Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nothing In Your Professional Life Is Insurmountable

Trust me. Nothing. Whatever it is, you can evolve, you can adapt.

I'm hoping a personal story will provide some inspiration.

About 5 years ago, I was an experienced software developer in his prime. I was doing a reasonably good job at playing technical top dog for about 15+ developers.

I coded, I drew UML on whiteboards, I set standards, and took responsibility for the technical direction of the solution. I was on the keyboard. A lot.

Then my wrists and hands started suffering severe pain. First the left, then a week later the right. I couldn't type, and I couldn't use a mouse, not without inducing searing agony that would last for hours, and eventually days.

I went on disability, I tried to get better, and I tried to figure out what was wrong with me, for many months. With absolutely no success. One day I was an aspiring professional, the next I had no clear future.

But one thought kept reoccurring to me. When I was still working, I provided the most value when I was designing with others, and communicating those designs with others. No software was involved for either of these activities, just whiteboards, and the English language.

It was with this thought that cemented the decision to return back to work. I still couldn't type, and I still couldn't use a mouse. But I knew I could still add value. And I was sick of being on disability.

The firm I work for provided me with the best technical support they could, in that day that meant a laptop equipped with some very slow and inaccurate voice recognition. If I really tried, I could send e-mails, and even a section of a Word document or two. But I could use a whiteboard (painfully) and I could speak.

I'm still at that firm 5 years later, and I have been promoted twice since I returned. At times it's been an uphill battle, I've often felt like a blind art critic, one that could make judgments based solely on the perception of others. I also worked in a consultancy, which meant constantly having to explain to superiors why I couldn't create a PowerPoint by myself. And then explain it again. And again.

The most interesting part of this story, is how it forced me to grow. I had to learn how to rely on others to get anything done. I would constantly trade my knowledge mentorship for the use of a more junior person's fingers. I'm pretty sure I'm a better professional as a result.

Eventually, I also stumbled on some cool agile tools like CRC cards and agile card walls that didn't require the use of a computer to get stuff done.

I still can't type or use a mouse, and my hand still occasionally flare up. The tools I use now are way better than the ones I started with. Some I found along the way, some I programmed myself. I easily spent many a hundred hours on customizing accessibility software to fit my needs. One of those was the ability to program with my voice.

Hopefully, if you're facing an insurmountable barrier, you'll find your way to this post. I hope it inspires you. Whatever is in your way, take it down.


  1. Very inspiring story and have observed the same growth noticing that you turned a challenge into an opportunity.

  2. I was exactly the same by the first year of uni. I couldn't even hold a toothbrush at the worst. I eventually found that there is a massive mind-body link with this, as well as maybe 30% ergonomics.

    Because in my mind I had associated my old keyboard and mouse with pain (despite trying to tell myself otherwise) I decided to get a new keyboard (abiet a lot more ergonomic - logitech waveform) and I also got a wacom tablet and pen to use as a mouse. Within about a week I was back to programming and the pain disappeared. I read a book that seemed to imply the more stressed your mind becomes about it, the less blood you have circulating and it feels like you're doing damage. It causes an endless cycle of fear and pain (i think actual carpal tunnel is a lot rarer than people seem to assume)

    3 years later I am programming all day every day with no issues at all, and since getting a new laptop i'm fine to use the keyboard on that (no negative connotations? i dunno). If i use a standard microsoft keyboard for more than an hour or so I do notice it come back, but otherwise I'd say I've made a full recovery.

    It's probably worth a go - I went and tried a lot of the available options but none of them beat a keyboard for programming!

  3. Anonymous,

    Thank you for sharing your story, glad you have made a mostly full recovery. I suspect we will see more of these keyboard related injuries as time goes by. Programming and keyboards are still the preferred way to go, but I hope the industry continues to explore alternative means for those of us who don't have keyboards as a viable option.