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.

12 comments
Daveofthenewcity
Daveofthenewcity

Bob, I was wondering if I could contact you as you may be able to provide some advice for a new university teaching module I'm working on.  If that's OK, could you get in touch please? (I don't seem to be able to message you via TechRepublic but that may be me not understanding the system.)  This is me: http://www.cands.org/Home/people/david-chapman.

Thanks, David

ross180763
ross180763

I too have had my share of stressful projects, for instance I have also had a windows 7 migration project. My project was a capital project and consisted of over 23000 computers. I learned to forget my stress at night after many of sleepless nights. Its just not worth worrying about work over your health.

mgendron
mgendron

Highly recommend a book called Adrenaline Nation. The information in this book paints a dark picture on corporate Americas and the stress is places on it's employees. The information and perspective in this book identifies the forms of stress (lots you likely didn't know existed) we encounter and how to mitigate. In IT because of the added pressures of the job itself and late night maintenance windows our stress is exacerbated. If any group should understand the importance of stress management it's IT.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

(1) Take those breaks when scheduled. No exceptions unless someone is in the process of actually dying; otherwise, you're the one who's dying, one stinking cardiac cell at a time. (2) Breaks include lunch. Let the users groan all they want. If they want to claim your lunch break, tell them that will require a minimum of a 20% increase in the cost of the project to cover real damages to your health. (3) Adjust your work environment to increase your physical activity levels. Standing workstations, doing in-situ work versus having users haul stuff to a central location where you never leave, or doing the fetch and carrying yourself. And make sure you have time scheduled to do regular exercise. (4) Get yourself into an eating program that isn't going to kill you. Weight Watchers is an eating program, NOT a diet. Too many I.T. types eat like they're still teenagers, and not mature adults. O course the last time they were taught how to eat was while they were teenagers at home; so it really makes sense to take classes on proper eating habits as an adult human being.

BTRDAYZ
BTRDAYZ

I was the sole support for a PR firm in NYC. Managed 3 offices, 80 demanding users. Everything from Servers to jammed printers was mybresponsibility. More projects required off hours and even am hours to avoid user disruption. The hour I once spent at the gym during lunch, faded, because users would groan if the IT Director was out of the office and an issue developed. So I tended to stay in for lunch, work 11 and 12 hour days everyday. Order lunch in. I got fatter and fatter, and my cholesterol and blood pressure rose. I am on meds now to manage them. Then I was let go after coming on the wrong side of a political battle. I'm back in the gym now though. Cardio and weights at least 3 times a week. Down nearly 20 pounds, with another 80 to go to reach my target. My other goal is to be able to stop the meds. It's amazing what we put our bodies through to keep a job. I commuted 5 hours roundtrip to that job each day, worried about deep vein thrombosis on my commuter train, and constantly stressed at work in a thankless position. Perhaps I should be happy that I was fired. Maybe it saved my life. ;-)

africord
africord

I understand the motivation to take this contract AND continue your consulting business off hours. As someone with the recent experience of a similar nature, screwing up diet and exercise to build a resume is not your best move. I'm in my mid-50's and changed my ways, dropped my cholesterol, triglycerides, resting pulse, and blood pressure. YMMV, but I think you need to take a shot at getting your body's house in order.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

Were you hired to perform a project or be a contractor to the firm? There is a difference. Consultants are hired to perform specific work. Contractors are hired to perform job duties. If you are a consultant, don't fall into the trap of "Well I can just give them whatever task I want them to perform" trap some managers at firms like to pull. Unless it is in the contract, it's outside of scope and it is billable at whatever rate is stated in the contract. I know it is tough out there; but, you are not doing yourself or the industry any favors doing work for free. It's a hard lesson that I've had to learn over the years.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

After a tripe-bypass and an infarction of the left leg, I got a wakeup call in 2010 myself. I definitely learned that stuff at work isn't worth my health. Took a much lower pressure position in Clearwater, Florida. Now my blood pressure only goes up if her bikini is really skimpy.

reisen55
reisen55

The job of contracting is different from pure consulting, where the latter are most or less retainer agreements with monthly checks and a known TO DO list for my clients. I give Free stuff only for cosmetic purposes here, and generally a line item on an invoice that is not really free but co-coverage for something else. And not often anymore. Contracting is different - 2 months at a client site to migrate 350 systems and then done, bye, gone. They money is very good and I took this one so I could square up a big Windows XP to 7 MIgration project, and it was more than worthwhile in that regard.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

You just described what conscientious system admins do day in and day out, year in year out.

reisen55
reisen55

I have been a perm employed Sys Admin in corporate life before, and the time and stress difference is that you can take a break on your own time and enjoy it, but as a contracting the client is ALREADY PAYING STAFF ENOUGH and views the contractor as someone or an entity to DO THE JOB NOW and then be gone when the job is done, ergo, breaks are hard to take. Client does not like to see an IT Drone unit doing nothing. So it was harder work all of the time.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

No argument from me on that one Michael. Most of the sys admins I know though, are either employees or contractors. Consultants are like gun slingers. Call us in to shoot the evil doers, round up the bar maids, brand some cows; but, don't expect us to mop the bar room floors. :)