Weeknotes 09×01: Is this craft seaworthy?

Craft and structure: The Spinnaker Tower and HMS Warrior in Portsmouth
Craft and structure: The Spinnaker Tower and HMS Warrior in Portsmouth

Where is my head?

  • A weeknotes wilderness – it’s been a few weeks since posting, but I’m not really counting. Everything feels blurry, and I have disparate notes entered into my pixelated diary. If August is haystack month where everyone is in holiday, October is anything but Stoptober, work wise. I felt the equinox slam into us, and the slowly shortening daylight gives an urgency to human activity. Welcome to series 9, I guess. We’ll see if there’s time.

  • In big news, perhaps, I have found my “craft” which I lovingly speak of so often, like dreaming of an island to retire to. A post on creativity and a chat on “developer PTSD” have given me a mirror onto what I’m trying to do. It is bigger than I thought, but not unexpected. It is not solely the act of coding, nor solely the act of managing people, nor of keeping up with technology or any of those things. It is not even the sum of all of these things, but the multiplication of them. The whole-system view of making innovation work, and it is impossible to decisively separate out code practice from team process from individuals from user needs from risk from passion. It sounds like a craft without boundaries, but really the boundary is simply “innovation that works”.

  • The practice of this craft mostly comes down to the fact that one person can’t do everything. This is embedded into software engineering anyway – why do something when the computer can do it for you? As such, software engineering is the me challenge as team engineering, cultural engineering, process engineering – how do you configure a space to allow things to flow within it? This is tai chi at its core, too. Everything becomes about space and structure.

  • Which is why it made me laugh out loud when Sam referred to me as “King of Anti-Structure”, at least for weeknoting – check out her great list of weeknote structures here. I must write something separately on this, but yes, it is related. Exploring through chaos helps us find links and patterns. Finding those patterns is key to developing our own structures. Structures are always restrictive, and chaos will regrow like weeds. The cycle continues.

  • Processes and rituals are nothing without understanding. I wrote that earlier, then coincidentally read Catherine Howe’s latest post on dogma and change, What happens if no-one is right? In any network, there are people with one set of processes, people with another set, and these both reflect two separate modes of understanding/organisational memory. There are then two forms of “meta” actors – which may overlap: 1. Agents of change, who seek to adjust and overhaul a certain set of processes, and 2. Dot-joiners, who seek to merely bring different mindsets/tribes/teams together.

  • A weekend trip to the flagstoned dockyards of Portsmouth’s past, where the Victory stands proud against the rain while the Mary Rose slumbers. These craft are almighty, culminating in the brutal Victorian ambition of the iron-boned HMS Warrior, caught between the eras of sail and steam. I’m affected by the engineering that happened, the interplay between ship design, the time’s modern technology, and the gall of crew sizes of 700-plus. The craft of craft.

HMS Alliance submarine in Portsmouth
Below the surface: HMS Alliance out of her natural habitat

What has actually been happening?

  • I had to return to some very old Visual Basic code that is still in regular operation. Internal tools really don’t need to be updated to be tech, unless they’re either not working properly for process, or they’re dependent on something that changes rapidly. Visual Basic and Excel are bizarrely very “stable” platforms (and SQL, of course). Much more stable than ancient IE’s proprietary code. When choosing tech, always try to avoid anything that mixes proprietary functionality with a set of standards – one will always be discarded soon. VB and Excel are happy, isolated beasts with their own agenda.

  • The last few weeks have really seen a switch in my own tech involvement. The dev duo, in conjunction with the whole company, are working on a huge migration (“the most complex thing we’ve ever done” as I think I put it) and are knocking it out of the park. I’ve picked up on a few headier details, but otherwise handed it over.

  • This has meant I’ve been freer to do more planning around it to try to arrange work vs deadlines. A simple Google doc with a table in it has been good – no GANTT charts here. Just rows per sprint, with dates and comms deadlines. It’s raw, and duplicates data from elsewhere, but possible because the team is communicating constantly and solidly. In fact, this is possibly the most “agile” we’ve been as a team – a lot of things on parallel streams are being discovered as we go, extra work has been added, work has been dropped, and everything’s been re-ordered a dozen times. The original September release date was definitely optimistic, but we’re slipping in a controlled, communicated way. Deadlines are being fully committed to now though, so our risk is that we’re complacent, and miss something big.

