It’s been a year since I’ve last written. Not because I have nothing to write about. But because multiple jobs and entities have strongly discouraged me from writing because of the nature of my work. But that may have been a mistake. I’ve been full of both positive and negative emotions with only one real place to share them — at home. And that builds up a pressure cooker in this COVID age.
So what’s been happening all this time? In July 2018, our daughter, Lenna, was born. At the time I was working as a contractor at NNSA, had just finished a Master’s in Information Systems with Johns Hopkins, and was the XO of a small Navy Reserve unit in Annapolis. I was simultaneously working on a bunch of certifications and qualifications and qualifications to boost both of my careers. Life up until Lenna was born was tough but manageable. After she was born, life was extremely stressful and I knew I needed to shed some extra work to be at home more.
Then the right opportunity came up for me to volunteer to mobilize to Afghanistan. I’d always wanted to make up for misadventures in the submarine force by working with Special Operations Forces. I got my wish, and deployed in January 2020. It’s a long story, but it was the adventure of a lifetime. The first half was “ordinary” by SOF standards, working shifts in an operations center. The second half was “extraordinary”, working with a crazy cast of characters in a highly unusual situations. I left feeling like the king of the world, with an exceedingly powerful network and knowledge and experience I never could have anticipated before the start.
I had a lot of opportunities available, but against the warning of the SOF folks in Afghanistan, I took follow-on orders at Project M at the Pentagon. I became the project lead for applying AI and Machine Learning algorithms for drone warfare. How can I summarize such an eventful year into a few sentences? First, based on warnings and early experiences with the office from Afghanistan, I felt like I was boarding a sinking ship. I knew I might not get along with some of my peers. But I never anticipated how bad my boss would be.
I took an engineering approach to the project, which was very highly unwelcome. If we were a tech startup, then 90% of the office was dedicated to business development and sales. Life at M was a wild ride for most, traveling to elite SOF unit deployed locations, other government agencies, exotic overseas locations, and top tech company headquarters. I got to do exactly none of that. I saw a capability being forced upon people (myself included) that didn’t work — or at best, was incomplete. But nothing I said could convince my peers that we needed to change the way we did business. And while my efforts got me great support with our operational users and our technical developers, bringing any criticism or challenge of the status quo earned the ire of my peers and my boss.
I could never have anticipated to what lengths my boss would flatter, threaten, or humiliate people to bend them to his will. He didn’t hesitate to bring up criminal charges against his own folks and end their careers if they said the wrong thing to the wrong person. In my case, my boss loved the way I drove people to work hard, but wanted to suppress anything that could be taken as “bad press” for himself or the office. If I brought up issues, he didn’t want to hear about them.
I witnessed a lot of clearly unethical activity in that place. Investigations happened but hardly resulted in anything. I guess I’ll leave it at that.
Given the extreme work stress, COVID, and having a two year old at home, the situation was untenable. But any hint of leaving brought serious threats. It took a lot of very careful maneuvering, and staying much longer at that job than I wanted, but I eventually left in January 2021 at the one year mark. I moved on to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab to work at what I’ll call the J center.
Now I have a different problem. Many of my current colleagues are folks who worked at my former office. The work culture is very similar, even if people are nicer. I’m in the same position of having to constantly argue and bargain with people who I don’t think are exactly fit to make serious and consequential decisions, but do so with a lot of determination. We suffer from a serious lack of “adult” oversight, from a lack of wisdom from folks over the age of 35.
I should be happier, but I’m not. I have a great job with all the “paint” of elite networks and organizations. I’m constantly getting pestered for similar elite jobs. My Navy Reserve career is in similar standing. And we’re over the hump with COVID as I got my first vaccine shot a couple days ago. We’re all healthy and in good financial standing
But I feel like I’m a piece of gum that’s been stretched infinitely long, without any real time to recover. My responsibilities keep on increasing and escalating. I don’t have time to relax or do what I want. I don’t even know what I want. Every day I wake up early to exercise, work my butt off all day, and by the late afternoon when it’s time to pick up Lenna from day care, at the busiest height of the workday, I have to turn off everything and have dinner and family time, while I’m trying to untangle and solve bad work problems. Once Lenna is asleep, I have to return to work to read, make decisions, and give instructions. Weekends too. There is no time to recuperate. And every poor decision that escapes my grasp gives me extreme frustration that I am having more and more trouble containing.
I guess I should just care less. But can I? Is it in my blood? I don’t even know what to do with my weekends other than work. I desperately don’t want to. I want to enjoy the sun, see new sights, read books, and learn more about the outside world. But I have no time, and even if I did, I have no energy.
I’m desperate to try a number of things. I’ve taken a couple days off here and there, which caused items to drop, but did lift my spirits. I’m traveling the next two weeks for the first time in well over a year. I’m evaluating some of these other job offers, but am unlikely to take them since they don’t provide any real improvement to pay, time, or networking over my current job.
So the next best thing I can do is write. Let’s see how that helps. I guess I’ll just ignore what my workplaces are asking for, to stay away from social media (does this count?), to help protect my sanity.