The Weeknotes where I talk about what I’m doing recently

Close-up of a street sculpture in Exeter

Within these work walls

ONE. PRODUCT JOB DESCRIPTIONS.

A large thread at the moment is cleaning up our product-ownership/management job descriptions. We’ve never really established a “proper” PO job description until now, as a small company – the title has been useful in some ways (identifying a singly accountable person, as a handy umbrella) but tricky in others (often evolved and reactive as new ideas come along, rather than organised and clear). We’re looking at a distinction between strategy for a product vs delivery of a product, which has given the strategic side more of a ‘information coordinator’ bias – ie information gathering, rather than deciding what to do. I like that.

Personally, I get a lot out of job descriptions and role tidying. In my had, it’s basically the same job as software architecture – which role(/class) is responsible for which tasks(/functionality) – and what are the relationships and communications (/interfaces) with other actors in the system.

TWO. CODE OPTIMISATION IS FUN.

Friday I got back onto some heavier code optimisation, down in the darker depths of the codebase. I wrote the code years ago and it served to simplify our development process a lot. But it’s inefficient like a treacle truck, and there are some key improvements that – thanks to git submodules – could affect all of our sites without much re-implementation.

I enjoy this shit really – there’s a careful, methodical route to attack a problem. Know that something is doable, map the system out, plan out the moves, think of the drawbacks, sanity check, then Write the Magic Words and see if all your theory was right. It’s like chess crossed with Lego crossed with a house of cards.

THREE. GOOD QUALITY LEADING.

I wrote this in my notes:

What does “artisan tech leadership” look like?

Like, if I ran a tech team like I ran a posh coffee shop. What are the things you’d stand out for, that you plastered up on your blackboards, that people tried to describe to friends with faraway, confused looks on their faces?

ARTISAN LEADERSHIP. A space vessel caught up in people’s every day lives. A hint of magic like a job reality which only exists in dreams.

Pin your banner to the flagpole. Stand up for what you believe in – to lead a team is to describe a world you want to exist. Worldbuilding is a Real Thing now, now that our mental reality and our physical/economic realities are intertwined with virtual words, transient networks, branded avatars.

I haven’t got the hang of it yet, but I know it is there somewhere.

FOUR. COMFORT = CHANGE.

More on leadership. Catherine Howe talks about psychological support for systemic change:

It is a role of leadership to create an environment of psychological safety – or perhaps it’s better described as making it possible for teams to create their own safety. One of the major tools of leadership (and resilience) is understanding the difference between your circle of control, your circle of influence – and then what my colleague Giulia calls the soup – the stuff that we have not influence or control over. Psychological safety demands that your team also has alignment about what they can and cannot change and a mandate to get the work done. The issue can be that the work then becomes to some extent closed off – the psychological safety of the team effectively becoming a barrier for wider collaboration – a barrier to the actual work.

Amen. Ties back strongly to my own thoughts on comfort zones.

“In Other News” *

  • I published 29 B&W photos for April. Some don’t fit so well, but I’m pleased with each for different reasons.
  • I’ve been writing week notes a bit less recently. I’ve been focusing largely on reading, TBH – a few books have really sucked me in recently and I’m deep into Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler which is the essay equivalent of a dream.
  • I’ve been getting back to the solarpunk experiment this month, which has got me thinking about use of tech again. I’ve purchased an old Nexus 7 tablet from ebay which I’m now using purely to read RSS feeds and saved links. I want to have a better “reading” experience generally – not just inline commenting a la Medium. Like, “reading net content from other people as something I enjoy.” So far, so good. And if it can be solar-powered, so much the better.
  • I’ve also installed a podcast app FOR THE FIRST TIME and have subscribed to two podcasts FOR THE FIRST TIME. One is 65daysofstatic’s Bleak Strategies because I is fan. The other is Craig Mod’s 945 binaural recordings from Japan – with audio from temples and coffee shops, I’m finding this realllllly good background for working, reading, and generally relaxing.
  • Random thought: Why is formatting bullet-pointed lists the bane of my life this century?

