> root / 2012 / July / 26th


Bit of a tricky blogpost to write this one, mainly for the reasons outlined below in the "creativity vs mild depression" section but also because I don't want the focus to be on the Guardian bit, but it kind of needs to go first.

The tl;dr of this is supposed to be my surprise at discovering that lack of creativity was causing me to become depressed. This blog post is about that and not strictly about leaving the Guardian, however to frame that properly I do need to explain the Guardian (and leaving of) a bit.

If you get the opportunity you should definitely go work at the Guardian, the developers are amazing and the Editorial department incredibly switched on to all things digital. As a "traditional" news organisation embracing digital it's working on some pretty interesting projects and it's an incredible place to work if you want to see into the heart of modern journalism.


Leaving the Guardian

Large organisations often work in cycles, in my experience these are around 2 years. This is probably connected to length of time it takes projects with lots of stakeholders to happen; it's long enough for wheels set in motion to actually complete their objective but not so long that dead weight projects lumber on forever. And with technology moving so fast, one work methodology isn't going to be the best fit forever. So this flip-flop happens, the organisation flips to a "new" way of doing things, with an initial burst of stuff happening and then slowing down, at which point it flops back to the old "new" way of doing things which are fresh and exciting, until that slows down and it flips back again. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, and it doesn't come into play for smaller companies, just when an org gets to a certain size it seems to naturally happen[1].

When I started at the Guardian I hit it at a time when it was flipping, or flopping, one of the two. It had just come out of a big project to update its core CMS which had had a large team which was just scaling down. There'd just been a big round of voluntary redundancies, mainly in the editorial department, which had left the org slightly leaner and more digitally focused. I was coming in from having worked at Flickr through its time of fast growth (and some growing pains) and being surrounded by the start-up scene in San Francisco. And by "surrounded" I mean often eating burritos down by the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building on Tuesdays. I'm using that as a short-hand for generally being around fast moving brilliant hot West Coast people.

Anyway, back at the Guardian in digital there was Mike Bracken (now shaking things up in GDS), and with a foot in both digital and editorial camps Emily Bell (now Director of Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School) & Meg Pickard (on maternity leave with a gorgeous baby), co-conspirators in doing-good-things-with-news-on-the-internets. We all knew that print news and journalism were being disrupted and that shortly online news would be disrupted, and whatever was disrupting that would soon be disrupted itself and so on, ALL THE DISRUPTIONS!

Which is where I came in, to act as an agent of disruption (not literally disruptive but representing it), using all my leet San Francisco start-up bubble internets skillz.

Pertinent to this conversation; each developer in the digital department had a desktop machine, essentially tying them to the desk. There was some crazy implementation of Agile tied to a 2 week deployment process (there's a slightly less crazy implementation of Agile now), and as far as I could see no quick and easy way to view the metrics of the site, or indeed any metrics, of anything.

Coming out from working with the great team at Flickr, with our one button continuous deployment, graphs of everything[3] and numerous runs to the coffee shop to just sit and talk over ideas (often meeting up with people from other companies & start-ups) this was, different.

With this in mind as part of going to work at the Guardian I turned down the desktop machine (thanks) in favour of using my own laptop just so I could go and sit in other parts of the building, sometimes with the editorial technology desk, other times in the very entertaining G2 section, anywhere to get a better understanding of how the whole news organisation worked. I got to record podcasts and videos in the multi-media 'hub', sit with the SEO team as they amazingly monitored all-the-news-in-the-world and possibly most entertainingly in Alan's office on election night watching political commentary take place way above my level of knowledge. Sometimes I would take myself off to the British Library just for a change of scene or go visit some friends down in 'silicon roundabout'. I dove into metrics and data as best I good without access to the bare metal of the system, constantly mined the (frankly glorious) Guardian content API for patterns, data, flows & whatever insight I could get from there. And using the API to quickly build projects and prototypes with Google AppEngine to get my one-buttons-deploy mojo back.

The idea wasn't to be different, the idea was to take everything I knew about development from the sunny fast West Coast and prove that development at the Guardian could be done like that.

It's hard to pin down exactly what "done like that" is, which was in itself a problem. The best I can explain is it's to do with flow and the phrase "to be of the internet, not on the internet". A lot of the ways of working at Flickr and that scene in general was all about just being (how zen). The work environment was the network, no matter where you went, be it coffee shop or office you were always connected. At Flickr our tools of communication was often Flickr itself, you can see that the same is true of Wordpress and Twitter and so on. Working at The Guardian needed to become of the internet not just on the internet.

