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David's diary: February 2005

Still here, just been having a busy and reasonably absorbing day. Got the improved boolean searching going on a few more of our portals, bringing the total for which it is implemented up to about a third, and most of the ones deemed to be particularly popular. Boolean searching really was a disaster previously, mainly due to it - despite being the number one issue customers raised - being something no-one wanted to touch with a bargepole. But I've written some useful support functions that makes it pretty painless for most portals, so it's really not the headache it would have been previously.

Anyway, almost time to go home, though we're not going to have tea until later due to needing to pop out again almost immediately - reasons for which will become clear in due course - though I've bought doughnuts to keep us going!

It's time for my daily weep...

As you know, I've been slaving away converting portals to work with the new boolean stuff I'd been mainly working on since Christmas. All was going fairly swimmingly, with even Reed's Freecruitment service made vaguely useful now. But then I tried a complex boolean expression, and an unfamiliar error message popped up in our application. I looked up its source, and guess what - it originated from some code one of our Slovaks came over here to write last year. But not only that - it was code to do exactly what I've been working on lately. And no-one knew, let alone told me. It would be hilarious but for the fact that he's gone on to reference his code in all the stuff he's been doing, and knowing his style it's going to be impossible to replace. And of course our two syntaxes clash in some subtle but significant ways, hence the error message that alerted me to the problem in the first place. Oh joy, oh joy, oh joy.

No prizes for guessing who will have to sort this out, I suspect. The whole point of my current work is to make boolean consistent and effective across all the portals, and now there's an even bigger obstacle. The management are going to really love this one, I know. Those leaving well may have the right idea.

Definitely no prizes. Yes, I have indeed got to sort it out myself. Waaaaah!

Good to be able to take my mind off such things for the evening, though, going out for a curry with Kit, George and of course Katy. Banquet night at the Gurkha Raj Doot in Aldershot, and jolly decent it was too - though we will know for future reference that when they say "hot", they really do mean it there! We even got complimentary poppadoms, by virtue of Kit and George bringing in new customers. Back to the grind this morning though, and currently trying to work my way around JobsGroup's even-more-insane-than-ours boolean logic, in a vain attempt to put off surgically removing Slovak boolean code elsewhere...

Stuck. No working login for Monster, JobServe needs rewriting, and JobsGroup and CVPoster have boolean schemes so limited there's stuff all I can do. And I've had another look at the Slovak boolean code I've been asked to remove, and had to stop before I physically screamed and/or requested a tactical nuclear strike on Bratislava. So I really don't know what to do now. We have no technical leadership here worth speaking about any more, and no expertise to go further. I really would love to be programming, rather than writing twaddle here, but am left with no choice. Perhaps screaming or nuking Bratislava may be alternatives after all. At least I'd feel a little better for doing so...

I can overhear discussions. A few weeks ago it was declared that we would stop "future selling", that is, making major deals on the basis of functionality not yet in the software. We would instead essentially have a feature freeze and concentrate on what we've physically got right now, the idea being that we can deliver on that functionality instantly, invoice customers quickly and so begin to offset our massive operating losses. Except of course the discussion I'm overhearing relates to a future selling deal, that I have already been advised I'm probably going to have to be the programmer for, and our yes-man's on top form. Why this U-turn? Eight hundred potential users, you see! Well, sort of; I believe they only actually want six concurrent licences... Money talks, even if we have less hope of delivering this particular future than probably just about anything else rashly promised to date - and we will waste weeks of programmer time before the inevitable is realised. I would leave if I could.

Now things have gone just plain surreal.

Got an hour and a quarter to survive in this hell-pit for today. I eventually decided to work on the CVPoster portal, remembering we can embed SQL in the search terms rather than be limited by the dreadful public interface, and after a lot of work - including bug-fixing the job board itself - it generally seems to be working rather well. In fact, better than the official web version...

Shame it's looking increasingly unlikely we'll be around very much longer now.

