Weeknotes 08×08: Journeys, expeditions, exploration and navigation

A spiralled car park ramp

Following the same fragmentary nature as before.

  • I arrive in Manchester just as Pride is dying out, flickers of revelry still sparking behind closed doors in an effort to ride out the back holiday. Six hours of cattle-cage travel thanks to Euston unexisting, after two days of standalone parenting – driving drumming Buddha bowling chatting childing – and then the labyrinth of fresh streets, and the guesswork of solitude. I pick up a beer, check in, and crash out, all punctuated by the electric honk of trams outside. I sleep well, but it feels like a dream long before I sleep.

  • Manchester has back alleys, hidden places. The hidden places are filled with creativity – Street art, graffiti, throw-ups. Privacy is a place to experiment, to find out what works, to find out if you work.

'Motley' street art from Manchester

  • The data expedition is not quite what I expect, but these to is never are, which is a good thing. I go into it thinking through my skills – people management feels irrelevant here, but my “traditional” skill, coding, feels rusty. My laptop isn’t prepared. I feel like legacy…. I should have more confidence in myself – maybe it’s the dreaminess that’s throwing me. I can’t remember the last time I was alone in a strange place.

  • The expedition, run by an amalgamation of Open Data Manchester, Local Trust, and 360giving goes well. I feel a bit uncomfortable foisting our commercial product offering on to people by default in this non-commercial setting, so I disclaimer myself and allow the conversation to sway either towards exploring data from scratch, or to use our tool briefly to avoid the legwork and get on with other questions. We go for the latter, but I have a clean conscious. It’s helped that a bunch of people here already have access to it anyway, but one must always be sensitive to immediate aims.

My character sheet from a data expedition day

  • I spend most of the day actually looking up data and using our own tool, instead of coding – I have come out from behind the curtain. It’s weird and enlightening out here. Finding and understanding open data is a lot harder than it should be, given the effort and time that it’s had. So many interfaces, so little structure or user pathways. This is hard to say, but data.gov.uk feels actively unhelpful as I search. Hey weeknotes crowd, I’m happy to talk to anyone involved in it, if feedback is useful. (Did I read recently that someone new was taking it on?) That’s not to say its the only culprit though. I have many thoughts coming out of eating my own dog food.

  • Failed working experiments #1,652: Blocking out a regular morning every month to do planning (by myself) for upcoming tech work. Why didn’t this work when it does for blocking out time for work building up? Potential reasons:

    • Not enough interest (from me)
    • Aims and structure not clear (from me)
    • Lower priority (for me)
    • (My) Routine not established sufficiently

I think I will try an even smaller step by next week, of blocking out some just to get my head into it, by clearing out existing tech tickets in the system. One of the mental blockers to planning is that I don’t really know what’s in the system already and so adding new stuff makes me feel… dirty.

  • Returning to work, and agree to run a retrospective unexpectedly. I’m blurring the lines a little between Tech Lead (which I am) and Scrum Master (which I’m not) but there are many reasons, and one of them is that I sort of want to shake up the team processes a little, in light of developing the upcoming tech strategy. It’s always difficult to know quite when to step in and when to step back when the lines are blurred. I’m enthusiastic about the team growing, and it feels like there needs to be something different happening.

  • Secret bit: I actually quite enjoy running retro, but I also know how hard they are to get right. I don’t believe you can just assemble some “standard” discussion “tools” (although these can be useful) – the key is to explore the emotions in the room – usually the “negative” ones – but in a way that is productive. That’s a verrry fine line – I think a good facilitator opens up a lot of pain, but stops it – just – from becoming just a rant session. It’s a dangerous and risky process if done well – one that can go bad easily, either because it isn’t bold or vulnerable enough to be open and address real problems, or not channeled enough to come out of it with a sense of progress.

  • Something I always bring to any conversation I have seems to be a sense of mapping, mostly concept mapping, but any system of ideas being discussed. I tend to find myself jotting down what people say, then drawing lines between things. I hope it helps others. I’d love to be an “organisational cartographer”, now that I think about it.

  • Our last task of the day is to roll out some minor updates to our Australian site, which is getting a full on Aussie launch on Monday (when we’re all in bed). The launch comes amid a bit of political turmoil out there, so I hope it goes OK. It’s been a long time coming though, and while we have some internal tidy-up work still to do, it feels like another milestone.

I’m off to shift this cold and pick blackberries. Enjoy the week…

Links

My name is Wil Wheaton. I Live With Chronic Depression and Generalized Anxiety. I Am Not Ashamed.”:

And as we were walking I just started to cry and she asked me, “what’s wrong?”

I said “I just realized that I don’t feel bad and I just realized that I’m not existing, I’m living.”

Warren Ellis’ Orbital operations, 19th August, on “graphical writing” and the story vs the author. I love this bit about consistent structures to let you get on with the real work:

Regular unbroken consistent grid paneling stops you looking at the structure and has you simply focus on the words and pictures.

