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.

Also published on Medium.