  • I’ve also found some time to start looking at code with Emma (senior researcher) who would like to learn more. Again with the structure – a codebase as a whole, especially an old one in a language you don’t know, is really daunting. So my main work here was to work out how it worked (🤔😬😲) and then not just fix it, but carve up the changes needed into a set of smaller challenges. Going through and setting up some empty function calls with Emma helped this dissection, and we were able to work on different bits separately, then bring it all together quickly. I forget what it’s like being a new coder, but it really doesn’t have to be tricky or scary.

  • As part of focusing on the bigger craft, I’m also trying to work out how to “refactor” a few other responsibilities. This doesn’t always mean just offloading work onto someone else – sometimes it means going back to the drawing board and working out a different way to do it. I have a useful chat with the Management Team on how my/the Product Owner role could/should look different, and chat with Luke and Emma on clearing up and handing over reigns on our USA work. In both cases, the aim is to open up the work to others, as I think we’ve become overly-dependent on a small number of people for these (ie 1-2 people each), which risks isolation and bus factorness. I can also see an increased need to use that new craft in new ways in a year or so, and now, with so many changes in people, is a good time to do something about it.

  • The train was cancelled one morning, but I use the time to clear out my immediate inbox (OK, inboxes plural – I might have 3). Takes me half an hour, but I end up booking myself in to a new, daily email slot, 12-12.30. Does it work? No. Am I going to carry on with it? Yes.

  • Management Team meetings feel a bit double-edged – I suspect I tend to use the time to raise things I think are important to just keep in our collective conscious, but usually I don’t have much of a plan beyond that, which risks agenda items being a bit vague, at least to begin with. But conversations to explore an idea are always useful, for me. Maybe I’m just “good” at exploiting other people as sounding boards, but perhaps these meetings aren’t the best place for it? … Maybe I can pick these up in more 1-1 conversations though. I don’t know, everyone is pretty busy.

  • On a positive note – everyone except John (who was ill) was in the office on Monday, and we welcomed new data analyst Mary to the team. There was a crazy buzz of people which is rare, as most people work remote or part time, and I always get astonished that I’m in a position to give people a job/career, and that my code weirdly supports or gives people some sort of “life”, and even this sense of… “belonging” that gets created as part of a small company. Seriously, that blows my mind if I stop to think about it. So I won’t.

A photo of lots of fake arms with naval tattoos
An army of arms: Naval tattoo exhibiton

Why Tech Teams need Clear Team Values

OK, so a conversation with Garbados/Diana on Gnu-Masto-Social-Don tied in with some deep-founded thoughts and has started a little fire somewhere inside me. She was talking about the “PTSD” effect on developers, through bad bosses and/or bad effects – the latter isn’t something I’ve been so close to, but makes me wonder how I’d react if, for instance, a library I’d contributed to had been used in warfare.

Sadly, bad bosses are more commonplace, though. Sometimes “bad” can mean “evil”, as in acting against others’ interests. Other times it can simply mean “misunderstanding” or “unlistening”, which can happen for more and less excusable reasons. Not all managers want to be managers. Real life gets in the way. And, importantly, TECH IS REALLY HARD TO UNDERSTAND. Realistically, if you haven’t worked 10+ years on a variety of tech projects, then you’re probably still getting your head round just what “tech” and its myriad systems actually means.

Tech is hard because systems are hard. And tech brings together all the systems – code, infrastructure, hardware, changes, as well as people and business value.

I’m at the point of my life where I feel like I’ve got a small grip on this. And the question I have right now is – how can we open up “tech” in terms of a wider audience understanding its challenges, nuances, effects and needs? How can we help “bad bosses” to navigate through the – let’s face it – infinitely confusing landscape of technology in a way that benefits both the people working in tech, as much as the organisation they work for?

I’m old enough to know that work has a huge emotional impact on our lives – that for many, our job is probably the most likely thing to influence whether we’re satisfied with life, or hating it. As my kids grow up, I can’t seriously look them in the eye and tell them that work is great, that if you just follow your passion, jobs will be brilliant. Because it’s more than that – it’s about finding a space that encourages a two-way relationship, a mutual symbiosis between worker and organisation. They cannot exist without each other.

