2019 into 2020

Reading time: 10 mins

Happy new year! It’s that time again - the Christmas break is drawing to a close, and I’ve got some headspace to look back on what the year has held.

This year I’ve decided to split my annual reflections into two posts: one looking back over the last 12 months, and another over the decade. This is the first, and it covers rare infections, work, and more. As always I’m writing to document everything for myself first and foremost, but if you’re interested grab a tea, it’s a long read.

2019 was another exceptionally hard year

Coming off the back of a 2018 where I’d felt physically extremely limited by my thyroid condition, I was optimistic for 2019 and raring to get back to normality. The year started off well, I threw myself into getting settled in at work, and went skiing in Austria. The day in early March that we landed back in the UK, everything changed.

ℹ️ To date I haven’t shared much about this online because of legal advice, but I couldn’t reflect honestly on the year without capturing some of the context. I’m omitting certain details, but here’s the tale

One of our cats got sick. We thought she’d got into a fight when we were away which had given her an infection, but after showing no response to medication the vets were mystified. We did a ton of tests, which shocked them when it came back with a disease you’d know of, but extremely rare in cats. Unfortunately the level of severity of threat immediately jumped us into the world of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and Public Health England.

The first few weeks were a blur. All of the advice was to euthanise immediately and basically burn the house down, but this was based on extremely generic blanket assumptions and we felt like we needed more time to investigate actual options. More tests were done to identify the strain. It came back as zoonotic - a disease that can be passed from animals to humans. Shit. I spent several weeks essentially in quarantine at home, and my doctors didn’t know what to do with me.

Our vet had made contact with specialist researchers who’d been investigating a number of cases springing up around the country. With their help we started our cat on an experimental course of treatment (made up primarily of human drugs), and began to unravel the cause. Our other cat tested positive but was asymptomatic. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and decided to treat her too. This wasn’t an easy decision to make, but we made the call first of all because the cats were young and otherwise perfectly healthy, we wanted to give Kasumi some chance of improving her quality of life whilst we made a longer term decision, and we also wanted to help contribute to the valuable research being done.

We ultimately decided to do the full course, which committed us to wrestling (literally) an extensive catalogue of pills and liquids orally into each cat every single day for at least 6 months. We basically became hermits. We cancelled holidays. I mentally struggled with the concept of not being able to spend a single night away from home, or on my own. On days when I was in the London office I’d have to rush back immediately to keep to the strict schedule, for fear of irregularities creating a resistant super-strain of the disease. Our evenings disappeared into being stuck in a tiny room that became our dosing prison. We constantly cleaned up bright orange cat sick and bright orange wee from our carpets. My husband’s anxiety skyrocketed as we had to obsessively observe the patients, measuring weight, recording every meal, drink, vomit, allergic reaction, toilet visit. Anti-sickness drugs and anti-allergy drugs were added into the cocktail, having to be given at additional times during the day. We were banned from the vet building, relying on house visits and car park consultations. I had to remove stitches from the cut where an abscess on Kasumi’s neck had been drained (from before we knew what it was), because it was considered too risky for them to do it.

A plate holding numerous syringes and tablets
A typical set of meds, before the additional ones entered the mix

Throughout this, our referral for (human) tests had got lost somewhere. We tried again, and began what ended up as an exhausting and nerve-racking set of inconclusive hospital tests. My first was considered a light positive, so I was referred for bloods and x-rays. Whilst the x-ray was thankfully clear, the bloods were inconclusive. It wasn’t until August (5 months in) that I finally got the all clear, which was a huge weight off my mind as given all of the contact we’d had and how rubbish my immune system is I was convinced I’d got it.

But it worked. Our very sick cat improved rapidly, symptoms disappeared, and soon we had two cats indistinguishable from normal. After 7 months of treatment, our final test results were given the all clear by the (amazing, hugely supportive) researchers and we were finally able to stop. The disease isn’t cured, it’s in remission and could come back so we’re having to be extremely vigilant, but at present we’re feeling optimistic.

A grey cat lies amongst blankets that camouflage her
Kasumi, now back to her normal self

Work as a distraction

I’d started some counselling, but also found work to be a great distraction. Monzo is extremely fast-paced, change is constant, and I was enjoying it so it was easy to get absorbed and keep pushing to do more and more. In hindsight this wasn’t healthy, and coupled with not being able to have anything in the way of restful time away from responsibilities because of the cats, I’ve only recently realised how dangerously close to badly burning out I’ve come this year. Looking back, I was equally going “I love Monzo and my work!” and yet at the same time feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and holding some resentments but pushing through these. That said, my colleagues couldn’t have been more supportive and I will forever be grateful at the many acts of kindness that I received throughout.

