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It Was Never Funny But Now It Was Serious

December 11, 2013

During the “Year of our Discontent” we grew much closer as a team.

With two team members out with serious injuries within just a few months of each other, our team had a bit of a reputation. It was generally delivered with a smile, but there was a bit of truth in the jabs I started to hear from the other managers.

The Messaging team should get hazard pay.

If the military gives Purple Hearts, do you hand out silicon chips?

However, things took a more serious turn that year. First was Ed’s family. We had six people on the team, seven counting me. Mark and Jacob had serious falls that required extensive surgery. The rest of us started walking a little more carefully. Ed owned a cabin up one of the canyons that dot the Wasatch Mountains in and around Salt Lake City. In the summer, it’s a nice car drive, but in the winter, the roads quickly become clogged with snow.


The last 10 miles is done by snowmobile. Like many cabin owners, he stored his sleds in a garage at the end of the plowed road. The family would drive to the garage, park and lock the cars and then take the snowmobiles from there. The cabin had power and water. There was a bedroom on the main floor and a loft for the kids.

Ed let us know those weekends when he was headed to his cabin since it meant he would be completely out of communication range. The only way to get a cell signal was to climb a small mountain behind the cabin and get a line of sight to a cell tower miles away.

During a long winter weekend, Ed and his family headed up to the cabin as they often did. As the kids were headed for bed the first night, his young son slipped on the top rung of the ladder and fell to the floor below. It was obvious his arm was broken. This was serious enough at any time, but given their location, it took on an added level of concern. They immobilized the arm and bundled him up and put him on a snowmobile with Ed driving. Every jar of the trail, every rut the skids caught on sent stabbing pains through his arm and he’d cry out.

As Ed related the story to us, we could each imagine how we’d feel trying to hold one of our kids on the snowmobile with one hand, steering with the other and knowing that the pain would continue for an hour or more. We each went home and hugged our kids extra tight after hearing that story.

As terrible as the falls that team members and their family experienced were, they didn’t compare to Ammon’s ordeal. Ammon was the fourth messaging engineer on our team. We had four engineers focused on messaging and two focused on SharePoint. Ammon didn’t have a cabin. He didn’t have a hayloft, and he didn’t climb a ladder to put up Christmas lights.

Dear Team

As you may know our three year old son has Downs Syndrome. Yesterday we took him in for some tests and the doctors informed us that he has leukemia. We think we've caught it early and this type of leukemia has a history of responding well to treatment. Unfortunately the treatments are painful and our son doesn't really understand why he has to have them. Prayers are appreciated.

Wow. At this point, I had run out of management experience to apply. I really didn’t know how to respond. Well, from a management standpoint, I guess I did. I talked to HR and we got the paperwork started in case Ammon had to take advantage of time away under the Family and Medical Leave Act. But, from a personal standpoint, I had no idea how to approach Ammon. Sympathy? Of course, but then what? Act like it will all be okay? How do you comfort someone who’s son might have just been handed a death sentence? Fortunately, Ammon sensed our desire to offer comfort but also respect his space. His family created a web page to track donations and his son’s progress. We are technologists. When in doubt build something on the computer.

The other thing that happened at this point was I started to really look at my management style. Four out of six team members had serious incidents all within a few months. Clearly, I wasn’t questioning my involvement in the actual incidents, but was I striking the right work/life balance for the team? Should I plan some fun event to pull the team together? Or should I plan less so that they could spend more time with their families. We still had a job to do. If it came to that, how much should I let the work suffer to accommodate team members’ personal challenges? Did we need to rework our project schedule?

It was one of the few times, I’ve ever really felt a crisis of confidence in my ability to know what was best for my team.

And then tragedy struck again. This time, it hit Ed’s family again. And it made a broken arm pale in comparison.

This is the third in a five part series about the most snake-bit team I’ve ever managed. Monday I talked about a team members who nearly died putting up Christmas lights. Yesterday, I related the story of another member who fell out of a barn and shattered his ankle. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the protocol for attending a funeral as a team. And Friday, I’ll relate how I wasn’t spared by this hell-year. But, I’ll also explain what we learned as a team and why we will be lifelong friends.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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