Weeknotes 07×02: So much going on that one title can never suffice, but at least Skateboards

Before the week

What am I looking forward to this week?

  • Nothing in particular, maybe just the chance to wrap up some long outstanding work, having a bit of a clear out, and meeting up with James on Wednesday
  • Getting our IMD poster framed

What am I not looking forward to this week?

  • Reviving our Australian project – things are busy, and I really hate trying to re-prioritise things
    ** (Actually turned into a very rewarding meeting)
  • Picking up on some potentially awkward conversations
    ** (Actually just shrunk the scope and turned out very useful)
  • Jumping about like a headless chicken
    ** (Yeah this happened. So much.)

What am I not sure about?

  • How much time in between meetings I’ll have, and how best to spend it
  • How the dev team get on self-organising a bit more formally, but looking forward to finding out either way

Expected theme

  • Jumping about like a headless chicken, trying to decide what to do next, cluck cluck cluck

Chicken : me, Cat : life
Chicken : me, Cat : life

(After the week)

Actual theme

  • Lots of good stuff, but too much of it. More jumping about like a multi-headed chicken than a headless one.

Ideal chicken me, Tortoise = Something very wise?
Ideal chicken : me, Tortoise : Something very wise?

What surprised me?

  • Someone else bringing Monday morning treats in!
  • Making a suggestion during a meeting that got back to the heart of the relationship with the client, and the empathy and relief that went with it.

Monday

Skateboarder in a little, as #son1 was cycling to school. Felt nice, even if I had no more than 5 minutes’ board time. Good way to start the day.

How I see myself getting to work
How I see myself getting to work

Sit-down, company catch-up. Dev stand-up. Lovely that someone else brought in Monday pastries too, so lots of cars in the office to get us going.

Planning out our next server migration with Gregor (sysadmin and professional [toads] player), which feels like never-ending work. I know it needs doing, but I swing rapidly between being glad we’re doing it, and depressed because it’s trudge work that’s not particular interesting, and needs careful handholding to keep smooth.

Phone call that I wasn’t hugely looking forward to as the project has been dragging for years. However, it turned into a surprisingly pleasing meeting, surprising to myself for pushing for slightly harder, clearer deadlines, and also for suggesting a route that feels like it could fundamentally change the relationship with the client. It wasn’t a suggestion I was planning on making, but there is a certain empathy, even via voice calls, that taps into clients at a personal level. It’s why OCSI is such a great place, I think – we will work with our clients to get them the best of their position too. It feels like a good move in this case as well, for now at least.

Rest for lunch.

Sorted out Jira issues from the migration planning.

Pre-sprint-planning-planning meeting, which needs a better name. OMG epics are so useful – clicked through my top 4 or 5 epics in Jira to see what work was left, and dragged it into the next sprint. Bish bash bosh.

During the day, got some nice feedback on the 3-month planning/clarity I was [looking at last week], so glad it’s not just me feeling the benefits. Must remember to carry on with this despite other people feeling pleased about it, I’m a terror for stopping at that.

Me actually going to work
Me actually going to work

Tuesday

Reviewed the dev team’s planning work – such a difference to the last set of work. It’s amazing how much can be learned quickly, given the right feedback. Shared Google doc to collect thoughts and notes – effectively collaborative, or peer-based, writing, which raised a few questions and changed a few thoughts on the way.

The main issues were some detail on tech architecture, and the Naming of Things. Managed to get a clear path on the former,and raised the second later on. Naming things is one of Those under-appreciated aspects, or rather, I’m learning to appreciate it more and more. Finding a term of art that makes sense to end users, wider team, and developers – all in different worlds – is hard. A term needs to both draw on and cut through the confusion of the existing system, and everyone’s previous contexts somehow.

The team going to the pub
The team going to the pub

Wrote up notes from yesterday’s meeting and sent off.

Catch up with MT on staff illness.

Got a frame for the poster, one step closer. Will bring a nail in tomorrow.

Had a good 1-1 with John, great to see him becoming part of the team, and the culture, and put me a bit more at rest. It really does take 6 months or more (the best part of a year) to get used to a new workplace.

Tidied up some git and dev setup work for an issue in the sprint, nice to round it off.

Wednesday

Took a nail and some screws in to hang the picture up. Will bring a drill in tomorrow.

