Until It's Time for Me to Go

Subject: Until It's Time for Me to Go
From: Moshe Koenig <alsacien -at- NETVISION -dot- NET -dot- IL>
Date: Mon, 16 Sep 1996 19:40:24 PDT

Dear Colleagues,

Recently I faced something that still has me very upset: for the first
time, I was at an impasse with a project (the same one I mentioned before
in the list), and I was forced to abandon the project shortly before the
projected completion date. I have never done this before and am still not
too comfortable with what I did, but I don't see how I could do otherwise.
For the moment, I'm looking for group therapy, shall we say, because it
could be that I did the right thing, only it feels wrong.

I entered this project in August of 1995, and it was my understanding
that the completion date was early November 1995. Come November, and it
became clear that this deadline was unrealistic; the product was not
yet stable enough. I then committed myself to two months of intensive
work on the project, six days a week, working anywhere from 9-24 hours
a day. In all my career, I never pulled as many all-nighters as I did
on this project. My written agreement ran out in November, but I made
an oral agreement to continue up to the Beta stage in January 1006, which
ended up in February instead.

As could be expected, feedback came in, and the project manager decided
to modify the product to please the Beta testers. The result was a vastly
improved product that bore only a vague similarity to what I had documented
up to that point. When I had written the Beta manual, the project manager
kept insisting that I insert more and more material, much of it conceptual
and not related to the product, until soon we had a book that approached
400 pages for a product designed for a simple end-user with no computer
programming background. The book would have been fine as a reference guide
if the material had stayed relevant, but the interface changed so much that
most of the book needed a thorough rewrite. There were also DTP issues that
I could not fix for Beta, given the tight deadline and the fact that even
as I wrote the manual, I had to stop to download new dialogs and to make
corrections in them in the Borland Resource Workshop files.

One factor I've not mentioned is the burnout factor. Living and breathing
ANY project like this is enough to cause severe brain damage. I was
suffering from an undue amount of personal stress at the time that was
unrelated to the project (a problematic child, a dying brother, an
overwrought wife whose mother has terminal cancer), and that DEFINITELY
did not help matters.

The product went to Beta, and I had a reprieve of close to two months. In
the interim, my brother passed away; I suffered a very severe depression
and was unable to work for a long time. When the project reared up again,
I was shaky, to say the least, and I wasn't sure if I'd get the job done
the next time around.

For the past half year, this project has been rising and falling, but the
pressure surged a month ago and is reaching fever proportions now. However,
I've been accepted to another job on a full-time basis. This project is
barely paying me at all; I've stayed just to avoid being accused of being
the deserter who took it down. Financial realities prevent me from going
further. In addition, it seems that the project manager is soliciting
opinions from everyone -- including persons whose backgrounds classify
them as NOT the target audience for the product -- and tells me to make
changes accordingly! As a result, my role has become temp typist: do
this, don't do that, change it to this, change it back to that -- the
one-way road to insanity, for sure. Last week, I got an "order" to
rewrite the entire tutorial to suit one of these atypical types, and
this despite the fact that the "order" is telling me, in effect, to make
the tutorial replicate the reference manual! The online Help is now so
heavy, so cumbersome, that it rivals the software for disk space (the
compressed Help file takes up a whole diskette in the installation),
only because EVERYONE told me how to do it, and I, like a fool, didn't
fight them down because I wanted to put this one to rest.

Please know that I'm not the pushover type. I'm notorious for arguing
back, for asserting my rights, for cracking the whip and kicking butt
when I have to -- and I do quite often. This time, I was overwhelmed
by the size of the role: I had to write documentation, to help with
interface design, to give instruction in context sensitivity, only to
be told by the people whom I instructed how to manage the Help aliases
to make the Help match their context strings, and more and more and
more... I feel I've aged a decade since entering the project, and even
if I give it one more push, I'm sure they'll modify the product again
and stick me with more changes. I wonder if my grandchildren will live
to see this product reach the market.

When does a freelance technical writer say, "Enough; time to go"? I'm
truly baffled. I've never walked out on a project before. I've walked
out on employers because they were jerks, and I feel little guilt
about it because the employers will continue, with or without me, but
a project with a startup company is different; I could be the one who
kills the project and the company's success. Is it "kill or be killed"
in this case? I just don't know. I've tried reasoning, only to be
stonewalled each time. I can't work the 20-hour days any more, nor
can I live on air -- and that's assuming the project winds up soon,
which may be too optimistic. When do I know I've reached the cutoff
point?

This isn't an easy question, I know. That's why I value the feedback.

- Moshe

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