3 (years) is the Magic Number

I can’t quite believe it’s been three full years since I jumped into a freelance career. Three years feels specifically like a turning point – like something is now established, rather than experimental. It’s still not a lot compared to many others, of course, but there’s definitely some significance. Three as a magic number.

Freelancing will be different for everybody, albeit with a lot of common overlap at the same time, I’ve learned. I’m ridiculously glad I joined up with The Skiff as place to work around other people: I don’t think I’d have survived this long without a small but valuable network of people treading the same road and being so happy to share.

When I took the crazy decision to make the jump, it was in an effort to take more "creative control" over the nature of my work. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure that meant, and while I’m not convinced I do now, I have realised that freelancing, for me, is about finding my place in the world. A modern world which has so much promise, but which also faces some extraordinary risks and challenges.

I’m beginning to more freely admit that I find those challenges overwhelming at times. I’ve got more concerned, not less, about the world my kids and their kids will find themselves in once my generation leaves. Solutions seem like a world away, and billionaires seem quite happy with literally starting new worlds instead of fixing the current one.

It’s hard to boil all that down into something to focus on daily, but I hugely appreciate the chance to work with organisations such as The Restart Project and Helpful Digital to support their efforts. I know Democracy, Ecology and Digital Technology don’t necessarily dovetail together. But that’s where I am, and I’ve no plans to step out of it yet.

I’m also likely to have some availability coming up over the next few months, and will be looking around to see who needs some help. If you’re after someone technical, but with a strong social drive and with an appreciation of what’s appropriate at business-level, then let’s chat.

I’m particularly interested in:

  • Taking on existing "brownfield" projects to get them into shape (code, but also documentation and process)
  • Holding projects to account for sustainability, performance, accessibility, etc.
  • Reviewing the environmental impact and carbon footprints of technology, and identifying improvement plans

Examples of recent work and interests include:

  • Overhauling a large WordPress-based product to allow much easier modification and flexibility
  • Website maintenance and migration to greener hosting
  • Lightweight carbon impact assessment for website visits
  • Assessment of a 7-year-old tech stack for security and other issues
  • Usability testing to redesign the flow of a mapping service

A lot of this stuff is hard, without easy answers. I guess that’s why I like it.

Anyway, to celebrate three years (as well as recently getting older AND moving house), I thought I’d treat myself to a new skateboard. I last bought one 20 years ago from Oddballs in Brighton. They’re still there, and purveyor of finest wheeled devices, so I couldn’t resist picking up this beauty.

Photo of the top half of a skateboard on top of green grass. The skateboard is white, with a black and white snake illustration design on it.

Who knows where I’ll be in another three or 20 years, but at the end of the day, perhaps it’s all just about making sure we enjoy the ride.

The Use and Abuse of Job Titles

Every few months I go through some kind of seasonal cycle of trying to reinvent myself. From the outside, I’m fairly sure nothing much changes, but I think it’s good to avoid trapping your own identity inside too much routine, so I don’t feel like it’s wasted time. The modern world thrives on progress and change, and it can be a very useful exercise to regularly review our own understanding of it – and how we see our place and role within it, both globally and locally.

This is especially so now that I’m freelance. A friend pointed me at Amy Hupe’s talk on the meaning of work recently, where she looks at the finding one’s purpose, and the challenge of moving away from more formal workplace feedback structures – clear titles, role progression, annual reviews, and so on. Understanding myself might be very different to how clients, partners and others see me, but it’s also the core which drives the reason for doing anything. Values, beliefs, principles – reflecting is just a way to make some kind of sense about why we make any single decision about our own life.

Over on Mastodon, I half-joked about trying out a different job title each day, to see how each one felt. The first was "Software Engineer and Digital Existentialist", and I kind of like that, in a semi-pretentious way. I don’t know which half is more vague though, but I do know which one is more acceptable, professionally. Use familiar words, and people will be more accepting, and carry on talking about something else. Maybe that’s not a good thing in a world which needs fresh, unexpected skills though? Maybe the use of disruptive job titles is a way to promote different paradigms and approaches to work in others?

