Weeknotes 08×05: Legacy is Productive. Agreement is Conflict. Slack is Usenet.

Abstract monochrome taken in London

What just happened?

(All photos from London on Thursday.)

Monday. Legacy Code is Productive Code (Sometimes).

Weekly sit-down. Various coalface deployments. Over the past few months, Emma and Obi (researchers) have been doing some great work to revamp the data delivery process for our US client. This has made some fundamental changes to the databases being used, which also means the tools that we use to manage the data need updating in turn.

The tools that we have are not what you might expect. In today’s modern world, mention ‘data management’ to people and they’d probably expect you to be talking about either a dozen crappy shared Excel files, or a giant database overseen by machine-learning overlords.

We have both – giant databases which are managed through a dozen Excel files. Why? Because it works. Usually. Just.

Sadly, because it just works and hasn’t needed changing, I’m the only person who really knows how it works currently. So I spent an hour taking Emma and Obi through the mechanisms. And by “mechanisms”, I mean “slightly-commented VisualBasic macros from 8 years ago.” Yeah, some things don’t get iterated and improved quickly and continually- but they do power projects and companies for years on end.

Looking back through the code, I was hit by two things:

  • Wow, how is this stuff still running? I mean, I know legacy code exists, but you’d expect a certain amount of … entropy that would force some sort of change to happen. I mean, it’s good it’s still relevant right?
  • But if we were to do things differently, what would we do better? It does work, it lets people manage data, and despite all the advances in data science, APIs and user research, managing data as a manual process is still one of the hardest things you can do.

So we have legacy code with a slightly shonky Excel interface, but is the lesson here that “legacy” isn’t always a dirty word, if the system is a) usable, b) understandable, and c) still fits the context?

Maybe there’s also a lesson here that says design for what makes sense, or something?

Smithfield Market roof, London
Smithfield market, Farringdon

Wednesday. Agreement == Conflict (Sometimes).

It’s the end of July and everyone – and I mean everyone – is on holiday recently or in the next month. So the ongoing aim to get a shared strategy together (see last week’s notes) before the end of August is looking … “tetchy”. Which is also what people become when they have to change from doing their own thing, to doing something in true collaboration.

This is also a theme that came up on Thursday, but at a global/democratic level rather than for a hot room with four people. But I think the gist is the same – most people hate giving up their well-cultivated mindset and opinions. And by “hate”, I mean “hate, detest, abhor, DESPISE”. If you’re in an organisation that has somehow managed to embed and stick to the idea of “strong opinions, weakly held”, LET’S TALK. Getting that mindset in place feels like 95% of the work, and I have no idea how it could scale to any 3 randomly-selected people.

So a bit up against both time and humanity on the day. We’d managed to agree a rough strategy overview previously, and this was a follow-on session to look at how to divide up our time among our workstreams. This was kind of where the conversation started, so we’d come full circle.

The circular route was intended, originally, to avoid discussion which went round in circles. My new motto, it turns out, is “THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER.” Reminding people of this – and that you are here to get an answer – is a good way to drive progress when any decision can be argued against, by opinion, or at a process level. I want to print out Winston’s quote on democracy. I want a trail of dead post-it notes to indicate when we get back to where we were half an hour ago. I want robotic meeting memories.

Anyway, we went round a few circles, but the work last week did help restrict the overall scope of the conversation. I felt like a frustrated facilitator/nasty negotiator at times, but I also felt like it was needed at those times. Progress requires being bold, most of all. I think there’s a lot that engineering brings to this art, oddly. A timescale to build something gets you creative and, ultimately, harsh because non-delivery isn’t an option. I love being an engineer. Is “decision engineering” a thing?

Also plusgood – aim 2 this series was to “set the course of work and of the team for the next six months” – this is a huge step to being able to set it for the next year.

Abstract of bicycles at Barbican, London
Slice of London, Barbican

Thursday. Exmosis is real. Realer than the people themselves.

London, wooo! In the searing heat! And with delayed trains! There, that’s the negatives out of the way, cloaked in exclamations to scatter their power. !

