Workweek 04×06: That last little step…

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It’s Friday Monday – what have I done, and what have I learnt?

On direct action vs teamwork

Been in something of a maelstrom this week, which has really highlighted the fact that I seem to have two main roles. On the one hand, I’ve been getting more 1:1s in the calendar and really trying to help other members of the team get a chance to reflect. On the other hand, we have a lot on and I need to be very hands-to-the-pumps with it.

So I’ve been helping others get on with stuff, while getting on with stuff. Which is fine, but the two are very different mindsets, I find. Pretty tiring to be constantly assessing whether you should do something, or delegate it (because someone else is interested, or I don’t have time). Whether to let people get on with something and learn from it, or step in to move the work forward.

It’s not a conflict, as such. But it does risk confusion as well as tiredness – confusion on my part if I forget what I’m supposed to do, and confusion for other people if they’re not sure if they can get on with something or need to check. Confusion and the slowness that arises from it isn’t a Welcome Thing, not when we’re super busy, and not just before Christmas.

I don’t really have an answer, if there even is one. But if feels like a tension that needs some sort of resolution – maybe changing the workload in the new year will help, or maybe it’s something more fundamental, structural, definitional that needs some further investigation.

Do all team leaders get this?

On tidying and doing up

One of the big pushes this week gone has been around company strategy. We (Stefan, Luke and myself as the senior management team) have been choosing the areas we want to focus on over the next year, splitting them up between us, and defining them. But to move things on, we meet to finalise this and actually communicate it to people. Otherwise whats the point?

We had a couple of meetings going through our thoughts (cobbled together into a Google doc), which I then added some basic formatting, structuring, and consistency to (plus an overview, title page, etc). By end of Friday it was looking much better – certainly good to present to the team on Monday morning.

It made me realise how easy it is to skip over the “decoration” stage – which feels like something separate to the apparent “proper” stuff, the content, the semantic meat. All this stuff is essential, but it’s also all just thoughts – core concepts, a record of decisions made and a series of reasonings. It says nothing to anyone else who hasn’t been part of that process. Or, at least, not very much, and that act of “saying something” is key. Layout and formatting is the UI of concept recording, along with the act and process of dissemination over time. A document without decent formatting is like a website that makes you want to stab your eyes out. A document that never gets passed around is like a website that isn’t linked to.

It’s a shame that we didn’t have more time/focus to consider this stuff, I guess. But at the same time, it’s very much an ongoing process and will roll out over the next few days and weeks.

It just made me think about how important that last little step is.

On the last 6 weeks

So this is “episode” 6 of “series” 4. As is my “tradition”, I take a week off weeknotes after 6 weeks to give myself a rest and a chance to reflect and start again.

At the start of this series, I identified 3 aims I wanted to make some change on. How did I do? Brief thoughts follow.

1. Tech direction – some serious thought time on this

  • Not as much time on kicking off our identified team aims as I’d like…
  • … However, there have been movements around VMs, environments, bug fixing, etc. Pockets of some dedicated time to get things going. Small pebbles, perhaps.
  • 1:1s have been useful in driving this – even if each person only has a single thing to progress over a month, that can add up to a lot over a few people.
  • Moreover, this has led to a lot of ideas for what to do next – I need to run a few internal sessions to go over a few key aspects of our work, so it’s not just me that understands the underlying concepts.
  • So a sneaky one this, and not as overt as back when we were having Roadmap meetings and the like. But some interesting progress being made, in among the busyness.

2. Have a finish line for our Storm Box project

  • This changed tack a bit at the start of the series, and I handed over my project management duties on this (very ongoing) project.
  • It’s not quite as clear a line as some of us would hope for, but we are hard at work on a Christmas delivery schedule (always a shudder), and more importantly, it feels like there’s a renewed effort in the team to really get this out of the way.
  • It’s felt really good to pick some task cards off our planning board after they’ve been up there for what feels like lifetimes.
  • Keep pushing, basically. I can see a light now.

