Rich and I weren't breathing. We'd exhausted hysterical panic and crashed through the ice. We slithered on our bellies, faces to the sky, backs to the abyss, and presented ourselves to the archangel. Michael assessed our presentation and escorted us directly back to our workstations, whispering, wait, just wait. We stepped into the first cube where our chairs, pushed back from dual monitors, huddled together in abject chair misery. All of it; shock, panic, and mortal terror, saturated the fabric of sprung office chairs.
The truth of the Archangel Michael is that he understands the architecture all too well. Data in, data calculated and consolidated, data out, or in this case, very bad data out. Data so bad we'd considered tracking it back to the source, but five minutes of base level analysis said no, you've blown this thing to hell all by yourselves. We explained and he listened and the expression on his face never changed; he was one step from downright cheerful and that's a bit disconcerting when you've just announced the end of the world. The database took forty-eight hours to build and the data was due right now.
Got a question for you guys. You listening? (two heads bounce up and down like Siamese bobble heads) OK,
Are there any dead babies in this database?
Are. There. Any. Dead. Babies in the database? (whhhhaaaattttt?!)
Rich reached into his brain and gave language a good tweak. NO! Of course there are no dead babies in the database! Why would you even ask that? Rich has no patience for absurd questions when he's trying to think, dammit! Michael repeated the question.
Are. There. Any. Dead. Babies in the database? I want you to think about this and be really sure before you answer the question.
OK, Michael, there don't appear to be any dead babies in the database, but I can have another look if you'd like.
OK, Heather, that's your one bit of snark. Lock it up until we get this fixed.
We weren't the architects; this database was somebody else's baby and that somebody else had been marched from the building a week ago. That's never a good thing but the truth is, no one is irreplaceable. I ended up locked in a room with an onsite guru and we had it reverse engineered, cleaned up, and relaunched in twenty-four hours, which is exactly how long it took to finish the build. We delivered good data two days late which beat the hell out of a week or not at all.
Michael sat us down in a conference room and began the post mortem. We expected to start from the end and work backwards until we got to the root cause but the archangel had already white-boarded root cause. Five words, all caps, probably 72 pt font, in red:
ARE THERE ANY DEAD BABIES?
Rich turned white and said, that is NOT the root cause of this failure.
Yes it is.
Michael said, you two need to ask yourselves if there are any dead babies because a dead baby is worth coming to your knees. Is there anything more important, with more relevance than a dead baby? We agreed there was not. He asked us to consider why our response to the database failure escalated to from DEFCON 4 to DEFCON 1. Was anyone breathing down our necks (no, because you ran interference)? Of COURSE the analysts on the other side of the cube wall said they needed it right this second. Of COURSE the CFO was waiting for that analysis and could not reasonably be expected to present quarterly earnings and statistics without the statistics. Of COURSE this is a Fortune 50 corporation, but is it a dead baby?
Later, Rich and I looked at each other and concluded we'd come to a mutual source. We believed we would die and that was ludicrous. Even believing we'd be fired was possible, but not probable. So why? We stopped functioning in a mutual state of panic and despair. When our brains shut down we can't fix a damn thing, much less solve a problem. Mostly, we could be expected to epically fuck it up further. We never really talked about it again, but that reference came up in a whisper every time we panicked. On a tiny piece of paper, in red ink, we pinned the question on our cube walls, just behind the left monitor.
check for dead babies
Neither of us made it out of there unscathed. I went first, jumping out of a very hot pan right into an inferno, and Rich hung in long enough to get himself pitched with an early retirement package. The only thing that ever changed was our level of vigilance. Vigilance works well enough at preventing catastrophic failure but solves nothing in the end.
When I found a teacher, she asked if I wanted 45 minutes or an hour each week. I chose an hour, I said, because 45 minutes is just not enough. I need to walk out of here on overload. I might think and feel and probably even look like a complete disaster but my processing speed is pretty good once I've let it marinate. At the beginning of the fifth lesson she agreed the overload process seemed to be working because I came back every week with at least one significant breakthrough.
Toward the end of the fifth lesson, she looked startled. I was struggling through something I'd done easily at the beginning of the lesson and this is not unusual and I am always aware that I've escalated and it's my fear in the way. I'm OK with that. DEFCON 4 seems to be the new normal, one step down from the perpetual state of DEFCON 3, at which point I look functional, but I'm getting by on brute force. Used to be it didn't take a whole lot to bounce me to 2. Probably still wouldn't, except I've taken myself out of the game, for the most part.
She asked why I looked so panicked and did I realize my panic was escalating rapidly. Yes, I said, I feel it and I'm going to stop now because my brain's not working. She asked what it was that had me think I might die if I didn't get it exactly right. She said, you're an overachiever but at what price? She wasn't looking for an answer, I expect she already knows. She was asking me to ask the question I've been carrying all this time.
are there any dead babies in this fiddle?
No. There really aren't, but when I think there might be, even something so good and right as holding that instrument in my hands flips itself over and the abyss is at my back. I can breathe into it. I can turn it right, but I wonder, if I let it be for a minute and looked at it differently might it be perfectly OK? What if it's just blue sky at my back? What if the water stays in its place? What if the dunes have always been that way but my brain flips them over into a thing I think of as right. What if I'm wrong? What if it's only me flipping myself over thinking I've got no say in the matter?
No one is immune from a tumble now and then. When we were young, some of us rolled down hills with our arms clasped across our chests and our eyes wide open; we laughed with the tumbling sun and the green, green grass. Seems to me we rolled the world any number of times and the prevalent emotion was joy. There wasn't a damn thing wrong and we were not afraid. Not really.