Change Is Gonna Come

Never forget how difficult it was. Never forget how you felt in that moment, when you thought it was all slipping away. Life has a habit of doing that to you, often when you least expect it, and your response defines you.

I want to take you back to the morning of 16th March 2016.

It started out like any other LCFN day: 5am, out the door, just under 30 miles into work, got changed, got fed and got piled into the work I was doing to automate the bills of material for one of our sister companies in North America. It was all going swimmingly until about 11am when I got an instant message through the corporate messaging system (the one that’s faster than email), inviting me along to the thick pile carpet end of the floor where our open plan office was: the director’s suite. I’d been up that end of the floor many times: usually for meetings that matter and/or made a difference. This one was no exception.

I walked into the Head Dude’s office and there was a bloke sitting in the corner who I didn’t recognise. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. This didn’t feel like it was going to end well: it didn’t. Ten minutes later, I was out the door. Made redundant in the blink of an eye after 25 years: “The company doesn’t need your skills going forward”.

In Adrian Mole terms, I was 62 and 364/365ths: in plain English, it was the day before my 63rd birthday. I went back to my desk, visibly shaking, and announced to my mates, some of whom I’d worked with for a quarter of a century, that I was out the door. But before I left, I went downstairs to see Anna and Fabiana. They had been my mentors in all things positive thinking ever since I ran the Wellbeing course for Weir Pumps back in 2010. Hugs all round, they said to me that being released from the chains of SPX would be the best thing that ever happened to me. I love those girls for the way they see the world…

The LCFN bike ride home was as thought provoking as it was direct. No frills, no extra miles, just get home and try to come to terms with what just happened. And make some phone calls.

Six hours later, after a bit of networking, I got a phone call from Liverpool:

“you do Excel programming, don’t you?”

“I do”

“And you’re looking for work?”

“I am”

“You’re hired”.

That was it. No interview as such. I needed work and they needed a punter. I got a three month deal, enough to bide me over while I looked for something in the shelf stacking line, which is basically where I saw myself for the last two years before retirement. IT is supposed to be a young man’s game and I guessed that my time was up.

The job was working from home developing spreadsheets for auditing GP practices. I’d been programming Excel (in VBA) for the previous ten years so this was water off a duck’s back to me. I quickly realised that not only could I deliver what they wanted, but I could take the functionality to a new level. Business rules and dynamic picklists (based on selections already made) in Excel: they’d never seen anything like it.

After two weeks, my deal was extended to twelve months.

It didn’t take me long to discover that the Read Codes, that have kept the NHS on its feet for the last 25 years, are being phased out and replaced by SNOMED-CT. If I can put this into some kind of perspective, the Read Codes are our ICL to the rest of the world’s IBM. Yet another piece of Britain’s crumbling empire gone, replaced by a foreign, albeit international power.

SNOMED-CT is a beast. It’s a relational database (and an expression language) of millions of related clinical terms. It’s a database with a medical slant. I’m a software guy with hee haw background in the clinical stuff. But it was clear, twelve months ago, that if we wanted to futureproof our business, then we had to embrace SNOMED-CT. And the clock was ticking. D-Day is April 1st 2018 (don’t laugh).

I put myself forward for the Foundation course: it was my new year resolution to get a grounding in the new technology. Three months later, I realised that I’d just seen the tip of the iceberg, seventy percent of which was still submerged deep below the surface. The day after I downloaded my Foundation course certificate, I applied to take on the bad boy: the advanced implementation course. A quick swatch at the course material suggested that if I could stay on the course long enough, I might just get to the good stuff and get my hands on the software: in reality there is no other way: SNOMED-CT is only available through official channels, one of which is being deemed worthy through accreditation.

The routine was pretty straightforward: six modules, all done by distance learning, and each about a month long: an online exam at the end of each module, homework to be done separately in three of them, and a set of final exams at the end. Oh, and you’ve to achieve 70% or more in every assessment to stay on the course: one slip up and “you’re fired”.

I nearly had that slip up in June. I’d breezed Module A with 86% but then our mam died just before the Module B exam was due. I was trying to sort out her funeral arrangements (and all the other stuff) when I posted a 69.6% attempt. Re-sit territory. I gave myself a kick up the arse, had another go the next day and scraped 70.2%. I’ll be honest with you, if I’d got kicked off the course at that moment, I probably wouldn’t have worried about it: I was not in a good place.

Three weeks after that, Eileidh passed away, and I stayed in that dark place a good while longer. Module C spanned the period either side of our family holiday in Naples so I had to take the laptop to get both my assignment and my assessment done. I came through both.

Having made it halfway through the course, I started to get a sense that I might actually make it through to the end. Nothing was ever easy, but as the coursework moved away from what I might term clinical bullshit to software development, I felt it coming my way. Module D wasn’t exactly plain sailing but E was a relative breeze. When F, the final module, came along, I inadvertently did the presentations way ahead of the exam so by the time that came around, I was rusty (I was too busy with the day job to do much revision so I winged it). Another scrape…

But into the finals!

I’m not gonna dwell on what happened next, other than to say that the 70% rule still applied. Despite what had gone before, even if your cumulative course total was already in excess of 70%, you still had to achieve 70% in the final exam to graduate. The exam was in three parts, each one hour long, and you had a maximum of three attempts in each. Your score in each part was the average of how ever many attempts you took. In part one, I got 69.2%, 74.3% and 77.2% for a combined average of 74%. So far, so good. One down, two to go.

Two weeks ago today, I sat part two, the practical: five questions, to be answered by doing research using an array of SNOMED-CT tools. Look, if you work in this stuff day in and day out, you get to know where all the tools are and what they do. I didn’t and I flunked it: 39%. That was my darkest moment. I saw six months of hard work going down the drain because I only had an hour to answer the questions. But at least I now had (a copy of) the questions. I made attempts two and three, having done my research offline, and I managed to get that 39% up to a more respectable, but still not good enough 66%. It all hung on the final exam, in which I needed 68% to pass the course. But secretly, I hunkered after something much higher than that, for 84.5% was going to grab me an 80% grade B pass overall.

I wanted that exam done, dusted and marked before I went down south for the Solving Kids Cancer parents’ conference last weekend.

I woke at 4am on the Wednesday morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got up at half four and made a giant cup of coffee in one of those Sports Direct mugs. Then I logged on. The part three exam was ninety minutes: eight questions. The first two were a piece o’piss. Nerves settled. Keep a focus, keep the heid and just let the brain do the rest. Half six, answers in, all done. Relax… and wait.

I waited a week.

Then on Tuesday night of this week, having logged onto my account every couple of hours since the weekend, there was a tick in my part three box. I opened it with trepidation.

I needed 68%

I secretly craved 84.5%

I got 87.5%

I had done it. I had fucking done it. Against all odds, I had somehow come back from that dark place two weeks ago today, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

SPX: that one was for you. That was for your corporate accountants deciding that I wasn’t good enough for you.

Lee Panter and Neil Connor: that one was for you too. That was for having faith in me when it would have been easier to look the other way.

I have become only the third accredited SNOMED-CT developer in Scotland (and the 39th in the UK). I am immensely proud of having come back from the proverbial dead, but believe me, this is only the start.

For my next trick, I’m going to buy a beast of a laptop: I’m going to unleash the power of Excel VBA, Dynamic SQL and SNOMED-CT to go after disease. Top of my hitlist is kids cancer, but first I have to address Atrial Fibrillation, Heart Failure and Diabetes in order to repay the faith that Lee and Neil have showed in me these past eighteen months.

Disease, I’m coming for you…

Change is gonna come.

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