Around 3 years ago I was helping my girlfriend with a University assignment. It was for her innovative fiction class and the brief was simple: make a website to store text and responses to 3 surveys which would alter the course, theme, and genre of a story.

Overconfidence set in pretty quickly; at this stage in our relationship I wanted to impress her, so I wanted to make something that would blow her expectations out of the water.

What happened next was the most stressful few days of my life. I’d had a lot of time to prepare but that isn’t how I produce my best work and this was not to be my best work. I knew early on that the design itself would be simple and that I could approach it from one of two ways: pure CSS, or tables.

Red Flag #1

I settled for CSS. I still considered myself a web designer at this point so it was a logical conclusion. The problem is that it was such a simple website that CSS would actually prove to be overkill; tables would have got the job done quicker and at no cost to the overall user experience.

For example: far too much time was spent on aligning the ‘Next Page‘ and ‘Previous Page‘ that was to flank the bottom of the text. With tables it would have been trivial. With CSS it became slightly more complicated.

Eventually, I had something resembling the design I wanted. Now to work on the next portion of the website: the surveys. Like the design, this could be approached one of two ways: Javascript, or PHP.

I’ll be honest and say that there is no real way for me to be successful here. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Javascript so that was out of the window almost as quick as I had thought of it but I felt PHP was the sensible option here and it was clearly the most efficient for what I needed…

Red Flag #2

…had I have been as good with PHP as I remembered.

See, the last time I played with PHP was about 3 years prior where I helped a friend with a PHP based forum and that wasn’t exactly difficult. It was my job to assist with version control and bug fixes, and most of the bug fixes involved little coding on my part. We would sit on AIM and discuss the problem while looking at the latest codebase. More often than not I’d say “why is X being called in a totally unrelated function?” and the lightbulb would go off. We called it “interactive rubber ducking“.

So there I was with a small amount of knowledge of a now outdated version of the language I was intending to use. More importantly I had vastly overestimated how much of that knowledge I retained. I was in trouble.

I asked Stack Social how best to approach the problem and called it a night. The next afternoon I was greeted with a selection of none responses, so I went over to the Something Awful forum where they told me exactly what was wrong with my code, and what I should do. It was exactly what I needed so off I went with a new found enthusiasm… and then it went wrong.

Red Flag #3

The browser wouldn’t compile my code.

I diligently checked the version of PHP against that of the server and realised I was well within limits. At this point I had tunnel vision and my blood pressure had already began it’s ascent; even thinking about it caused a twinge just behind my right eye.

The error message informed me of a syntax error, but when I looked at the line it referenced, there was no syntax error in sight. Now angry beyond reason, Lizzie told me not to worry about it and that she’d think of something else… but this was a day before it was due in, I can’t possibly leave her in such a shitty situation. Yes, it would have been easier on me, but it would have just transferred all that stress back onto her.

“I’m going to have a shower,” I said. “I might be a while.”

Unbeknownst to me, she had been asking around some of her more tech-savvy friends to see if they could figure it out whilst I sat in the shower feeling like an idiot and a failure.

Only then did I manage to calm down enough to realise what the problem was. The down time I had forced onto myself had given me the perfect opportunity to relax and reevaluate my goals.

Off went the shower and I ran back to my computer desk to sit down for the last leg of the build.

The above, while relevant, is a pretty accurate post-mortem of something that would have taken me a few hours 2 years earlier. I effectively left my tools out in the rain and then complained when they got rusty and stopped working as well as they used to.

The solution utilised there is something I have always done to varying degrees. I have never been a person to sit down with a pad of paper and a pen, scribbling down a strict itinerary to both live and die by. Sometimes the best solution is to simply walk away.

One time I was at a bar, and heavily into work on my music. All of a sudden I broke the conversation, ran outside and started recording a piano melody that had burst into my mind. Even when I am not working, I am working.

Right now I am doing the same thing with a game I’m working on. After discovering that level design is difficult, I stopped working on it. Lizzie keeps telling me, rather sternly, that I need to get back to work on it, that I haven’t touched it in weeks. Recently she actually told me that she doesn’t believe I have it in me to finish a project (her words were significantly more delicate, of course).

Perhaps this method of working is down to my world view. I once said that I can find music everywhere; the boiling of a kettle can inspire a rhythm, the sound of rain can trigger the introduction to an epic Shine On You Crazy Diamond-esque song, and — my personal favourite — barely hearing a song playing at a relatively low volume, and inspiring an entire track from how you fill in the blanks. In fact, it has been said that Uriah Heep did exactly that when they shared a rehearsal suite with a little known band named Deep Purple.

I am in the process of spinning a few different plates. My music project, my games project, helping a friend with their game, all while trying to survive and there isn’t a moment when I am not thinking of any of them. In fact, the only downtime I truly get is watching my beloved Newcastle United being strangled by their board and manager, but that’s a story for another day.

Oh, and that website I spoke about earlier? The tutor awarded it a first — the highest mark that can be given. Not bad for somebody who has never been to University.