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The Toki Ponist on the Mountain
Chapter 4: Scrum

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September 2020

It is a small stroll from Utrecht Central Station to the drab high-rise where I work. I must have walked on autopilot because I am entering the building and can’t remember crossing those two busy streets. I spent all observational energy people-watching in Eindhoven.

I did not quite sleep during my one-hour journey nor was I entirely awake. I drifted on either side of the twilight where two realities seem to merge into a single experience. One is everyday reality. The other, I don’t know.

Something or someone was watching me. Reflections in the train car window seemed to contain more than they should. Words that make no sense popped up and at other times I saw shapes that made no sense.

It’s been like this ever since she is gone. A good four months now. She always was my adversary in life. Mocking me for my ideas, making me doubt when I was certain, stressing me when I was at ease. And yet, she was the closest to a real friend I’ve had since high school. And now, she occupies lurking shadows, tagging along comforting gusts of shame.

The eternal discomfort was there even before the accident. It was and is always there, sometimes quiet and sometimes flaring up, but with no resolution in sight. If only it was more like a puzzle. I can mull endlessly over puzzles that seem unsolvable because a puzzle has a designer and a designed solution. It may be hard, but knowing there is a satisfying outcome gives enough hope to carry on the search.

But this godawful feeling is a maze where going left at every turn does not get you to the exit. I know I have a problem. I need a solution. But what does that even mean? Isn’t solving a problem the same as tranforming something shitty into something else which you find agreeable but is in essence equally shitty. Conservation of misery.

After entering the building, I decide at the last moment to climb the four flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator. I hate waiting, and even though I will end up out of breath, I am absent enough not to care.

I am just in time to pour a coffee and join my team in their daily stand-up, a ritual in most software development companies nowadays. These meetings intend to put everyone’s heads together and on the same page so that everyone is on the same wavelength and up to speed. And all that. When everything is said and done. Most prefer to vibrate with their own wavelength, remaining on their own page making sure they can operate on their page for the rest of the day. The team usually seems content though, so it can’t be all bad.

Bob is our scrum master, and it is his job to round us all up for the daily. Bob is what they call a people person. In this company that means he is not very good at writing code, but his jokes are somewhat appreciated.

“Members of the fellowship, get your character sheets in order, let’s embark!” Bob says while scavenging all desks for team members and spreading wafts of aftershave. The remark elicits a chuckle from Desmond and Djalil. The rest of the team, either lacks humor or, worse, is very serious about their job and about writing proper code.

We follow the smell of musk and tangerines to a white board covered in post-its. Bob iterates each member of our team. He discusses their plans, whether they need help and if they are still committed to the product and the team. I can’t concentrate. I hear the same jargon I hear every day. There are cycles, things about pushing harder, features, bugs, a warning about return of investment, refactoring, best practices, a short discussion about being lean enough, then, suddenly, my name.

“Joakim!” Bob says. “What about your daily quest?”

I am traversing the twilight again. My stomach churns out bubbles of ache on the way back to reality. I blink my eyes to reinforce my senses.

“Yes, Bob,” I say, stalling. “Excellent!”

I quickly peek at the scrum board stuck to the wall in front of me to refresh my memory on the user story I put in the column labeled doing.

“I’ve done all the preliminary research. I have found a small but decent library that will help me speed up the response time of the entire user interface. So I am good to go!”

Hopefully I said it with enough decidedness and enthusiasm to quench new interactions.

“Library?” Bob says. “I thought you ensured us you could write it yourself, did you underestimate the complexity of your story?”

Shit. I messed up.

“Well, I could write it myself in no time, but the library seems well tested, and I just thought to try it first to see if it works in speeding up things.”

Harry, the only man on the team wearing a suit, turns his chair ominously. He is the only person not standing up during the stand-up. Harry is the product owner, representing the external client, and he seems to extract a lot of self-confidence from the owner part in the title.

“This is not a matter to take lightly. The client would hate a lot of extra dependencies in the project. At the same time, the producers of this dependency may have preconceived all the boundary cases you might not have thought of.”

“Thank you for your input,” I say. I clench my fists.

Bob steps in. “Did you do a full assessment of this library, Joakim? And Alice, what do the guidelines say about when we should or should not include third-party libraries; I assume it is open-source. Can you find out and take it up with Joakim?”

“Yo. On it!” Alice says. She likes her job and takes it seriously. Alice also enjoys being the only woman in the team.

I nod to Alice. “We’ll get it done, in time, and properly.”

“We can always count on you, Joakim!” Bob says. “I have faith in you, don’t look so gloomy.”

It is true. I am not feeling well and that probably shows. My stomach always plays up during these meetings. I first wrongly assumed it was because I have to speak up and be vulnerable about what I have been up to. Every workday, I have my two minutes of pretending to being a productive member of this team and an enthusiastic developer. But it is not about speaking up. I can’t give a blind badger’s ass about this whole project or the job itself.

The people around me seem as devoid of authenticity as I am but this does not bind me to them in any way. It makes me lonely. Do they even realize they are acting? If they do, I bet they call it: being professional.

This entire fellowship is incompetent. But that does not mean the project does not get done to any satisfaction. Curiously enough, in the end everybody is pleased and we celebrate another project well done. But this current lame navigation software product for a luxury car is based on old technology and is as good as obsolete before its release in 2017. All those seemingly critical decisions will be of no concern, and all those pesky arguments will have been in vain. The only lasting effect is on my perceived self-worth.

After a surprisingly precise fifteen minutes, the stand-up is over, and everyone springs back to their terminals and into worlds of their own. This part I can relate to. I sit down behind my computer, put on my headphones and code a version using the library and one from scratch. Before Alice gets to me, I might even have time to work on my pet project for a while.

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