Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page it to the Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software in production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve both system and liability and the lives of the people supporting those systems. I’m your host Mandi Walls. Find me @LNXCXK on Twitter. Welcome back everyone. This week I have with me Fred Harper, welcome to the show.
Fred Harper: Thanks for having me.
Mandi Walls: Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you? What do you do?
Fred Harper: I am a French Canadian, living in Montreal in Canada. I’ve worked in tech for the last 20 years. The first 10 years as a software developer, the last 10 years, because I think I’m part of the 5% of developer or social extrovert and know how to talk to a real human, I move in developer relation, and I work in a start-up called Mindee, where we do document data extraction using machine learning and computer vision.
Mandi Walls: Oh, fantastic. Unfortunately, we’re not actually here to talk about that. Today we’re going to talk about some mental health stuff. So for folks, for whom this is a tricky subject, if you want to give this episode a miss, we’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode and we’ll miss you, and that’s okay. For folks who are comfortable sticking around, we got a lot of things to talk about here. So, Fred tell us about your experience with mental health and how you got sort of into this as an interest for you.
Fred Harper: Yeah, I’ve seen a couple issue when it comes to mental health, but also neurodiversity. So, I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and for the last, I would say now probably seven years ago, I had a major depressive disorder and recently in the last couple of years is still in depression, but kind of like a functioning depression, if I could say. So I’m functioning, but still mainly depressed day to day, and with that beautiful thing can be anxiety, which basically arrive at the same time of the depression. So, anxiety, ADHD, plus depression, it’s an interesting mix, and when I hit the wall, when I did my major depression, I hit the wall and, I’m in the generation or like probably hopefully, maybe the last generation where men needs to be tough and men don’t cry. And we don’t really talk about those things because we don’t want to look like we’re not strong, we’re not like a real male. So at the beginning, that was really hard for me to talk about that. Talk about the fact that I was not doing well, talk about the fact that life was really not going well for me, that I didn’t like it. And even I had suicidal thoughts, so for me first that was new. There were a part of me that was like me, like I have a successful job, I was in a relationship that I taught was going to be forever, and I had good friends and family and everything was going well in my life, which what I taught. So when I hit the wall, I was like, no, not me. And also, you know what? I need to be strong. So it really takes me a little bit of time to start to even talk to close people around me, the people that I love, that I trust, and that I care about that. And I realized that if it was hard for me was like a super social extrovert person who my friends call over sharer on Internet and Twitter, and not even talk about those things. So even for me those topic were taboos or were difficult to talk about. I was, okay, let’s use the little visibility I have in the tech space or on social media and first just sharing my experience, so people know that they’re not alone. And I was also a little bit erratic for me because sharing is a way to writing down or, or, or putting your emotion or your thinking together and being able to write about what’s happening. But at the same time, the idea was really to try to make it less taboo and show people that again, they’re not alone at that.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. Like anecdotally I think at least in amongst sort of the folks that I know, my friends, my colleagues, there is a lot more awareness of the sort of more widespread mental health issues that folks are experiencing. I have a lot of friends who are adult diagnosed, ADHD, ADD, those kinds of things that where it’s kind of surprising, like how many folks now are being diagnosed as adults, in their thirties, in their forties, and figuring out, oh, this is why I have felt this way, my entire life, and had so many struggles before they got that diagnosis. That it seemed so tough.