Then once again, two years later the people I was initially working having moved on it flopped, or flipped, one of the two.

Creativity vs mild depression

I'd never been depressed before, or at least not that I could remember. Which is why I say "mild" because I don't have anything to compare it against, I certainly know it wasn't as bad as people who have serious depression, but I know it was there more than just brushing it off as a nothing.

It felt so heavy.

I can only talk to my own experience obviously, I'm not saying "this is what depression is" I have no idea. It became so hard to do anything (fun), I wasn't sitting around going "boy I feel depressed" but just reaching the end of the work day and wanting to go deeply, heavily, to sleep. (Work, for what it's worth was fine, the days just felt a little long, this is mainly not-work I'm talking about).

It was a somewhat new experience. Once I'd spotted it (more in that in a moment) I could actually detach a little and observe it from the outside, study myself being not what I think of myself as.

In all the time I've used computers I've always been making, building and tinkering with stuff. Way back with an Acorn Electron and later a BBC Micro I'd be coding stuff, you know, just for fun. At university I'd be doing my coursework and then all sorts of other, often art based computer projects. At the agency before Flickr I'd be getting up at 5am to work on personal project before grabbing the train to work. While in San Francisco evenings (once the kids were in bed) would be either playing games, going out or hacking around with some new thing. At the Guardian it was the same, work during the day and then hack around with stuff, often on the Guardian API, for fun in the evening and you know, sometimes not.

And then, suddenly it stopped. Opening up the laptop in the evening to throw together two lines of code became too much. The words for a blog post would go racing through my head all day, but the effort needed to sit down that night to write them out was mentally exhausting. This wasn't just an irritation, it was down right infuriating, I could see myself missing out on interesting things. I think the one that made me the saddest was the BERG's Little Printer hackday.

The Little Printer is a joyous bit of kit that fires off all the right excitement nodes in my brain. I love everything about it, I want to hold it, code for it, make it do things. BERG had a hackday for it, I had an invite. I really wanted to go, but my brain and body just said the effort of organising the train, getting down there, thinking, talking to people, being excited was just too much. That you can sit there and go "I really want to do this" but you just can't actually get up and make it happen is thuddingly amazing.

Everything not work related was a huge effort, to actually drag myself up out of it enough to hammer out a blog post or update a personal project was just so hard. And every time I failed to get anything done in an evening other than just switch on the TV or fall asleep (or both) would add to the pile of depression.

I finally figured out it was creativity or rather lack of that was causing it.

The Digital Department at the Guardian re-orged. This was the flip (or flop), a new structure was planned out, teams, rolls, projects, the whole lot worked out in minute detail. This I'm sure is all right and fine, there was a certain amount of disorganisation before and a crazy number of projects all over the place. This re-org was to rein some of the craziness in. The way I think of it is austerity measures for the digital dept. but you'll have to take into account a certain amount of bias with that description :)

Suddenly I was assigned a desktop computer... and a desk, and put in a team, and some projects unrelated to what I was currently working on, with 2 week deployment schedules.

FWIW I have nothing against being in a team, or projects or even, shudder, the desktop computer and desk. I've been in them before and will be in them again, but it's not exactly what I signed up for.

It was the crushing lack of scope for creativity within the projects that was the problem. They fell very much into the category of 'move this over here, put that there, add something somewhere else'. Undoubtedly very important but without very much scope for creativity within them[4].

The flip/flop re-org I could handle... in a team? Great, new projects? Why the heck not, new process? Sure, I like a challenge. All those things were fine. I figured I'd do them 9-5 (actually 10-6) with my usual flair and skillz and carry on fiddling with my own hacks in the evening and weekends.

What I wasn't expecting was that the lack of being creative during work time would suddenly and mercilessly suck all the energy and joy out of those evenings and weekends.

And that's when I handed my 3 month notice in.

The Quantified Self[5]

Spotting the depression was interesting. Obviously I knew something was up, but when it started it kind of blinded me to itself. I didn't really have the energy to spot what was going on.

But, because I back-up my data regularly, grabbing content of various social networks either with scripts or services that do it for you, I noticed something. The amount I was tweeting was way down, it had suddenly dropped. Not so much general tweets but conversations with people, @ messages and direct messaging was down, I could see the numbers right in front of me.

The amount of photos I was posting to Flickr had also dropped (cross posted from Instagram I'll get to in a second).