Company's still around this morning, even if it won't have some of its most important staff much longer, so we can't really be too hopeful of survival. Keeping my head down and toeing the line, though only because I don't want to jeopardise our chances of getting a better mortgage. Once again I find myself reasonably enthused with what I am doing - well, apart from the lurking spectre of de-Slovakianising code, a task which I am putting off as long as possible - but really questioning if there's any point given our distinct lack of future. One day I might find a job where I can do interesting work for a company that's going elsewhere than down the pan. In the meantime, this will have to do.

Still here this afternoon too, though general consensus is that our days are very numbered indeed. Currently working on the JobServe portal, one of the few that we develop with the cooperation of the relevant job board, though it's a bit of a waste of time because we're supposed to be getting a special search interface next week that should simplify things somewhat and certainly prompt another full overhaul. Think I'll just about last out this afternoon, though I feel like I'm going down with something typically yucky, so drinking plenty of water - some of it Vitamin C enhanced - and sucking throat sweets as I go. Got a fairly busy weekend coming up, so would be nice to feel reasonable for it!

Oh, I did predict that this weekend was likely to be fairly busy didn't I, and I guess it was - but more tiring and eventful than busy as such, really.

Saturday was the most hectic day, with a friend Katy met on holiday a couple of years ago popping over for the morning, and our friend Malachi's first birthday party in the late afternoon - first time I've been to a first birthday party except for possibly my own and I really cannot quite remember whether I even had one... Though the main event on Saturday - to let the cat out of the bag somewhat - is that we have put our house on the market. We've been eyeing up a nice semi a quarter of a mile away, which we'd really like, and although it's perhaps a bit of a long shot to think that it might still be available when we are in the position to make a credible offer, nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that. So when our preferred estate agent called round in the afternoon to do a valuation - which we were pleasantly surprised at - we decided we'd go for it, and he's popping in sometime today to do measurements, photos etc, so the house should be being advertised from about Wednesday onwards. Exciting!

Sunday was a quieter day, with the main "event" being going round to Katy's mum and dad's for lunch and a short walk, and to show them how to transfer photos to their computer from our old digital camera we've given them. Just as well it was a quieter day because Saturday night turned out to be pretty sleepless, and we have to say that given Saturday afternoon's momentous decision has left us more than a little confused for various reasons. We'd just about got to sleep when we were woken by a car horn beeping outside, initially thinking it was just a bit of - thankfully fairly infrequent - antisocial behaviour. But then there were shouts of "there's a fire!" and there were flames leaping from the front door of the end-terrace house across the road from us. Its occupants were eventually woken and got out of the house pretty sharpish, but our concern was for their neighbours, so we slipped on our dressing gowns and hammered on their front door and shouted through their letterbox until they got the message and came and joined us for a late-night cuppa. As it was, the fire didn't seem to be too serious, but in high density housing like that anything could have happened, so they were very grateful for their impromptu wake-up call. But it was still serious enough to have involved two fire engines, an ambulance and several police cars, and indeed there was a police presence for the rest of the night, as the property was secured and so on. As we left for church on Sunday morning, we were accosted by a lady detective who wanted to take a statement from us about what we'd observed, and she confirmed what we had suspected from the police's reaction, that the blaze was being treated as arson. We'd have to be quite honest and say the household affected is one we somewhat intentionally avoid having a great deal to do with, but no-one deserves that, do they?

As for today... Less said the better, I think. Worst suspicions confirmed.

Hmm, yes. For the last week, Richard and Rob have both mainly been off sick, and we've been suffering from the resulting temporary lack of direction. Not to say that things are perfect when they're here, but definitely much better. But Richard quit on Friday and Rob was made redundant this morning, so that temporary lack has just become permanent. I agree we needed to run a tighter ship, but the economies made will almost certainly turn out to be false ones.

Went shopping with Josh at lunchtime, so I have curry to eat tonight while I await Katy's return from Dublin - where she's running a training session today - and we have nice treats for when she gets back in. And some wine, but that's probably for another day. Though I wouldn't count on it, having said that...

