Project Management

The paycheck for an IT project vs. the cost of stress

High-stress projects can take their toll on your health. An IT contractor recalls being reminded of this life lesson during a recent Windows 7 migration project.

I recently picked up a two-month project upgrading 350 workstations of varying kinds from Windows XP to Windows 7 Professional. Projects are interesting; at some date, the 350 systems are done, and you are sent packing. In my case, I wanted the experience of a major migration effort for my own clientele, which I can now accomplish in a wise manner pending our July loss of support for Windows XP.

The location of the project was just down the road from where I live, the staff was wonderful, and my team members were (for the most part) extremely talented. As the de facto Team Leader, I had to manage people within our small working room, suggesting (for example) that we avoid discussing religion and politics. Some members were let go, and some new members joined the project. The task list per system was continually refined, and for each computer we had to complete approximately 30 steps to move from Windows XP to Windows 7. Sometimes these steps were revised mis-stream (causing no end of chaos), but that was part of the project.

The inherent problems slowly arose over time. Laptops from the field were guaranteed a same day turnaround and had to be at the UPS dock for shipment by 3:00 PM. We could do a good job of knocking out two laptops in that time, but if we did more than that it stressed the workload in our pipeline. Changes to the ghost images were continually performed, which sometimes caused horrible situations requiring reversal of work. I learned well the axiom that "lack of preparation on the client's part does not indicate stupidity on my part." We could only do our best and, over time, we became a de facto part of their IT staff. People would come to us with issues, which we would answer while knowing that at some future date we would be fired. To some degree, the last condition helped a bit, but what can they do... fire us?

Perhaps the largest conflict was that constant work was expected without any downtime, so if one of us finished a system on time and had a five-minute relaxation spell, our managers would find new work for us to do immediately; this included labor intensive work such as boxing and counting toner cartridges for inventory. It was insulting at first glance, but I decided since they were paying me, I would do it and receover elsewhere. A positive attitude went a long way, but it was work, work, work from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM without letup.

My stress went through the roof. At home I learned to shut down upon arrival and did not respond to anything or anybody for at least 30 minutes — that was easy. I still had an outside consulting business to manage during off-hours and on weekends, so I was processing computer troubles for seven days a week. For example, mid-project I had to convert 14 17" monitors to 19" monitors in one night, perhaps the worst aspect being that users tended to keep a ton of little personal stuff in and around these things.

Lunch was a relaxation feast at a local diner that was away from it all; I was eating what tasted really good. Lunch was also purchasing pizza for my team on my own expense and having some of that too in order to be a good member of the group. All of this was food that went, in the end, straight to my heart.

The warning signs appeared during the last two weeks or so of the project when climbing stairs triggered breathing issues and walking became difficult. I had learned how to manage stress within my mind, but my body was paying the price. Congestive heart failure (CHF) was knocking on my door again. A hospital stay in 2010 introduced me to this companion, and for three years it was kept at bay through diet and medication. During the project, I was eating to cope with stress (there were even a couple of pizza binge episodes). I prepared travel bags for the hospital in case my cardiologist instructed me to go there; that option is on hold for now as we experiment with medications and moderating my habits. Now I am a lot wiser and somewhat slower about managing myself and computer troubles.

The truth was that I let stress get into my head. I can manage my own accounts very well, and as a de facto Network Admin for them, I can schedule my projects and time on my own needs; in short, I am in control of the environment and myself. I do not push myself, but on this project, I was pushed to a fanatical (if somewhat fun) extreme. Being the good office worker, I went with the stress. Even in the corporate environment, I could take time off as a salaried worker; IT consulting projects can be different creatures altogether.

Termination was more depressing than I imagined it would be. For a brief time, I was part of a larger, very good group and being sent packing is rough on the soul and ego. I did not think it would be so, but that too is another learning experience. Suck it up, Marine, and move on.

At the end of this project, I learned that the personal and physical price an IT professional might pay can negate the job's benefits. Although the money to work on the project was very good, I would rather lose sleep over money worries than become unable to sleep over breathing disorders. As I believe George Burns said, "I woke up this morning.  A lot of people didn't." As of today, I feel great.

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