Had a chat with Luke about availability for development time, vs other “functions”. Trying to get the hang of raising discussions (or lining up chat time) for “concerns” sooner rather than later – I often see things as the Big Picture (“OMG, do we need another dev or what? What’s our year’s strategy for dev skills?” etc) when actually a 15-minute chat with one simple question/answer will do the job. If you know what the question is.

Maybe this is a core skill of the Dot Joiners in the world – when someone has a concern, get in a quick, focused conversation time to keep things moving in the right direction.

Think I chatted to John about some Javascript. It’s starting to feel like a good pairing – he’s good at digging into code and has good suggestions. I understand the bespoke framework and legacy timeline. The main challenge is just managing our joint frustrations with dealing with complex code that is neither of ours’. Casual, open swearing is not to be under-estimated.

Also had a talk with Joel on use of Google Analytics. Definitely starting to feel more like a consultant in my role today…

Early finish. Met up with James and chatted about Brexit and remote working (separate strands, maybe?) Finally gave him a copy of The Rough Guide to Blogging which I’d picked up in a second-hand shop months ago, and a photo-essay on the Burry Man from Cafe Royal Books.

Wait I'll come over and help you
Wait I’ll come over and help you

Thursday

Forget the rest of the day, brought in a drill and finally got the lovely Local Authority IMD poster by OpenDataManchester up on the wall.

NO WAY WE GOT ART

Sprint planning in the morning, made slightly odd by half of the dev team not being there. Tried to block in some time for my own planning ahead around lunch, but some fallout dev work after the morning session + lunch meant I didn’t get much time to do this. Fortunately, a check through my Jira Epics showed things were gradually progressing across the fronts I’m focusing on, and so not too much needed.

Had a handy chat with Stefan on team skills – I’ve been developing a tech skills framework, and he’s looking at researcher frameworks, so now seemed like a good time. It was mostly a chance to catch up with each other – the (my?) longer term aim is to see if we can integrate our efforts so that we get a more universal approach to career development. It seems weird that we don’t have this in place already. As I go through it though, the harder I get that it is.

Currently I’m basing the tech skills framework on my own experience + the needs of the company. It’s not designed to be a “final” framework at all, but I do wonder just how subjective it is. Still, the main test is – do people understand it, think it’s fair, and can plan their lives around it?

Go, skills framework baby, go!
Go, skills framework baby, go!

Did some dev work in the afternoon to tidy up our. git branches. Went to the pub after work. Opted to do rounds of half-pints, which I’m opting to call “Micro-Rounds” to make them sounds trendy. They’re more sociable, and you get to drink a greater variety of ales, so win-win-win all round (apart from the headache). Also discovered we definitely should not be logo designers.

Friday

I think I’d overdone it by this point – absolutely shattered by Friday morning. My extrovert-meeting metric (which doesn’t exist yet) failed to alert me to the amount of conversations I’d been having. Writing this up on Sunday, after a fairly trudgey weekend filled with video games and kids’ party cake, I can look back and say “Yeah, that was a hell of a long week.” I was pretty zonked by Thursday morning, TBH. Chatting + lugging buggies and bikes around is a lot more knackering than it looks.

So not a very productive Friday half-day. Had a chat with Kim on GDPR, had the usual realisation of how much there is to do, but feeling on top of it, and spurred on to really block some damn time out for this now.

I think I tidied up some work on passwords as well, which felt good to get done finally. But it feels like months ago right now.

So there was the week. Now I am pooped.

Yes it is so much time to stop
Yes it is so much time to stop

Kultcher

Reading

Goodreads me

Pondwatch

  • Still definitely 4 moorhen chicks. The wife says she saw a fifth, but it’s been elusive for me so far. There are some amazing blue irises coming out, alongside the bluebells. Time to head up to the woods and check out the annual bluebell carpets.
  • The 89-year old man that looks after the pond had a bonfire, the humming ashes of which I returned to on Tuesday. We chatted, I showed him the photo I’d taken of him, and we saw a rat run past. Need to look up what water rats look like.

Weeknotes 07×01: Post-its rule my world

What am I looking forward to this week?

  • First meeting with Fabrice to discuss what tech lead mentoring could look like
  • Our first Tech Team Roadmap Review meeting, we’ve achieved a lot in 6 months, I think?

What am I not looking forward to this week?

  • Having conversations about work without a clear plan of capacity. There’s a lot coming up and I’m not sure if it’s too much.

What am I not sure about?

  • An Internal analysis session that’s planned, which could go either way and be either really useful, or really messy and drawn-out.
  • GDPR work which I need to get on with. I feel like it could be interesting, but isn’t because I “have” to do it…

What’s the expected theme?