* H/T Giuseppe 😉

Weeknotes Ten:6? – Ethics of Comfort Zones, Hard/Soft Everywhere

What’s your comfort zone?

We’re reaching End of Epic stage; that emergence from a strung out thought-converse-trial-show-repeat cycle over the last few months, stretching back into valentines and pancakes. Initial contexts remain documented like dusty photos. Assumptions have come and gone. Where you end up is a test of your old map, not your walking shoes.

Last week I was moving into ‘focus’ mode, which is that part of the epic just before the end game, when things either come together well, or blow apart like dandelion seeds. Fine line, making sure there’s the right amount of emphasis. No hard deadline except our own. From experience I know things can slip at this stage. I’m still learning to trust the team too – we’re playing with new approaches to UX. Things may be ok. But, rather safe than sorry. The hard part of being a hit pushy: you’ll never really know if being pushy helped or not. Like that bit with the vase, in that film. The Matrix.

Pushiness is an art I’m still getting my head around. Take 1-1s and mentoring, for instance. People have their comfort zones. But I’d wager all real, quality learning comes when you’re off kilter and outside your zone. Focuses the mind, makes you pay attention. Memories are formed in these moments that stick with you forever.

So there’s an ethical question there. How do you know how much to move people out of their comfort zone? How much is too much? Should you push for discomfort of you know it’ll benefit someone, but they haven’t agreed to it? Is it enough just to let them they’re supported?

Related note: Currently reading ‘Deep Simplicity‘ by John Gribbin on chaos and order. He uses the term ‘order on the edge of chaos’, relating to how Things (structure, abstractly) emerge from entropy, and how certain interactions within a system produce this emergence. Planets forming from gravitational wells. Life forming from chemicals.

I’m captivated by this. It seems relevant. That meeting point of influences, that ‘decisive moment’, to borrow from Cartier-Bresson. Isn’t this the subtle art of leadership – knowing where and when to act in order to produce effectiveness? And, just as importantly, when not to act. Know strength/yang, but maintain weakness/yin, says the Tao Te Ching. Push sparingly.

‘Deep Simplicity’ refers to this as catalysis, to draw on chemical reactions. An instigation, a point of interjection. Controlling the arm of time through a single elbow.

Related: a brief Twitter thread on how skills aren’t inherently “hard” or “soft”, but rather that skills can be carried out with harder and softer approaches, depending in need.

Steve Halliday posted:

Winner of the worst term in leadership award: “soft skills” No, they ain’t soft. They are people skills. They are business critical skills.

@SteveHalliday0

My follow-on thoughts:

Was thinking about it the other day, and about the overlap between code and team management. Couldn’t draw a clear distinction except that flesh is soft, and servers are hard. But where does that leave software?

It’s not that there is no “soft/hard” skill dichotomy. Maybe a yin/yang approach is more apt though, where “soft” = more passive, listening, and “hard” = active/doing. Both apply to all skills though.

Eg. Listening is “traditionally” thought of as “soft”, but actually you can have both soft and hard forms of listening.
Soft: Quieting the mind, being aware of the moment/situation/person.
Hard: Actively asking for feedback and eliciting questions/responses.

Whereas, say, software engineering might be a traditionally ‘hard’ skill? But…
Soft: Observing and understanding the flow of information and logic needed for efficiency.
Hard: Deciding class and interface names, setting spec in stone, making tests pass, fixing syntax errors.

Which is to say, softness/hardness is less to do with particular skills, and more to do with your own approach to whatever you’re doing.

An Unweeknote

Like meditation, weeknoting is something hardest to do when you most need to do it. The brain doesn’t work like that, and so we descend into spiralling into hell, with no way back from the dark.

OK, so it’s not been quite that bad for me. But I have stopped weeknoting, and mostly because I’ve just been busy on some biggish things. Life – in work and out – has had enough going on, and sometimes it’s totally fine to dodge the guilt bullet, and just not do something. So I took the weeknote pressure off and silently omitted it from my routine. I played games and saw people and sorted out hard drives and watched bad DVDs, like a normal person. Sometimes I wonder about my life. I’m not quite sure which version is real.

Anyway, the joy of a break in routine is that the time off often lets you see things differently. So a break can also be very valuable. Try it – if you practice anything like a musical instrument or a martial art, something involving physical memory, then take a week or two off – the body and brain can be truly wondrous at absorbing the practice you’ve done, and replaying fresh ideas to invigorate your routine. Absence makes the heart grow bolder.

A few things have bubbled up for me, in my absence. I’m planning on gradually writing them up, but possibly not in the usual weeknotes rhythm. So in good time, and soon.

How do we think about the datas?

Disclaimer: This is not thought-out blog post like you might find on the real internet. This post is fueled by a few extra hours of sleep, black instant coffee, and a general interest and enthusiasm for the data debate which I haven’t had in years. This is a post to sort out some of my own thoughts before being able to engage more fully.

I also really really liked the idea of writing a blog post in response to a blog post. It feels like 2005 all over again.

Context: Dan Barrett, UK Parliament’s Head of Data and Search, has posted a couple of posts about the difficulty of talking about data – part 1 and part 2, with ensuing Twitter conversation.

This gave me wobbly memories going 7 years back, when ‘open data’ was getting ‘hot’ and trying to find its way in the world. Self-interested plug: I went back and dug out my old post, “Open Data” needs to die to see if it was still relevant. Some of it seems to be, namely the need for context, the semantic quibbling that goes on.

(The idea of “agile data” is a new idea for me though – this makes a lot of sense for my own job, and has a rich depth waiting to be explored.)

Perhaps this bit from the old post gets at some of the difficulty:

Many people with useful, everyday data and databases really don’t think in terms of data. Because the data is about stuff they know, they think of it as “information”. Maybe even a “resource”. But ask them what “data” they have and they’ll probably give you a back-up of their website.

Is the term ‘data’ just too vague to be useful? If you had a magazine all about Data, then what would it cover? Databases, database design, relational data, non-structured data, data dumps, big data, personal data, data security, — yeh, even my eyes are glazing over with the word now. Would I buy it? No, probably not.

Does the word “data” need to die?

No – emphatically not. I think it does mean something to me, as a computer scientist engaged in data on a daily basis. It is the raw material that underpins everything I do. BUT it’s hard for me to say that ‘data’ is this, that or the other.

On a daily basis, data for me covers not just the stuff we make available on Local Insight, but anything we’ve decided to commit to a database for the purpose of structuring it, processing it, linking to it, etc. As a second order, I also consider all of our files to be data, just structured in a different way.

So maybe there are two ways that we think about data (and yes, I think a lot of the confusion is now just how we explain what data is, but how we make sense of the term. And this is, in a sense, just a semantic argument. But it needs to be a semantic argument if we’re talking about how to talk to each other). Two ways that often conflict with each other:

  1. Bits stored in computers. As in, 0s and 1s that give the computer something to do. Data in its ‘purest sense’. This is so generic it hurts, and yet it forms a useful distinction between analogue processing, which, let’s face it, is pretty much how humans like to think. “It looks like rain” is much easier to think than “It has 47% chance of raining.”
  2. Structured information. This is different to ‘pure information’ – it is taking the content that underpins information, and gives it structure – shape, consistency, and something predictable which allows us -and others – to work with it more easily. At this point, this stuff that sits at the point that information and data intersect has become the stuff of science.

This distinction is possibly useful because everyone has different backgrounds – data and computing and digital and tech are still really divided when it comes to skillsets aross society as a whole.

I don’t like putting people into one camp or the other, but broadly speaking, I think it takes fairly specialist skills to understand Data as #2, whereas having a vague idea of #1 is more of a default, and without that training, it’s easy to think of structured data as just 0s and 1s.

OK I’m out of words for now. I wanted to get this down as a thought-clear cos I think there are some really interesting questions coming out of it, and I also want to go back and re-read the other points floating around.

Weeknotes Ten:5 – Out of holes

HELLO dear reader. I don’t know where to begin. I haven’t written anything for 3 weeks. To be quite honest, I wanted to, but just didn’t have the time or energy. I think I’m on the up now though,

One weekend was spent away, visiting the folks. The next weekend was spent on decorating #son1’s bedroom. On top of all that, work has been fairly intense, and I’ve also been a bit naughty and gone to bed late a few times. I’ve had to admit defeat, suck up my own personal guilt, and just put weeknotes on a backburner throughout.

But I’m still here, still spritely. I don’t have copious notes, so there won’t be too much detail here.

How do I feel?

  • Like I’m finally climbing out of a big hole. Or several big holes.

Our building, which is very pointy.

What was I proud of?

  • Delving into the unknown, knowing that it’s for the best in the long term, even if you can’t explain why or how. Navigating this “chaos of faith” is tricky. But a little easier when you know other people are equally enthusiastic about what’s happening.
  • Bumping into some old contacts at an event who I hadn’t seen for while – and realising where i’ve come from, and where I’ve got to.
  • Helping to pushing forward on some more user-focused processes. It’s so easy for a “pure” delivery ritual to take over what actually gets delivered, especially with sprint cycles, and we’re making great steps to shift our mindsets, I think.
  • Seeing the team get passionate and organised about changing things, even if there’s sometimes some frustration accompanying it. I guess you can’t have passion without frustration, or change without some level of conflict. So passion and conflict are good – if they’re channeled properly.
  • I wrote up a piece summarising my ukgovcamp session on making time to think which seemed to go down well.

What could I have done better?

  • I can still tend to react a bit grumpily in certain situations, like people wanting to get on with stuff without thinking it through. I probably have a tendency to try to stop or slow people down in order to make sure we’re not fragmenting as a team. I’d like to be more organised and more clear about previously-agreed goals (COMING SOON), and I could probably ask simpler questions to check people are thinking things through – tough when I’m tired and time is tight though.
  • I should definitely have gone to sleep few hours earlier several days.

What am I not sure about?

  • How to balance team strengths vs hierarchies – ie. where teams cross over and it’s not clear which one has final say. How do others out there resolve this? I have some ideas based on OKRs and Health metrics, but they’d take some effort to put in place.

What am I aiming for next week?

  • I’m away Monday as well as Tuesday due to half term, so maybe relax a little?
  • The work to build a new dashboard is moving from UX design to Tech design, so I’m going to get my head into ‘architect’ mode and hammer out some specs.
  • I’m keen to line up some revised and improved structure for the next quarter for the tech team, but I think the week is too short and filled already, so that’s not going to happen, until the week after.

What else should I mention?

  • I attended an event on Digital Inclusion in the charity sector. I was fairly distracted by server issues for the first hour, but got my head into it after that. It wasn’t directly relevant to what I do, except it did make me think about how tech skills – and more importantly, an innovation mindset/culture – are distributed within a group of people. This is something I struggle with, as I like to encourage ideas and self-improvement within my team – but it’s often unevenly distributed (either outside of the team, or for different skills and values within the team).

  • Hon Mond fixed up one of our remaining failing unit tests – we estimated this as a fairly simple fix, but it ended up highlighting some strange, confusing code which made the team look into the underlying model, and the code was simplified as a result. I’m now thinking about whether unit tests – or their paradigm and approach – are useful at a business level too.

  • I started using my Disposable Evidence newsletter a bit more to send out photos and updates.

Moody self-portrait set in a hotel bar, with my face small and reflected in the centre.

Til next time…