As a Tech Director for a few years, one thing I’m annoyed I’ve never quite found time for is to have more time on team values. It strikes me that this is the one thing, the single discussion, that unites the people involved in “the craft”. if you hire passionate people (or if you can enthuse them to become passionate) then individual values soon emerge quickly. Not all of these will be shared across all the team, and balancing these is one of the broader jobs of the Tech Lead. But if things are important to the team – and, if done right, to the team as a whole – then perhaps these things need to be written up, shouted out, scrawled on walls, printed on banners.

Because understanding tech is hard, and if the team doesn’t do it, then nobody else will care.

This discussion, and the courage to do this – this is what we should be doing as part of our teams, a reignition of collectivism and strength in the team. Values, not (necessarily just) hours or pay, are what drives us, and what we should be taking an individual stand on. Values should be baked into the discussion from the moment we talk to a prospective new employer, or new employee – the up-front expectation that we take our art seriously, that we believe what we do has value to others, and that any compromise cannot be taken lightly.

And that’s just a start.

Weeknotes 08×10: Open Cat Strategy

  • Monday. First meeting with a cat in. Takes the idea of “herding cats” to a new level.

  • Tuesday. Day off, but some pro bono work for the charity project steering group I’m on. A group of four of us pore over survey questions for a few hours, assessing whether we need them, or whether they need changing. Two words: User Needs. By keeping that at the front of our minds, we get to the core – relevance. The words blow everything open – who are the stakeholders and what do they want? How does each question relate to that? It’s murky work, bouncing between impossible problems and linguistic technicalities. Here are biscuits half-covered in chocolate, and no cats.

  • Wednesday sees me going through the ‘final’ tech strategy approach with the tech team. It’s ‘final’ in that it forms the starting point for more targeted action and discussion. No plan is ever final. The finality is a con trick really – the plan will change, but in terms of the planning process, the stamp of “[FINAL]” in the document is a token and a symbol for timescales and confidence. Some work has been “done”.

  • Tuesday’s survey work weirdly overlaps a lot for the tech strategy work, for me. Measuring stuff is really hard, and both strands of work involve deciding what to measure, up against the bleak shards of limited time. Danger in every direction – the fine sliver of a Venn diagram that collates objectives and relevance, with practicality and available tools. It strikes me that nobody really gets how hard that is – that applied metrics is more of a bugger than software, which is already a form of voodoo magick.

  • This week I’ve finally got a near-final version of the tech team strategy for the year ahead (although all the juicy detail is for the next 6 months). I thought I’d write up the final approach as a weeknotes bonus – I really want to open up my thoughts more on this, for some reason. As it is, it’s taking longer than expected, so here’s a start – my approach to a tech team strategy as a Google Doc. Hopefully I’ll carry this on and fill out the later details over the next week or so, but maybe it’s useful to someone out there, or others can chip in their notes too?

Kevin Bacon saying "Free the Bacon"?

Bacon and chips?

  • Wednesday morning, presenting the tech strategy to my team of 5 is… An interesting exercise. Going into it, you assume people are on board, forgetting that people are involved in other work, and that this has been ‘your baby’ for a while. They have other other priorities, like deliverables and getting out of the door on time. Switching the atmosphere is hard – “hey everyone, stop what you’re doing and listen to me” doesn’t always work well. I set out my slides with bullet points and really try to avoid sounding like a damn corporate manager, but slides make it so easy. Still, the basic narrative is there – I spend a few minutes on why it’s important and what’s happened, before getting to the details. It’s always good to slow people down a bit, even if they don’t want to.

  • Halfway through I realise that while I assume that the tech strategy has been formed from “inclusive consultation” and picking people’s brains a lot, it’s now at the point where I, as tech lead, have to kick it on a gear and take on ownership. There’s a switching point, where I realise I’m saying: “This is what’s going to happen. I’ve decided.” – this is, to be honest, quite a scary point as it’s a flip from how I usually think, and it’s a moment that risks a lot of negative comeback. It’s the moment you have to have a bit of confidence – in the way you’ve approached it, and in what you’ve drawn out. And there’s always time to change it later. A plan is never the end point.

  • In fact, all the work up to that point has been to sense check that you’re satisfying everyone to a decent extent. A plan is never going to solve everything – the plan is there to work out what you’re not going to solve, either now or soon, at least. And the job of the lead here is to understand the difference between individuals’ needs, and team needs. The team strategy will address team needs. 1-1s, mentoring, and general life can address everything else.