So this strange day has, mercifully, almost come to a close. It feels empty here, but that's simply the way it's going to be now, though we do have someone starting tomorrow who's not at all going to be replacing Rob. Oh, and tonight there is apparently going to be a bit of a physical reshuffle in the office, so I'm going to put a homing beacon on my PC before I leave this evening. Amusing episode of the day was getting a report that one of our customers was having problems with the webserver version of our software. I eventually got round to looking into it - saying something is mega ultra urgent doesn't necessarily get it to the top of my to-do list - and guess what, the customer facing server had no web access at all. So, I wonder how many customers are actually using our software, given that the phone lines surely should have been burning hot... Oh, and why didn't our network monitor spot the problem? Because it's broken. In fact, we have no idea how long the customer server has been out of action! Welcome to the world of cutting edge internet solutions, run on rusting crocks.

Things just went even more surreal at work today. Sorry, cannot elaborate yet.

I may not be allowed to talk about that, but I am allowed to talk about how I have the best wife I could have possibly hoped for, aren't I? Who else would have interpreted Shrove Tuesday as an opportunity for crispy duck pancakes?

I did think she was being a bit weird when she said there was a sail-board in the front garden, seeing as we're several miles from the nearest lake here, and I had visions of freak waterspouts and so on. Then realised what she meant...

Strange day at work, and came home feeling really quite unwell. It really does look more questionable than ever whether we will still be around in a month's time or whatever. The whole atmosphere is one of shock at just how many people have left over the last couple of months - for whatever reason - and of damage limitation in general. And we have more Slovaks than Brits in the office now. So much for the company that was planning to be 200-strong by the end of the year; it's not much more than a graveyard, and a barely English-speaking one at that. Seeing Mary being lowered to selling our software was most distressing of all, though. It's time to call it a day and switch off the life-support.

But if you'd just like to wait until we've got a new mortgage agreed before doing so, that'd be mightily handy...

I'm supposed to be "buddy programming" today with one of the Slovak grunts. He seems more engrossed in on-line chatting, so I'll just let him get on with it. Pretty quiet day, all told, just been busying myself wasting time converting all the portals from the main client to the browser version. Again. One of my tasks that keeps getting de-prioritised is to do what is necessary to make this process smoother or even make the two versions compatible. One day, perhaps...

I could just imagine Microsoft getting a letter like this:

Dear Microsoft

We think your Windows XP operating system is great. However, as we discussed yesterday, until it is able to carry out file operations requested by thought power, although we will continue to use it every day, we will not pay a penny. Upon delivery of the thought power features, we will pay ten percent of the standard price, for five users.

Regards

A. Customer

Actually, I couldn't. But it's the business model we operate on here!

The events of the small hours of last Sunday morning were the lead story in the Farnham Herald Katy bought yesterday. We'd fully anticipated the accompanying photograph of course, the standard local paper affair of grumpy looking family. I can only think it is a photographic technique taught solely to local paper reporters given that the style never appears anywhere else. Seemed rather odd though, given the suspicion that the fire was not only deliberate but targeted, that the paper went on to say exactly where the family was temporarily living!

Getting very annoyed today. Good thing the working week is almost over and we shouldn't have too mad a weekend. It would help if the Slovaks that have been shipped in had a combination of less self-importance and more of a clue of what they were here for. As it is, I get given a new poorly-conceived task every few nanoseconds while those not speaking English are able to chat online with impunity. If they want to drive me out, they're doing a bloody good job. And to cap it all, they moved my desk last night. Only about a foot, but enough to subtly drive me into a corner. It was Josh who worked out what had happened. The Slovaks looked surprised when I heavy-handedly rectified the situation.

Three times now I have had to request that our Slovak graphic designer (one of the only Slovaks still over there) stops sending me graphics for our software. I am trying to vain to convince him that it is more important to get the core software working properly than to worry about superficial gloss, and that we really don't yet know what exact framework his designs will be fitting into. But no, he sends me more, and wants my comments. Sadly they cannot, under the circumstances, be anything more than "ooh, shiny!" I am not hopeful of his realising, and I think he's under instructions to be doing this work, no matter how pointless, but then our project management isn't even stuck in the U-bend now, it's way out in the English Channel... This all reminds me of when I was twelve or thirteen and had my first computer and would - like many teenage boys at the time - spend hours "designing games" with nothing more than a pad of graph paper to draw pixellated space invaders. Strangely enough - and without particularly wishing to sound smug about it - having been through computer studies and computer science A-level at school, a computer engineering degree and worked in application programming for almost ten years, I now appreciate that in the real, productive, world there are slightly different priorities!