3. Investigate “craft”: “Look for sharp edges, dissatisfaction, things that stick out and contend against the nature of the universe.

  • I’m not quite sure what to say here, but maybe that reflects a much deeper, more long-term shift than a lack of any change. Um. On the whole, I’ve been finishing days exhausted, but would describe myself as “busy, but in a productive way”. There’s a lot on, but it feels like we’re setting things up well, not just responding to needs with quick hacks.
  • What I realise, writing this up, is how much this depends on the team as a whole, and how much of the “craft” manifests as what gets made, as a result of the processes and pushes within the organisation. Is it possible to separate the effort from the outcome, or are they joined interminably like a torch and it’s light? I’m tempted to think the latter.
  • If that’s the case, my craft is something that both encompasses and cuts through everything – the craft of a team delivering something.

On other things

  • Exercise is awesome. Went for some walks in the evening, felt great the next day for it. Screen time in the evening is a killer.
  • We discussed a potential project on radioactive waste, which was a great discussion and really helped ask and answer some really difficult, but valuable questions around what we want to do.
  • It felt great to do some 1:1s with people I hadn’t talked to like that for over a year. If I didn’t have to do anything, I think I could easily just listen to people’s stories.
  • Induction for a new member of staff feels really streamlined now, even when we’re up against it with other work going on.
  • I got to meet Prem in Brighton again, who is looking for funding to help rebuild his home village after it burnt down.

On other places

On film

Workweek 04×05: On Choosing Lives and Organisational Filter-bubbles

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It’s Friday, I’m tired and it’s been a weird week. What have I done and what have I learnt?

The week started at 8pm on Sunday, really. #son2, excited and tired in the grey zone between bathtime and bedtime, cracked his bonce and gave us a bloody scare, literally. 999, late night drives, knocked down hospitals – it’s just how parents roll. A free ambulance service will always blows my mind.

Which all meant Monday was mostly cancelled in order to make the return to hospital. I had two interviews for our new en developer role lined up, which Luke boldly and graciously took on by himself. It also meant I had to leave the team to crack on with the work on custom data for Australia, which I had dearly hoped to have been supporting on.

Oh well, such is Iife. So this week was Wednesday (3 interviews), Thursday (Sprint planning) and Friday (Manchester for a Hive Pixie user group).

On interviews and the ability to choose lives

I think this is possibly the fourth time I’ve been through the entire process and round of interviewing, from writing the ad, filtering CVs, chatting to people and making a decision. It would be interesting to look back at earlier efforts (the last time was over 2 years ago) – I felt a lot more confident this time.

Subtle changes. For the job ad, I aimed for something broader than just “techie wanted”. In particular, I wanted to think about:

1) team fit, and communication in particular. I really value clear comms, and structures processes these days – a person can be a brilliant coder, but that’s not as important as a brilliant team.

2) avoiding tech “culture”, and I’m not entirely sure if that means anything beyond simply checking my self to avoid any subconscious biases. Everyone knows you should avoid using terms like “rockstar”, “ninja” and whatnot. (And if you don’t, here’s a great survey from 2011). But I’m curious (paranoid?) about other similar, yet unidentified language biases – gender biases in particular, as I would love to see more female coders*, but potentially other biases too.

So the application hopefully moved more towards a reflection of both company values and my personal values, as well as the technical needs of the company – but I’m no longer convinced that pure coding knowledge is the primary skill I’m looking for…

I was a bit apprehensive at first, as we weren’t overrun with applications – maybe I’d been too specific, or expected too much, or our tech stack wasn’t trendy enough, or everyone had already got jobs… But, fortunately, Kim pulled out some stats for previous adverts, and we were certainly no worse than previous rounds. Minor panic sort of over.

