The Garbage Man Stan Complex

(3 minute read) – The Garbage Man Stan complex is that moment when you’ve crossed the point of no return and failure is imminent. You have to be aware of your own limits and make the right decisions to avoid getting trapped into that situation.

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There are times when you have to disconnect mentally just to handle all the things in front of you to keep them from blowing up. Eventually this becomes a game that you will inevitably lose. I call this the Garbage Man Stan Complex.

Garbage Man Stan?
I’ve participated in a handful of game jams (i.e. developing a game from scratch over a small set of hours) in my past. I don’t get too as often since career, family and side projects dominate my life now. But, every once in a while, I make a concerted effort to join a community of indie developers and create something tangible, maybe even presentable, within an impossible timeframe. The sense of accomplishment of turning something in within time is rewarding enough considering my side projects take years to complete. For more reasons why, Martijn says it best in his post, The Many Benefits of Speedhacking.

There’s one game that I made during TINS 2007 (yes, an exact decade ago) that I’m particularly proud of. It was called, you guessed it, Garbage Man Stan. Marvel at its next gen level graphics:

gms

The randomly generated rules (it’s a game development competition…are you surprised?) called for a theme about garbage, using current news events and utilizing smoke and flame effects. I started with the following synopsis:

The player, playing the part of Garbage Man Stan, will maximize their revenue by incinerating a steadily increasing flow of delivered garbage for as long as possible until one burner inevitably overflows thus ending the game.

The most exciting game ever, right? That is quite literally THE game. Everything else I did beyond that point was to add a factor of fun or make it more of a novelty. The trucks bounced like they came straight out of a 1930’s cartoon classic. Side note, who’s playing Cuphead right now? Anyway, proud to say I placed in the top three in Technical, Genre and Artistical in a group of 20-ish people with this game.

The Complex
Getting back to the day-to-day, it often feels like stuff is being dumped on my plate faster and faster and it is up to me to address it before it overflows and I lose the game, so to speak. I am not talking just work or life, but everything, the “a billion and one things” conundrum. I’m sure most can relate. I know my strengths and I am better at depth than breadth. I prefer to focus in, consume all the data and think deeply about what something means and what should be done about it. I am also happier when this is what I get to do. Nonetheless, life for me currently is more about how well I can package up chaos and make it look beautiful. It’s taken a while to adapt to this, but discovering I can do this, and do it well, has been very rewarding in itself.

The Garbage Man Stan complex is that moment when you’ve crossed the point of no return and failure is imminent. You have to be aware of your own limits and make the right decisions to avoid getting trapped into that situation. Failure to do so can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, mistakes and/or poor project outcomes. Not to mention the overflow is just that: a negative impact to others’ lives.

While we’re on the theme of games, consider the Sims. A Sim has needs that are constantly depleting at different rates based on the Sim’s personality. This is true of work too, but at a more abstract level. How long have you sat on that email? How long have you been ignoring that co-worker? How long have you let a bug live in production? Even though you’re hitting the highest priority items as fast as you can, inaction on another can also cause you to lose the game.

Summary
If you’re in an impossible situation and there’s too much to do, the best you can do is all you can offer. Even if you end up in checkmate, the good thing about life is that it does go on. Expel the feelings of defeat, learn from what went wrong and go on as a better version of yourself. That’s called experience. You’re going to be just fine, but you have to keep going.

Speaking of game competitions, I’m participating in TINS 2017 coming up on October 20th! If you’re a developer, whether you’ve done any game development or not, you should consider joining! The last competition I did was in 2015, so I’m a bit rusty. And my time to “just code” has also taken a significant hit recently. I’m excited to see if I’ve still got it. Follow me on twitter @supersilvey and cheer me on!

9 Deadly Sins Causing Your Software Estimates to Fail

(6 minute read) – Estimating technical projects is difficult. Tech is expensive and complex. I’m guilty of so many mistakes. Learn from me.

“What’s the level of effort?”

The dreaded question.

