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Seeking Solace through Biography

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matt davis, complex personage

After I completed my undergraduate music degree at Virginia Tech, I stayed in Blacksburg for another year because I had no idea what to do with my life. Coming off running the VT Music department’s gopher and www site on a Mac LC running MacBSD (I used to praise us for being one of the first music departments on the internet in like 1992), I had a mind to be what we called back then a “webmaster”. But really I wanted to design and build and teach using multimedia music education apps, as I had done several for my degree using HyperCard. I didn’t realize at the time that what I loved about the webmaster role wasn’t the designer/creation bit, it was the running services and managing a BSD server bit.

Nevertheless, I talked to the School of Education at VT, looking for a masters in “multimedia educational design”. It was only 1994, the Internet was a screaming toddler, and they had nothing like this. But the School of Engineering had a Human and Computer Interation division, I was told it would be my only real option to pursue this sort of advanced degree at VT… if I could manage to cross off the STEM pre-requisites for being accepted into the College of Engineering.

« short pause for laughter »

Determined to make it big as a multimedia producer, my senior year and summer were intense. With a great deal of my coursework done and mostly consumed with putting together my multi-sensory recital (called “The Dance of the Nine Muses”), I signed up for: college physics, a Human Factors Engineering class, statistics, and first year calculus. I was frightened. I didn’t take advanced math in high school, I flail even at simple arithmetic (mainly because of dyslexia). I had to greatly over-extend myself by a huge degree to be able to manage calculus - and I got an A. So yeah, I did it, but at great mental expense.

I ended up not applying, but moving to Mount Pleasant in DC and joining a small startup in Baltimore called Husky Labs. I built some very simple multimedia apps that showed buttons and played music for the Baltimore Aquarium. I helped give a talk on java at InternetWorld. But I also became the guy who visited customers and set up servers for web serving and media streaming, I travelled to do repairs; a xerox machine technician of the new media streaming world. And I loved it. So much so that it pushed me to get a job at Digex - an old-school datacenter hosting company in Maryland - to maintain rows and rows of Sun hardware. In fact I started my graduate degree in Opera Performance while working the night shift.

I had skipped directly over being a developer into being an operator, and that made perfect sense for me. It shaped the direction of my technical career, but most importantly it jived with the way my brain worked. It was giving me the same nutrition as building scenery for operas and running shows while being able to turn around and perform in them.

Four years ago, I left the familiar waters of strict TechOps. I left behind a career built on data pipelines, databases, storage, hardware configurations, and distributed systems ops (a solid DBRE and SRE manager). When I decided to leave that world for software startups, I jumped off a cliff. I was delivered the title “Sr. Infrastructure Engineer” but my job was like boiling the oceans of Titan.

Today, I am into a third year of chronic migraine hyperacusis with tinnitus, my second year under treatment by an ENT researcher and surgical specialist. I have no significant physical ear ailments beyond not-very-bad hearing loss for my age, verified by MRI.

I am in my ninth month of psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapy. In the past two months, I have learned that a lifetime of unexplainable and misdiagnosed symptoms finally made sense. In fact I suffer from a constellation of symptoms that manifest from Complex PTSD. I suffered repeated early childhood trauma, which is something I was vaguely aware would affect my life, but not to the extreme extent that it has actually shaped my personality and brain development.

A theme that has emerged for me in treatment is that my mind has been sculpted by experience to work a particular way, and it isn’t the way anyone else’s brain works. It’s incredibly difficult for me to relate this to new people, not helped by debilitating social anxiety. I do consider myself fairly intelligent, my brain has a spectacular ability for pattern recognition and analysis. But it also has a tendency to prefer fight-or-flight over reason.

From a very early age this has imbalanced my ability to learn, for my memory is horrible in very strange contextual ways. I grew up needing to improvise, musical improvisation was a natural move for me and I ended up in opera because I love being on-stage and the music helped me memorize the script. Today, my sweet spot in tech is in operational excellence, incident response and analysis, intuition and continuous learning. Not programming.

This leads to pushing myself very hard to be able to participate in dev. Programming is an area that I have avoided my entire career, by great lengths. I have stayed in operations because that’s where I feel the most at home. However, a development mental model matters more in our industry now. And yet, aspects of development are extremely hard to keep in my head because of the way my memory developed. I end up having to greatly extend myself, just like that calc class.

In my treatment I am getting signals, and they seem to say that being buried in a style of work that is dissonant with the way my brain operates is related to the migraine.

Two years ago when my professional networks spectacularly failed, I had to find work in the middle of a pandemic. I struggled hard to learn Terraform and Golang, I was repeatedly rejected for SRE work, asked about roles I didn’t know but that were “defined as SRE” so I was immediately disqualified almost on sight. I finally found a home and I carried that InfraEng title right along with me, I am not an SRE by title.

Now, as I try to figure out if my migraine coincides with my deeper descent into the dev side of things, I believe I have pushed myself way beyond my actual capacity to handle software engineering.

When I am managing data pipelines, providing technological observability and transparency, managing incident response, and working on educational resources for collaborative work… I am happy. Very happy. My migraine has melted away multiple times in the middle of Practice of Practice Gamelan. When I “do software engineering” stuff and try to hold onto layers upon layers of models in defiance of how my brain works, I am miserable. And I have witnessed this type of work trigger the migraine within seconds.

Monday morning when I awoke, I heard what I hear most mornings in my quiet bedroom: a blanket of white noise intermingled with tingling whispers of phasing and swishing ringing across my stereo field. I will hear this all day, every day, and when the migraine is at a certain level the hyperacusis kicks in and all sounds I hear are reflected and amplified and then sustained in my head as this swirling cacophony of noise. The days I don’t have this condition are extremely rare (maybe a week total out of a month), I am working through aural pain most of the time anyone is talking with me.

Yesterday and today, I have a much clearer head. The migraine is lessened, almost at times completely gone. One thing I attribute to this is a discipline of sonic meditation and mindfulness I have recently rekindled. Another is undergoing the process of removing myself from the brain activity that disrupts its chemistry.

It’s time for me to phase shift. Not just gain focus. Not just shed workload. I need to stop working against my brain. I need to step back from software engineering and allow the real experts to flourish. I am going to keep focus on providing excellent Observability systems to teams, and emphasize the focus I put on Applied Resilience Engineering, Learning From Incidents, and Incident Command. The Practice of Practice Gamelan sessions are an example of this, and that’s the kind of migraine melting activity I need.