Coincidentally, Pilita Clark also posted an article in the FT (paywalled) on The menace of the overblown job title, looking briefly at how words such as "Lead", "Manager" and "Global" are proliferating in many sectors (often instead of greater role clarity, or remuneration). And perhaps herein lies the difference between titles we give ourselves versus titles others hand to us. Is all of this just signalling, and if so, how best to achieve cohesive signalling that speaks to both our own inner self, and to others?

I’ll be thinking more about this over the coming week, as people keep asking me what I "actually do". Honestly, right now – as with the last few years of freelancing, and the 20 years of work before that – I’m still figuring it out myself. I know "technology" is fascinating and something I enjoy doing, to the point where I could happily call it "techne" instead. I know "making things better" is also in the mix, especially for the generations which come after us. Those are fundamental and immovable.

Anyway, I’ll post properly soon, but if you do know what I do and need some help with old code, frustrating websites, techical debt, carbon footprints, or changing the world of the future, then do get in touch. I have some availability coming up from next month, and would love to chat.

Refreshing my personal manifesto

That’s January done with. So it was time to write a new manifesto for myself. It deals with capitalism, change, technology and fear. If it helps inspire others, that’s good too, but a manifesto should, I think, be a personal statement first. I’d rewrite a fresh one every week if I could – turning thoughts into words is an act of orientation.

Don’t know about you, but I always feel swept along by the crashing waves at the start of the year. All the pent-up turmoil of the general Advent season converts into some kind of post-event frenzy of revolutions and hope for the run up to summer.

I’m coming to the tail end of a few projects this month and am staring through the telescope to see what lies ahead. It’s been a while since I visited that space, so it feels like a good time to reassert my own assumptions. Why am I here? Is this what I want to be doing? Am I taking on undue risks? Re-centre. Re-ground. Re-focus.

January is busy. February is when the real reflection begins in earnest.

So a manifesto felt like a good place to start. Short, scattered thoughts distilled into a reference guide for the soul. Near automatic-writing about as close to the raw ideas as you can get, while still making some kind of sense.

Turns out I’m still thinking about "empty technology" alongside greentech. I find it hard to believe we’ll ever become a sustainable society if we’re only focusing on replacing the technology and the materials, without changing our mindset.

A long time ago, I wrote:

"Technelogos [sic] establishes technology as a tool to rebind and reconnect things above all else, in order to rediscover those connections more consciously."

I know this is still important, but the path can be hard sometimes. Or maybe I’m just looking too much.

The manifesto is here.

Unfeeling the net: Are killer apps killing me?

So yeah, I disappeared from blogging for a few months.

And, to be kind of honest, I’ve not been "feeling the net" as much since taking a break from it over Christmas time.

I mean, I’ve been here, lurking and present, chatting with a few people here and there and getting on with work. But let’s dig in a bit here – what I mean when I say "feeling the net" is about the engagement with the zeitgeist, the pervading culture around internet usage that everyone seems to undergo, from when they wake up to when they go to sleep. And possibly beyond that too.

I’ve recently been looking ahead a few months again, sussing out possible projects and future routes for the year. Some of that has meant treading back into some of the online/offline networks that I’ve mentally-muted for a while. And while I can see value in these networks (they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t provide social capital of course), I find I’m really … sensitive to the nature of these spaces. Not one particular space – more the overarching patterns of how these spaces operate. Busy, busy, busy. Hyperbusy.

It feels as if we’ve developed a certain social vocabulary around how we expect social media to work, in the same way that we have certain learned patterns for user interfaces, as well as offline behaviour. And it also feels like we – as a collective userbase – have largely sleptwalked into this new substrate of modern life, only noticeable once we take time out from it for a while.

As a userbase, our experience is formed around this need to connect to each other. But that central nugget is then shaped and guided by mass data observation, the need to extract profit from the network, a genuine desire to build communities from networks, and interfaces which are inherently fragmented.

