12 August 2019

My First Two-Wheel Ride Since My Spinal Cord Injury Five Years Ago


Yesterday, Janene took me for my first ride on a two-wheel bicycle since my injuries in 2014. I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to ride a two-wheel bicycle that I had enjoyed so much before the accident. It has been over five years since I've been on my mountain bike and the ride was glorious!

Some people have said to me, 'But you have been out riding since then, how were you riding if this is your first two-wheel ride?' This is true, I have been out riding in the last five years, but not on a two wheel bicycle. I actually have a three-wheel bicycle. Let me explain.

My Three-Wheel Bicycle

For some people with a spinal cord injury (SCI), depending on the severity of the damage, it can completely compromise one's sense of balance. Sometimes this is a permanent change and sometimes it is temporary. You just don't know until you wait long enough for the shock to calm down in your body (this takes about six months typically) and the healing has begun. But, as I have learned, spinal cord injury healing can go on for many years and some things can take longer than others to repair themselves and return movement and sensation. Anyway, because we were not sure if my sense of balance was going to be compromised or not and, because Janene was well aware of my passion for cycling, she wanted to get me back on a bicycle as soon as possible back then.

So, sometime within the first year after my injuries, Janene got me the most amazing three-wheel bicycle I have ever seen. It is a Mission Cycles Tribrid shown in the image to the right. This bicycle has disc brakes and gears similar to a two-wheel bicycle and although it's heavier than a two-wheel bicycle, it's actually pretty light compared to other three-wheel bicycles I've seen in the past. (In a previous life, I probably would have conspired to jump this three-wheel bicycle off a ramp or something!) However, the first big challenge that I had to overcome with even the three-wheel bicycle was finding a seat that I could sit on for any duration of time.

My Bicycle Seat Saga

Because my SCI occurred mainly in the lower lumbar spine, it also affected the sacral spine and therefore the nerves in that area. The sacral spine controls much of the movement and sensation below your waist. One of the issues I encountered was the nerves that control all my gluteal muscles and, to some degree, my perineum were all compromised. This meant that the muscles controlled by these nerves stopped working which caused tremendous muscle atrophy resulting in the muscles shrinking to almost nothing. So, the muscles in my butt and my crotch were compromised which made sitting on just about any surface very painful and difficult. Fortunately, these muscles just barely began working within five months of my injuries and have now recovered to some degree today. However, to this day, I still have special cushions to sit on and even with them I cannot sit still for very long. This made sitting in general very difficult for me, let alone on a bicycle seat. In fact, I need to wear two pairs of cycling shorts now for my stationary bike and my mountain bike. Even then, I can only make it for about an hour. But, at least I am able to ride now!

Prepping For the Ride

Internally, I have been excited but nervous about getting back on my mountain bike. Long before my injuries back in 2010 or 2011, I had purchased this really nice Yeti mountain bike (see the photo to the right). I have had several other mountain bikes, but not one this nice. It made riding off-road trails sooooo much nicer due to the full suspension and the general geometry of the frame. It's a superior uphill climbing cycle. Anyway, I have been thinking about riding this bicycle for a long time. I even hopped on it once before but was in such pain from the seat that I had to get off it within 30 seconds. So, I knew what I was up against with the limitations of my body and I had already been thinking about how I would overcome these long enough to get in a real ride duration. But getting my mountain bike ready for the ride was quite comical. It was as if all the forces in the universe were conspiring against me.

My mountain bike still had the original seat and clipless pedals on it, so I knew that I had to change these out. But before I could start on those, I had to fix the flat tire that I had on the rear. I had pumped up the wheels a couple weeks prior and realized I had a flat. Pretty easy to fix. So, I got a tube last week and swapped that out pretty quickly yesterday. Then I started working on the seat.

We had found a seat for the three-wheel bicycle that worked well enough for me to ride it for about 30 minutes. So, I decided to grab the seat off the three-wheel bicycle and move it to my mountain bike. What I remembered as I was trying to mount the seat on the Yeti seat post was that the seat rails were a non-standard width and didn't exactly fit on the seatpost. Hmm, well I now remembered that I had to do the same thing on the three-wheel bicycle, so I just did the same thing on my mountain bike. With Janene's help, I got the seat mounted. Next, I moved on to the pedals.

In working to remove the clipless pedals on the mountain bike, I realized right away that I had to find my allen wrenches. After a hunt around the house, I found a different set but it didn't have an allen key big enough to remove my pedals. So, I called one neighbor and there was no answer. I called another neighbor and he said come on over and let's figure it out. He loaned me the correct size allen wrench. Then I had to actually break the seal to the pedals to remove them. This was no easy task, but we eventually conquered it. Now I needed to find one of my helmets.