I’m incredibly proud of everything I’ve achieved over the year I’ve been here. My initial focus was to prove I could still manage people, and that I could do it at scale. At the peak I was managing 16-17 people, which we knew was too many, but I survived and received some fantastic and motivating feedback.

Throughout the year my focus shifted. I started to manage some of our other engineering managers (EMs), and as we grew explosively and introduced the concept of Collectives (vertical segments of the company), I was asked to become “EM Partner” for COps Collective, which covered our customer support. Over time our Collective evolved, and so did my role. We ended the year as Ops Collective, covering several other domains as well as just support, and I now sit on our Ops Leadership council as the representative for engineering.

As well as that, I’m also discipline lead for web as a horizontal across the business, and have been working on some wider engineering initiatives such as revamping our progression framework (which I’m very excited about releasing openly). Some of the things I’m most proud of include:

  • Surviving managing so many people, managing managers
  • Building up our management team in Ops so that we’ve now got our own little community and support network
  • Dealing with all kinds of different, tricky people situations
  • Running hiring for web, being part of the EM/Eng Director hiring process, and finding some amazing people
  • Sitting on our Ops leadership council
  • Some of the engineering initiatives we’ve kicked off in Ops (e.g. quality and testing, on-call, looking at some cultural aspects)
  • Other initiatives within the wider engineering discipline, including helping to get lightning talks started
  • Helping people to move around the business, and sponsoring them for opportunities
  • Learning how to do headcount/team planning at this scale and pace of change!
  • Learning more about risk and compliance at this level
  • Setting up the Web Platform team… and everything they’ve gone on to achieve 💙
  • Working on the new engineering progression framework
  • Speaking at events including Investival and State of the Browser even though I was limited with what I could do because of the cats
Me, my slides, and the audience at Investival
Getting to speak to a room full of Monzo investors was one of my highs

I’m planning on taking the next couple of days to do some serious planning fo my year ahead. I want to be a lot more intentional about my time, and really focus on having the most impact possible. I get to work with some ridiculously smart people, and I’m so excited about what this year holds for Ops, engineering more broadly, and the web. I’m also looking forward to being able to attend more events, and share more about what I’ve been up to now I have more free time (I’ve already got a podcast guest slot and conference keynote lined up!).

Everything else

Three weeks after finishing the medication I was a plane headed to Japan. I spent the first 2.5 weeks on my own, living in a cute little Airbnb flat and returning to the Japanese language school I’d studied at in 2018 for an intensive intermediate course. After that my husband joined me, we headed to Kyushu, hired a car and spent some time enjoying remoteness and plenty of autumnal beauty before returning to old favourite haunts in and around Tokyo. I put a ton of photos on my Instagram story collection here and here if you like photos of trees.

View down a valley as the sun goes down, with grasses in the foreground
One of the many beautiful views whilst driving around Kyushu

All in all I was away for over a month, and it was the best thing I did all year. I’m extremely privileged to be able to do something like that, but can’t quite explain the impact it had or why it was so important to me.

Throughout the year I’ve somehow managed to keep up with my language studies, and although my exam plans had to go entirely out of the window (being away was much more important!) I’m so incredibly proud of the progress that I’ve made since this time last year.

Side-project-wise thanks to a combination of time and depression I only managed to finish this one update. I’m trying to be kind to myself about that. I had a whole list of stuff I wanted to do over Christmas and did none of it (rest was more important), but I’m pleased that I’m at least excited and having ideas again.

Screenshot of a tweet, showing an illustration of a bridge that was animated with birds flying past
Original tweet now protected

Other things that I enjoyed this year included:

  • Our time in Austria before everything kicked off
  • Receiving the certificate for my JLPT N4 exam
  • Assorted day trips within a limited time radius: the new Spurs stadium, Aldeburgh, Orford Ness, Pin Mill, local walks, and more
  • Friends getting married: Lou and Ben, Darren and Paula
  • Starting to learn bouldering
  • One of my school friends having a baby (and before that visiting the Crystal Palace dinosaurs together)
  • Jimmy Eat Wold at PRYZM Kingston with friends, on our first night of ‘freedom’
  • Redecorating our hallway and downstairs toilet

And so on to 2020…

Normally at this point I’d share some of my goals. This year I’m not going to. My main goal is to refocus, to be kind to myself, and to do things that I need. To help guide me I’ve made a list of things I’d like to do, spanning work, relationships, health, hobbies, home, travel, learning, and emotions, but they’re not things I want to put online, and I won’t hold them against myself if I don’t manage to do them.

This year will likely have both ups and downs, but I’m just hoping there are more ups this time around! Let’s find out…!