Katy just phoned. But not on my mobile. I don't have a phone on my desk, so I had to take the call at Fraser's desk instead. So I lack a phone and Fraser lacks a desk. They really are cutting back on the essentials, aren't they?!

Oh, just to be perfectly clear - since I couple of people have queried - I'm not particularly complaining about the lack of a phone on my desk. No phone means no stupid phone calls from customers or conversations across the office that could easily have been done without the need to exercise electrons. The odd phone call from Katy really doesn't justify a change to that arrangement! Though it surely does show a certain amount of contempt for us developers.

Nice, mainly relaxed, weekend. No fires, no offering neighbours cups of tea in the small hours of the morning - and a fair bit of sleep too. Yes, we did have our nephew Daniel's fourth birthday party to go to on Saturday, which was - as one might expect - a little on the crazy side, and we at least got to play pass the parcel, which we somehow missed at Emily's party the other day. And we did go round to Geg and Michael's house for lunch with a few others, which was fun but not at all stressful. But apart from that and our usual weekend activities, that was about it, and believe you me it was what we needed. Just a shame we had to go to work this morning, but not really a lot of choice there alas...

Oh, we had two lots of people viewing our house on Saturday morning. No idea yet if anything has come of it, because we took up the agent's suggestion that they did the viewings themselves especially since our house is about as close to first-time buyer territory as you could really hope to find locally, and it puts everyone at ease if there's a relatively neutral "host". So we headed off and had a coffee and a good fry-up in town, leaving the coast well clear! I'm sure they will get back to us soon enough if there is anything to report, of course, but it's encouraging to get two viewings in the first weekend on the market, given that some friends of ours have only had one viewing in months...

As for today, well it's St Valentine's Day, isn't it? No, Katy and I are not doing anything particularly special, though I plan to pop out and get something nice for tea. Two years ago tomorrow we first met up for real, a meeting we intentionally avoided having a day earlier, and exactly a year ago we were just starting our marriage preparation course, in my case enjoying coffee and cake with Michael at the local garden centre - how thoroughly romantic! Katy and I love each other and appreciate each other more with every passing day, and we certainly aren't going to knock St Valentine's Day, but it's simply something we don't specifically mark, having far more significant things to think about!

Hmm, we have the grand total of eight customer accounts set up on the webserver version of my software. I know darned well that only one or two of them are being actively used, because only one or two of them noticed when they were knackered last week due to firewall issues. Finally today I have received a request to terminate two of the accounts known to be no longer required. Means I will have to write a procedure for how to do that, I guess... Rather a shame that will leave us with about twice as many demo accounts as customer ones, and probably about six times as many actually being used, let alone paid for.

Trying so hard to be positive, but circumstances make it incredibly difficult!

Just about kept my temper so far today. Wasn't impressed when I was explaining to a new colleague in perfectly objective and positive terms the history of our software and why certain decisions had been made, and our (hopefully temporary) Slovak project manager, who knows next to nothing about the project, butted in and contradicted almost everything I said. I am worried that I may be branded a troublemaker, which only really serves to heighten the urgency that I get out of here before I do something I really regret. But I kept my cool more or less - well, I didn't inflict physical violence anyway. This time, this time...

Last night's meal went down very nicely, needless to say. I'd pondered cooking from raw ingredients, but succumbed to the yummy Cantonese "take-away for two" in Sainsburys, including duck in plum sauce and chicken with cashew nuts, with various side dishes, followed by strawberry cheesecake for dessert. So just a nice quiet evening in with splendid food - for what more could Katy and I ask?

I really don't wish to talk, so am not going to.

