In 2012 and 2013 I published two books having chucked in my job and deciding that I needed to do something a little more worth while instead. During that period I kept a blog covering the ups and downs of life on the road trying to piece together a road cycling guide. Recently I sat down and looked at all of this text wondering whether it might make sense to bash it into another cheep kindle book. So I put together an introduction leading the reader into 18 months of relatively unstructured bloggage covering that period.
The whole thing began with a swimming pool demolition in Leeds. Somebody posted a picture of the resultant car park on twitter today and so I thought I’d put up a little taster of the kindle book I hope to release later this year. I’ve got a working title which I think works, but for the time being we’ll refer to it as “All the proper cycling authors can rest easy as Dave will probably cock this up as well”
Once bitten, twice shy. What a load of old toss. If that saying were true I’d never stub my toe, drink coffee that’s too hot, enter a road race or pay money to watch Swindon Town Football Club. The phrase needs to be reworded somewhere along the lines of “it takes about ten proper hard run ins for Dave to get the message”. These thoughts were idling through my mind as I fiddled with my tie in an executive board meeting. To my left were some vague noises concerning a recent outage and its “complete unacceptability” which immediately triggered a new game of spin the management bottle. The participants passed the blame around waiting for it to stick, each director winced in turn as the neck of the bottle pointed in their direction.
I should probably have winced as well, but my attention was captivated by the swimming pool across the road, or to be more accurate the remainder of the swimming pool. It was being methodically torn down by demolition experts, apparently Leeds centre had more need of a car park than a swimming pool and so this 1970‘s monstrosity had to go. I reflected upon the swimming pool’s brief time on this earth.
It had probably been conceived from enthusiasm as a councillor or two fought for budget to improve the health and fitness of the Leeds population. Many late nights and negotiations resulted in a signature on a piece of paper allowing construction to begin. Local children had watched in anticipation as brick by brick this temple of entertainment had grown in front of them before throwing open its doors to a legion of swimmers undeterred by chlorine and the inability to pet in the pool. This pool would have had a single purpose, to allow people to swim in safety away from murky ponds, trolley filled canals or lobster infested coastlines. It would have been happy with its purpose and as long as its basic needs were catered for would probably have fulfilled this purpose for centuries.
But ultimately the pool would have been stymied by factors unrelated to swimming. Management decisions would have diverted maintenance funds elsewhere. Other political priorities would have overridden the need for a city centre swimming pool or a set of management consultants would have proposed a more cost effective/profitable alternative on a cheaper green field site out of town. The pool itself would have had no say in these decisions it would have been quite happy being swum in until one day the water was drained out and chipboard nailed up over its windows. The pool had ceased to be a receptacle for swimmers, it was now prime real estate instead. Exercise and entertainment had been driven out in the name of commerce and so the human cycle of tearing down a perfectly serviceable building to replace it with another would begin again.
I saw this cycle of inception, purpose, growth, review, decline in myself. Ten years previously I’d built a career within another large company, driven by the enthusiasm to create new products and leverage exciting technologies to fulfil them. The excitement and purpose had waned as I’d climbed further up the ladder. The whiter my shirt, the larger my wage packet, the lower my moral and drive became. Deep challenging technical problems were replaced with senior management politics and game playing. Tedious box ticking business plans that were never properly read replaced detailed hand drawn schematics of engineering prototypes. Like the pigs in Animal Farm I found myself starting to “walk on two legs” and caught myself relaying management speak to colleagues that were supposed to be my friends. A future of balance sheet appraisal, total quality audits, senior management cap doffing and suit wearing lay out in front of me. The fiscal and pensionable benefits certainly had some merit, but I could feel the proper me seeping out of my skin with each further day I endured.
I walked out of that job with a few thousand pounds in savings and no real idea as to what I was going to do. I reassured my wife that “something would come up” and we set off to France with our young family for a long circumnavigation of the country to give me some respite. We were sat on a beach in Antibe when the planes hit the twin towers, things were clearly going to change in the world and so we decided to slowly make our way home and find me a job.