(It’s complicated, of course. I could dig into any of those factors for at least a few pages, but that’s not something for now. This was meant to be a short post to clear the mind.)

Post. Read. Like. Share. Comment. Repeat. Effects on the individual. Effects on the collective. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and keep coming back to it. It doesn’t sit well with me, even after 20+ years.

Because, in short, net culture is killing me a little. ("Killer app", haha.) It’s tiring to jump from one world-changing topic to another within the single flick of a scroll-wheel. It’s exhausting getting pinged by eight different threads inside a minute. It’s not good to be anxious about someone messaging you with a random personal fear at 11pm that they need you to sort out. (The last one hasn’t happened to me, but it’s certainly not an uncommon tale for people.)

It’s hard defending my own energy against all of that.

Right now, my core social tech is relatively basic (ie. without going super-niche). I have email, with some decent (and manual) filtering going on. I have Discord and Signal for a few close contacts, and for some good (read "still distracting, but inspiring") Community chatter. I have WhatsApp for a few local groups because that’s where they organise things (parents, sports club). I have Slack for clients. My RSS reader is currently broken, and needs fixing because I like feeds, but I’m not missing it as much as I thought I would.

OK, that seems like a lot already. But the key thing is they’re all there for a reason – and I know what the reason is. That feels like a world away from what I experience when I go out into places like LinkedIn, Twixxer, Mastodon, news sites, etc.

And secondly, the key difference is about how much I can curate my own experience, from the people involved, to the content itself, to the interface. Anything that decides what I should see and how I see it moves me away from that, distracts me from my own needs. Disempowers me. Divides me.

Anyway, that’s what I’m feeling today. I’m posting this on my blog, for my own brain. Not for the likes, not for the comments, not for boosting company shares. (Oh hey, "Share this" vs "Share value", lol.)

I’d like to form smaller networks around me; pop-up communities that only exist in real-time, tiny mailing lists that last a month, flash chats where everyone is silent, that kind of thing. I should get better at that. Watch this space? Or get in touch.

Featured image is some business cards I made by hand last week. In this age of AI-generated works, algorithmic content feeds and shoulders-upward communication, paper and pen seems like a rebellious act.

Personal Mini-Metrics: 1. An introduction

This post thinks through the idea of lightweight use of metrics for personal reflection and focus. It comes out of a week of daynotes – writing small notes each day – which was inspired in turn by Justin Pickard’s post on binnacles and ships’ logs as a form of taking progress, combined with my own background in data for policy making plus an interest in approaches such as OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results, to provide some form of rallying post to bind together time and people. So I’m aware this is, in many ways, nothing new and there are certainly plenty of "habit tracker" apps out here which cover similar ground.

Thinking back, it also ties in with growing up around the practice of confession within a Catholic setting, and the ideas of "safe" personal reflection spaces and quantification of ritual (X Hail Mary’s, Y rosary beads, etc), merging with Michel Foucault’s discussion of honesty and parrhesia – the art and practice of an "authentic" or "bold" form of speech – in Fearless Speech, and from there directly (IMHO) to the modern day rituals of things like regular retrospectives in agile methodologies, and weeknoting. Bullet journalling fits in here too, and I especially like its explicit use of paper as a medium of record.

To tie it all together then, how do these rituals of reflection and spaces for honesty feed into a more personal, meaningful idea of almost hyperlocal metrics? That is, how can I talk about this idea with an air of universal practicalism, yet maintain the notion that the configuration and usage of personal data is entirely a subjective one? And – to offer something different to many other practices – is it possible to stop the data nerd in me thinking too much, and keep the process to something as minimalist as possible?