Happier today, for a couple of main reasons. In our meeting yesterday evening our Slovak contractor project manager finally got the message about important things I was working on previously that keep getting pushed aside for relative trivia, and I have now been tasked with quite a major overhaul - little though he probably quite realises it, so I really need a "do not disturb, on pain of death" notice to hang in my productivity pod. Should keep me busy until I go in mid March, anyway - oh, that was the other main thing making me happy today!

You know when you thoroughly tidy a room, and there is a stage for at least a couple of hours after you start, during which it looks even worse than when you started? It's exactly the same when spring-cleaning software source code. Yay for 698 compilation errors! So far my requests not to be disturbed have been mainly heeded, though I don't hold out much more hope given how few competent people there are here now, and how many problems there are with the software.

Anyway, my notice is now handed in. Gary's reaction was civil but forthright; I think they now realise just how stuffed they are, and that even an infinite number of Slovaks with an infinite number of Java compilers are going to find it incredibly difficult to save the day. But we are determined that we should part ways on amicable terms, so I am sure we can come to happy arrangements on some of the finer details of my leaving, such as use of outstanding leave etc.

Stop press, I'm leaving work today! I had the choice of working out a calendar month's notice, with no holiday to take off - we determined I was unexpectedly spot on with my holiday usage - or leaving today and being paid to the end of the month. So just under half the money for twenty times more freedom. Didn't take a lot of thought, though I did of course run it past Katy before agreeing. I will still technically be employed until the end of the month - and may have to field the occasional email query - but realistically I am not likely to walk straight into a new job, so that really shouldn't cause any problems at all.

That means today has just become an order of magnitude more hectic as Fridays go, trying to make a reasonable job of briefing those remaining colleagues on various issues and tidying up my PC of nine months' assorted clobber, but the end is very much in sight now, so under the circumstances I really don't mind!

And now I am back at home, looking forward to tomorrow being one of my first weekdays of freedom for quite a few months! I must admit I do feel like quite a large part of my life has been ripped away, but I cannot honestly say I regret that, and it's nice not to find my mind forever drifting on to how to solve near-impossible problems. Having said that, though, the most important thing for me over the coming days and, if need be, weeks will be to keep my mind active, and there are plenty of things I can be getting on with in that regard. Hopefully I can find paid work again quickly, but I'm not going to get bored!

So, it's Tuesday, and my second day of relative leisure. Not that I put my feet up yesterday by any means - I mainly spent it getting up to date with stuff for Gareth's sites - but it was nice not to be stressed by things beyond my control. This morning I braved the occasional snow flurries and wandered into town for a coffee, a sandwich and a quick browse of the charity shops while our cleaner was doing her stuff, and this afternoon I intend to spend rebuilding a friend's computer after suffering one spyware infection too many!

Had to laugh at least a little when we went to Sainsburys yesterday evening. They have obviously taken all the Sudan I dye contaminated products off their shelves. But what they have also done is cunningly erased all record of them from their computer systems, so that when customers bring back products for refunds - as they are encouraging - they haven't a clue how much to pay up, and have to make up a figure that the customer will hopefully accept. Of course, the last laugh may have been on us, but we're pretty sure £1.50 was a fair price to pay (or rather be refunded) for a pot of chilli-con-carcinogen sauce.

Currently in the midst of rebuilding that machine mentioned earlier. Like all too much that I do, it's taking somewhat longer than expected, but I am confident it will be pretty good once I've finished. Annoying though that most of the time now is being taken with updating Internet Explorer's security flaws, which still needs to be done even though I will be setting Firefox to be the default browser - and the latter just works with no serious problems off a single five megabyte installer... Getting there now though, and I just need to hope and pray it can be maintained better - most of all, avoiding children (ab)using it - from now on! Also planning on updating my CV and submitting it to a couple more job boards - one advantage of my old job being that I now know which are worth bothering with - and of course seeing if there's anything out there worth applying for...

