That’s the default question everyone asks when they realize what I’ve doing lately.
How the hell did a guy from Campinho (my strangely beloved hometown) ended up in the other side of the planet? What demons possessed that boy to trade the cork trees, the vast plains and the “warmth” from Alentejo for quilometres upon quilometres of snow and ice?
Well, the blame lands on Lisbon, or actually, the exasperating work routine that one has to endure in its corporate world.
First, the context: as I write this lines, I’m in one of the common rooms aboard the HMS Ernest Shackleton. Along with the RSS James Clark Ross, its one of the two ships that the British Antarctic Survey, the organization to which I now proudly work for, uses to carry people, cargo and science to Antarctica. The Shackleton is still docked in Cape Town, South Africa, waiting for the last remaining cargo to be hauled into its holds so that it can finally sail towards cold South.
While we wait for that, there is not much to do for us non sailor types, so I have to use the time to get a hold of this journal.
About three months ago I was working with one of the several software consulting companies in Lisbon, as thousands of other engineers just like me. The work itself is honest and generally interesting, most of the times, but it tends to get repetitive and very predictable after a while. Besides, working conditions in Portugal left a lot to desire right now. There’s still a lot of that notion that a job is a privilege and, as such, you should submit yourself to all sorts of conditions and ridiculous work demands. The sad reality in portuguese engineering, at least for most of the cases that I’ve known, is a life around the work when it should be the other way around.
Even though I wasn’t exactly happy with my professional environment, things were progressing well, career wise, which ultimately led to the decision of getting out of there. Sounds weird? Well, the thing was, as I was progressing inside the company, I was getting further and further away from the world of engineering and pushed to the sad and depressing world of management, which was something highly undesirable for me.
I got into engineering because I love working problems that make my brain boil. And this was the type of work that was required of me on the fist year. Eventually I get to be more and more involved into the bureaucratic and “political” aspects of the project instead of in itself. Well, the problem is that I die a little bit every time I need to open Word or PowerPoint because I need to do a presentation “for the customer” or a business proposal.
Around the time that these opportunity came up, I was already managing my own small team and having meetings with the “customer”, that almost abstract and omnipotent entity that controls the life of the consultant, with some regularity. These tasks were pushing me away from the type of work that I really wanted to do. Nothing made me sadder than to have to delegate technical problem that was making everyone scratch their heads because I needed to finish a report or I was scheduled for an afternoon of pointless meetings. It was around that time that I saw the ad. It came in the middle of another employment newsletter that, on a normal day I wouldn’t waste more than 12 seconds with it, but since I was procrastinating quite heavily that afternoon, I wasted a couple more seconds with it than normal.
I don’t even know how I got into its mailing list in the first place. 99% of the times they get the DEL button even before I finish reading the subject.
But this one I read to the end. Around there was an article that stated that the British Antarctic Survey was looking for electronics and computer engineers for its next season… in Antarctica. As if that wasn’t enough, the contract was 18 months long, 15 of which were on the other side of the world… literally.
What caught my eye was how the proposal was put at:
“If you are a bit bored with your job…” Considering that I was slowly wasting away in Lisbon, I got hooked on immediately. After that all was left was to follow the link and think about the situation.
The newsletter had only a link to BAS website. From there I was directed to the application form and the knowledge checklist to be contract eligible.
From all the jobs that I’ve applied in the past few years, this one had probably the highest compatibility ratio with all my “abilities”. I was able to do a complete check to all the items on the list. It would be a complete waste not to try at least.
I still had two weeks until the deadline and I initially planned to use the first one to things through and, if by the end of it I was still up to it, I would use the last week to fill the form and all that.
It was already late afternoon when all this was going on, but I had still a couple of hours left on my daily penance. As expected, the rest of that day was highly unproductive. It was almost impossible to get back to the same old routine after that. I ended up spending the rest of the time picturing my frozen bottom on the Antarctic lands. I wasn’t even arrived home that day and I was already more than convinced that I would at least try it.
I still used the weekend to ponder all the pros and cons but by next Monday I was already filling fields on the form. But it was impossible to go beyond the basic info. Even using all my supposed coffee breaks, the consulting world is a relentless one. It is an unending stream of problem and all need solution for “yesterday”. The emails never stop and all need replies ASAP and the managers are always breathing on top of you because their managers do it also with them. I had to get out of there or I could risk missing this opportunity for nothing. The fist week ended up in the bucket but fortunately, after begging for four days, I was able to secure the next one as vacation time. The irony in this situation is that I had more than 40 work days to use as holidays but you are always left with the feeling that the company has granted you a huge favor.
Corporate Portugal at his best…