Perhaps the answer lies in metric theory as a guiding principle, but its application as an intentionally private endeavour, even if worked out in a more public setting such as an open blog. That is, we can learn from each other and from history about what generally works or doesn’t for data, but ultimate responsibility for entering into the practice, crafting something useful, actually reflecting, and "adjusting course" (or changing it significantly) comes down to our own self. We are the captain of our own ship, even if the ship has been built by others, nautical knowledge comes from thousands of years of exploration, and the winds are forever out of our control.

At its heart, a mini-metrics practice should be "lightweight" in the sense that it encourages regular reflection, to bind together our own self-narrative through time. That is, its main purpose is not to generate data or blogposts, but to reconnect our own imagination with our own memory, in a way that has been disrupted by the constant interruption of the attention economy.

Furthermore, the process should grow our own sense of self-awareness, in order to "merely" ascertain our own place in the world. While we should not set out to judge and criticize ourselves, there will be times when reflection may generate either a flash of realisation that ties back in with a sense of weakness and humility, and equally times when we will achieve a sense of pride. (Mental note: Perhaps either of these states of realisation should trigger a re-orientation, and a re-scoping of needs, goals and metrics?)

With that written down, I’ll come back to thoughts on running mini metrics another time, but suggestions and thoughts very welcome. I’m at scribe@mastodon.sdf.org.

Scan of an old sailing ship's log, a table written on parchment paper with various columns with numbers, handwritten text for events, and some images of the boat in question.

We Can Value Downtime Again

Ever wonder what you’re supposed to be doing right now? Ever get put off by having to switch away from coding or writing in order to have a meeting with someone? Or, vice versa, get pulled away into debugging something in the middle of a fascinating conversation? Ever tried to watch a video or listen to a podcast while also trying to finish off a document?

All of these things are different kinds of activities, and they each engage a very different way of thinking. Some of us prefer some types of work to others, but for pretty much everyone, we’ll find a pattern that balances all.of these types, a bit like the balance of differing weather within a certain climate. (Our calendar is the weather. Our career, or ourself, is the climate. THE ANALOGY WORKS I TELL YOU.)

Paul Graham’s essay on makers’ schedules vs managers’ schedules from 2009 is my jumping off point, here. It’s a good read that gets at one of the most common challenges in a knowledge-working organisation: how do you balance puzzle-solving and creativity, with communication and structure, without killing productivity or morale? (Is how I see it, anyway.)

I’ve found that both of these aspects are necessary – sometimes everyone needs to be in sync with each other, and communication is vital for that. Sometimes you need brainpower and meditative/flow state to find a way through a challenge in ‘the system’, and group think is often really bad for that. (It’s not an either/or, of course. "Augmented" thought is a continuum, taking in everything from talking to yourself or to a pot plant, to peer-working and collaboration through a variety of more-or-less immediate media.)

This month, I’ve moved away from the structure and routine of a team that’s shaped itself over time. that shaping process helped to smoothed out conflicting priorities, different stakeholders, and rapidly-changing calls for support and for meeting needs.

However, moving away from one team doesn’t mean sudden isolation – and even if it did, I’m interested in enough things, and involved in enough organisations, to keep myself overly busy for quite some time.

This, then, is a good chance to reflect on what ‘busy’ means for me. What does that "shaping" process look like when I start from scratch, and how can it account for a number of priorities and people interested in my time, especially now that those "stakeholders" are much less related now. (Previously, overlapping roles and the closeness of a single company made awareness of the whole system much more readily available. Not so, when each group is completely separate from each other.)

The first thing I’ve found is that if I divide all my time up (for simplicity’s sake) into "Meeting" and "Making", then I get worn out pretty fast. Both are pretty intensive (but usually fun) activities for me. And that goes against the principle of wu wei, or doing-by-not-doing. Constantly having a push on your own time is not sustainable, or natural. So what balances it out?

There are passive activities (passivities?) which are often overlooked, but which I value just as much as active activities – possibly moreso. On one hand, we can see this in the same way that we need to sleep and dream: our minds need to ‘catch up’ and process what we’ve been through consciously.