School taught you how long you could procrastinate before starting an assignment…and then starting just a bit beyond that point. Early on, it’s an innocent enough question. Those with a few wrinkles on their head know the underlying evil associated with The LOE. My team gets a good chuckle when I skim over their technical explanations and then not-so-subtly request, “So…what’s the level of effort?” They see me as a developer no more.

Developers tend to work on projects for a fairly long time. As time passes, passionate, devoted developers become personally invested in projects. They want to see it succeed and do well. Projects are like a relationship and estimates are the first impression. Nothing saps a human being’s spirit more than a volatile project built on a poorly constructed estimate. Let’s look at several common offenses that can doom your project from the start.

1. Rushing
We live in an age where technology is being pumped out. We, the tech industry, have set the precedent of high competitiveness and capability to build quickly. So are we really surprised that our non-tech coworkers have quick turnaround expectations on estimations? Doing an estimate the proper way without commandeering others’ busy schedules takes time. And, typically, tech projects require the largest piece of the pie. So why not slow down and do it the right way?  Rushing makes you miss important details that will haunt you later on.

2. Sloppy or nonexistent requirements
Technology does not infer anything; every logical step is explicitly instructed to execute. The more ambiguous a project is defined, the greater risk the project will miss the target and/or vision.

Sometimes requirements have to be left open to allow creative flexibility during the design phase of the project. If that’s true, tech needs to be re-estimated afterwards or aimed unnecessarily high upfront to compensate for the unknown functionality that has to be implemented. Let’s not mix goals/desires with requirements.

I had a good Dilbert comic strip to share here, but I didn’t want to pay the license fees for it.  Just google “Dilbert Estimate” and get quite a few “I’m laughing because it’s true” moments.

3. Weak assumptions
One would think the contract defines what you are going to do and if not explicitly written, it’s an easy discussion. Wrong. The funny thing about words is people imply so many things from them. Having to explain your estimate didn’t account for something because it was not explicitly written and your stakeholder thought that it was covered is still an unpleasant conversation. Suddenly, your client either feels like they had been deceived or they feel ignorant for not understanding. That’s not the goal! You’re setup for success if they are setup for success. Get into their head and write down explicit assumptions that protects your scope and their integrity.

4. Forgetting Life
Bathroom breaks, vacation, administrative work, emergencies, etc.. Life happens (a common theme of this blog!) and to not figure that into your estimates and timelines puts one or all of your goals at significant risk. Tech is expensive and many forces want to cut down estimates, but neglecting to consider incorporating contingency hours is eventually going to cause the train to go right off the tracks.

5. Shotgun Estimating
Building a large project in haste without proper planning or requirements (see everything above) in the hopes of it sorting itself out during the course of the project has historically not worked well in my experience. Large buckets of money can disappear very quickly when you get deep into highly complex software projects. It’s better to break projects down into more consumable portions and put down wide ranges for the future phases noting that they’ll have to be re-estimated once you get the current phases done. If you’re dealing with a large budget, start breaking it down into milestones as quickly as you can. Continue the estimation phase even if it’s already done.

6. Percentages
Using percentages is a crime. It’s an insult to the people who have very real, day-to-day, time-consuming objectives throughout the course of the project. Every resource should have X amount of hours for each and every task they are planning to do. At the end, you want to compare how close you came in on each task. You gain nothing from a having a resource that’s 15% of some arbitrary number.

7. Going Solo
I have my weaknesses and my strengths, as does each and everyone on my team. The strongest estimate is one that is done divvying up the various tasks to best fit the team’s strengths accordingly. If you are filling in hours for another resource or team, you could be greatly missing the mark. Let them have a say and furthermore, let them take ownership of hitting/missing their hours. If they miss the random hours you put in, it’s really easy for them to put the onus on you.

8.Estimating in Silos
Estimating processes often turn up like Jr. High dances: no one goes across the room to talk to the other side. Stop that. Gathering details of what creative, UX, strategy, marketing, copywriting, etc. are envisioning can only help your team bolster hours to ensure they can meet the expectations. Also, providing feedback to those other disciplines can shed light and make them compromise accordingly to ensure a sound scope.

