I suspect this post will be of little interest to anyone, but I need to write it to clear my mind, at the very least.
I’m back at work today after three weeks’ leave, the first break I’ve had since June 2021. I hadn’t realised it had been that long since I’d had any time off, and that in itself was part of the problem.
What I did perceive was that I was getting frustrated at work, expressing dismay and anger at things that should never have caused such a reaction.
My job, in case you didn’t know it, is as a Technical Content Writer at TPGi, one of the largest companies in the world focusing on digital accessibility, part of an even larger corporate group called Vispero that also includes Freedom Scientific (makers of the JAWS screen reader and ZoomText magnification software, among other products) and other well known brands focusing on assistive technology.
TPGi started out as The Paciello Group, adding Always Accessible and its ARC platform and another digital accessibility agency Interactive Accessibility when they were all acquired by Vispero to become TPGi, providing end-to-end digital accessibility services.
My role is as part of TPGi’s Knowledge Center, a team focused on researching, aggregating and making available state-of-the-art digital accessibility expertise to support the company, both to team members providing digital accessibility services and direct to clients using the ARC platform to ensure their own digital products and services are accessible to people with disabilities.
In some ways, it’s a luxurious job – I get paid to research, test, think and write. It’s simultaneously very onerous – a massive team of engineers, auditors, project managers – as well as customers – expect us to be up to date, accurate, actionable and right. Always.
I came to this position from a background with several strands. I’ve been designing and building websites for a portfolio of clients for more than 25 years, which – perhaps because I started before web design and development became complicated – I’ve always assumed should be accessible to all users.
During that time, I’ve also worked for a number of agencies that focused on delivering digital accessibility products and services – some of the best in the world, in fact – either in full-time jobs or in consulting roles: Intopia, AccessibilityOz, Tenon, Simply Accessible, AccessIQ.
A third strand of work for me has been in writing and editing, chiefly related to web technology professional development: UX Australia, SitePoint, Web Directions, Smashing Magazine, and more. In this context, I’ve worked on web content, email newsletters, training courses, stand alone articles, even glossy print magazines.
All of which qualified me as a good candidate for being a writer at the TPGi Knowledge Center, and indeed, I’ve revelled in my work and let my experience and skills become subsumed – or even submerged – in such a large, important project.
When you’re that deep into a field of knowledge, it’s easy to lose track of time, especially the lack of down time. Inevitably, that came to a head in October this year. As I marked my 63rd birthday, I felt myself slipping. I felt the quality of my work and the amount I got done was wavering. The feedback I was getting was still positive but I felt my work was, at best, workmanlike.
I started feeling disappointed in the work I was producing, seeing technical failures in the writing I produced, and getting angry and frustrated with myself and – worse – with the people I was writing for. To be fair, when you work with people with the skills and experience of Steve Faulkner, Hans Hillen and James Edwards, it doesn’t take much to start feeling inadequate.
It took taking some time off to, first, rest and relax, and second, to critically review my work, for me to recognise and understand what was happening. While I was letting myself focus very closely on what I was doing, maybe even obsessing over it (one of the side effects of working independently from home across time zones is that you can end up working far more hours than is healthy, even if – or maybe because – the work is great), I was losing touch with each of the three strands of my experience that qualified me to do the TPGi work.
I had dropped almost all my design and development clients, due largely to time constraints and possible conflicts of interest, so I wasn’t doing the practical, hands-on design and front end development work that put into practice the very principles, problems and solutions I was writing about.
Because I was working as part of a small team where each of us was working independently, only rarely collaborating directly on a knowledge project, I was losing the context in which my work would be applied. The Knowledge Center team meets online twice a week and while we give other meaningful feedback, we typically focus on discussing deliverables. I just wasn’t finding time to reflect and look at the bigger picture.
And I came to realise how little I focused on my own professional development, both in terms of writing skills and what I was writing about, something that had occurred almost subliminally in writing about web tech professional development. For example, I hadn’t understood what a key part of my own skills development came from attending Web Directions and UX Australia conferences in order to write about them.
I spent the first week of my leave not thinking about web technology and digital accessibility. I read a bunch of books for pleasure and published reviews of them purely to express my opinions. I remembered what I loved about reading and writing, and regained taking pleasure in how people reacted to my writing.
The second two weeks, I dived into my own professional development. I read three very recent books on the bigger picture of web technology and five older books on digital accessibility. I attended specific sessions of online conferences including five at A11y Camp, four at WordPress Accessibility Day, one at Github Universe, and a webinar on digital accessibility trends. I read two dozen recent articles by writers who really know their digital accessibility. All of which has been a huge boon. I’ve rediscovered what I love about web accessibility, why it matters and what role I can play in reaching the over-arching and unattainable goal of making people like me redundant and unnecessary.
I’ve decided to devote my Monday mornings to keeping myself in touch with the industry, as a direct investment in maintaining and honing the quality of my work for TPGi. I’ll reserve some time on the weekends to working on pro bono projects that let me apply what I know and what I learn, as well as just reading and writing for pleasure. And I’ll make sure to give myself some time off every now and then so I can step back and maintain perspective.
It’s time to get back to work.