Weeknotes 06×03: Empathy is also Hard, and Working Out what to do with the Past

Overall feeling: Like I can’t quite remember, like it was all a bit of a dream.

Spoiler: Friday contains the good thoughts, on agility and the past and the future. Also, no gifs this week. If you make it through, thanks for reading 🙂

What happened this week?

Thinking back, this was a really fast week. At times I felt focused. Other times I felt like I was drifting. Periods of productivity flitted around, but sometimes it was planned, and sometimes it was more reactive.

I started out at the weekend, really – I knew I had too many things on, so sat down to work out what the minimum next step I could do on each was, to keep things moving. Then I prioritised these steps, and then I put them into my weekly Trello board (one column for each day) in a schedule I thought was plausible. Oh yes, I’m all about the micro-strategy right now. It certainly felt like a weight had lifted from my mind, anyway.

On the whole, my week was a lot more development-heavy than I was expecting. This was probably predictable, in hindsight – fellow dev Luke was away the last three days, and fellow dev Alex was away the first three, visiting WWI graves in the Somme. Which I’ll come back to, for narrative reasons. Alongside staff absences, we have a couple of technical pushes on at the moment, both of which I’m not directly involved in, but am supporting on as a Technical Manager [TM].

And, alongside that, the move to our new server has had a few foreseen and unforeseen knock-on effects, and so I’ve been picking those up, as everyone else is pushing on with the real work.

So I haven’t got done all of what I’d hoped to do, but it was kind of fun to get my hands dirty again, and be able to do some real world work that fed straight back to end users within the hour.

A Post Script

Two weeks ago, I wrote that there are only two hard things about management. This is obviously a lie. Empathy is hard too. Or, no, empathy is easy if you’re listening, but to listen, you have to shut up – both the tongue and the mind. Shutting up is the third hard thing about being a manager, but probably the hardest thing. Harder than prioritisation and time management.

As a manager, there’s a force and a pressure on you, to be someone. You feel a responsibility to Make Things Happen, which in turn, makes you want to Say Things.

I’ve found there’s only really a need to Say Things where I think my experience tells me that it wouldn’t otherwise be said – in the right time frame, or the current context. Sometimes things are urgent, and there’s no time to let people work out a solution if you have one. Sometimes you have to say things you’d only say if you were drunk, because honesty isn’t really a British thing, but is essential for combating rumours and gossip.

But otherwise, people benefit from silence from a manager. So long as they know they’re trusted to do the work, and trusted to ask for help when they need it, people are generally much happier figuring things out for themselves, making a few mistakes, and taking the long, learning route.


One of my big focuses was to get some closure and open up the next strand of work for our clients in the US. We’re at a bit of risk of a never-ending (“iterative”) project, so I’ve keeping an eye on it and checking in with Emma and Obi, who are doing the work, with a view to make sure it gets managed OK, and the client is “liaisoned” properly, if that doesn’t sound rude. I went back to our original quote from a year ago, and suggested some new financial arrangements following a delivery this week. Felt a bit squeamish about it – I’m not a great one for negotiations, but I also know I’m just being a bit silly about it. I don’t like conflict, but so long as you’re rational and acting in the other party’s best interests, people are generally fine about these things, aren’t they?

Also had a quick technical chat with one of our UK-based Local Authority clients, who are looking to integrate our site with their intranet. It’s great to chat to people who know what they want, and what path is ahead of them. There’s a User Group coming up next month, and I’m still feeling bad about missing it – I do like listening to users…

(On the downside, why is there never a simple way to connect with Skype any more? Still, only took about 10 minutes to get the conference meeting setup, which is better than other calls generally. Does anyone keep metrics on time wasted negotiating group chat tech?)


Had a really good catchup with the rest of the Management Team, with some important developments which I can’t really share here. But managed to piggyback off the meeting to go through a couple of things I wanted to resolve this week – to get agreement on pricing structures, and to get agreement on the year’s product roadmap for Hive Pixie.

I think one of the most important ‘internal processes’ I go through is to get ‘buy-in’ – I’ve noticed that I do this a fair bit around decision-making: I like to check that people are happy with a decision I’m making. On the one hand, this could be seen as a lack of confidence – sometimes it is, but I do try to be honest about this, and will frame the discussion more as a ‘sanity check’ or a review, than a ‘sign-off’ one. But other times it’s about lines of responsibility, and – more importantly, perhaps – shared direction. If people aren’t happy with what I’m doing, then I’ll be left doing it myself, and it’ll be a right old struggle to get others to help out later on. Well, more of a struggle, in some cases 😉

I once described what I do around decisions as a bit of a sham – all I do is collect the info, structure it, turn it into a rational, defensible process, and play it back to people to see if they agree. I don’t really make any decisions at all, just discover them.


