One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

March 30, 2012

Day Off

I know people like to make jokes about how when you’re self-employed the problem is that the boss is a jerk, but I’m not feeling it. I spent the week thinking, ‘how is it possible to feel this satisfied with one’s life?’ And then my boss gave me the day off today.

It was about time.

I’m in a chill, dreamy-happy kind of mood. Which means I have nothing real to say, I just want to ramble happily a little.

I am really loving working from home. I’ve had some work in the last two weeks that I’ve been able to get really sunk into. Sometimes I struggle to make progress – like you know how some days you wake up in the morning thinking, “yeah, I’m pretty much done this feature. I just have to wrap it up this morning and then move on to the next one” and then you remember that you didn’t test it in Internet Explorer. And then there goes the entire day on that feature because of course it doesn’t work in Internet Explorer. Well, I’m pretty sure every web-developer knows that feeling.

That was my yesterday.

But the day flew by because I really wanted to get that feature done and all day I just felt like I was racing through debugging. I always felt like I was ten minutes away from solving it. I jumped up and made Hannah spaghetti for lunch, grabbed some toast and then sat down to work while eating my toast. My shoulders were in knots at the end of the day, but I finished it at 4:00. Spent 4:00 – 5:00 taking some screenshots and writing it up for the potential client that it was for, emailed it off at 5, jumped in the shower and then ran off to dance.

I spent all week on this one thing and so I didn’t get to work on my app at all this week.

I had started the week by meeting with this potential client to do a needs assessment on her three websites. They just finished a redesign, but they’re unhappy with how it works. It doesn’t do half of what they expected and what it does is clunky and difficult for regular users.

And I’ve been in web development long enough to know that what they got was about typical. Not that you can’t get better or don’t deserve better, but that the web world is full of developers who will build systems exactly like this one and who will be kind of defensive when you ask for better because what they built is pretty much what web developers the world over know that web development is.

Honestly, I worked on a million dollar project once whose outcome wasn’t so much different from what they got. I mean, it managed hundreds more pages and twenty times as many modules, so that accounts for the cost. But it still didn’t give the client as much control as they thought they’d have and it was clunky to use because the development paradigm of the project wasn’t “build something that’s elegant to use” it was “build something powerful to manage all the data”.

I think it takes a tremendous leap to move to building something to be elegant to use from the start. You have to be really comfortable working with data to be able to start from an interface that mirrors the client’s mental model of the data rather than an interface that mirrors your for-real data model. That is, I am trained to work out the best data storage system for your news articles. But that doesn’t mean that when I make tables to hold your news articles, that forms to enter things in those tables will feel at all intuitive to a user, because they’re used to thinking about how news articles end up on the page.

Web developers think the back-end IS about the data model, but clients don’t see that inviting them to manage the data means inviting them to step across the presentation threshhold and work with data the way you see it.

And, honestly, it doesn’t have to mean that. It’s just that it takes extra work to translate the back-end as well as the front-end and that the structure of the web doesn’t lend itself to slick interfaces. There are a lot of techniques these days that can make things 100 times slicker – as evidenced by the big players like Google and Facebook and Twitter, but the fact remains that it takes work and money and research to get things that slick. And from the fact that they change it every few months, you can tell that it takes continual money and that even they are never sure if they’ve got it right.

So anyhow I came home from that meeting on Monday really working on the idea of how simple would be simple enough for them to use, but how complex would it need to be in order to let them manage everything they want to manage. And if you could make something do both, would that make it a fantasy project (needing a year and six figures to build).

I was explaining their expectations to Ian, who also knows about what’s standard and what’s possible and what the possible can end up costing. And he was like, “I don’t know if you can win this one.” Which was what I thought too.

The thing is that no one thinks that clients are wrong to want complete control and an easy interface out of their systems. It’s just the rule of data management systems that there has to be complexity somewhere. If it’s not in the workflow, it’s going to be in the code.

Anyhow, to sum up how this made my week what it was, Monday night I had this tiny idea about making editing reflect the client’s mental model of the data and I was noodling over how to make that connect with a data back-end in the simplest way. How could I take this interface that was in my head and make it work with their current site and current back-end? If I re-built their back-end it would cost too much. If I built a fancy data handler to translate things, it would cost too much.