On the other hand, we can channel Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream, and start to accept that our waking state is just as questionable – or as valuable – as our dream state:

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”
(via Daily Zen)

In the same vein of questioning the certainty of being awake, we can also question the assumption of doing things as an exercise in productivity. To adapt Chuang Tzu, "was I a busy person who is now relaxing? Or am I a relaxed person who was busy?" Of course, the story ends with the question, and it is not a question that can have a definitive answer.

So we can – and should – balance out the maker/manager ever-so-productive side with something more yin, more chaotic and subconscious and butterfly-like. We should value this ‘down’time as part of personal development, and actively become non-active, handing the reins of control over to the systems which keep us ticking without our knowledge.

To balance the idea of busy-ness, I’ve adopted a couple of more passive mindsets (perhaps there are more? perhaps it is personal?).

Firstly, the fairly straightforward approach of unthinking, that is – a distraction and a rest from being deliberate active and"productive". This could be an actual rest – a nap, sleeping on "it", etc – or it can equally just be a rest from thinking: "pootling" around the house, going to the toilet, playing a game.

All of these aim to let the mind "switch off", although it is only the conscious aspect that is really "off". Like dreams, this form of passivity allows thoughts to shape themselves without interference. It is often an essential stage in solving something non-obvious, or allowing unrelated concepts and ideas to bash into each other.

(A note on meditation here. While the goal of meditation is often to allow such a state of mind to come about, a lot of the time we are so concerned about "doing meditation right" that it becomes an active, productive task in its own right. A quick nap is usually much more passive than a 10-minute sit.)

The second passive mindset is absorbing, which is still a conscious approach, but a less productive one. This refers to the state of learning, in which the mind is open to ideas. We do this all the time – when we read, when we listen to a podcast, or watch an instructional video, for instance. However, we can also refine it so that we can absorb without any intent – we can watch a video that we’re interested in, but not actively look for any specific solutions. This is different to digging out videos to work out how to fix a tap, for example.

The state of absorbing is also subtly different to watching things for watching’s sake, as noted under "no-thought" above. Sometimes we engage in tidying, watching, reading but in a disposable way – as mentioned, this can also be valuable. However, when we are absorbing, we are more open to taking things on board. Our minds are taking in information and ideas like a whale sifting through water, filtering out things we find useful and storing them for later digestion.

When you are in an absorbing mood, you will be engaging with something you think is interesting, but you won’t necessarily know why, or what you’ll get out of it.

So from this, we have 4 basic states, or moods, or modes, each of which has their own benefits and drawbacks:

  • Active: Making, Managing.
  • Passive: Unthinking, Absorbing.

Some of us will be drawn towards some of these 4 more than others, we each have our natural inclinations, of course. But all of us will also have a natural balance between the 4 without completely lacking any single one. They’re all essential in some form, at some time, depending on what we’re working on and how we feel, what’s going on in the world and our own body rhythms.

But by being conscious of these 4 states, we can also fit the mood to what we’re doing. We can remember to take breaks, and we can encourage rest when it is a more productive approach to what we do. We can set our calendars and our environments up, depending on which mood we want to be in, and we can stop trying to force ourselves to solve problems by banging our head aganist a wall, or by having yet another meeting.

Are there more than these 4? In theory, you can divide up frames of mind however you like! These are 4 which I think work for me, and which give me a way to quickly work out where I am, and what I’m doing. It gives me ‘permission’ to feel lazy, or to work more or less, as it re-frames what I think of as ‘achievement’ instead of it being defined as hours worked, words written, or metrics incremented.

Any feedback or ideas on this are greatly welcomed. I doubt I’m the first person to write all this out, and I suspect – hope – that everyone does it differently anyway. I do think there’s so much scope, though, to raise the profile of resting, and the value of inactivity, in a world that seems to love burning itself out mentally and environmentally. There are ways we can be more honest and open about getting the balance right, to re-define (for instance) the antiquated approach of "work/life balance" which represents such a narrow dichotomy.

We can value downtime again.