The third aim this series was to “get out of the office and go and talk to people” – Thursday was the day for this. I’d arranged to meet Louise as she was in town, which meant I also ended up getting to see Steph and Sam from Free Ice Cream, as well as Laura from our partner organisation (who’s moving on and we chatted about weddings), and Giuseppe over a beer near Victoria later on. Thanks to everyone I met, I needed it 🙂

Some great catch-up and conversation on consultation processes, democratic engagement, scopes of understanding, remote working, company strategy, blockchain politics, and emotional mapping. I felt slightly “odd” going up, because I wasn’t meeting anyone for anything “specific” – not a project, or a planning session. I described it to myself as a “semi work jolly” and wasn’t sure whether to really expense stuff.

But after the day, I was reminded of really just how important this kind of conversation is. It goes back to the made-up definition of exmosis, the made-up word I used as my permanent domain: “exmosis” is the learning we naturally absorb from each other purely by being around each other. The learning, and the transfer of it around our network, is more important than us as individuals. Humans are just a learning network, and nodes within it would be nothing without that.

This ‘existential’ learning is not something that has business value. Economics likes things to be structured, directed, clear and concise. Training courses and productivity metrics. Business deals and yadda yadda. It’s not until you piece together a situation, a puzzle, a conversation, and an ‘a-ha’ moment, that you really appreciate the value of learning from each other.

I also did over 14,000 steps apparently, which put my sandals into shock.

"Accurcy is Appreciated" sign
Notice found in cafe loo, but felt appropriate for global democracy too

Friday. Slack is the new Usenet.

I started out by sorting through my Slack channel list on the train. After hearing how others use IRC instead of Slack, I couldn’t help think about the difference. I miss the “nowness” of IRC – the sense of presence and attention. Slack is great and useful, but to have it as another background tool that you can catch up on? That risks just becoming yet another source of information overload. In addition to going through emails, I end up going through Slack as well these days.

I spent a little while Friday morning trying to recapture this sense of “social focus” by leaving a whole bunch of low-priority slack channels. In doing so, it makes me realise that Slack is more akin to Usenet/forum message boards than to IRC – topics are a good way to turn “Noise” into “Signal”, but that advantage is totally lost if everyone has to be in all channels to know what’s going on.

This does, though, break the use of the “@channel” notification route, which highlights a conflict in the Slack experience – is it a mode of communication, or a mode of broadcast? By joining a channel, am I there because I want to talk, or because I want to know what’s going on?

My current solution is to be picky about my channels, but also mute as many channels as I can – it turns out you do see an indication of whether you’ve been mentioned or @channeled. I’m not sure if it mutes emails though.

Friday was otherwise half spent initially planning out a large task for the next few months with Stefan, Obi and Alex, which has given us a good start. And half tidying up stuff before heading off. I’m off for two weeks, so definitely no weeknotes, only wine. Winenotes? Is that a thing? I’d like to do a series recap when I get back, to remind and reflect on what happened recently, and get my head in pace for the Autumn.

Also, it rained today, so I’m taking that as a good omen, and a symbol of washing away the work mindset. Enjoy yourselves. Be nice. Smile. Over and out.

A giant concrete tower
Remember, concrete did shards before glass ever did

Culturewatch

  • Not been consuming too much recently, but have now watch all of the first series of Our Country on iPlayer. It’s funny, and also slightly sweet and/or inapproriate.

Pondwatch

  • Levels are low after the lack of rain – so low that the pond liner is showing through. I’m hoping the fish are OK.

Weeknotes 08×04: Tumbleweed strategy

A boat on a pond
From the Flickr stream

Woo. Arg. Woo. Arg. What a week. And it was only a three-dayer too. I feel like I’m six different people. All of them need beer. It’s funny, we don’t celebrate the times that we learn the most. We celebrate releases and deadlines and things leaving our field of vision forever, but the other times that we put everything in and find ourselves challenged? Water under the bridge, mate. A personal memory, lost in time.

ONE. This week was a sprint week, which meant the usual lining up of work, and a few hours to go through it and decide what to get done. Not easy when everyone’s off at times over the next month – time, especially shared time is a precious commodity during the summer holidays. I’m surprised businesses don’t just shut down fully, like a cafe.

Still, the most important thing is to keep reminding people of the fact that there will shortly be no people to remind.

Tumbleweeds on a dusty road

Next sprint meeting

Personally I can’t believe #son1 is finishing up Key Stage 1 today. WHERE HAS MY LIFE GONE? Oh right, databases and whisky. Fair do.