This was the day that Luke and Alex were both out. We also had Kim and Emma working from home, so the office was pretty quiet. I spent some time on dev stuff – signing off our site migration task (prematurely, as it turned out), making some small code tweaks, and trying out our new Virtual Machine setup, which sadly broke my development environment. Oops. Still, it’s great to be able to get to this point – I set up the initial environment months back, and over the last 4 or 5 weeks, it’s started to take on life within the wider team, so I’m kind of closing the circle. Proud of the way this bit of work has developed, and will certainly try to remember it in future.

Also had a 1-1 with fellow dev Hon Mond, which I deliberately also used to explore the capability framework / career path guidance I’m putting together slowly. Developing this in conjunction with others, instead of doing it myself, was a decision I’d made at the weekend, and was influenced by chatting to fellow Weeknoter Julie Byrne and hearing briefly about her (much more organised, I suspect) workshop approach.

Getting help from others is something I’m really trying to improve at. A bit of me still feels like I’m ‘cheating’, if not failing, but the results are always clearer and more participative all round. So far.


Here was whee the #user-support channel started to become my home. I’d already been trying to work out some permalink stuff for the Local Authority client I’d chatted to on Monday, having promised to send something over. We then discovered a few things that had been missed in translation when the site migration happened – a parallel deploy had been partially rolled out, and while there was no broken functionality, the speed improvements we spent a few weeks putting in place had effectively been rolled back. TBH, the risk was raised at the time of deployment, but wasn’t bad enough to warrant worrying about. Fix it easily, move on.

That sort of set the tone of the next day and a half though, so instead of getting on with the work on Ethical Impact I’d hoped to do, I was fairly mired in git, my IDE, databases, and Jira issues.

I think I got to midday on Thursday when I realised that the end-of-week stuff I’d hoped to look at just wasn’t going to get done. I checked there was nothing that couldn’t wait, and shoved everything back in Trello.

Spent the afternoon catching up with fellow devs John and Hon Mond on the major bit of work they’re doing. I’ve stepped back from this a bit, but wanted to check in and see how things were going. There was less clarity than I’d hoped for, so I ended up making some strong suggestions to have conversations – or if they’d been had, to write down the decisions. I hope I don’t come across as too controlly-controlly when I do that – I hope it’s the right choice, and I suspect it’s only done from experience of seeing tasks going awry when people are confident that things are fine.

I like knowing answers up front.

Ended the day with another user support issue, going back to some code I wrote 5 years ago. But ran out of time.

Friday, Five Years Ago

The second half-day of the week, after Tuesday, and I think I’m getting the hang of these half-days. The first time, two weeks ago, I struggled to stop thinking when I left work, and ended up writing up notes in the afternoon. Now I’m more stringent about it, and treat my afternoon off just like I treat my day off – effectively, no comms, and a deliberate intention/effort to Do Something Else. Meditating for 15 or so years really helps make that shift, actually. It’s one of the reasons I think I’m OK at jumping between lots of contexts over the course of a day (which doesn’t make it right or effective or any less tiring).

At the start of the day, Alex – returned from the WWI battlefields in France – was telling us how the crops growing over the old trenches, filled with new layers of earth, grew differently to the surrounding crops due to this difference in layers. Here’s an aerial photo:

Trenches from the air

These lines, their shapes dug a hundred years ago, now shaded in multiple greens, feel like nature locking human history into her own output. The politics of war, now embedded in the hue of vegetation.

I spent the morning mostly looking at the issue that I started looking at yesterday, which meant going back to some very dodgy SQL I wrote 5 years ago. On the way home, I sat on the train and thought about the past, as the cold fields of Sussex floated past. Decisions we make now are enshrined and built on. We build layers on layers – our processes and our politics and our efforts are all just ways of building new layers.

Someone (who I should get in touch with again) told me last year that the difficult thing about running a product isn’t scaling it up, but keeping it going. Another tech leader talked about how versioning meant you were always dealing with parallel histories, in one go. Age is the antithesis of agility. The layers are inevitable.

The lines of the code I was staring at took me back, to before I knew most of the people in the office. Just as the lines in the crops take people back to a story they’ve only seen in black and white photographs. Trenches dug with metal. Processes growing all around us.

I had this feeling that I was dragging something – but not the code itself, not skills. Nothing other than the past, really. As if those 5 years in between – where #son2 was born and the company grew and relatives passed away and we moved house and local authority with it – as if they’d never really happened.

On the train, I think I made a decision not to be a captive of that weight of the past. If I truly believe in agility, and all the catches from the world of ‘agile’ that hook into my philosophy of lightweight nomadicism, then I’ll address it. Somehow. In time. Not immediately, but eventually.


  • Finished reading M Train by Patti Smith. Gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, and probably the reason I’m wittering on lyrically above. A great nomadic book about memories and attachment and coffee.

  • Started reading Famous for 15 People by my friend James – short stories, ranging from the amusing to the macabre. I’ve read a few before, but love reading them again. Some of the ones I haven’t read before have been creeping into nightmares.

  • Also started volume 7 of the Unwritten, a graphic novel series I’ve been following for a few years now. Excellent series about the power of narrative.

Also published on Medium.

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