I could see the interactions with people I was having around the internet had reduced, weeknotes had stopped, emails slowed down, I was leaving my IM client off more, blogging (or at least writing drafts) took even longer than normal.

Dan Hon wrote about the Quantified Self as a way to measure his blood sugar (and more). All these services, hardware and tools we can monitor our body with, glucose levels, weight and so on. What I was seeing was a change in my behaviour, a measurable mental state. And once I'd seen the numbers it made it easier to figure out what was going on.

Interestingly my posting of Instagram photos increased over this period. I've tried to figure out why and this is the closest I could get. Kellan wrote a blog post about the 1st year of tweets, in which he said it worked best in the first year because of "ambient intimacy". There were so few of us (relatively) using it that when you tweeted you knew you were mainly broadcasting to just your friends, even though the tweets were public. That's where a lot of the "Oh, it's just people tweeting what they're eating for breakfast" came from, however you'd tweet "Off to Joe's Waffle House, pancakes for breakfast" because what you were really saying as "Hey, anyone up for some breakfast?" signalling an informal ambient open invitation. If not for that occasion, then enough for someone else to say "Oh hey, I really fancy some pancakes, anyone up for that this Thursday?".

But Flickr and Twitter (and this Blog) were now too public for me as I was withdrawing from dealing with people. But withdrawing didn't mean I didn't want to deal with people, just that the effort of doing so generally seemed too much. Instagram currently has the same level of ambient intimacy that twitter used to have. Even though I know the photos are public I'm just "broadcasting" to the small group of friends that I know well enough to follow me. I was using it to throw out easy, quick, "hey I'm still here" messages. Adding Likes and comments acting as small pings across the network.

I don't think I've fully fleshed out my thoughts about that yet, but that's roughly where I'm upto.

On running

Finally though, over the last couple of weeks I can feel myself coming back out of it. Today is my last day at the Guardian, I've seen my tweeting and "proper" photo taking picking up recently, and more obviously I've managed to write this blog post :)

Something that did help throughout though was learning running and the Nike fuelband (more metrics) both of which I've written about previously...

  1. Why I Run (or rather why I’m learning to)
  2. The Nike Fuelband and me, a one month review.

The act of doing something that wasn't computer related and better still (for me anyway) something with measurable goals; time, distance, Nike "fuel points" really helped. As I was still learning to run each trip out showed some improvement. Giving me something that I could actually "win" at every few days. Apparently setting smaller achievable goals each day is a good dealing with depression technique. I didn't know that at the time, it just turned out that way.

The wrap-up

Anyway, throughout the past few months I've spoken fairly openly to people when they ask the question "Hey, how are you doing?" and the above is a snapshots of thoughts as they currently stand after talking them over a few times.

I've generally kept away from thinking and reading about the network as an extension of self. The things I choose to put onto the network are not myself but aspects of myself, “the story we want to remember”. But given that with the Quantified Self it's possible that the network could have figured out that I was getting depressed before I did myself I think it's something I'm going to have to get round to looking at in more detail soon.

Oh, and thank you to all my lovely friends, even if it just was the pinging of faves or likes, it all helped.

Onwards and upwards :)


1] I'm sure the mark of a (at least temporarily) successful large company is that they've discovered a way to not flip/flop. In that flip/flopping is a perfectly fine business model, but not flip/flopping is even betterer.

[3] the Guardian now graphs a lot more stuff with easier to get to dashboards and moving steadily closer to continuous deployment.

[4] yes I know this sounds very much like I'm upset at not getting to be "disruptive" and having to knuckle down and do 'dull' everyday work. It's honestly not, most of the "disruptive" stuff I worked on is "dull", the dull details and the oh so dull, dull 80% making stuff actually work. Shipping projects are full of the "dull" but very important tasks of making them actually work, I'm down with the hard bashing code out part, I enjoy it, there's an art to everyday coding that's thoroughly enjoyable. Often the code I do in the evening is the "dull" part. Dull I can handle, non-creative I can't.

[5] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantified_Self

## Table of Contents: July

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This is what used to be a blog, but is now an online diary/archive sort of thing. As I'm laying off the twitter a bit and currently reclaiming all my Flickr photos this is the main place to find me, (subscribing via RSS) should still work.

I also have a podcast, with more audio experiments on SoundCloud. A smaller "scrapblog" is over on tumblr. If you need to get hold of me email hello@revdancatt.com

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Other blogs I track, some on the offchance they start publishing again.