Not doing as much dev work as I could, but getting useful stuff done instead.

Now that it’s finished, what was the actual theme

Loads of time on Planning and Strategy, which was in-depth, and felt good. Success and sunshine.

What surprised me?

  • How many post-its you can fit on one board if you really try
  • How much I really like the Pebble smart watch I got for Christmas. Lost the link to my phone for a day, and it felt weird being having to go to my phone for notifications. Also started using my watch for walking and sleeping data, which is another story.
  • How little I’ve picked up and called out certain things I’m not happy with.
  • That my gut instinct can lead to some useful insights at the end of a risky, exploratory, ‘creative’ process.

Space for links.

“The act of writing, forces the author to think through all the details and steps required to share the lesson. It avoids what happens in business all the time which is “I just know” or “experience” and brings along the team and other job functions on thinking.

Monday

Company sit down: First time that nearly all of the company have been in together (12 of 13), felt nice, like a feeling of pride in building something that supported this team. Shame not to be able to do a team lunch.

Tech team planning stand-up, which turned into me talking a lot. There was a job to catch Alex and Gregor up with what happened last week, which I think comes best from one person (?) but is a different exercise to a round of status updates. Summarising is a bit of an art, everyone should practice it, but how? What exercises and guidance would be useful? Should I add “summarising” to my new Capabilities Framework?

Also it felt like the team is working working together well currently, even if it was me saying lots. Feels fairly nicely focused and balanced at the moment, like all that that strategy, feedback, and support in the background traces a line through to the work detail. It’s a shame I can’t prove that, it’s a big part of what I think I bring to the team, but a lot of it feels invisible, or subtle.

Spent a lot of the day on some database setup, which was only interesting because I got to dig out some code I wrote years ago and use it again in anger, like dusting off an old motorbike, and firing it up to ride round the block.

Met up with Fabrice to discuss some tech lead mentorship. Coming out of Christmas, and some ukgovcamp chat, I’ve been taking the mentorship stuff more seriously. Over the last 6 months, I think I’ve started to move away from trying to take everything on myself, and the idea of mentoring (me mentoring others, others mentoring me) is a part of that confidence of “opening up”. For some in-built reason, I find it quite scary giving people career advice, or asking for support. So today’s chat (which wasn’t at all scary), and offering recently on Twitter to help out junior developers, feel like some big milestones, like I’m stepping into a new chapter in life. No longer just a doer.

Talked through some fresh feedback from our Australian client, after we delivered an update in January. Turned into a recap of outstanding work and timescales which are forever shifting. Feel like I’m eternally trying to lock this down, and it’s mentally tiring to keep trying to get some structure and clarity on what’s left. Still, managed to identify some key work, time frames and questions, using nothing but good old post-its and a big piece of paper. I guess the most important first step of anything complex (the same is true with Roadmap, code design, etc) is to find “chunks” of the right size. Chunks that are “just clear enough”, clear enough to be given time, and to be understood as something concrete.

Got a theory that managers should practice this “chunking” activity until they can (and do) do it in their sleep.

Broke up the train journey to get stuff for the guinea pigs. I’d forgotten how refreshing it is to walk for 20 minutes in a low, warm sun after work.

Brucie and Noodles

Tuesday

The first half of the morning was taken up with a management team look at the 3 months ahead of, which turned into the next 6 months. I was responsible for arranging the meeting as in my gut I know we have a lot on over the next few months, and experience says that everything gets really stressful when there’s no planning on it at all. But I haven’t had much time to be particularly organised, so a bit of a moment of “oh shit, I should probably lead on this” as I got in this morning.

The two thoughts which carried me through were:

  1. The main aim of the meeting is to actively air what’s in everyone’s heads anyway. Personally I’m infinitely more relaxed once I’ve written stuff down, so I hope the same is true of other people. Getting any sort of structured timeline wasn’t a particular goal, but highlighting the amount of work, and looming crunch points, was the first step.

  2. This was, in some sense, a personal effort on behalf of the wider team. I don’t know if it’s because I have to organise a larger section of people, or if I’m just more wont to push for some organisation because I know others that want it, but there’s a sense of duty, to stop ourselves getting frustrated later, as a team. It doesn’t matter how much you pay people, or what incentives you give them to be happy – setting out clear goals and priorities is the one major thing you can do to help people do their job, and by extension, enjoy what they’re doing.

