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