And so Monday night I started researching and then I had something that would almost work and so I spent the rest of the week putting together this proof of concept that I am really, really happy with. I have to admit, because it’s meant to work with the current back-end, it’s hacky. But it’s also really, really flexible and fault-tolerant.

Right now it’s just a proof of concept; it would need about a week of development before it was an actual system. But if the rest of my theories are sound, I think I could basically plug it into just about any website.

And that’s why my boss was happy enough with me to give me the day off.

Which was good, it gave me the morning to catch up on my pinterest stream, which I had let fall behind because of being too engrossed in my work.

And as to being happy at home. God, I really am. It’s starting to be like spring. The house is full of light. The kids are so happy and mellow. When Hannah gets bored with me working and ignoring her, she goes outside in the back yard and plays and it entertains her far better than the tv. When she thinks I’m not watching, she takes her shoes and jacket off and lies in the sun pretending to be a lion. I still feel guilty for not spending more time with her, but I also remind myself that boredom is the mother of creativity.

And to just illustrate how the general family dynamics are, a couple nights ago the kids wouldn’t go to bed. But it was infuriatingly good-natured refusal to go to bed. All the kids, but Ethan in particular just had to keep getting up cracking jokes and sassing and laughing and coming back for “one more hug” while I would reply, “Okay, yes, HAHAHA. Now, GO TO BED!”

And then as soon as Ethan was out of the room again, Ian would beam quietly at me and go, “they’re really good kids.” And I knew where that gratitude was coming from and so I said, “Yep. We’re pretty much a normal family.” And he said, “I know! I could go to work and say, ‘the kids were so frustrating, not wanting to go to bed last night’ and everyone would just agree about how they’d been there.”

Ethan, in particular, is almost like a completely different kid. He stayed home sick from school yesterday and halfway through the day he said, “Can I please go to school?” And I said, “Yeah, okay.” So he went upstairs and after a long while he came downstairs dressed and with his jacket on. “Sorry that took so long, he said, I had to lie down for a bit.” And he looked like he was going to fall over, so I said, “I don’t think you should go to school.” “Okay,” he said, pathetically. And lay down on the papasan and prompty fell asleep. Later in the day he said, “please don’t tell my dad I was sick today or he might make me stay home tomorrow too.”

Seriously? That kid? Seriously? School used to be one of the Great Injustices that we inflicted on him because we didn’t understand how much it injured him. Now he comes home with stories about the jibes he and his teacher throw at each-other and how funny his teacher is. I think partly it’s that he’s finally at an age where the teasing and social one-ups-man-ship that he likes to engage in has the potential of being accepted by the right adult. Three years ago, he did the same thing, but teachers universally thought it was inappropriately disrespectful.

Sometimes he talks about how happy he is at home, or how well we’re getting along, how I always know best or how I’m the smartest person he knows. And I will try to slip in a little bit of teenager prep, just saying, “so you know, we’re going to fight still. You’re maturing a lot and sooner or later, that’s going to mean a bit of a struggle for independence. It’s great that we don’t fight these days, but it’s also fine when we do fight because I always love you.” And then he shrugs like, “Okay, but I just don’t see what I’d have to fight about with you. You’re so reasonable.” He makes jokes about how Ian and I are too agreeable and he thinks he’s hilarious for having spotted our obnoxious character flaws. “Some people’s parents fight about real things, but Mom and Ian always fight about ‘no I’ll do that for you’, ‘no let me do that’, ‘no don’t thank me, I didn’t do anything,’ Would you just stop it and take credit for once.”

I don’t know if there’s anything to credit for the change, other than time and growing up. But I think in the last year, my health has got better so I’m able to spend more time with the kids. And now that I’m working at home, I can spend even more time with them and between the mostly vegetarian fare and way more home-made things, we’re eating a lot healthier. Also, without wanting to speculate too much about his dad’s house or emotional state, I think a new stepmom and stepsister have made his dad’s outlook happier and his dad’s house more fun and more social.

And further to all that, it’s now time to go eat with Hannah and then sit by the back window with some tea and drawing.

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