TWO. This lack-of-people-for-the-next-month combined with a push-to-get-actual-strategies-together in time for September (our financial year start – get you, synchronicity) has meant we need to review and decide our KEY OBJECTIVES right about a month ago. Sadly, that means now, but with less time. The scene running through my head this week is the bit in Space Balls where the priest wants to get the heroes married, but they keep getting interrupted. “Right, we’re gonna do the short, SHORT version. Do you? Great. Do you? Great. You’ve got a strategy. Kiss!”

(Note – don’t kiss your colleagues at this point in real life. Makes for spurious headlines and bad lawsuits.)

Fellow management team member Kim has been great at pushing this forwards, and is well on the case with getting a structured, meaningful output. Somehow I’ve managed to take on the task of arranging and agreeing our shared aims for the year, probably because I’ve had a go at it before and failed, but nobody else knows how to do it either???

So the short, SHORT version has had to be compiled on the fly, with some rather reactive planning sessions and some hesitant moments. Which is actually pretty knackering, it turns out.

One of our challenges is that, as a four-headed management team, we need a way to decide how to make a decision – I really felt the lack of a single startegy owner here, and spent a lot of time working out what was effectively a stakeholder input process. In my head, there are three potential approaches to getting a shared vision when no-one is really in charge:

  • Assign one person to decide it. But how do you choose how to assign the person?
  • Gather input, prioritise democratically, and keep everything ‘strictly algorithmic’. But deciding a fair algorithm is hard!
  • Gather input, but use it to form a summary and proposal, as a ‘playback’ or mirror of what it sounds like the input says. Kind of a curation/suggestion process.

I started off with #2, but after a couple of days off, I realised I’d already applied the third approach as part of the tech strategy plan a few months ago, and that we didn’t have the time to come up with complicated democratic process. So I wrote up a “suggested” strategy, but as a summary of what had been discussed so far (as much as I could keep my own biases out). This was then presented, or ‘played back’ to the team, being sure to ask:

  • Is this a fair summary of what we discussed? followed by
  • What changes would you make?, and finally
  • Does this give you enough to get on with our agreed next steps, or what you would like to do?

This, for me, gets a good coverage of 1) agreed, common ground (I was keen to keep it only to common goals at this point too), 2) opportunity for further, iterative feedback, and 3) a practical focus.

I hope this is a gif from highlander

“COMMON GROUND, HIGHLANDER!”

By writing this up as a weeknote, I’m reminded that the other value here is that there are people out there I can discuss this stuff with, and that’s also invaluable.

THREE. I went to my first meeting for a Steering Group! One way or another, I’d been put in touch with a local charity looking to run a short term project to look at local charities (whoa, meta). We had a really good chat last week, and I was pleased and/or impressed that I could say some useful and helpful things. It was great to get out of the office a bit again, and the conversation tied nicely into various bits of work that we do or have done.

FOUR. All of which has left me feeling a bit all over the place. I’m reminded of how many different roles I play and how much context switching I do, and I still don’t know if that’s healthy, or necessary, or fun, or what. A bit of me wishes life was simpler, but that’s where things are at – line managing and directoring and parenting and still my own code from years back is running.

Anyway, I sort of just want to sit down and drink a beer and play a game and watch a film and do the crossword. I think maybe that’s just my mind, perhaps. This, that and the other.

Going to get some gifs and close the keyboard. Oh hey wait, those gifs are tiny! Oh well, have a good week!

Weeknotes 08×03: In a year’s time, kids love place-based Google Forms

Last week feels like a long weekend away. Looking back, it was a good one. I’m noticing a little bit that I enjoy weeks more now that I’m blocking work in and planning time out more. But the enjoyment doesn’t (just) come from the organisation – it’s actually the ability to get into the detail, and detach from everything else more, that I think I really enjoy.

Paul Graham’s old post on Makers’ schedules is still in my head – I’m much closer to a Maker than a “Boss” (if you equate “Boss” with “lots of meetings and overviews”). Way back in series 3, I was trying to apply the idea of “craft” to my job – I don’t see Management fundamentally as a routine, or a set of responsibilities. These all exist, but as an artifact. The underlying motivation, instead, is to make something – or some things: make a team, that makes a codebase, that makes a product, that makes a company, that makes a difference.

People talk about coders needing head space for “flow”. Actually I’m doing the same thing, but with resources, diaries, skills, directions. It’s great fun when you can get into it. And frustrating when you can’t.

A painter rolling about a room with paint going everywhere

Painting with strategy

What else happened?