Fortunately (or through karma), the CVs were a good mix – probably better than previous rounds, anecdotally. We invited 7 and interviewed 5, and the final choice came down to between 3 people. I think that’s the first time that’s happened, and it’s horrible to have to turn people down. But it gave me faith in our hiring process as a Thing.

For the record, of the X applicants, Y were female (with 1 more which wasn’t clear). I also had another enquiry by email from a female developer, who decided not to apply.

The interviews were, on the whole, really good too – I think everyone was interesting, which is perhaps a good thing to judge your selection by. There were some great chats, a range of backgrounds, and I just really enjoyed hearing about people’s life stories. We always start with introductions and a (friendly) “why are you here?” question that gets people explaining their history and their current aims in life. Through 1:1s and Annual Reviews, I’ve really learnt (I think) to push people forward and guide them a bit, so there was a instinctual urge to do this with all the strangers I was suddenly sat in the same room as.

So yeah, each interview is a story, a life of its own, intermingled with other lives. It’s weird choosing one life to suddenly collide with. But there you go. That’s HR, innit?

* IMHO, there are aspects of the coding profession which are fairly lacking generally – a focus on “coding” (rather than design, resilience, communication, etc) for a start. From experience, many females have an aptitude for not just the logic of choice, but thinking through broader contexts. For some reason though, they’re far less likely to pick this up as a challenge though.

On the gap between raw users and the filter-bubble of organisational ritual

Got up at 5.30 am because it was user group day for Hive Pixie and so I got to go to Manchester because I is Product Owner (semi – on OCSI’s side of the partnership at least). This was exciting and a bit scary because we hadn’t run one before for this product (except for a different set of users a few weeks back, which I had to miss) and there’s always a good chance that people just want to groan and grumble at you.

From my experience with the XY user group last year though (and users generally), it helps to go into these things with a healthy mix of humility, direction, and inspiration. And a big notepad. So all fine.

Had a good chat with the taxi driver before getting dropped off at the lovely Great Places HQ. Introduced myself, did some listening, wrote everything down, and put in with some questions and rambled on about the difficulties of data a bit.

What struck me, and why I’m so glad I went, is the getting feedback direct from users is so rich – so visceral, almost.

What do I mean? Usually I’m fairly “protected” back in the office. I do software stuff and project admin stuff and write up stories and make sure we get input from our partners and our user support agents. That link to users via the last two is essential to understanding priorities. But, I know now, it’s also inherently only partial – a glass, darkly.

Back at the office, the feedback from users is always filtered through the processes and culture that we’ve established, and the inherent restrictions of both our tools and our written language. User support can tell me a user is annoyed, sure, but it’s still just a report. Partners can tell me something’s an important development, but I’ll still prioiritise it according to a rational comparative process.

Company process, and the environment, is a filter bubble. This is probably fine – it removes a lot of overhead and standardises work to make it easier, but it’s not everything, and it’s definitely not a replacement for the Real World.

The richness of user groups is the raw data. There are facial gestures and tones of voice which imply so much but can never be transcribed. There are short stories which aren’t unique except in the fact that a user has chosen to draw on them at that very moment, revealing – subtly – their mindset and all the connotations they attach to a conversation about what you’ve made.

I don’t know if there’s a way to capture that, and to translate it into “spec” – or maybe stories are the best way to do that, but our storytelling skills are too weak, or we get too caught up in formal definitions of “User Stories [TM]”. Maybe I’m finally just deriving the user stories paradigm from scratch. Dear God.

Anyway, like interviews, I really enjoyed it. It got me excited, because I know what’s possible, I love finding something to help people, and (hopefully) I’m in a position to do it.

On the go elsewhere

  • I worked on some of the company aims and strategy ahead of next week, felt productive.
  • I caught up with Alex for a 1:1.
  • I did some dev work, but mostly failed unit tests and peer-coding to debug sql.
  • I started some text for our handbook for guidance on remote and alone working.

On film

Bonus Haiku

A line of trees

Embroiled in the mist

Off to meet strangers