So it’s weird, and sometimes uncomfortable, to force people to list their 6-month to-do lists like this. There’s a risk of it being too chaotic, or of getting depressed because it seems like too much when it’s opened up, or getting into arguments about deadlines and what should take precedence. As one person commented, it felt like a frenetic process, as hundreds of post-its got hammered out and stuck up. And a bit of me wished I had a neater, more structured approach to it. But the calmer part of me knows that it’s an inherent part of capturing the frenetic chaos that is going to happen anyway, and that it’s ok to be the one to force it into the open, right now, instead of being an unseen elephant in the office.

The next job on it is to make it a practical tool. I’d also post a photo here if there wasn’t sensitive info on it. Oh go on then.

So much post-its

Today we:

  • Brain dumped onto post-its
  • Arranged post-its along a rough 6-month timeline on the Big Green Board
  • Identified the things we definitely had in our heads – what were the important things keeping us awake?
  • Identified the things we could potentially push back
  • Identified the things which were actually being pushed back already

Tomorrow, I’m aiming to order these, so we can see 1) the “easy” must-do, are-doing stuff, 2) the “at risk” must-do, but pushing-back stuff, 3) the lower-priority stuff, and 4) the “omg” stuff we’ve not even considered yet. Then we can work out what to do with it. It’s all slightly backwards, but sort of ties in with my own sense of reactive planning…

After that, started on our new information security policy for GDPR day, and filled in a short feedback form for Alex to turn into a retro on client involvement.

Wednesday

Catch up with Gregor (Sysadmin) on infrastructure planning and GDPR stuff. Also had a nice chat about kids – Gregor’s tales are basically the tales I’ll be telling in a few years. Ran through actions quickly with the help of last month’s notes, and the Jira Kanban board I set up a month or two back – now I can set up tasks, tag them with a ‘sysadmin’ label, and generally the whole process for ordering and tracking this aspect feels a lot cleaner now.

First OCSI Read Club! John and I sat on the sofa in the cafe downstairs and ate lunch while reading our own books. It’s something I did once upon a time, by accident, and recently wanted to give it a go. No pressure to chat, or read the same book, just a space to get away from things and read. Reading is awesome. Be suspicious of people who don’t read.

Club for Staff Who Read Good

6 month Tech Team Roadmap review in the afternoon, which is the one thing I most proud of getting in the calendar finally. 6-months seems a good time to review long-term progress. This is what I want to lead on – everything else is just checking what’s going on really. I didn’t have a set structure, but sent out the main aims/sections via email in he morning, and a brief survey to set the scene beforehand. Cue lots of post-its and dot-voting – by the end, alongside the 3-month planning post-its, I felt like I could probably get commission from 3M.

On the whole, I was pleased with how the session went – pretty much everyone on the team contributed, and by specifically asking for everyone’s “pain points”, it felt like a sensible way to address major gripes that we have. There was deliberately no expectation of setting next priorities, but it evolved so that I can propose the next Roadmap pretty easily, with good buy-in and evidence from the team. Bosh.

Alongside the notes of the outcomes, I also wrote up my notes of how the session was run. Maybe I should post these on GitHub, rather than just keep them as internal notes?

Thursday

Woke up, disturbed early by #son2, realising that I use post-its notes as an extension of my mind – I think with my hands. It explains a lot: why I love pen and paper, why so might abstract concept can be modeled as physical objects, why I wave my palms in the air when I talk, why I hate phone screen keyboards and their vague non-commitment to reality. Even why, perhaps, I have an obsession with “craft” as a desire to “sculpt” something, tangible or otherwise.

And why not everyone maybe gets flustered, chaotic post-its heavy approaches. Not everyone is a builder, not in the same way.

What a day though. Kim ran a great session in the morning for the management team on company strategy – it’s funny how a single question can lead to a much higher level discussion. We had a lot of ideas coming up, and the discussion was civilised, structured and thought through.

I tend to be a bit ‘punk’ in these situations sometimes – that is, I know what I want to do, and can get a bit argumentative or defensive if others have a different opinion. It’s not a great attribute though, and goes against the taoist idea of “do not contend”. After a long day yesterday, I’d promised myself to relax a bit, and so I worried less about being “right” in this session, and was a bit happier to sit back and listen. It’s a hard skill, not sticking your oar in. I should practice it more.

The session was interrupted 5 minutes from the end by being told one of the team was locked in the toilet – the only diabetic member of staff, natch, which meant we had a hit more urgency to get them out. Cue locksmith, fire brigade and, ultimately, big yellow battering ram.