  • The long period (months) of tapping into people, followed by an hour to turn it into a planned push. Is this like tai chi? In tai chi, in pushing hands, everything is sensory – observe, flow, observe, flow. If it is necessary to push things in a new direction, then it is only to assist it in a direction that it is going already, and only at a moment when there is no resistance. Everything is already in place, there is nothing really to do. Bonus link of Cheng Man Ching footage.

Animated gif of some very good tai chi or kung fu choreography

Last retro

  • One of the worst outcomes for any strategy-type meeting though is silence. Fortunately, and I take this as a good sign, I have to stop the meeting descending into a retro – questions and suggestions for detail start coming up, which I hope/think means that people understand it, and want to get on with it. Relief.

  • I’ve had a couple of bugs I’ve been looking into recently which have gone quite deep into code and history. I’m reminded of just how powerful tools can be – the combination of git, github, Jira, and the myriad APIs which tie them all together, mean I can skip through time like Scott Bakula. Thanks to everything getting tracked, I can give an explanation of why something is so with time and certainty. Amazing.

Animated gif of Quantum Leap with Scott Bakula surrounded by blue light. Text reads "My Body is Ready"

Logging into Jira

  • Thursday brings a celebration of Joel’s 30th, and Obi’s departure next week. They organise a wine and cheese tasting after work. Sadly I have no photos which are suitable for here.

  • Friday is supposed to be a day for retro and a 1-1, but #son2 hits the season of colds, and we’re cautious after breathing problems the last two years. A troublesome night with wheezy coughs (not helped by getting back at midnight), a Doctor’s appointment in the morning, and we end up with the day back in the hospital in Brighton. Shuttling back and forth along the coast is a dreamy way to end the week. We’re all good by 5pm and out and home by 7pm, but I’m asleep soon after. Feels like the end of the series.

In links

Following on from last week’s thoughts on games, movement and focus, this article on Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism has some interesting notes on the overlap between the body and compassion:

Buddhism is a bodily practice first, in which one speaks the nembutsu aloud. Then the heart may open and the mind may follow, but only if one is sufficiently humble and clear of the need to possess and the desire to control the world through the intellect.

This post on what a leader does has been reassuring, in light of the strategy work. Sam sets out three important threads and responsibilities: Seek feedback, set context, provide support (“safety zone”).

Things I’ve written:

In culture

  • I’ve come off Steam recently, as am very much in Nintendo world. Currently playing Mario Golf: Advance Tour on the GBA, Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the DS, and Link (the first) and Mario Kart: Double Dash on the Gamecube. They’re all fantastic, in their own way. So much thought.

  • I’m back to reading The Erstwhile again, and really getting back into it. The first few chapters seemed to be a bit clunky, but Catling has found his style again, and the language and ideas are now barreling along in an impressive and fearful way.

  • After reading issue 1, I’ve also picked up the other 4 issues of Barrier, an English/Spanish comic about migration and aliens? Looking forward to it.

Weeknotes 08×09: Ping Pot Problems

  • Full speed ahead this week. The head is in full planning mode. No fancy Kerouacian prose this week, but I’ll keep the photos in…

  • My main achievement* this week was to establish a new game to pass the time. Inspired by various throwing games I saw in France recently, some ping-pong balls, flower pots and a low table were dutifully repurposed into a game I’ve come to call “Ping pot”. Bounce the balls off the table, into one of the pots. Simples.

  • not really my main one, but I like it.

Ping Pot: A table, surrounded by ping pong balls

  • (Ping Pot is definitely not just an executive version of Beer Pong.)

  • This is actually a serious exercise, DESPITE THE BALLS EVERYWHERE. I have a theory that problem-solving is – for me, at least – done best when the body and mind are both working together, without undue focus. Any gentle form of exercise is helpful to problem-solving, from going to the toilet, to going for a walk, to darts or tao chi. Firstly, screens are really, REALLY bad to have in front of you – they’re filled with information and all sorts of emotional routine attachments that distract you. And secondly, distracting the body with something simple somehow “greases” the mind – the semi-automated flow of physical energy also gets thoughts flowing better. As I said, it’s a theory.