A collection of thoughts on slowness:

  • How to be slow
  • Louise CatoWeeknotes s05 ep04: Wooden spoon on slowing down: “it does take energy to retain positivity when you’re not feeling it. It takes energy to re-word things, to consider, to be the best version of yourself
  • Is tai chi ‘slow thought practice’? By slowing down our movements, we get out of the habit of tensing in order to respond. Everything is considered and taken on board, but movement is constant. Direction is always flexible, never committed to. Things start and stop in their own time, never rigid nor panicked.

Frances Coppola on life after death and having only one life.

In Photos

Must turn these into a mini zine…

A bee statue outside Manchester Picadilly station

Two guys in Manchester holding hands in the night, reflected between pillars and glass

Fairly abstract shot of clouds reflected in a shiny glass building

A spiralled car park ramp

Abstract photo of lines and shadows

Weeknotes 08×07 :: Fragments

A dragonfly resting on a bus window

Naughty plug, but hey, we’re hiring for a data researcher!

Officially (by weeknotes law) I finished series 8 last week. I’m going to avoid assessing my serious aims from episode 1 like a cheeky bugger. Instead I’m trying out a new approach of jotting down a few random, disjointed fragments, Baudrillard style.

  • I’ve rewritten the whole damn tech strategy now, and re-formulated my initial aims and metrics into a set of parallel “phases”, each with their own timeline. Kim has also finished the marketing strategy for the year. I think maybe the key thing in writing it is not just to be a clear reference document, but to be useful to the person running the process, ie me for the document I’m writing. That’s essential, because it’s basically a user manual for myself. A standardised format just wouldn’t work. And if someone else took over, it would be best to rewrite it all again. Document structures need to match individual thought structures for maximum effect.

  • Heard about the passing of Hendrik Grothuis which was an unexpected and almost surreal thing to hear. I met Hendrik a few times, largely when I was younger and more… uncertain of myself, and he was someone who I always felt happy talking to, like he really knew his stuff but was so open and… warm? about it. It’s weird thinking back on that, and wondering about how influential certain people are on your life.

  • Andrew Sleigh on documentation, and the need to keep it frictionless. I’m still getting a lot of friction as part of my weeknotes flow – I like taking notes in the Diary app on my phone, which supports Markdown. And my self-hosted WordPress site supports Markdown and can then cross-post to Medium. But… Dunno, something. Maybe it’s the need to switch to a laptop for WordPress. Maybe it’s adding images is hard. Maybe it’s just the phone keyboard, give me a mechanical bash board any day. Or maybe it’s the need to summarise things into a week. Is an ongoing blog approach any better? Or just overkill for readers?

  • London on Thursday was really good, and I had trouble sleeping after it. I managed to understand the wider context about the Product Owner role I occupy currently, and why I’m frustrated about it. I’m not sure if it helps find a solution, but I like it when I get a better idea of the problem I’m facing

  • I also managed to pop into the Photographer’s Gallery near Oxford Circus and catch the amazing work of Tish Murtha documenting children and social deprivation in the 70s and 80s. Do go and see it if you can. I’m convinced photography has a massive, underestimated role to play in understanding our world. Data is great, but photography hits that emotional side of politics that we all deal in. If data visuals pull you in, documentary photography ducks you in, pummels you, and does a bloody dance around your body.

  • It was also great to meet up with a guy called Dan Barrett who is one of the world’s Heads of Search and Data, and has started weeknoting recently*. No, seriously though. I didn’t really know where the conversation would go, but we ended up comparing job notes and thoughts on democracy. It feels like we both had similar challenges, despite being in organisations of massively different size. It was also a great reminder that being a tech team lead isn’t about code, not in the slightest. But what is it then?

* weeknotes in-joke?

  • Relatedly, I started reading The Manager’s Path properly at last. The opening section of the book reminds us that tech leading is not about being a good coder, but a good leader, work/project manager, communicator, and systems thinker – how everything fits together, risks, and strengths. It’s more important to understand the people with in depth knowledge than to know the details of that knowledge itself. Change management. Curiosity. Confidence.

  • Relatedly, last week I also finished The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee. I’ve always tried to take something of a democratic, inclusive, consultative approach to my team. The book concluded with a quote from Lao Tzu which has also kept me inspired for many years: “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, We did it ourselves!”. I’ve been reassured by re-finding this – and have forgotten it at a conscious level for too long. As a result, I’ve been finding it difficult to demonstrate or explain the value of doing nothing, as a lead, and feeling like the team are getting credit for my doing nothing (which is all good, but doing nothing is a deliberate action in itself). If people feel the team are doing things themselves, then I think I’m following the path ok.

  • Friday afternoon – we’re re-establishing personal research time, so I started tidying up the spare office/table football room. OCSI now has a Memory Box.

In links

In photos

Dragonfly trapped on replacement bus

A dragonfly resting on a bus window

Till glitches

Till screen glitch at train station

Till screen glitch in bookshop

A marrow escape

Giant courgette, almost a marrow (and a curly carrot)

And an obligatory slice of London

Abstract photo of London pavement

Weeknotes 08×06: Make it all up then go away

Totorostreet art and graffiti

It’s a bit of a struggle to start writing these weeknotes this week, for two reasons. One I’ve been off for two weeks and am feeling relaxed. Two, a lot of my thoughts are fairly personal, and range long term over the next few years. It’s hard to turn that into something small and daily. But hey, maybe weeknotes is also a good excuse to get out of that a bit, get back to the practical stuff, and to think about just being open by default again.