1. Thinking ahead by a year is actually pretty easy once you get used to it

Turned down some work. Would have been an amazing project. But we decided we don’t have the short term capacity. But raised the notion of what I would like to work on, and when.

Perhaps relatedly, had a longer 1-1 with Luke (for me) than expected on Monday – I can jabber on a bit. Took in company strategy, team building, process, and everything. And I pasted in my 6-week aims from my weeknotes, which was nice.

I still can’t decide if things sometimes happen in the company because I get a bit frustrated, and talk about it and project it, or if I just pick up on others’ frustrations, and they do something about it anyway. Probably a bit of both.

Anyway, I was bit down before. I’m feeling more productive after a bit of a break, and back to planning next year.

2. It turns out kids love place-based statistics after all

Day off, but did a talk for sixty 6-7 year olds at school as part of their “Maths Week”. I went in to chat about how we use maths in our job. Or “Government stats for kids” – not something I’ve seen anyone else do, so challenge accepted!

I was a bit dubious. Numbers and charts can be a bit of a dry subject, as one of the teachers remarked beforehand…

It went brilliantly! Turns out guessing populations of English towns and cities can be as raucous as a showing of Jack and the Beanstalk. The kids asked some great questions (“what inspired you to do your job?”, “is it hard to use maths for what you do?”) and the teachers even got interested, especially when the maps came up.

I’ve put my slides online here in case they’re useful for anyone, but broadly speaking, the aims were:

  1. Link complicated Census-type datasets back to the basics of measuring things in the world, eg like height, weight, goals scored, etc.
  2. Give the kids an idea of their local area by asking them to guess the population of their local town. This also introduced them to slightly larger numbers such as 25,000 – most kids think either in hundreds (5,000 is “big” to them) or abstracts (“millions” are the same as “bazillions”. One kid had heard of a Google plex.)
  3. Make it easy to compare big numbers – we looked at the populations of Seaford, Eastbourne and Brighton & Hove (and England!) by adding each in turn to a bar chart. Everyone got the visualisation, I think, much more than the absolute numbers.
  4. Show them that once you have the numbers, you can show them in different ways, so we had a quick pie chart, a map, and some tables. They’d done all of this in class already, thankfully.

A strange made up maths formula probably from the simpsons

Job done

3. Adventures in time, priorities, and Google Forms to decide the years ahead

Board Meeting. Then played a game of Go with Hon Mond. I keep losing, but I’m hoping that’s just learning fast. It’s great to chat through tactics and “what-ifs”, feels like you get to really know how someone thinks by how they play.

Started looking at how we split our time across products. I’d agreed to have a think about how to come up with a way of deciding this, and it’s something that’s been bugging me for a lonnnnng time.

I have a personal problem with TIME though – maker time isn’t solid and reliable, but flexible and reactive. How you fill your time is more important thanhow much you have. And to decide how to spend it, you need to know what’s important to start with.

I started out thinking about stakeholders and needs, but by Friday I’d decided that was too much work. Instead, I put together a Google Form which looked at a number of conflicts – in other words, where did I think we’re making constant decisions about how to prioritise work, across the company?

This could be at individual level, team level, or anywhere in between. it comes up everywhere, in different guises – prioritising work in backlogs, dot-voting in retros, casual conversation, etc.

By the end of the week, I’d sent the form to the four of us in the Management Team, and will spend the next week waiting for feedback, and working out what to do with the answers. Probably standardise the answers, combine them, and highlight the results, with an important focus on where we think alike, and where we don’t. This will form the basis of conversation and, later on, metrics.

I should probably write this up as a separate blog post too. Who’s got all the time though?

Culturewatch

As I’ve been fairly ‘outwards’ the last few weeks, I’ve been reclaiming my introvert brain by playing some games in the evening. I finally finished Portal (yeah, I’m not fussed about novelty value), and recommend it as a brain-walloping platform-puzzle tangler.

As a result, I haven’t read or listened to much otherwise. My copy of Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke turned up, but I’m planning to read The Manager’s Path first.

A couple of Telegram zines from schoolformaps also turned up.

Pondwatch

The new ‘secret’ beach (some fresh pebbles) is still there, although the grass underneath is breaking through, like some counter-culture situationist parable. There is a good selection of cute baby birds at the moment, with 2 ducklings and 2 moorhen chicks pecking around.

There seem to be a lot of missing pet posters around at the moment?