Fred Harper: ADHD is one of the neurodiversity that is probably the most well known in terms of, if you say ADHD to someone they’re like, okay, they know what that is, or they think they know what that is. This is where it’s the difference, but it’s also, as far as I know, from my own experience, the thing that people know the less about, because when you say ADHD, there is always like two, three reaction. When I say I have a tension deficit and hyperactivity disorder, people are like, oh yeah, it’s the thing of the century, because like every kids got diagnosed and like, everybody is ADHD and like, oh, you know, Fred, like, I’m losing my keys once in a while, or I struggle to have attention at some point or like we are all ADHD and to a certain point it’s true. And I’m not a health professional, but I think it’s a spectrum. You know, we all experience problem that ADHD people experience day to day. But the difference is that for most of us, either you’re being diagnosed or not, or you think you are, but you’re not being diagnosed. If you are ADHD, it means that all those problems first, there is a lot more issues coming with ADHD. You would be surprised to see like the full list. It doesn’t mean that everyone got all of those issues that come with ADHD, but the thing is that it really cause us problem day to day in life. So it’s really not just about losing my key, it’s causing problem at work. Like there is a lot of people with ADHD that struggle to keep work for a longer time, or in relationship, I will always remember the joke with the men and the woman, or the woman has to put the garbage out and the men was like, I’ll do it. And finally, like it cost issues in the relationship or the other way around woman and man. And the thing is that, I really forget about the garbage, because when you told me, I said, yes, but since I didn’t do it right now, it was out of my mind because ADHD people have like short-term memory issues, but also long-term memory issues. So I have a really good memory for specific things, and putting the garbage out is not one of those things, but no, seriously, it goes from ADHD really is a big struggle. For me, I got diagnosed, I don’t even remember probably 15 years ago when I was like 25 or maybe 30, I’m not sure anymore with the last couple of years, would’ve I’m not just like what happened with the time.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, right.
Fred Harper: But it was not a surprise for anyone in my family, friends, or even myself. It was just good to have a health professional confirm that every, as you said, mostly every problem that I had in my life since I was a kid where to because I had this issues in my brain and it goes poor impulse control, hyper fixation, restrictive sensitive disorder, object permanence, I said, long term, short term memory, emotion regulation, dysregulation, and I can continue the list, time blindness I’m really bad with estimating time or, as I said, I don’t even remember when I got diagnosed and it was an important thing in my life.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, sure.
Fred Harper: I have time blindness. So again, it because problem in every part of my life. Now I’m lucky because I have people around me that understand to a certain point that, so my friend knows that like, if they want to see me, they need to contact me because it’s not because I don’t love them. It’s just because I also have, how this is called, it’s object permanence thing. So if the object of the person is not in front of me, if the object or person does not really exist.
Mandi Walls: Okay.
Fred Harper: So, my friend needs to contact me and I develop some coping mechanism along the way, but ADHD is a real struggle for people. And I’m happy that people start to talk a little more about that. Also, not just about, hey, I got trouble to listening to someone speak. Like, there’s a lot more than that, but it’s still really not well known, actually.
Mandi Walls: My next question is now that you sort of have this, at least this understanding, like what kind of things were like your next steps? Are there other tools that you use or like frameworks to help you out, or like different approaches that help you in your life to deal with all of these things?
Fred Harper: There is a lot of things, I would say probably the first thing and I’m still not totally good with that, it’s being nicer with myself because there are things that are really not my fault. All my life, I was like, I’m a lazy person. I’m probably a little bit lazy person. I’m a developer, we’re all a little bit lazy, I think.
Mandi Walls: I’m a bit lazy.
Fred Harper: But in the end, it’s really because I got less dopamine and I need more dopamine to feel those kind of things.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: And there is literally part of my brain that are not rooted, like a quote unquote “normal brain”, or like someone is not neurodiverse. So, like just trying to be kinder with my myself is one thing, trying to understand that if something didn’t work, it may not be my fault directly. Maybe just my brain, the way things are wired up there. When it comes to two coping mechanism, like I write everything down, as soon as someone say that we do something or that there is a meeting, I put it in my calendar because if it’s not there, it does not exist and doesn’t exist happen.
Mandi Walls: It does not exist, yeah.
Fred Harper: I use the Pomodoro Technique, which is quite well known, but it’s working in 25 minutes bits.
Mandi Walls: Okay.