This is where things get tricky. Since my accident five years ago, we have moved our master bedroom twice (once to the main level and once back upstairs). Additionally, last year we had to pack up everything on the first floor of our house and move out due to the remodeling. So, finding my cycling tools, helmets, cycling clothes, etc. required me to dig through many boxes before I was able to locate what I needed. I could not locate the helmet that I was searching for, so I still need to find that one. But anyway, two hours of prep work and we finally got ready and out the door for the actual ride!

The Actual Ride

Once we got rolling, I realized that I can still ride! Getting on and off the bike is not so easy for me and I had to lower the seat because I cannot move my ankles at all with the braces on my lower legs. But once I got moving, everything went great and we had a really good ride.

One thing that I used to love about cycling was climbing hills. I could climb for hours and I loved it. But yesterday I quickly realized that even small hills were quite the challenge for me. Actually they are a very good challenge and I really want to do more of it. But I'm far from being ready to take on my favorite ride in Boulder County -- Flagstaff Mountain.

I was so thrilled to be able to feel the movement of being on a bicycle again. Now I can't wait to go on my next ride.

30 July 2019

Five Years Later...

Earlier this year in April, I reached five years since my spinal cord injury. Although this anniversary passed nearly unnoticed by many people around me, the value of what I have experienced in these five years still weighs heavy on me most days.

Back in April, I thought about writing this post, but I passed over it for some reason I can no longer recall. Most of the time I live my life in the new ways to which I have become accustomed and I'm able to deal rationally with most things that come up. But a couple weeks ago, I was driving to a hiking spot in Boulder County and I came across a cycling event. As I saw more and more riders it really threw me for a loop emotionally and I was so overcome I had to pull over. I see individual riders all over Boulder County all the time and I'm fine with that. I have accepted the fact that I cannot cycle the way I used to do so often. But I guess seeing all the people riding together for an event was a strong reminder of something I used to love and I still really miss. Anyway, this experience got me thinking and I figured I should write up something about the fifth year anniversary of my injuries because it's still very much always in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of my life.

Experiencing such traumatic injuries and going through the recovery was a profound experience for me physically, mentally and emotionally. As I just described above, there are still some life changes that get to me. There are big physical things like cycling events and even little physical things like the difficulty (or impossibility) of getting down on the floor to play with our puppies. Such physical limitations are something that I've learned to deal with the most. It's the mental and emotional stuff that still creeps up and surprises me from time-to-time.

Gratitude

As I have stated in a previous post, I still experience a tremendous amount of gratitude for the people in my life and for the experience that I've been through. Without going through something like this, it's difficult to understand what I mean. But recently I was reminded of it again by my fellow paraplegic friend John.

John and I meet up periodically since his own injury in 2017, but this time was a bit different. It was right before July 4th when he and I last hung out. John is doing amazingly well adjusting to life in a wheel chair. At one point, John paused to look me in the eye in a way that he never has. He then thanked me for something that I offered him early in his experience that he said he still holds to this day and it gets him through many daily difficulties. What I offered him was a statement that I learned from my wife Janene and that is, 'fake it 'til you make it.' He said that he didn't understand the value of this statement at the time, but since then he has grabbed ahold of it as a sort of mantra to move forward in his recovery and his life. I was quite touched that it has worked as well for him as it has for me.

In the last couple years, I have a newfound enjoyment in hiking. Although I cannot hike trails the way I used to (I used to run them!), I still get a lot of enjoyment out of the challenge of a trail and from being outside. I also find the solitude of hiking very comforting and I even seek out trails that are less busy for this reason. I used to say that cycling and running were both a form of meditation for me and now I've found that hiking can be the same for me.

But, overall, I think most about the positivity and support I continue to receive from family and friends. Without this, I would not be where I am today. I feel very fortunate to have so many people supporting me.

Improvements and Acceptance

So much of what drives me forward are the small gains that my body has made over the last five years. My nerve pain has improved dramatically over time, but it is by no means gone. The strength in my lower body has also improved dramatically over time, but by no means is my body at 100%. Such improvements and the positivity of the people around me are the hope that keeps me moving forward. But I have also had to face the fact that my body will never be the same.

Acknowledgement and acceptance are two related but very different concepts. Acknowledgement of my limitations is important, especially when it comes to gauging improvements on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and even year-to-year basis. But acceptance of my limitations is a whole different level. While I have certainly accepted my injuries, what is not so easy to accept is some level of permanence of these injuries. This is a complex issue that has taken me quite a while to tease apart.