9.Taking it Personal
Estimates are always negotiations. It amazes me how many people get personally offended when their hours are questioned. There needs to be push and pull for the betterment of you, your team AND your stakeholders. Don’t let this drag you down or threaten your numbers. A reduction of your hours should always come along with stronger, more limiting assumptions and requirements. You need to take this hardline stance to ensure your project’s success.

Summary
I was taken aback a few months ago when I was complimented on how well I do estimates. Quite honestly, it’s hard to feel like this is a skill given how non-scientific it is often approached. Nonetheless, I’ve refined my approach through countless experiences and missteps. I’m guilty of all the “sins” above. I’ve tracked all of this closely and made sure to learn and grow each time. The one thing I know is estimates are often a very, VERY small portion of the overall project and doing them wrong can make long, drawn out projects incredibly taxing. It behooves me to fight the good fight up front no matter how unpleasant any conversation may be. Because a good estimate often leads to a happy team, satisfied stakeholders, a quality project and a reasonable budget that can be done within a reasonable time.  You’ve heard this before.

Priority is Everything

Prioritizing wisely is extremely important for maintaining your sanity.

When the pressure is on, turn to The Mighty List. I did a post a while back about how to maximize balancing an overwhelming amount of things. Prioritizing wisely is extremely important for maintaining your sanity. Some things can just wait…even if they disagree.

And on that note, my originally planned post for August will do just that. After taking PTO like a boss back in June, we decided to look into options for a new house. I had no intentions of moving quickly on this (pun intended), but sometimes moving carefully and methodically lets an opportunity slip by. In the span of a month, we sold our old house and moved into a new one.

I’ve been enjoying reading, researching and writing this blog, more so than I thought I would. I revisit some of the articles and challenge myself: do I really do this or do I simply say I do? Writing it all down forces me to dissect how I approach things and discover ways to improve. I want to take the time to shape and craft the next post such that it truly captures what I want to say. With the move this past month, some time is needed for the next article.

In the meantime, please enjoy this article from Billionaire Richard Branson. He is an avid promoter of the importance of To Do Lists and keeping priorities straight. Passion, Fun, Priorities: How I have Avoided Work-Life Balance Burnout

How to Take PTO Like a Boss

I spent some time thinking how I can improve my approach to PTO to avoid vacation guilt. So I jotted down some thoughts and tried to consciously apply them during my recent vacay at the beach. Let’s take a look at how it went…

It’s July. Summer is in full effect. Tomorrow is Freedom Day. Yay for summer living!

I have a much different perspective on time off now, both as a manager and a father of two boys. As a developer, my job was to take documented inputs and create desired outputs. As a manager, my goal is to take lots of chaos and hopefully generate…less chaos. Rarely is there no chaos. This makes me a bit apprehensive about leaving for extended times.

The goal, of course, is to grow in my career and take on more responsibility. But balance is important and I don’t want to sacrifice time off that I earned like so many Americans do. I spent some time thinking how I can improve my approach to PTO to avoid vacation guilt. So I jotted down some thoughts and tried to consciously apply them during my recent vacay at the beach. Let’s take a look at how it went…

Before I Left

  • Treat preparation like a deliverable

    As PTO nears, it’s easy to get lost trying to just simply accomplish the day-to-day tasks. They tend to pile up and I start to feel uncomfortable leaving things in unfinished states. But neglecting to clearly layout the plan would likely haunt me on my return.  I delegated where I could and made sure I checked off my full PTO Coverage checklist.

  • Create a PTO Coverage Document

    Building a document helps me think through the expectations for my team. This also helps me ride out into the sunset knowing that I have at least put it down in a format that my team can reference if they start to forget what I’ve said. My document covered escalation paths, milestones and who’s doing what as well as potential risks that may arise during my absence. I made sure to meet with the whole team to walk through this document to reinforce it further. And, to give credit where credit is due, I totally stole this idea from my counterpart on most of my projects.  🙂

  • Don’t forget to configure tools accordingly

    Anything that pulls you back into reality is disruptive during vacation. I canceled/declined all calendar meetings/events, turned off email and set clear direction/explanation in my Out of Office auto-message. Never hop on a meeting when you are out. Ever.  Trust me, people want you to be fully undisturbed during your break because they want you to recharge and they don’t want the same expectation to apply to them when they’re out.