BLAMMO

Tech planning session for some upcoming development. We/I/we decided to bring 4 of the devs in on this – rather than just me, or just one other person leading on it. The original aim was to open up planning experience to some others who are interested in developing their skills. In practice, this happened (with some guidance to help split the planning work up), but we also got a chance to discuss something together, and iron out gaps in our shared understanding. “Everyone understands, but in their own way”, I think I said. I wonder if that ironing out process will help in a few weeks.

Spent some good time shuffling the post-its on the Big Green Board. I do like working in 3D. Tactile cognition loops. Tangible abstracts.

Ended with Prosecco – celebrating some important sales, project kick-off, project closure, and freeing employees from lavatories prisons.

Friday

Half day, worked from home. Lousy sleep so good to have a bit of a gentler catch-up – I’m really noticing the need for downtime after longer days, maybe since noting down the idea of measuring it previously. Finished putting the next 6 months into a Google Sheet, which was a great exercise. It’s a lot clearer to see what’s at risk, what needs more emphasis, or what could possibly be re-considered or re-factored. My brain is thanking me for it, and hopefully I can translate it into tasks to help the team out as we go.

Wrote up some 1-1 notes, replied to emails, did some user support checks, etc.

Done.

Culcher

Reading

Catch me on Goodreads

  • Finished Spirits of Place, my review here
  • Started Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon – went on a bit of a binge at Waterstones, including this little £1 quick read.

Watching

Pondwatch

  • 4 moorhen chicks have turned up on the duck pond outside the house, and the 2 turtles have been sunning themselves on the island. The moorhen parents seem to have their work cut out gathering food while chasing away pigeons and rats.

META: What’s so interesting about a Technical Director anyway?

Fear of modern times

FOBB – Fear of Being Boring. It’s a modern problem: everything that you do is so transparent: documented and published and curated a hundred times every day. FOBB is the inverse of FOMO – it’s the anxiety that accompanies the creation of content, rather than its consumption. Fear of being normal. Of being mundane, set against the tide of the attention economy.

Against this backdrop, I’ve been thinking about my own weeknotes experience again. Weeknotes have always been ambiguous for me – sometimes they’re my own scratchpad, not much more than my notes to myself. And at other times they’re closer to a Real Blog ™ with Actual Points and Arguments, intended to Say Something. That’s when I get sucked into FOBB, when I’m trying to connect to people, other than myself.

Every blog is a TV channel

To be sure, I don’t think my weeknotes will ever be un-ambiguous. But I would like to work on the ‘connected’ side of them a bit more, and make them more useful to others. I’ve learned from blogging for years that Content is hard. But at the same time, it’s in publishing openly that we commit to our ideas, and that we come to be our own, harshest critics. Openness, and the mere potential for feedback, forces us to be honest with ourselves first and foremost.

Since simul-publishing on Medium as well as on WordPress, I’ve really noticed the FOBB-factor. Highlights, claps, responses and all that. And the worst bit is I know it’s an addiction that capitalist tech deliberately put in place, to feed engagement stats back to their investors, to boost the charts. That feeling that we all want to be loved, distilled into Powerpoint slides. Was I happier when I was purely blogging without stats and comments? Would this post ever have even come about?

Who’d be a tech lead?

Either way, the question is in my head, and openness dictates I turn it into words.

So here it is – you, dear reader, what interests you? What do you want to know, about what it’s like to be a Technical Director, to build technology that feeds off government data, to bring together data, code and politics, to run a tech team, to exist as a working father, to work in the private sector, to use Jira without too much swearing?

Generally I try to cover some of the following, because this is what I’m working through currently and therefore find interesting – Medium readers, feel free to highlight particular items which make you happy?

  • The peculiarities of code, and how to make it a team activity
  • Helping teams work effectively together
  • Responding to crises
  • Balancing way too many diverse things and stay sane

But then, I’m also aware that there’s so much that I probably take for granted, like being able to knock together scripts, or sharpen up communications tools, or commute in to work with a bunch of amazing people. What am I missing out?

The next series of weeknotes is looming, and I’m going to try to make them fairly accessible – sketches, rather than oil paintings. Fragments I can replay to myself in a way that cements feedback loops. But I’d love to roll some comments in from yourselves, you hidden ghosts out there, you internet shadows lurking with thumbs.

What are you curious about?

Curios dog, natch