Fred Harper: Which gave me first, you work 25 minutes, you take five minute breaks, you work 25 minutes to take five minute break. It’s a little more than that, but it’s the big picture and that really helps me to first try to plan my day, because if I say, okay, I’m going to work, eight hours today, it means 16 Pomodoros, like 16 time, 25 plus five minutes. So, okay, with those 16 Pomodoros, what can I do? And I need to split my bigger tasks in smaller tasks.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: So this is one thing also, like if the task is too big, like everybody is a little bit, I don’t know if I want to do that, or like you procrastinate, but like ADHD, we’re like professional procrastinator and, quite often ADHD is comorbid too. So you’re probably going to have anxiety or maybe depression. So if we put all those things together, sometimes it’s really hard to start a task, especially when the task is not something that we’re excited about or something that we really like to do. So having bigger tasks, splitting them, it’s really nicer and some days I’m going to do like a really good day and I’m going to be super productive at work, other date, not that much. And because it also affect the self-esteem, sometimes I can finish the day and be like, oh shit, like I did a lot of things, but not what I needed to do.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: But the Pomodoro because I need to check the boxes when I’m done, because I wrote like what I plan to do, even if I did just half of it, at least I know that at the end of the day, there is a half of my task that I’ve done. So yes, it’s not perfect, but it really helps me to know what I worked on.
Mandi Walls: So we work in tech, are there things that the tech industry can do better to help folks who are neurodivergent, and how they work and address some of the things that you were talking about? Like working, Pomodoro, like I have lots of friends who work Pomodoro just because they have so many tasks to keep up with, and other things like that. Are there other things out there that sort of tech companies or tech roles can be doing to help?
Fred Harper: I think the first thing would be just being open to talk about that and just get educated about those different neurodiversity issues that people can have. And we’re trying to make the work environment a little more easy for like the people like me and depending on like, what are causing issues or not. So in my case, good example, the fact that I can work from home.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: I’ve been remote for the last 10 years, and working from home is a blessing to me because, yes, I miss being in an office with people because I’m a people person, but working in an office, everything take my attention. So it’s nearly impossible for me to be really productive in an office. So when I go to the office, I know that my goal is just to meet people and like be with people and probably do me things but I’m not going to be super productive. The fact that also being a little more free when it comes to when you’re going to work too, because sometimes my brain’s going to work super well, sometimes I’m not going to be able to focus at all and I want to be professional. So if I need to be at the office or work from eight to five, but like from eight to 10, it’s really not working. Like I’m not delivering, so it’s not good for me, it’s not good for the business. But if I don’t have like a strict rule about that, and I’m like, okay, the morning that like at 8:00 AM, it doesn’t work for me, and around 10, I’m for whatever reasons, I feel like this could be a little bit better. And I start my day at 10 and either I finish later or I catch up a little more in the other days, or you may not really matter also because your company may not really check the number out of hours you work versus than what you’re producing it really helpful. So it’s really also trying to be aware that some people have those difficulty and trying to help or to find coping mechanism to help those people. So I would say it’s a case by case, depending on like, what’s the issue, what problem you have and what things that the company could do to help. But it start by educating ourselves and listening to people. But the other thing is that it’s not always easy also because not everybody is confident or I was going to say confident enough, but it’s not the word. It’s not feeling good enough to share about those things at work, but people are not because we’re not always listening and it’s, those topic are still taboo. I can understand, you may not want, especially ADHD people because I don’t know all other possible issues, but like with ADHD, you probably don’t want to tell your boss that you’re not about to work all the time. It doesn’t really look good but when you work with a great manager, like I have right now, and I was lucky to had in the past. They’re like, Hey, you know what, like when you work, you produce and we don’t care how many hours it’s more about like, are you able to deliver?
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: And I am.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely looking more for those sort of outcomes rather than just like putting the hours on.
Fred Harper: Yes, exactly.