While I acknowledge the injuries to my body and I accept the fact that they happened, it is still difficult to accept the severity of these injuries as permanent. Consider a bone fracture. Relatively speaking, under optimal conditions, bone fractures do heal over time. However, healing a bone fracture oftentimes means immobilizing the joints around the bone fracture. The result of such immobilization is that the soft tissues around the fracture (e.g., ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons, etc.) wind up experiencing damage due to the immobilization that lasts much longer beyond the healing of the original bone fracture. This soft tissue damage is a side effect to the actual injury, but it is the side effects that require prolonged physical therapy and hard work to overcome. It is these side effects that I am still dealing with today. Having spent two weeks lying in a bed in the ICU and then nine months in a wheel chair really took its toll on my body.

When movement begins to appear with a muscle for me, it doesn't mean that I can suddenly shed my leg braces and run down the street. It means that you can just barely see a flicker of movement in a muscle and it takes all the effort that I can possibly muster toward that muscle. Once this very minor movement begins to appear, the real battle is against the muscle atrophy and this is very, very difficult to overcome. It feels like no progress is being made and really requires a lot of mental focus not to be outdone by my own pessimism. Because such recovery requires a tremendous amount of consistent and diligent work over a long period of time, many people give up pretty quickly. I know I certainly have times where I feel like giving up. But I also know that the reward of regaining movement will not be affected by what I do on any given day, but is mainly affected by my long-term, consistent habits over time. In other words, it's about the long-term trend of the improvement. So, I keep telling myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I do my best to keep faith in the choices I make regarding my physical therapy, knowing that it's only going to make a difference over time. Much easier said than done.

Change is Constant

Looking back over the last five years, our family has undergone many changes. Five years ago, Bailey was 11 years old and Jade was 16 years old. Bailey was in elementary school and Jade was in high school and Janene was still working for the Colorado State Public Defender. Today, Bailey is in high school, has her drivers license and is beginning to consider university while Jade is about to enter her last semester of university to complete her student teaching and will then graduate. Janene has since retired from her position with the State and has opened her own private law practice. This a lot of change, albeit these are normal changes.

For me, life has changed quite a bit in the last five years. For the first nine months, I was in a wheel chair. This alone was quite jarring to me and everyone around me for a variety of reasons. One of the most difficult parts was not being at eye level with people and therefore always feeling vulnerable and somehow 'less than' what I once was. I still remember the first time that I walked in the hospital using a walker and with the help of two physical therapists. I couldn't believe how different the perspective was from my wheel chair vs. standing upright to shake someone's hand and look them in the eye. I remember thinking, 'I want this back!' This moment was a big motivator for me to learn to walk again using arm crutches, although it took an immense amount of hard work over those nine months. Since that time, I have spent the last four-and-a-half years focused on getting stronger and gaining better balance and more movement. It has meant doing some form of PT nearly every single day, so it has really become a way of life for me. I am very lucky to have gained much more strength throughout my lower body and even regained some movement. But the journey is far from over. I'm still hopeful that I will gain more movement in time so I just need to keep going.

It is also fascinating to look back at the videos that Janene took while I was learning to walk again. When I began trying to walk while I was still in the wheel chair, I was barely able to stand on my own with the arm crutches. As I tried to walk, I was literally throwing my legs forward to take steps. Over time, I progressed bit by bit toward actual walking with a more normal gait and somewhat normal strength. For me, it is shocking to see how weak my body was through this initial time period. It's always a reminder of how far I have come.

Onward to the next five years!

18 June 2019

My Principles for Hiring Software Engineers

Hiring is difficult. Hiring reliable, talented software engineers is even more difficult. In fact, hiring is probably the most arduous task that managers must handle, no matter what type of business you are conducting. And, based on the topic of Marc Andreessen's famous article Why Software is Eating the World, every conceivable industry is now being dominated by companies that are adept at developing software. So, the competition for good software engineers is pretty steep right now and will remain this way for the foreseeable future.

TL;DR (too long didn't read):
  1. The candidate must have a demonstrated ability and hunger to continually learn 
  2. The candidate must be a culture fit for the environment and the people
  3. The candidate must demonstrate humility

On with the background...

Throughout my years of hiring experience that began 20+ years ago, I have learned a thing or two. I've read many articles and books about hiring in the software industry and heard many opinions on the topic. The result of my years of experience is a set of principles that I follow when hiring. But before I get to these principles, let me explain what lead me to them.

