I’m taking a short sabbatical

My former desk (on the right) in the digital communications team office

End of the beginning

This week marks the end of an era. On Sunday 5 August, after 4,480 days—12 years, 3 months and 5 days—I ended my employment at the University of St Andrews.

Changes

Over these 147 months, I’ve seen a huge change in the web development landscape. When I joined the team (of one—the perfect introvert’s team size) in May 2006 as assistant web manager/information architect, the second browser war was still going on. Internet Explorer 6 was still the dominant Windows browser, Firefox was a four-year old upstart and Chrome was still two and a half years away.

My first proper project—after dabbling with some designs for a Press Office website redesign that didn’t come to anything—was to wrestle with Saulcat, the University’s library catalogue system. Who can fail to be impressed with online documentation for a third-party system that you’ve barely ever used that runs to literally tens of thousands of pages? That was also the first project that ever made me cry.

There was an excitement back then. We were on the cutting edge. Pulling an almost all-nighter to get the new site launched in TERMINALFOUR Site Manager v5.0, only to discover that some part of the design didn’t work in IE7 as soon as we went live, and the frantic scramble to get it fixed.

Our focus was so much on the technology: the browser wars were still going.

LUKE SKYWALKER
No, my father didn’t fight in the Browser Wars. He simply used Netscape Navigator on a spice freighter.

OBI-WAN KENOBI
That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals—an open, accessible and universal web.

LUKE SKYWALKER
You fought in the Browser Wars?

OBI-WAN KENOBI
Yes. I was once a Web developer, the same as your father.

When I began, the focus was still very much on how the technology worked, on advocating for web standards and creating workarounds to appease IE6 and IE7. But once these standards started to take hold and level the development playing field, the focus moved to usability, user experience, and content strategy. Server-side PHP gave way to client-side JavaScript as the dominant web development language. And, of course, the mobile web has dominated the conversation, just as it was predicted to.

Walk away

Looking back over 12 years, though, I can clearly see that I’ve been down a hard road. Having come through some pretty hairy health problems (meningitis, anyone?), plus a divorce, wardenning in hall (“I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”), and then a recent bowel cancer health-scare (from January through to April), I realised that I needed to start looking after myself for a while. That’s not something that comes easily to me—I find it more natural to care for others.

I have worked pretty much flat out for at least the last 21 years—I’ve poured myself out into each job and given everything that I can. Earlier this year I simply felt broken, burned out with little left to give.

The last four months have provided a useful buffer to rest and heal and reflect on my future.

When I was going through the pros and cons of leaving the University, the biggest pro of staying was being with people that I’ve been fortunate to call my friends, in some cases, for the last 26.24% of my life. But that wasn’t enough to keep me at St Andrews—I can always keep up with my friends outside of work-hours.

I am proud of what I have achieved at St Andrews, and what we as a team have achieved. I have been blessed by the friendships that I have made there. But it is time to change pace for a while and allow myself to heal more fully and gain a little more perspective. One phrase in particular has been going around my head for the last few months as I’ve journeyed towards this decision: “you cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick”, and in the words of Ozzy Osbourne, “I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

Solitude

So, I have decided to take a short sabbatical. I will focus on my health, on eating more healthily, on cycling and walking, on resting and focusing on my mental health too. Then I will turn my attention to whatever is next.

As far as employment goes, it’s not as though I’ll be falling off the edge of the world. I have a few irons in the fire, as they say—all still in digital/web development. I’m excited about what’s next. All will be revealed in due course.

In the meantime, I am simply enjoying life, enjoying being with my children, and with those I love.

Feels good to me.


Fun fact: as I’m taking a sabbatical, I decided to use a lot of Black Sabbath (geddit?) song titles in this post. See if you can find them all.

Carcassonne on Steam

Playing Carcassonne on Steam with River, The Abbot and Inns and Cathedral expansions enabled
Playing Carcassonne on Steam with River, The Abbot and Inns and Cathedral expansions enabled

One of my favourite board games is the excellent Carcassonne from Z-Man. It’s a simple but fun tile-based game where you build and claim cities and roads, farms and monasteries and gardens to acquire points.

Over the last few months, I’ve been enjoying playing the latest official version of Carcassonne for Android but it wasn’t until last week that I realised the game was also available for Windows via Steam.

I wonder if any of the Tour de France cycling teams will be playing Carcassonne on the rest day in the city that inspired it this year?

I’ve moved house… again

Three houses in a terrace. The left most has a gable. Each has a door and four windows. Mind is the middle on.
My new house in sunny Crail is the middle one of these three.

After 871 days (that is 2 years, 4 months and 20 days) as warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall, University of St Andrews, I’ve hung up my gown and moved on.

I loved being warden, living and working amongst around 540 students and supporting a team of six assistant wardens. But it wasn’t great for my health, to be honest. It turns out you sometimes need sleep and time for yourself. And for many weeks I got little of either.

So I have moved back down the Fife coast to the East Neuk and am living in a wee two-bedroom mid-terrace house in Crail.

