I’m not sure the people I’m dealing with are in the same reality as I am: but I’ve got the shell script that’ll flip me into a halfling thief if the shit really hits the fan and I discover we’ve been laboring in Mordor all this time.  I’m also doing self-study Babylonian. If nothing else, I hear a certain company has openings in the customer service department.

So I sat down for a meeting with my boss, to discuss my goals for the year. I had the printout right in front of me. Improve reporting, increase test automation, get team certification in building wards out of twigs and hair, the usual kind of stuff.

And he began to talk about some problems from last week, the kind of problems that happen every week. Gnomes overrunning defensive barriers. Clients allowed to switch using currencies without proper authorization. Not enough silver bullets for the enchanted handguns.

And then suddenly our time was over. I walked out in a daze. Were my goals good or bad? Were we talking battle strategy or dissecting the troop movement of an individual campaign? And did I hear something about the One Ring muttered in there?

I picked up the piece of paper and looked at it. There were lines through a few things and the word LOUP GAROUX scribbled where I had previously written “root cause analysis.” I didn’t remember any sort of conversation about any of the things on the sheet of paper. What had just happened to me?

Then I stepped on a hair covered twig. Dammit, I had just been hexed! And by my own boss! How am I ever going to work on long term plans when this happens every time! I don’t even think he knows he’s exerting this power and yet it works – you can soak up magic ambiently, especially the destructive kind.

I stuffed the broken twig and the hair in my pocket. Thank God I’d had the foresight to give a strand to my second in command last week. Looks like the ward certification self-study program is working after all.

I saw an unusual form of magic yesterday. I’m convinced we’re using entirely new routes to connect to the alternate, hostile consciousnesses that surround our universe.

There’d been a flurry of emails going back and forth. “Let’s do this Unnamed Thing, we need the Unnamed Thing, we must immediately have the Unnamed Thing.” They refused to name the Thing and they wanted me to agree to it immediately. My greater minion said, “Nay!” until I could return and say, “Twice nay!” and yet the emails continued to fly as if we had not responded.

Then, as I sat at my desk, three people came marching toward me, after the point when I normally should have left for the day. I felt like Princess Leia hiding in her cell when Grand Moff Tarkin, Vader, and the little floatie robot came toward her. I was summarily hauled off and dropped into a meeting room.

Suddenly the red haired guy with the manic expression started re-expressing the content of all of the emails on a white board. He swooped the dry erase marker UP and he swooped it DOWN and he added little numbers … and suddenly I was saying, yes, yes, The Unnamed Thing, we shall have the Unnamed thing (even though I did try to get the project manager to name the unnamed thing, which she cleverly avoided doing).

As I walked out of the room in a daze, I realize I’d been hit by a more powerful spell than I’d had the ability to stand against. Some combination of the mystic figures and the powerful glamour visible in the glinting eyes of the man wielding the marker had worked together to break down my will.

I do believe I was hexed. I just hadn’t realized you could use a white board as part of this kind of spell before. Damn! Where’s a wookie when you need him?

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