While I Was Out

  • Make memories

    Family vacations can be…chaotic. I’m still a parent, apparently, so I have to parent when all I want to say is “I can’t parent anymore.” But…this time is equally precious. Work can dominate our lives and sap our energy when we do have that bit of family time. I knew the time would fly by, so I took as many mental snapshots as I could, remembering the way the sand felt beneath my toes and what made my kids laugh. The more I was actively in the moment, the slower time felt.

  • Meditate and disconnect

    I wanted to make sure I found some time for me and only me. I made sure to give my wife some time as well.  She’s amazing, by the way. Anyway, during this time, I tried to not think and rest my weary soul. I was lucky enough to have a little private back porch connected to our room, perfect for sipping on iced tea whilst successfully accomplishing nothing at all.

  • Dream about your future

    As I enjoyed time with the family and time for myself, I found myself capable of imagining the future. I try to walk each day to think ahead, but oftentimes there’s just too many other things bouncing around in my head that prevent me from really dreaming of the future. I remember my trip to Hawaii a few years ago. I left there feeling very confident about growing my family and nearly a year later, we introduced our second boy to the world.

    And I still have my childhood dreams.  I continue to pursue them and trips like these help reinvigorate those passions.

  • Capture in a journal

    As slow as I try to make it go, vacation is but a blip on the radar of time. It’s very easy to look at it as not enough time. So I wrote everything I could remember, both small observations and memorable events, in a journal (aka, Google Drive document). Re-reading it, I felt pretty accomplished in all we got to do. And this journal can spark those memories again later on when I need to think back, reliving some moments that pictures can’t quite do as well.

  • Prepare for your return

    The worst thing that can happen is feeling burnt out quickly after having a chance to recharge. Whenever I go to vacation, I try to tack on a mini-staycation at the end. I want to mentally shift gears from vacation-mode back to the day-to-day mode. This also allows me to knock off a few side projects that I’ve been stalling on as well. The day before I went back to work, I took an hour to scan through emails to get a feel for what could potentially be the hot item on my return.

On My Return

  • Be glad to be back

    You just got to have a vacation, ideally you should be appreciative and recharged. When you’re gone for a while, people notice and will likely ask, “how was your trip?” I didn’t want to say “not long enough” or “back to the grind”, I made a conscious effort to say a quick summary and cap it with “I’m glad to be back!” The truth is, I do love my job and I’m glad to do it, but just to make sure to squash any subconsciously lingering feelings of not readiness, stating this simple phrase helped me feel excited to take on the challenges already heading my way.

  • Catch up with coworkers

    While I knew there was undoubtedly chaos that I needed to assess, I wanted to make sure I spent time just talking with my coworkers about non-work related stuff. I often get stuck in professional mode that I forget to touch on the human side of my coworkers. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed just chatting about trivial subjects with people I hadn’t seen in a couple weeks.

  • Work a normal day

    The worst thing you can do is take on too much upon your return. You want the “stress-free you” to remain as long as possible. There’s going to be a bit of a backlog to go through. It’s okay if it takes a few days to truly get caught up. I got in at a normal time and I left at a normal time and as I wrote this post, I still feel like my soul is in a good place and ready to handle the next few projects coming down the pipe.

Summary

Doing the above helped me appreciate my time off. It helped me maximize the effects of vacation without having me stress about maximizing the effects of my vacation. Maybe that sounds silly, but sometimes when life gives us lemons we try to make a Corporate Empire selling them. “Just do it” and “you only live once” are great tag lines, but I like to treat time off like “do and don’t do, both intended for you.” I should patent that. But whatever you do, make sure to take your hard-earned time off. If that comes back on you negatively in any way, it’s probably time to consider making a life change.

Happy 4th of July, readers! Let me know if you got any tips and/or tricks you do to make the most of your vacations/staycations in the comments section below!