  • As a result, these week’s photos are also all things from floor level?

  • An oddly unexpectedly “therapeutic” week. A few things I’ve not been so happy about have been playing on my mind, particularly at 11pm or 5am. Writing a draft email to the ether helped – like weeknotes, the act of getting things down clears things out of the brain.

  • I also read this short read on why we’re creative and problem-solving, and why that makes us grumpy, which definitely helped a lot this week. I’m often grumpy, and have written about trying to find the craft in my work some while ago. The article helped me realise that I do see the world as ‘problematic’ (or ‘puzzlematic’?), and I’m split between loving solving problems, and getting annoyed that others aren’t as ‘solvey’. So the perspective is a good one, and I can calm down.

  • Thursday afternoon, a quiet office and some decent work planning for the epic we’re currently on. We’re changing our underlying geographies, and I wonder if this is the most complex thing we’ve done in five years – it touches on all of our code, with no easy answers in some places. The team are doing a good job, up against annual leave, sickness, and Obi leaving.

  • My main aim now is to keep it on track, which means: Structuring the information learned so the work can continue to be distributed; Keeping an eye out for more detailed gotchas; Turning information into a plan with priorities and estimates (that hard part I’ve talked about before; and Keeping people interested in the work as the endurance test sets in.

  • Pace is everything in these things – pace and rhythm. A piece of work spanning multiple (2 week) sprints can feel like a never-ending slog if done badly. We’re over the big initial hurdle of facing an unknowable, chaotic mammoth, like those times you stomp up a huge hill at the start of a mountain walk. Feels like we need to enjoy the view and the refreshing meander now. I wonder how to build this in.

  • Should “pushing back against delivery pressures” be on the list of duties for a tech team lead? How can one value the longer term sustainability of slowing down? (This question of “undemonstrable value” seems to be a recurring theme at the moment.)

  • Behaviour management. This is something I really struggle with, because it’s rarely a clear line. Is there a difference between ‘rude’ behaviour, and ‘annoying’ behaviour? Not triggered by anything specific, other than looking through a feedback and suggestions form.

In links

  • gov.uk on roadmaps:

    ”But getting them right is hard. Roadmaps are born of all sorts of compromises: between committing to a plan while remaining agile; between giving product teams autonomy while aligning their work to business goals; and between improving existing software versus getting new stuff out the door.”

  • Warren Ellis again, in his Orbital Operations newsletter:

    ”I hope for, and fully expect, futures scenarios to get weirder and wilder, hyperlocal and supermodernglobal, very quickly. 2001 to 2018 has been the training ground for the New Next.”

  • Managed to post some minor internet postcards to Disposable Evidence – sign up, for something a little bit different.

In photos

A beer bottle on the street floor

A child's shoe on the street floor

A pink anarchy sign sprayed on the street floor

Weeknotes 08×08: Journeys, expeditions, exploration and navigation

A spiralled car park ramp

Following the same fragmentary nature as before.

  • I arrive in Manchester just as Pride is dying out, flickers of revelry still sparking behind closed doors in an effort to ride out the back holiday. Six hours of cattle-cage travel thanks to Euston unexisting, after two days of standalone parenting – driving drumming Buddha bowling chatting childing – and then the labyrinth of fresh streets, and the guesswork of solitude. I pick up a beer, check in, and crash out, all punctuated by the electric honk of trams outside. I sleep well, but it feels like a dream long before I sleep.

  • Manchester has back alleys, hidden places. The hidden places are filled with creativity – Street art, graffiti, throw-ups. Privacy is a place to experiment, to find out what works, to find out if you work.

'Motley' street art from Manchester

  • The data expedition is not quite what I expect, but these to is never are, which is a good thing. I go into it thinking through my skills – people management feels irrelevant here, but my “traditional” skill, coding, feels rusty. My laptop isn’t prepared. I feel like legacy…. I should have more confidence in myself – maybe it’s the dreaminess that’s throwing me. I can’t remember the last time I was alone in a strange place.

  • The expedition, run by an amalgamation of Open Data Manchester, Local Trust, and 360giving goes well. I feel a bit uncomfortable foisting our commercial product offering on to people by default in this non-commercial setting, so I disclaimer myself and allow the conversation to sway either towards exploring data from scratch, or to use our tool briefly to avoid the legwork and get on with other questions. We go for the latter, but I have a clean conscious. It’s helped that a bunch of people here already have access to it anyway, but one must always be sensitive to immediate aims.