So here’s a quick run-down of some thoughts on things that are happening. As this is traditionally the sixth and final “episode” in my series, I was going to look back at the aims I set out at the start. But I think I’ll save that for another time.

Three things that happened

(More than three things happened.)

1. Recapping on an ad-hoc strategy process

One of the key strands this series has been helping to draw out a coherent company strategy for the year ahead, including setting out my own directions for the tech team within that. My processes for this have been instinctual, rather than based on a known structure, partly because I didn’t have time to research ideas, and partly because I know the people involved, and it’s easier to design the process to fit their mindsets, working patterns, knowledge domains, styles, etc.

This week I wrote up the results from the process, in order to form my own strategy and see how well it aligns. I wish I could share all this more openly, but it would be remiss to do so. However, in a nice season of synchronicity, I’m also reading a book all about deliberation and decision-making (see “Culture” section, below), which helped put that recap of my own work into some perspective.

The key theme of all of my prices has been to try to gather inputs from a particular group of stakeholders first. This has happened a few times in different forms:

  • A group meeting, in person, to collate tech team pain points, and another meeting to summarise and confirm the ideas
  • A Google form survey to gather thoughts from the wider product team, on what they would like from the team
  • A few face-to-face sessions with the Management Team to draw out overall company aims over the next year

It’s not been the easiest thing to do in an experimental way – it’s not always clear what I’ve been asking for, or why, or what’s going to come out of it. But it does make a lot more sense than before, and I’m at a crux point with it.

The next step is to hammer out a clear and succinct write-up, and to base a final tech strategy on it. This should be fine – the key big challenge after that is to communicate it out to the team. I’ve agreed a date to go through it with the tech team, and would like to take the management team through it. This implies, though, that I should also go back to the other people I surveyed, to fill in the gaps and complete the circle.

2. Work happened while I was away

It’s always good to go away. I see it as a test of how well the team cope without me. 🙂 This time, there’s a particularly gnarly piece of work going on to migrate the geographies we use, and we’re slap-bang on the discovery and design stage.

Migration is one of the harder aspects of technical projects, I think, and I’m surprised there’s not more literature on blogs devoted to it, compared to sprint processes, testing, etc. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place, but I’ve done a fair bit of it over the last year, and seem to have an innate fear of doing it badly now.

Really pleased to see that the team had done a great job of planning it the work and looking into what’s required. The efforts we’ve put in over the last year seem to be paying off, and while I think I could do more to create a more ‘unified’ team (whatever that means), what I see, and the feedback I get (including from an annual review this week) is that things are running fairly smoothly.

It’s odd to reflect on that, and the effect I think I’ve had over the last 3 years. When you work with people on a personal and career development level, it’s not always easy to make the link between coaching/mentoring and the delivery of the work. How do people value that? How can that “experience” and “directioning” be taken account of within an organisation? Or is it something that people just “understand”? Sometimes I feel like it’s an intimate connection between myself and my charges, and I have no idea if anyone outside of those relationships sees or values that.

3. Somehow I am a research project advisor

On Friday I met up with Angie from Community Works, who’s running a project for local charities. There’s a survey and lots of data involved, lots of political implications, and some tough choices about how to design the work as a whole. The steering group that I’m on has a lot of great skills and experience shared across it, and I’m really enjoying seeing others jump into action. Just watching others work is so, so important, and sometimes I hit a mindset where I’m really happy to shut up, watch and learn, almost like I’m work-shadowing. It’s great to have that opportunity, and maybe that’s a big part of my weeknotes practice – to try to give something back in return for all the times I’ve learnt from others.

Anyway, we had a good chat, and afterwards I realised this is both what I do, and what I don’t do. I do project design all the time. I’m not considered a “researcher” though. The link between designing a project and designing a piece of code is real though. And between designing an approach to a task, or a strategy. This is all systems designs thinking. And a lot of it boils down to asking:

  • What needs to be done?
  • What order does it need to be done in?
  • Where should it be done? As in, which person, or what phase or component, or which object in your code?

Between these questions you basically get the outline of your system, and – more importantly – a way of dividing up chaos that lets you actually think about it in a simpler way. Scope, dependency, relationships. Everything else is detail.

It’s very rewarding being able to bring this kind of thinking to a fresh context and person. Like I’m testing my own design skills more.

Right, these notes are already well late. Catch you later.

Culture

  • Finished reading The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee. Got me thinking about what I do. What I like doing. A lot.
  • Finished watching West Side Story from 1961. Funny, I listened to the soundtrack a lot as a kid, and never realised how much of a social commentary it was 🤔 Some great sound and visual design though, worth a watch.

  • Writing: I finally started a new blog to keep track of my solar power adventures – https://6suns.exmosis.net/ – I’ve been running my phone and watch off solar power for 15 weeks now, and figured it was time to start being a bit open about it.