A series of consultancy assignments followed by a serendipitous meeting introduced me to Grant a mischievous sales director in a large American software company. We clearly shared similar motivations and enthusiasms and a few months later our startup technology company was born. Several weeks later Grant and I constructed a large shed in my back garden and our own little Hewlett Packard story began. It’s a book in its own right, but to keep the story brief, five years from formation after the most amazing rollercoaster small business ride we sold a majority share to a larger company. And once again I donned the suit, attended management meetings and began to do the two legged pig walk again.
Remind yourself of the opening sentence. I should have known better, I should have remembered my frustration five years previously, I should have ignored all the zeros on the company offer letter and the short term financial security it would provide. Instead I signed away the next three years to a set of profit targets, performance measures and compliance documents. The first two years were actually very exciting. Our new owners gave us autonomy and we expanded from my shed into proper offices and grew the team. We created all sorts of new products and enjoyed the benefit of proper investment into our operation. Our business within a business was doing well and soon it became time to become properly subsumed within the mother company.
I was given a flighty job title, bloody large salary, share options and a place on various boards. Our mother company was sold to venture capitalists, the pace of growth increased, all sorts of industry superstars were being head hunted and once again I found myself in meetings that had absolutely no technical content whatsoever.
Watching the swimming pool being torn down made me realise that I’d lost my sense of purpose. I was now well on the wrong side of forty, I’d rediscovered my cycling obsession and spent every free moment travelling about and sampling new sections of road. I’d even conceived a vague plan about writing a book of cycling routes but done nothing to further it. But here I was in a board room, discussing outages rather than writing code to prevent them. An ember of discontent flared from the back of my mind and before the sanity firefighters could get to the root of the flames I’d been overrun by an inferno of desire.
Boardrooms were not my future. I needed to get out and write a book about cycling.
Anyone that knows me will attest to the fact that I am a strange sort of bloke who’s thought chains can vary wildly. One minute I’m considering my preferred pot noodle flavour choice, the next pondering whether the big bang really was a bang if there was nobody around to hear it. There’s a darker chain of thought that has stayed with me for many years., I am constantly visualising my own funeral. This visualisation is usually a variation around the wife and kids digging a shallow grave in a local allotment. But I sometimes consider what words would be said over my grave. Probably something along the lines of “I told him red was the live wire” or “Can I have his titanium Omega frame please Helen?”.
After these words had been said I’ve always hoped that they’d throw something into the grave after me. Something that I’d done that represented my life on earth and the useful contribution that I’d made to humanity. At this point in time I clearly felt that there was not a lot of useful Dave stuff that could follow me into the earth. The songs I’d written in a punk band many years ago could only really serve a purpose in noise cancellation feedback loops for tractor engines. All of my computer code had become “todo” items in long list of systems rewrite projects. It seems bit barbarous to throw my children in as the Egyptian pyramid builders liked to do and the three legged lathe turned table I made in woodwork would never survive the journey out of my parent’s house.
I needed something that could be chucked in after me. Something that at least one person could have derived some sort of pleasure or satisfaction from. Something that could serve as a tiny legacy to show that my brief existence upon this planet had served some sort of purpose. The swimming pool had served its purpose and a generation would look back upon it fondly and remember the place where they took their first tentative strokes alone in the water or laid their first swimming pool poo subsequently causing mass panic and evacuation. I wanted to serve mine.
This board meeting was timely as I had a week’s holiday booked that began the next day. A week’s cycling in the Alps with a friend. My wife Helen dreads my cycling holidays, I announced my first resignation to her following a week’s mountain biking in Moab. She managed to keep two hands on the wheel as she drove me back from the airport, remarkable restraint as she held back from pummelling my face with balled fists. Every holiday since she’s waved me off with a cheery “Please don’t come back and resign”. This holiday was no different.
The long monotonous French toll roads offered up great spaces for thinking. From Calais to Reims I’d outlined the book I wanted to write, from Reims to Lyon I’d mentally drafted a few chapters and conceived options for look and feel and by the time we’d arrived in Bourg Saint Maurice there was no turning back. Yet again I was going to walk out of a safe and lucrative job, but this time with a real purpose. I’m going to write a book. A proper book that would serve a useful purpose. A book that could be chucked into the hole after I’m lowered into it and land on my coffin with a decent “thud”.
