What I learned while losing my mind when my laptop broke down

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

You know how sometimes you get sick after an intense period of Adulting, and someone inevitably says “it’s just your body telling you to slow down"?

After 7 years of startup hustle, on Saturday my 2-year old laptop told me to slow down.

It happened out of nowhere — my trusty machine which had been happily crunching code just a few hours before presented me with what folks here in Brussels (presumably) call l’ecran noir.

Hm.

Turned it off, then on again. Nope. Tried again.

Panic. Please, not this, not now.

Over the next few hours, no web-searched solution or secret-key-combo-into-safe-mode helped. The computer seemed to start up just fine, but the screen stayed black.

And then the kicker — at the Apple Store on Monday I learned that my computer needed to be sent away for repairs which would take…at least a week!

Despair.

Lesson #1: Be prepared, dummy

I couldn’t afford to miss a full week of work — definitely not this next week! — although in truth I would probably say that any given week.

Immediately it was clear that I really, really should have had a second laptop ready in the case of (rather probable) tech problems with my primary machine. This is especially (now) obvious in the working-from-home COVID era.

Pro tip — consider securing a backup computer for yourself right now.

So I ordered a new one, fortunate that I can use the company credit card—the one getting repaired will soon become my backup — but the new one won’t arrive for a few weeks.

Back to my immediate problem — so much to do, so little time !— I remembered I had a 7-year-old, somewhat broken laptop stashed away in a box. Please, I wished, perhaps that rickety claptrap might save my work week and keep me in control of my life…

Lesson #2: Sometimes you just need to chill

I located the 7-year-old laptop and was immediately reminded why I don’t use it anymore — it shuts off whenever the CPU gets too hot. Basically it will intermittently crash while doing anything other than web browsing, emails, Slack and web meetings.

Those are things my phone can do…that’s not good enough.

I mistakenly assumed I could forcibly overcome the glitchy old computer problems and continue to perform my regular work tasks. I found that putting the old laptop into the fridge allowed it to run code without overheatingsometimes.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes it rebooted, sometimes it ran out of battery power — but as long as it worked sometimes I could get stuff done, right?

No, this was madness. I had to stop.

I couldn’t fight or work my way through this one. Having a computer that shuts itself off all the time is like having a bicycle with no brakes — which I also have right now, but that’s another story — seems fine once you get going, but the stress gets compounded with each hard stop.

I resigned myself to literally “phone it in" for the rest of the week. I’d survive! And my startup was going to be just fine…right?

Deep breath. I’ll fix bugs and add all those new features next week.

A quick aside…does anyone know how to access the command prompt of an EC2 instance from an Android phone? Just kidding. ☺

Lesson #3 — Ask for help, it’s ok

It took me about 96 hours before I thought to ask a colleague for help. This was around the time of the 50th crash of my old laptop in the fridge. I desperately needed to reach a milestone on my project so we could be ready by Thursday’s presentation.

My coworker said “sure, no problem", and got it done in a day.

Sweet Jeebus, that was easy and refreshing.

I need to allow myself to ask for help more often.

Everything is going to be ok.

Epilogue

At this moment — as I stand here typing into my open refrigerator — I feel exhausted, and incredibly fortunate. Things are a lot better for my startup than they were a few years ago. These acute hardware problems are trivial compared to the chronic startup stress which clearly still affects my emotional response to problems.

It’s an amazing thing to have happy customers, VC funding, and a dedicated team. I’m deeply grateful for everything we have earned up to this point.

And I note that I’m all out of beer.

Photo credit: Jesse Paquette (author)

Full-stack programmer, computational biologist, and pick-up soccer addict, located in Brussels and San Francisco. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessepaquette/