Weeknotes 05×04: When You Have Six Arms

Kamaji from Spirited Away

Kamaji from ‘Spirited Away’ is my role model sometimes. My sister gave me this t-shirt year ago, and I like to wear it sometimes when all the cogs are turning.

Six arms – two for typing leaves you with four more; four directions to point in, four strings to pull at the same time, like half a spider. It’s been a Kamaji week.

Kamaji looks at some paper

Looking back at my list of week focuses from Monday – oh yeah, I kept it simple, didn’t I? TWO FOCUSES IS ENOUGH FOR ANYONE I said to myself, full of new year confidence. One for each arm, for each hemisphere of the brain.

One: STICK TO THE PLAN.

Two: RELAX.

I figure both of these will do me good this year. I’m pretty sure they were the same aims as last year.

This assumes that there’s a plan in place, of course. BAD SIDE: I’m a man of many plans – too many – and not enough time. The plans are backing up like […]. GOOD SIDE: We killed it as a team at the end of last year, and have some bigger developments under our belt. Now is a good time to tackle plans, and I’ve put some big, purpley-brown blocks in my private calendar to eat into them. Each afternoon, a different focus, spurred on by my velvet (or “dark puce” if you’re honest with yourself) rectangles. Truly, calendar items are the new infinity of stars, guiding our lives and divining our fortunes.

Kamaji has Andrew Marr arms

Puce Plan One: Decide the course of people’s lives

It is the time for this – our team has been going long enough to ask the question of “who am I?”, in a deep Les Miserables baritone croon. “Where am I going?”, “How do I get there?” – the people want answers. Really technical answers, because I am Head Of Tech, which means also I am Head of the Tech Team, and have been doing this stuff long enough to help others to do it. Which is scary and fun, like everything should be once you’re 38 or older.

In my case, I have started to write lots of things down in order to answer the following questions:

  • What should our job titles/grades be? As a small company, we’ve pretty much made this up so far. I like the idea of a guide for my future self to be able to decide these without thinking. Self-assessment for team members would be even easier. Then I just have to blockchain it.
  • What technical skills do we depend on as a company?
  • What should a developer need to know at any level, for any skillset? Yes, this is now an RPG.

The process is personally interesting, but writing it up takes a lot of thought. I shared it with a couple of people, and then (as a result – thanks openness?!) realised it was more of a guide for me than for others. Still, I tried it out with a member of the team, and it seemed to tick the box of being a Conversation Starter and Handy Reference List for the Ultimate Purpose of Standardised Clarity. I will keep developing it and trying it out, but with a lot more Caveats and Disclaimers about it being a living, breathing document (because, basically, it is what I know at this point in my life, really.)

Kamaji finds GDPR a bit boring

Puce Plan Two: Get Down, Pretty Reliably

Or “GDPR” as others seem to call it. I figure that’s what it stands for, anyway – looking through legislation is so fun that I can’t think what else it might stand for.

Delving into detail, I think we’re generally in a good place. As Nice People What Do Sensitive Data from time-to-time, we’re generally aware of people’s privacy. Mostly it’s a case of making sure we’re covering all our bases, and writing everything down, as opposed to changing any fundamental business models. I think three of us are looking into this (vaguely independently) which helps, and we’re starting to merge our GDPR brains.

Also, the “Right to Erasure” means I’m legally allowed – nay, forced – to play A Little Respect in the office.

Kamaji makes the furnace work

Puce Plan Three: Get my head around our Impact On The World

I might blog separately on this, but have made a start on looking at our “Weight” in the world – or “social impact” maybe – by sending an internal survey out, then comparing responses, and starting to draw out some structure and threads. IT’S A LOT MORE INTERESTING THAN IT SOUNDS. And tough. I’m using the act of writing it down to sort through it, which means lots of staring blankly at the screen, then minimal, but important, typing. But alongside thought time, I need to pick through some existing literature and see how others do this.

So far, I’ve come back to my usual approach of “Map it then Measure it”, but there’s a risk I forget about what we’re trying to do, so I’ve written up a few aims, which I need to run past some people.

I’m probably the worst person to do this – I’m pretty bad at just grabbing a framework and running with it, and my Agile instinct to get something done quickly is actually pretty tricky when you’ve got a large issue. There’s probably another blog post just from that. Kamaji hides behind the all-knowing teapot

Puce Plan Four: Save the World, and Drink Coffee

OK, this wasn’t really a plan, but a response. Hey, I had a spare arm.

Cloudflare changed SOMETHING, which meant we had a few TECHNICAL ISSUES. Honestly, with Meltdown and Spectre and Heartbleed and WananCry, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that a) tech is a mug’s game, b) I should live in a forest with no internet connection (or a 56k modem, max), and c) nukes are nothing against the power of 30 years of insecure tech design practice. GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN.

Which is all to say that we’ve been working hard reacting to some big issues – some our fault, some not, but it’s certainly been quite the couple of weeks for it.

Still, makes a change from just before Christmas, at least.

Other Stuff That Happened:

  • Lots of team stuff – Kim joined the Senior Management, and we all had lunch together, and then all the dev team had lunch together (on a different day) and had a bit of a catchup.
  • Carried on clearing out old magazines
  • More 1:1s
  • Far too much caek

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Weeknotes 05×03: 10 Years Later

It’s dark. The kitchen light is off, and I’m dragging the laptop out, sitting down at the table and writing by the ambience of the sidelights. I’m out of the Weeknotes rhythm, and it feels a bit like I’m starting again.

I’ve been back at work for three days. I didn’t take notes, as I quite enjoyed writing reflections from memory a couple of times last year. But not at the end of the year – I skipped a couple of weeks of writing anything up. It was all just that little bit too cray-cray. In between some internally-set-yet-still-pressured deadlines, salary reviews, and board meetings, there were trips to hospital for #son2, and the usual festive activities of worrying about what presents to get for people and trying to cajole people into winterval logistics.

I’m not a Scrooge, I *do* really enjoy Christmas. I just find the other stuff – the need to get work finished early, the manic consumption, the pressure to stick to some haphazard ‘rituals’ – a little too much when combined into the same, three-week dash. So the highlights for me were 1) our Christmas office do with an amazing quiz with an amazing music round and scavenger hunt, 2) getting to actually go out for a meal with the missus, and 3) Christmas Day at last, when there was no more organisation needed, just early starts, and lots of chocolate.

Weeknotes fell by the wayside in among all of that. Which was a bit of shame, because at the same time, the work we worked on was, I think, some of our best yet – in terms of organisation, setup, implementation, flexibility, robustness, and delivery. All the pieces were in place, and I think there’s a lot we, as a team, could celebrate and learn from in hindsight. We haven’t had a retro since, but I might suggest one which looks back at this, in a “yay” way – too often I think retrospectives are keen to “fix” something that annoys people, rather then reinforce the stuff which inspires us. In fact, I’ll Make It An Action.

TODO: Suggest next retro idea is “why things went well”.

There, I’ll come back in a week and see if I’ve done it.

This week was three days as we all returned on Wednesday. We had a fairly quiet first day back, trying to remember what we did the year before. Thursday was the day to plan a fresh sprint. Friday was the start of dealing with the Meltdown/Spectre fallout, instead of the planning I’d planned to plan.

This week I’ve been taking the advantage of a fresh start to get some plans in place, and I’m both (as I tend to be) excited, and anxious and impatient and wanting to do everything Now Now Now. We started getting our next few months of projects together, which meant UPDATING THE BIG GREEN BOARD again, which I always like. One of our biggest challenges, I think, is to balance project planning between the many different projects and products we run, so anything that sorts through the maelstrom is bound to feel good. Cracking this challenge properly would be a great accomplishment this year, if we could.

As joint Product Owner for the _HIVE PIXIE_ product, I’ve been pushing to get some more concrete plans and aims in place to move on with. I don’t feel like I have quite the buy-in I’d like yet, and it can be a pretty lonely job sometimes, but I’ve had the chance to practice some basic product ownership, and this week have decided to just push on with my own instincts, suggest defaults, and see if anyone argues vehemently against me.

It was also great to start the year with Kim (Comms and Marketing lead) joining the ranks of our senior management. She knows what she’s doing, and it’s great to be able to get her opinion on the Things we discuss, as well as to give her more responsibility for the work she’s already basically in charge of already.

We’ve also started lining up annual reviews for the management team, including myself, over the next month. For the, this has been on my mind a lot – I’ve now been with OCSI for 10 YEARS exactly, which makes me feel either old or abstract, I’m not sure which, or maybe they’re the same thing? I bought some cupcakes from Sainsbury’s and finished off an office bottle of whisky to celebrate, while CPU security patches rolled down the window like raindrops. (There are also rather a lot of chocolate coins and leftover Christmas food in the office, so we’re collectively anti-detoxing ourselves successfully.)

So I’m at that stage where I’m really wondering, after 10 years, what the hell I’m doing and what I should do next. I’m lucky – I get to do a lot of different and interesting things in my job, which isn’t really a job title or description beyond merely “fairly good with making computers do things” and “OK at making other people make computers do things”. This year I’ve been doing team leading, product strategy, strategy strategy, understanding finances, client talking, and trying to cheer people up, among other things. I’ve basically got a free rein, which begs the question, “yeah, but what do you WANT to do?”

I have some draft answers to this, but they need some grounding now, like bouncing creative ideas off a team for developing a website, except I’m at the point where it’s “me” (or “a” me) that’s being created. I need that external perspective – an annual review will be a good chance to do this, but I intend to pick other people’s brains about it too. I couple of people offered their ears and advice over the last year, and it’s about time I take them up on it.

Oh, I’ve also started tidying up bits of the office as well. Feels like it could be a good year.

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Weeknotes 05×02: Modularise all the things

Monday

Monday, and things are busy. We’re in switchover mode, deploying our last sprint’s work to a beta site for user and load testing, while also ramping up on the next chunk of work.

Which all means I’m very delivery-focused at the moment. But I’m also out of the office a fair bit over the next few weeks, so I’m spending a lot of my time trying to get all the blocks in place. Briefly, my focus is:

  • setting out a high level overview of what the blocks of code are, and how they should talk to each other
  • making sure any obscure technical information is thought about and written down, so I’m not a bottleneck when I’m away

I’m having to have a fair bit of faith in what I’ve set up, because we’ve got less than 3 weeks to get something delivered. It’s going to be interesting.

As I said last week, closing stuff off needs to remain a strong focus – fast progress needs to clear stuff out so we can concentrate on the harder stuff without too much overhead.

We’re going to need guns. Lots of guns.

Wednesday

OK, this plan is going well so far. We’re on a pretty big task – it’s the first time we’ve voted something a 13 in a few years. But I’ve learnt a few things since the last time. The mix of (lean business needs + code decoupling required to write unit tests) has really helped me understand where a “system” can and should be divided. In any system, there are natural “breaks” which define certain holistic chunks – we call these “departments”, “teams” or “silos” when thinking about an organisation. We call them “classes”, “microservices”, “modules”, “libraries” and so on when talking about code.

Some sort of git branch management analogy, or merely the onset of winter?

Any system has them, and so I wonder if there is a general rule of modular interaction that one can define and refine – I’ve probably seen something along these lines in the past, and my writing probably reflects my mind trying to remember it.

In a way, it’s another version of “joining the dots”, except in this case the dots don’t exist yet and have to be forced into shape. My main aim has been to define the modules we need, and the ways in which they interact – and to then translate this into tasks, and how the tasks overlay. I feel like I could really work with someone else in this framework in future – I could identify the tech modules and someone else could define the “work modules”.

I’m also now wondering if it’s possible to apply this to my Product Owner role, where I’m going through product feedback and categorising/refining/estimating/prioritising potential stories. What are the dots, the subdots, and the superdots here? (Yes, I’m thinking fractal dots.)

Thursday

Mixed start to the day. Made good progress on the crossword on the way in, but half the phones were down. Bit stormy today too.

A month in review

Had the first monthly catch up with John, our new developer, with a nice mix of feedback for both of us, I think. Having someone new on board is a good opportunity for reflection. Hopefully I put some of his fears to rest, and I think mine were – I’m always slightly anxious when someone new joins. Do they think they made the right decision in joining? Thankfully, reminded me that our ethical value is really, well, valued, and that if we can formalise it in the right way, it can be very powerful.

(Or probably very cheesy, if done in the wrong way.)

Closure, closure, closure

Slightly annoyed we didn’t get to close off part A of our current work as I’d hoped, but in hindsight it was probably optimistic. Momentum had been good, but the two remaining tasks were the largest, and required a fair bit of review and testing. I had to leave early, so there’s a chance it will come together in the next hour or so.

And we did make a start on the next stage anyway, which is good. But was hoping for a clean break. Tomorrow looks plausible. Bought chocolates for the team for when the first part gets closed, anyway.

Spent a lot of my day running updates on my machine. Windows wanted an update which meant also then updating VirtualBox, followed by Vagrant. Computers are stupid.

Chipped in a few notes for our monthly roundup/lookahead, which randomly again reminds me that I should make a start on an extremely lightweight ethical business framework.

(Note – should get feedback on whether our ethical values are ones that people agree with, and buy into.)

Went through and tidied up potential user stories for Hive Pixie – pleased with a quick decision on ordering priorities and identifying story clarity, will be interesting to see if our partners agree with the proposals which are coming together in my head.

Lost 10-0 at table football. Blaming the receding head cold and tiredness. Need to up my game here.

The office “Christmas tree” made its appearance. Need to up our game here.

It’s a path, which is definitely some sort of analogy

Friday

OK, we wrapped Part A. And the team have cracked in with Part B. This is good. Just need to make sure I dedicate some attention to the right places early next week and we should be fine.

Running a daily diary makes me think there should be some easy daily mood-ometer for work progress. Maybe a personal research thing next year – buttons, API, database, bosh.

Also did lots of tidying-up communication and starting to get some dates in January’s calendar. I think the sprint work has actually given me a good, productive attitude today. Happy reinforcement cycles.

Next week is all over the place though. Will have to wait and see a bit.

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Weeknotes 05×01: On comms curation, professional synchronicity, and my own flow

Meta Business

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Usually I take a week off every 6 episodes – this time round, it was two weeks. But it was a deliberate decision – I needed the rest, Feeling pretty tired in the run up to the end of the year, and trying to lift some of the pressure on myself. I’m going to go back to some fairly unstructured notes for a bit too; no season aims this time, and length/style of notes will be as needed.

I’ve also started using the open source Diary software on my phone, for no reason other than it’s open source? I like the Markdown approach too, and the way you can add in maps for where you are, but it’s so far looking harder to get the content out into other places. And TBH, it was pretty bloody hard with Evernote, anyway.

Monday: Communication as Curation 

Trains. Times, routines, patterns, rhythms. All to get not somewhere, but anywhere. An infrastructure to allow flexibility, mobility. Go anywhere, do anything.

Lewes

Tunneling through the boarded up walkways at London Bridge, I notice the signs and boards standing out. Travel disruptions, station constructions – everything is in flux and subject to change. When things change fast, clarity of information is key.

The structure for clarity needs to be in place before it’s needed. The process for feeding into that structure needs to be smart, and understood as an artisan aspect of communication.

Communication is about curation. Working it what not to say, as well as what to say.

Shoreditch

So many plans today. It feels like we’ve gone from no plans to too many plans. What’s the best way of organising them, interleaving them like shuffled cards?

If I follow my thoughts on structure before process, should I establish a theoretical structure for priorities before going any further?

Wednesday/Thursday: Is Sychronicity a Job? 

Flurries and fortitude. A scrabble to sprint, the scrum feels as organised as it could be.

It’s odd having a few days out of the office at this point. Everyone that’s been in is heads down in detail. Everyone else needs a higher level conversation. I don’t like to distract people from the details, but it’s a necessary evil. I spend a lot of my time working out who knows what, and who needs to talk to who.

I’ve come to conclusion that this is scary I bring to the job. Synchronicity.

The problem is, it’s not a formal skill. It doesn’t get recognised as a tech skill. Maybe it falls under “project manager” or “leader” or something, but it’s a strange and hard art and is more important than a lot of other things.

But as a result of it being an internal awareness, an instinct more than a role, I’m not really sure where to go with it next.

Other weeknoters have noticed this and I should get in touch with them about it.
Also started categorising my week tasks according to whether I’m planning something, doing something, or supporting others in recognition of this “joining the dots”. These feel like useful categories to try to balance.

Friday: Flow Friday

Beta release day. Not enough closure focus? I can do context, planning and admin. I can do closure for myself. It’s a lot harder to clamp down across a team – so many people have been involved that disentangling them in order to close tasks is fairly complicated.

Hopefully I can learn from this for the next chunk of work. In fact, here’s a personal aim for the next 3 weeks: close as much as possible, as early as possible. Practice closure. Closure is agile.

Otherwise spent a lot of time today planning out code architecture on a giant white board.

This is my flow

Doing this, I realise how much I enjoy this – the sketching, the way it goes in with work planning. I’ve learned that the way code splits up (decouples) is directly related to the way the team splits up. And some people are driven by sticking headphones on and getting their mental teeth into a well-defined chunk of work, while others really appreciate shadowing and peer-working on a particular area.

So yeah, code design is my flow area, moreso than coding itself.
East Croydon
 

Workweek 04×06: That last little step…

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It’s Friday Monday – what have I done, and what have I learnt?

On direct action vs teamwork

Been in something of a maelstrom this week, which has really highlighted the fact that I seem to have two main roles. On the one hand, I’ve been getting more 1:1s in the calendar and really trying to help other members of the team get a chance to reflect. On the other hand, we have a lot on and I need to be very hands-to-the-pumps with it.

So I’ve been helping others get on with stuff, while getting on with stuff. Which is fine, but the two are very different mindsets, I find. Pretty tiring to be constantly assessing whether you should do something, or delegate it (because someone else is interested, or I don’t have time). Whether to let people get on with something and learn from it, or step in to move the work forward.

It’s not a conflict, as such. But it does risk confusion as well as tiredness – confusion on my part if I forget what I’m supposed to do, and confusion for other people if they’re not sure if they can get on with something or need to check. Confusion and the slowness that arises from it isn’t a Welcome Thing, not when we’re super busy, and not just before Christmas.

I don’t really have an answer, if there even is one. But if feels like a tension that needs some sort of resolution – maybe changing the workload in the new year will help, or maybe it’s something more fundamental, structural, definitional that needs some further investigation.

Do all team leaders get this?

On tidying and doing up

One of the big pushes this week gone has been around company strategy. We (Stefan, Luke and myself as the senior management team) have been choosing the areas we want to focus on over the next year, splitting them up between us, and defining them. But to move things on, we meet to finalise this and actually communicate it to people. Otherwise whats the point?

We had a couple of meetings going through our thoughts (cobbled together into a Google doc), which I then added some basic formatting, structuring, and consistency to (plus an overview, title page, etc). By end of Friday it was looking much better – certainly good to present to the team on Monday morning.

It made me realise how easy it is to skip over the “decoration” stage – which feels like something separate to the apparent “proper” stuff, the content, the semantic meat. All this stuff is essential, but it’s also all just thoughts – core concepts, a record of decisions made and a series of reasonings. It says nothing to anyone else who hasn’t been part of that process. Or, at least, not very much, and that act of “saying something” is key. Layout and formatting is the UI of concept recording, along with the act and process of dissemination over time. A document without decent formatting is like a website that makes you want to stab your eyes out. A document that never gets passed around is like a website that isn’t linked to.

It’s a shame that we didn’t have more time/focus to consider this stuff, I guess. But at the same time, it’s very much an ongoing process and will roll out over the next few days and weeks.

It just made me think about how important that last little step is.

On the last 6 weeks

So this is “episode” 6 of “series” 4. As is my “tradition”, I take a week off weeknotes after 6 weeks to give myself a rest and a chance to reflect and start again.

At the start of this series, I identified 3 aims I wanted to make some change on. How did I do? Brief thoughts follow.

1. Tech direction – some serious thought time on this

  • Not as much time on kicking off our identified team aims as I’d like…
  • … However, there have been movements around VMs, environments, bug fixing, etc. Pockets of some dedicated time to get things going. Small pebbles, perhaps.
  • 1:1s have been useful in driving this – even if each person only has a single thing to progress over a month, that can add up to a lot over a few people.
  • Moreover, this has led to a lot of ideas for what to do next – I need to run a few internal sessions to go over a few key aspects of our work, so it’s not just me that understands the underlying concepts.
  • So a sneaky one this, and not as overt as back when we were having Roadmap meetings and the like. But some interesting progress being made, in among the busyness.

2. Have a finish line for our Storm Box project

  • This changed tack a bit at the start of the series, and I handed over my project management duties on this (very ongoing) project.
  • It’s not quite as clear a line as some of us would hope for, but we are hard at work on a Christmas delivery schedule (always a shudder), and more importantly, it feels like there’s a renewed effort in the team to really get this out of the way.
  • It’s felt really good to pick some task cards off our planning board after they’ve been up there for what feels like lifetimes.
  • Keep pushing, basically. I can see a light now.

3. Investigate “craft”: “Look for sharp edges, dissatisfaction, things that stick out and contend against the nature of the universe.

  • I’m not quite sure what to say here, but maybe that reflects a much deeper, more long-term shift than a lack of any change. Um. On the whole, I’ve been finishing days exhausted, but would describe myself as “busy, but in a productive way”. There’s a lot on, but it feels like we’re setting things up well, not just responding to needs with quick hacks.
  • What I realise, writing this up, is how much this depends on the team as a whole, and how much of the “craft” manifests as what gets made, as a result of the processes and pushes within the organisation. Is it possible to separate the effort from the outcome, or are they joined interminably like a torch and it’s light? I’m tempted to think the latter.
  • If that’s the case, my craft is something that both encompasses and cuts through everything – the craft of a team delivering something.

On other things

  • Exercise is awesome. Went for some walks in the evening, felt great the next day for it. Screen time in the evening is a killer.
  • We discussed a potential project on radioactive waste, which was a great discussion and really helped ask and answer some really difficult, but valuable questions around what we want to do.
  • It felt great to do some 1:1s with people I hadn’t talked to like that for over a year. If I didn’t have to do anything, I think I could easily just listen to people’s stories.
  • Induction for a new member of staff feels really streamlined now, even when we’re up against it with other work going on.
  • I got to meet Prem in Brighton again, who is looking for funding to help rebuild his home village after it burnt down.

On other places

On film