This is my third house move in as many years.

I’m much closer to my children now, and it’s an area that I used to cycle around over the years so I’m looking forward to getting out on my (newly serviced) bike over the next few months and gently improving my fitness.

From top to bottom: Isaac, Reuben and Joshua, sitting on the stairs. They are all wearing school uniforms.
From top to bottom: Isaac, Reuben and Joshua

The boys like my wee house and have been over to stay for a few weeks, and a few overnights during the week too.

I needed to buy a dining table and benches and a couple of chests of drawers (at Ikea, of course) plus a bunch of storage boxes for linen and shoes. But two weeks in and I have fully unpacked now and organised almost everything the way that I’d like it.

Here is to relaxing for a bit, regaining my fitness, losing the 2 inches or more than I put on my waist over the last 871 days, and figuring out where life will take me next. It’s exciting…

Here’s a video I found online from the developers. My house is featured about 17 seconds in.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and divorce

Maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid (image credit: Simply Psychology)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid (image credit: Simply Psychology)

A few months ago I attended a training course at work about leadership and management style. During one presentation the trainer reintroduced me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Maslow (1943, 1954) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.

(Source: Simply Psychology)

It struck me immediately, as I was sitting in the classroom, that this model could offer me a way of navigating a way through my divorce.

Pre-separation

Marriage can be hard, and it can be incredibly rewarding. It involves give and take, it requires commitment and at times self-sacrifice. To be honest, I felt at times that I poured myself out so much that I lost touch with who I was beneath it.

But even now, looking back at those most painful of moments, and comparing it with the hierarchy of needs pyramid, I can still see that I was at the top of the pyramid, in self-actualisation.

  • Level 1, physiological needs—I had air and water, food and shelter, sleep (though disturbed) and clothing. I lived comfortably in a house in Anstruther. We had everything we needed to live a comfortable, middle-class life.
  • Level 2, safety needs—I had personal security and employment. Sure, I had some health concerns but I felt safe and secure.
  • Level 3, love and belonging—Even in the midst of the hardest times in our marriage, I still felt a sense of belonging and commitment. I knew that I was committed to Jane because I had stood in the church before friends and family and God and I had made a vow to belong to her forever. That promise kept me going, kept me believing that we could work things out. And I had some amazing friends, not nearby, but certainly at the end of the phone or on Skype or email or text message.
  • Level 4, esteem—At work I felt I had the respect of colleagues. I had status (assistant web manager) and recognition. I had a certain degree of freedom across all areas of my life. I could choose when to take on more church work, I was free to choose when to visit friends or family.
  • Level 5, self-actualisation—And at the top of the pyramid, I was actively trying to become the best person that I could be. Standing on the foundations of a comfortable home, a secure job, a long-term relationship that had produced three beautiful children, and a job that gave me a position and place in the world that I was happy with, I was seeking to become the best person I could be. I was trying to improve my health, trying to draw closer to Jane and my children, trying to better myself through reading and side projects.

I felt privileged and although not always entirely happy, I felt confident that we could work things out and get through this.

And then… it was all over. Through a lot of heartache and tears, I finally agreed to a divorce. Leaving the children was the hardest thing I have ever done. It broke my heart.

Post-separation

When I agreed to a divorce, Jane and I discussed the next move. What happens next? I was determined to make the process as easy and create as few disruptions in the lives of my three children as possible. So I agreed to move out,

And in the real-life game of snakes and ladders that I found myself in, I took a snake from the top of the pyramid right to the bottom: from self-actualisation to physiological needs.

Where on earth am I going to live?! was the message screaming in my head. I felt utter panic at answering that question.

None of the levels above physiological seemed to matter more than the simple need to secure the absolute basics: where do I sleep, where do I eat? Thankfully I still had a job, and that job and my previous experience led me to my current position as a halls of residence warden. That gave me immediate relief of my physiological needs.

But more than that it also gave me a sense of security, a sense of belonging and connection. I had another community to belong to, and build, encourage and be encouraged by, and it gave me sense of self-esteem and recognition. Somehow, I had clawed myself back up to level four.

And now…?

When I moved out of my home and started to create a home for myself in the warden’s flat, I said to myself that I would do this for 3–5 years. I have just started my third year, and I have found myself considering what is next?

I’m enjoying the warden work—although it doesn’t leave much time for myself. I have enjoyed being a part of this ever changing and dynamic community of people learning together and learning how to live together.

I’ve been enjoying getting deeper into work as an agile project manager and business analyst—I’d certainly like to journey further down that road. I think I’m good at it—the scrum master role is one of servant leadership, and that’s very much how I think and live.

I find myself considering the future with a certain degree of uncertainty and fear but also hope and possibility. I would like to work in an agile role, I would like to create a new home where my children will feel comfortable and belong. I would like, eventually, to step confidently onto the top tier of the pyramid once again. There are a lot of questions to answer before I get there but that is certainly my goal.

As we used to say in my office: it’ll be alright in the end… and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end. But this model, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, has been a useful tool for me to orientate myself and help chart a way forward.