Mandi Walls: So thinking about that, thinking about the taboo subjects, and even as you’re talking, thinking back to when I was last working in an office and what open plan offices, I don’t get any work done either. It’s just ridiculous to listen to. I’m a natural eavesdropper, anywhere I go, I’m listening to someone else’s conversation anyway, and I blame my mom for that because she’s a big eavesdropper too. Coworking spaces are even worse because I didn’t even know these people. They work for some other company, but all the walls are glass and I can see what they’re doing, and I’m like, that looks interesting, what’s on their screen, here comes someone’s dog, that person went downstairs to the coffee shop, and it just on and on and on like constant distractions. And having that discussion then, being able to talk with your coworkers or with your boss, or even with the rest of your community about sort of these taboo subjects, how do you approach that? How do you frame that up for folks to get to a point of understanding, hey like this situation isn’t good for me, or like I need these other kinds of places to work and be comfortable?
Fred Harper: That’s a big question. To be honest, I’m not sure if I have the perfect, right answer, because the thing though is that you’re going to talk to some people they’re going to be super open about that and they’re going to listen to you and they’re going to believe you, but there’s always people that think that they know more than you or that don’t even believe that, as an example, ADHD, people don’t even believe that ADHD is a thing, or depression, people are just like, just be more happy. Okay, thanks. You solved all the world issues.
Mandi Walls: Right.
Fred Harper: Now, I’m happy. Thank you. Nobody ever told me that I should be happy, but it’s really not easy. I would say don’t force yourself if you’re not affordable and maybe try to gauge what’s the level of perception of the people. What’s the openness of the people maybe by talking about other things that are happening in the world or something that may not be related or that cannot be tied to you, so you can just test the water to see how it goes. And you know what, like try to find people like me would be more than happy to go talk about those difficult topic.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: Just to warm the room a little bit, so people know just a little more about those things. Once you’re going to go to talk about that, about your own personal issues, or things that are not working well at work for your specific person and specific like day to day struggle, it may be a little bit easier. But the thing is that you never know.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: It’s flipping a coin because it can go super well, but it cannot go as well. Because again, people are not always open or educated on the topic and it depends on their values and how people, how they get educated just overall, or where you are also in the society. We are in North America and it’s a little bit more open than other places in the world, but at the same time, not always. So yeah, it’s a big gamble. So I was going to say, it’s funny. It’s not really funny, but like I do a lot of coffee chat with people, often mental health come in the topic because people seem comfortable to talk those things with me because, I’m really public about my own struggle.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: And I got asked quite often, should I tell people at work? And the answer is, you know, if you should, or not, because that can be really helpful. Unfortunately you can probably like shoot yourself in the foot when you do that so it’s a gamble. For me, I’m quite privileged to be able to do that because, I’m a white dude in tech so I have way more freedom than other people and I’ve been in tech for a while. I think I have like a good background so I’m at a point where I can just be like, hey, if you think it’s an issue to have those problem, I’m not going to say the word I want to say, but yeah, goodbye. Have a good day. I’m going to go elsewhere but it’s really privileged to being able to do that. It’s not everybody that are in the same situations so really think about the pros and cons and what you may lose if you try it and that doesn’t go well, and try to see if it makes sense for you.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. I read a blog called Ask a Manager, and questions come in from all over the place but there have been a few about, should I share with my manager that this is why I’m struggling, that I do have these diagnoses and those kinds of things. And like you say North America definitely different, there’s certain legal ramifications and in the US, you have the ADA and these sorts of things. Other countries have different protections and different labor laws and other places don’t necessarily any. So it can be a really sticky issue for employees trying to work with their abilities and how they need to be accommodated with some of these.