The following days saw my thoughts consumed with this new future. At the age of 45 it is tempting to view this as a mid-life crisis, I saw it differently. This was not a crisis at all, a crisis is deemed to be an event that is, or can lead to, an unstable and dangerous situation. I wasn’t in any kind of crisis, I was too bloody comfortable. The only crisis in my life was the slight loss of purpose, but now I had it. This was more a mid-life reaffirmation of who I am, which is not a suit wearing business strategist, more a person who gets out there and does stuff. The sale of my previous business had liberated some funds that could bankroll this new direction. It was supposed to be my pension, but what’s the point of having a pension if you spend your later years rolling in regret.
I cycled up mountains and worked on my speech to Helen. This needed clear thought as my plan was entirely selfish, pack in the job, cycle all over the place for a year and then publish a book in the vain hope that I might be able to recoup some of the outgoings. The more I thought, the harder it got. There was no way to dress this up as a shared benefit. This was definitely about me .
The trickiest part of this speech construction was the knowledge that I had previous form. It would be difficult to present my future plan as a once-in-a-lifetime risk as we’d already been through that. I felt empathy with the mountain climbers that I love reading about, I imagined each and every speech made to their partners as they prepared to depart on another hugely ambitious project. “I’ll be alright love, it’s only K2 and I’ve packed me thermos”. Ultimately you don’t climb mountains for the benefit of your family, you do it for yourself and your own personal (in)sanity. It’s the same with cycling books, I was well aware of the economics of authorship vs those of IT director. I’d really struggle to build any sort of fiscal or family based business case.
Things were further complicated by the fact that Helen was in full time employment within my own company. I’d be leaving a good job and she’d be staying behind to carry on earning a crust. Mulling this over it became clear that I’d have to present my case in the manner of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I’d lay three Dave’s out in front of Helen, the Dave of the past driven by enthusiasm and boundless energy, the Dave of the present slowly losing the will to live in a confining job and finally the Dave of the future sat solemnly behind a large mahogany desk working with HR to dispose of unnecessary employees. The simple question posed would be “which one did she prefer being married to?”.
As it happens all of my mentally rehearsed soliloquies were in vain. on my return, I stepped over the threshold muttered something about my job and Helen told me to resign. You see women are far more intuitive than we can ever give them credit for. She’d seen this coming for months and was simply counting the days until I uttered the “R” word. All the signs had been there; the extended reading of the paper in the morning before leaving for work, the lingering glances at maps/bicycles/P45’s and the fact that I’d encouraged her so avidly to take up a full time position.
We didn’t bother with any sums or financial advise, there was no point as we hadn’t bothered last time round and things had worked out ok. I had some money in the bank from selling the business, this was supposed to be my pension, we’d spend it on writing a book instead. Seven years of hard work within a small business also builds a degree of self confidence in your ability to earn a crust. I’d learnt hard work the hard way. I’d learnt how it feels to be absolutely dependent upon your own ability to deliver and what it means to face the consequences of not meeting deadlines. A vein of arrogance told me that I’d make this money back again, better to spend it now whilst I had my relative youth, fitness and drive.
I am writing to formally resign from my current position ..
There is an amazing satisfaction in being a bloke and having a boss called John. Not only did I get to write a letter of resignation, I got to write a “Dear John” letter. Even more so, it contained all sorts of “it’s me not you” phrases:-
“Finally, I would like to stress that this decision is based upon myself, my goals and a need to spend much more time with my family and other projects than I currently do.”
I posted the letter at the beginning of October 2010 and a short period of shitting myself began. I’d read through my contract of employment and come across the “years notice” clause. I had no idea how my decision would be received or whether this clause would be strictly adhered to. A year’s notice, how on earth would I cope? What would they make me do? I had visions of becoming the UK’s highest paid potato peeler. Fortunately it didn’t come to that, my company proffered the right amount of regret whilst agreeing to a three month notice period. At the same time an email circulated around Head Office Subject: “YAY He’s Off!” A few token efforts were made to get me to stay including the option of a career break. I waved them all away, I knew I’d never deliver on my mission if it came with a huge great safety net.
…TO BE CONTINUED…