My character sheet from a data expedition day

  • I spend most of the day actually looking up data and using our own tool, instead of coding – I have come out from behind the curtain. It’s weird and enlightening out here. Finding and understanding open data is a lot harder than it should be, given the effort and time that it’s had. So many interfaces, so little structure or user pathways. This is hard to say, but data.gov.uk feels actively unhelpful as I search. Hey weeknotes crowd, I’m happy to talk to anyone involved in it, if feedback is useful. (Did I read recently that someone new was taking it on?) That’s not to say its the only culprit though. I have many thoughts coming out of eating my own dog food.

  • Failed working experiments #1,652: Blocking out a regular morning every month to do planning (by myself) for upcoming tech work. Why didn’t this work when it does for blocking out time for work building up? Potential reasons:

    • Not enough interest (from me)
    • Aims and structure not clear (from me)
    • Lower priority (for me)
    • (My) Routine not established sufficiently

I think I will try an even smaller step by next week, of blocking out some just to get my head into it, by clearing out existing tech tickets in the system. One of the mental blockers to planning is that I don’t really know what’s in the system already and so adding new stuff makes me feel… dirty.

  • Returning to work, and agree to run a retrospective unexpectedly. I’m blurring the lines a little between Tech Lead (which I am) and Scrum Master (which I’m not) but there are many reasons, and one of them is that I sort of want to shake up the team processes a little, in light of developing the upcoming tech strategy. It’s always difficult to know quite when to step in and when to step back when the lines are blurred. I’m enthusiastic about the team growing, and it feels like there needs to be something different happening.

  • Secret bit: I actually quite enjoy running retro, but I also know how hard they are to get right. I don’t believe you can just assemble some “standard” discussion “tools” (although these can be useful) – the key is to explore the emotions in the room – usually the “negative” ones – but in a way that is productive. That’s a verrry fine line – I think a good facilitator opens up a lot of pain, but stops it – just – from becoming just a rant session. It’s a dangerous and risky process if done well – one that can go bad easily, either because it isn’t bold or vulnerable enough to be open and address real problems, or not channeled enough to come out of it with a sense of progress.

  • Something I always bring to any conversation I have seems to be a sense of mapping, mostly concept mapping, but any system of ideas being discussed. I tend to find myself jotting down what people say, then drawing lines between things. I hope it helps others. I’d love to be an “organisational cartographer”, now that I think about it.

  • Our last task of the day is to roll out some minor updates to our Australian site, which is getting a full on Aussie launch on Monday (when we’re all in bed). The launch comes amid a bit of political turmoil out there, so I hope it goes OK. It’s been a long time coming though, and while we have some internal tidy-up work still to do, it feels like another milestone.

I’m off to shift this cold and pick blackberries. Enjoy the week…

Links

My name is Wil Wheaton. I Live With Chronic Depression and Generalized Anxiety. I Am Not Ashamed.”:

And as we were walking I just started to cry and she asked me, “what’s wrong?”

I said “I just realized that I don’t feel bad and I just realized that I’m not existing, I’m living.”

Warren Ellis’ Orbital operations, 19th August, on “graphical writing” and the story vs the author. I love this bit about consistent structures to let you get on with the real work:

Regular unbroken consistent grid paneling stops you looking at the structure and has you simply focus on the words and pictures.

A collection of thoughts on slowness:

  • How to be slow
  • Louise CatoWeeknotes s05 ep04: Wooden spoon on slowing down: “it does take energy to retain positivity when you’re not feeling it. It takes energy to re-word things, to consider, to be the best version of yourself
  • Is tai chi ‘slow thought practice’? By slowing down our movements, we get out of the habit of tensing in order to respond. Everything is considered and taken on board, but movement is constant. Direction is always flexible, never committed to. Things start and stop in their own time, never rigid nor panicked.

Frances Coppola on life after death and having only one life.

In Photos

Must turn these into a mini zine…

A bee statue outside Manchester Picadilly station

Two guys in Manchester holding hands in the night, reflected between pillars and glass

Fairly abstract shot of clouds reflected in a shiny glass building

A spiralled car park ramp

Abstract photo of lines and shadows