Fred Harper: Totally. And like you’re mentioning laws and kind of like protection, even when there is you know how people are.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: Yeah, okay. You lose your job. Now, you need to prove that they let you go because of that. So even when you are more protected, it’s not quite easy. And sometimes it’s just not part of the culture to talk about those things. So not every city or every community is at the same point when it comes to being open for that, but even as we say, in North America, I think we’re better at that, but we are way far from being good enough, because it’s still not well seen, it’s still something negative when you talk about those things. It’s still like, no, you shouldn’t take medication, you should just do better, eat better, do more exercise, and those kind of tips that are good too, but the thing is that, we should normalize being able to take medication if you need to, we should normalize, going talk to a shrink or psychologist if you need to. Actually, even if you don’t need to, it’s a really good thing talking to a psychologist, having a third party person that don’t really know you, that going to give you an objective answers or discussion with you that are going to help you to ask yourself the right question is something beneficial, even if you don’t have any mental health issue, or any other struggle in your life actually.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. That too, is something that, at least anecdotally feels like, especially after the past two years with the pandemic and the drastic changes in a lot of culture for people who are used to one way of living and now things are drastically different. Having a more frank discussion about mental health, about feeling burned out, or stressed out, or just really kind of struggling with everything that’s going on, on top of things. Do you feel like things are improving in the conversation over the past couple of years or is it still kind of…
Fred Harper: It’s based on absolutely no statistic, it’s really my impression. I have the impression that it’s a little bit better since maybe the first to second half of the pandemic.
Mandi Walls: Okay.
Fred Harper: Because even people that didn’t have any mental issues or were not really struggling in life, really got confronted by something new or in situation where even if you are part of the people who don’t believe about this and everything, like you were still needed to stay home and not see people and that was difficult for a lot of people. And even like at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of my introvert people were, hey, we prepared for that. But even the introvert, like super introvert people were, at some point, okay, I need to get out. I need to see people. I need to have like, quote unquote a normal life.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Fred Harper: So that was really hard for a lot of people, even people that did not got sick or that did not go in critical condition, that was just not good for mental health. So I hope, and I think I’ve saw that people are a little more open about that because everybody got affected in a way another, during the last two, three years. It’s this, I don’t know if I can say that, it’s kind of the silver lining where like. Okay, if we can at least be a little more open. I know it doesn’t go into balance, but like at the minimum that could bring the fact that people was going to be just a little more open about that because they may have lived it. And I’m saying that, and I’m not better than anybody. I was like everybody else before I hit the wall, I was like, you’re anxious, just stop worrying about things. I was that stupid person that give that advice because I never lived it. And now I’m anxious mostly all the time, and there is no way for me to get rid of that thing. It’s there, it’s annoying. And even if I try to relax, actually relaxing for ADHD, people is really struggle but, even if I try things that like people tell you to do, when you’re anxious or stressed out, it doesn’t work. It’s just, it helps a little bit, but not that much. So once you live those things, unfortunately, or fortunately you’re way more open about the topic. And I really hope that openness is something that is more welcome and also more part of every day’s life for everybody. Unfortunately, based on at least the last two, three years.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. It’s been a whole thing. So one of the questions we ask on the show every week is we’ve covered a lot of ground. Are there any other say myths that folks might have about mental health in general or ADHD in particular, other sorts of things that you find out there in the world that you’d like to take this opportunity to sort of debunk for folks?
Fred Harper: I don’t know if it’s about myths, actually, one or two things, I already talked about one, it’s the fact that you take medication is because you’re not strong enough or you’re not about to get over what’s happening. No, medication is there to help you get better. So when you’re feeling better, you can start to work on yourself and maybe that means that in the future, you may not have to take medication anymore. And you know what, maybe you’re going to have to continue to take medication. And the things I say to people like I need medication to help me with my anxiety and my depression, but I also need medication to try to be able to be just a minimal productive member of the society for my ADHD. So would you tell someone who’s wearing glasses, you know what, just stop wearing your glasses and just try to see what your-
Mandi Walls: Try to see better. Yeah.
Fred Harper: … Exactly. Like what’s the problem or someone who break their leg, like, hey, you should not use the helper to walk or a cane, like just start to walk. So I really think that it’s still super taboo or not well seen to take medication, so that’s one thing. The other thing I would say is it’s not really a med, but I would say be open about the topic and listen to people and try to help if you can. People that just say things like, oh, I’m so tired of that life. One day, I’m not going to be there anymore, you may be like, oh, he’s feeling sad today, never going to happen but the thing is that you never know. So if you don’t feel comfortable to have a discussion with people, there are like hotline or helpline that are there to help you, even if it’s not you, your case, like to try to get more information, to be able to help the people you could help, or maybe like, just try to get the people that doesn’t go super well to get the help they need without you having to be super invest, if you’re not comfortable about that.
Mandi Walls: For folks out there who might be struggling, or for folks who know someone who is struggling, are there specific resources that you can recommend? Or we can put some in the show notes for folks, I know the US has a suicide hotlines, I’m not sure what is available in Canada.
Fred Harper: Yeah, actually I would say mostly every country had one, probably the best link is on Wikipedia. There is, and I will share the link with you after, but Wikipedia is a page that lists all the hotline for different countries or sometimes just to Google search because some countries, depending on the state of the province, they may have like a local line.
Mandi Walls: Okay.
Fred Harper: Even at the city level, they may have one too, so I would say check that. But the best thing to do, and the most important thing to do that is not always easy is, try to talk to a good friend, a close friend, or a good member of your family, someone you feel close. And someone who you feel comfortable enough to talk about any other topic, even if it’s not this one, but at least try to, because you need to talk to people. And again, it’s not easy at the beginning, but it’s really the most helpful thing you can do is you try to talk to someone, not live, everything that is happening to you on your own, because it’s difficult. And just sometime, even if it’s not just talking to someone, just being with someone you like, or you love again, even it’s really difficult to go out of your place, ask people to come home for a coffee or watching TV together or whatever it doesn’t matter, it’s just like being with someone else could be super helpful.
Mandi Walls: Excellent. Fred, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today. This is a topic we don’t normally cover on here, but I think it was very important to talk about.
Fred Harper: I really want to thank you because it’s because of people like you and PagerDuty talking, sharing about those topic, that more people will listen to what we talk about. Even if they don’t listen to the podcast completely, they may grab bits of information that resonate with them, or that can help them to live things a little bit better. And hopefully that will help to make that topic a little less taboo, but we have a long road ahead. And it’s not because people are bad, it’s just we need to the cake. The more we talk about that, the better it is. So having a platform like yours is really helpful to try, again to make those topic less taboo.
Mandi Walls: Excellent. Yeah, and we are trying pagerduty.org has a lot of programs that we do with non-profits internally. We have mental health support with our health benefits. It’s probably really the first company I’ve worked for that’s been very explicit about including that as part of our health package here. So hopefully around the industry, things are improving. People are conscious about having this really a 360 view on your health. It’s not just your physical health, but also your mental health and your emotional health as well for being a healthy human.
Fred Harper: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, we’re all human after all. So, hey you can do it.
Mandi Walls: Excellent. Fred, thank you so much again for sharing with us today. This has been great.
Fred Harper: It was my pleasure.
Mandi Walls: For everyone else out there, I’m going to wish you wherever you are an uneventful day and thanks for joining us. That does it for another installment of Page it to the Limit. We’d like to thank our sponsor, PagerDuty, for making this podcast possible. Remember to subscribe to this podcast, if you like what you’ve heard. You can find our show notes at pageittothelimit.com and you can reach us on Twitter @pageittothelimit using the number two. Thank you so much for joining us, and remember uneventful days are beautiful days.
This week’s episode may be difficult for some of our regular listeners. We understand and hope you’ll be back with us for the next episode.
As the Director of Developer Relations at Mindee, I helps developers merge the physical and digital worlds using the magic of machine learning coupled with the ease of APIs. I had shared my passion for technology on the stage at dozens of events around the world. I helped build successful communities at npm, Mozilla, Microsoft, DigitalOcean, and Fitbit, and am the author of the book Personal Branding for Developers at Apress. Behind this extrovert that I am, is a very passionate individual who believes in the power of communication… and cat videos.
Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.