Back using our own computer again now, and much more comfortable... I think the other one is as done as I can get it for the moment - probably a few more tweaks will be necessary when we deliver it, but it will almost certainly do for now. Sorted out a few things already this morning, not least adding Katy to my AA breakdown cover since her over-priced policy is up for renewal - bit annoying they wouldn't do her a part-year discount, but even so, it works out much better than her existing deal! Been out to post a couple of cards, and it's pretty nasty out even if the snow's not quite settling, so I think I will batten the hatches at least until this evening when we've got a cell social.

Still just snowing; hasn't really let up all day though it's still not remotely settling. Quite glad to be able to put the heater on and just get on with things indoors. Since last writing I have updated my CV, not that there were a lot of changes to make since October in fairness; that's just how much we'd been treading water at work I guess! I have re-submitted it to Total Jobs and Jobserve, and have now also submitted it to Jobsite and Monster, which Louisa had recommended as sites that had come up trumps for her after she resigned. Nothing leapt out at me as worth applying for right away, but I reviewed or set up new email alerts on all four sites, so I should new stuff daily now, as well as hopefully some direct interest from recruiters, given Louisa's experience.

Slightly "moochy" last couple of days. Katy's still on a four-day week - to be renegotiated at Easter - so we toddled into Farnborough yesterday to do a bit of mainly window-shopping, grab a bite to eat and get Katy's hair cut. Today we've been terribly married-couply and been to the Badshot Lea garden centre, though we didn't buy anything apart from coffees and cakes, but we did stop to look at the bunny-wabbits and nemo-fish, thinking perhaps in a couple of years' time we might be able to do that and not look a little bit out of place...

I've just fired off an application for a job in Fleet, and replied in a largely non-committal way to another emailed job opportunity I must say I was at least half expecting, but nothing too astonishing is coming up so far. Several people - including one recruiter I spoke with - have now recommended Monster and Jobsite as the best, and so far I would tend to agree. Monster seems to have generated the most direct interest from recruiters, whilst Jobsite has so far come up with the most promising vacancies on their daily emails. But I still get the feeling that - even if it's not the guy who emailed me earlier - it may well be that my next paid work comes via a slightly less formal route.

I'm finding myself in quite a strange place at the moment. I picked up about twenty email messages a short while ago. About fifteen of them were of course spam, mailing list stuff, and digests of the myriad job opportunities that get posted on the average Sunday. But about five of them were properly solicited. And I was scared to open over half of them... I braced myself, read them, and of course had nothing remotely to worry about. I really hate myself sometimes. Whether it's an allergy to reality or quite what, I don't know, but it really does call into question whether I could ever really be happy and comfortable outside the immediate world I know and trust. The sand gets in my eyes though.

I'm stepping up my psychoanalysis of recruiters, though - which started when I was last seriously looking for work a year ago, and continued to a small extent in my recent work due to the nature of our clients. I've noticed almost all who have left phone messages for me have graduated at the South West Trains School of Incomprehensible Mumbling, with about their only intelligible words being their first name and their phone number. I assume that this is so that candidates don't initially realise that the recruiter is actually looking for shelf-stackers on behalf of Asda rather than Java developers, and phone them back and get drawn into the sales pitch. However to me it simply says "poor telephone manner, probably just as poor at placing people appropriately". Next!

And the next was a nice recruiter from London by the name of Emma. Turned out the job she had to offer wasn't really my bag - too much support, probably, and I doubt I have the requisite initial skill-set - but she was the exact opposite of most recruiters I have ever spoken with. Someone who actually understands the importance of building worthwhile relationships with clients and candidates rather than simply chasing the fast buck. Nice to know there are a few, anyway.

Just enjoyed a nice afternoon out with Katy. She had a doctor's appointment with regard to how best to come off some medication she's been on for a while, but afterwards we went for a good healthy walk round the park, stopped for a coffee and a bacon/sausage roll and popped into the supermarket for a few odds and ends, getting back to the hospital car park just as it started snowing yet again. Simple pleasures, I know, but we both had a lot to talk about one way or another, and such opportunities don't tend to present themselves every day!

Oh, and it's now almost exactly ten minutes until I am officially out of work.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Unemployed!

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