Because I'm hiring from a management standpoint, I pay attention to aspects beyond just the candidate with the best technical skills and/or qualifications. I focus on team building which encompasses a myriad of aspects far beyond just technical aptitude. For me, team building requires the consideration of many different cross-cutting aspects. Below are just a few of the skills that candidates must possess:
  • Exhibit the skills necessary for software development
  • Demonstrate the ability to constantly learn
  • Want to work as a team and collaborate closely
  • Behave like a professional 
  • Manage their own work schedule
  • Fit the culture 
  • Demonstrate empathy and humility
  • Not be an asshole
  • ...
Many of these skills can be taught and even bad habits can be broken with the right coaching, but the candidate must come through the door with some base skills intact. Let me walk through what I mean here. 

Consider trying to teach someone a complex task. First, if the complex task requires a large amount of prerequisite knowledge (like software development), then the candidate must demonstrate a certain level of technical aptitude. Let's assume they can successfully demonstrate their technical chops. Second, trying to teach someone is pointless if they are not interested in having others help them to learn or assume that they can figure it out themselves. In other words, sitting in the corner and coding away with zero communication with others is not allowed. Not only must the candidate be open to coaching and learning from others, they need to know how to learn and they must be proficient at learning. If the candidate possesses some of these base skills with the ability to learn and the willingness to be taught, then they can be brought up to speed over time. So, what I'm really looking for are some indicators of these characteristics in the candidates. These indicators are the principles that I have identified.

When I was asked some years ago to summarize these principles, I referred to them as culture-building. When building a culture, leaders must focus on the behaviors, expectations and norms that are most important for the environment and the work being done. Upon much consideration and over a long period of time, I was able to distill my hiring to the following three principles:

  1. The candidate must have a demonstrated ability and hunger to continually learn 
  2. The candidate must be a culture fit for the environment and the people
  3. The candidate must demonstrate humility
In my experience, these three principles serve as indicators for someone who might be a fit for our culture and the position on the software development team. Neither are these principles generic nor are they fool proof. You must adjust for different hiring needs. Also, we have had a few duds over the years, but our turnover rate is less than 10% which is pretty good. Such a low turnover rate is partially due to hiring well and partially due to the benefits, compensation and perks from working for a large, global company. Without these benefits, all the good hiring practices in the world won't stop your turnover rate from increasing over time. I believe that you should pay people enough that they won't go elsewhere only for more money.

These three principles serve as a litmus test for a broad set of aspects as I noted further above. Here is some explanation around these principles:

  • The candidate must have a demonstrated ability and hunger to continually learn - I have met some engineers through my career who chose to go very deep with a very narrow skill set and no interest in spending time on things outside this narrow track. Without the interest to learn new topics and, the desire to do so all the time on an on-going basis, I have watched these people never move their skill set, never stretch themselves. For some positions, this approach is necessary. But for many/most positions, given the changing landscape in technology, I have found that the best candidates are always will to make themselves uncomfortable to learn new things.
  • The candidate must be a culture fit for the environment and the people - Culture fit can mean a many different things. But, as I mentioned above, for me this term embodies the behaviors, expectations, norms, thinking, what is acceptable/unacceptable, working time, work ethic, etc. During your interviews with a candidate, I have found it to be invaluable to include folks from the team where the open position exists. Everyone should be coached to take note of both verbal and non-verbal cues from candidates. Then, assessing such cues after the interview with the entire group will oftentimes can tell a much different story. Also, the questions you ask candidates can really tell an interesting story.
  • The candidate must demonstrate humility - This one is a bit odd for some people because it delves deeper into the psychological aspects of a candidate, but it has proven to be very important over time. Anyone who has worked with people who have big egos will be able to recognize this -- the rock star developer who ignores input from others, the developer who sits in the corner coding away to his liking and everyone else be damned, the developer who has high standards for themselves but does not want to take the time coach younger or newer team members and instead chooses to chastise them, etc. When hiring for a team, you are doing team building this needs to be taken seriously. Teams of developers should operate like a team, not like a ship full of pirates. This requires the ability to empathize with teammates, to assist one another, to exhibit a compassion for others, to be respectful, to be kind and to be humble. Without these characteristics, there may be serious disagreements on a team, even if those disagreements are not vocalized.

While these principles have worked for me, they may not work for others for various reasons. In the past, I have read that people don't leave a company, they leave a manager. While this can certainly be true (I've had my fair share of bad managers), I have left numerous companies not because of my manager, but because of the culture and the processes within the company. The three principles that I have outlined above assume that your company culture and processes are helpful, useful and not problematic. If they are problematic, then as a manager you should be working toward improving them so that they are not problematic. When you the culture and/or the processes are standing in your way of good hiring, all the principles in the world will not help you.