A 2018/2019 round-up

An image taken from the year-long 'Blatchington Pond' project

I just posted a fuller version of this post on my main blog but thought I’d keep track of the professional parts over here in my weeknotes blog too. Apologies if you read this twice and get confused, but thanks for stalking me.

[Written in] These dying days of 2018. Another year of memories, stacked up like scrolls. Not a particular time for reflection, among the scrapings of wrapping paper, other than I have a few days – hours even – to stop doing anything, and the self-assessment comes naturally.

Looking back

The year has been busy – time of life maybe, but also unsustainable and unsatisfying in dappled patches. Parts have been productive and eye-opening, but more to set the stage for the show ahead, rather than anything in their own right.

In a slightly random order, I…

  • Pushed through on some big deadlines at work, to different levels of celebration
  • Iterated through another year of setting strategy and supporting my team, enjoying both aspects – see my ongoing weeknotes
  • Ran a session at UKGovCamp in January on distribution of data skills, then failed miserably to do anything concrete about it 🙁
  • Gave out a fair number of small Dalai Lama books under the new Taopunk Paper Goat umbrella (and in fact a whole new website), and discovered a lovely stream of reciprocity
  • Gave a talk at Sussex University’s Humanities Lab’s event on Democratising Big Data, on “Trust and Ethics in the Data Supply Chain” (slides here)
  • Gave a talk at #son1’s primary school [on census and geographic data], which was hilarious, and probably scarier than giving a talk to academics… (slides here)
  • Ran my phone and digital watch off solar power only for 7 months, and started a blog about it
  • Took a lot of photos of Blatchington Pond as part of a year-long series, which now need some follow-up action (along with a few other longer-term photo projects)
  • Started running Linux on my new personal laptop again, which still carries a strange sense of pride after all these years

Looking Forward

I have some vague plans for the year ahead, although because I’m turning 40, they’re probably less vague than most of my plans. I’m expecting things to evolve a bit, but I’m still thinking and talking this through a bit. I feel very ‘involved’ in what happens around me, and also hate to leave people in difficult positions, so I tend to approach change with a fair amount of “diplomacy”. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months on how to give up less-valued responsibilities, to do things I care about more. Hopefully this will bear fruit in the next six months.

Going into January, I’m also highly aware of that annual festive build-up of books, magazines, and general good-reads in my RSS feeds from the year. There’s a lot of material that I’d like to re-focus some attention on right now, and I’m at a point where that depth of engagement seems very timely.

(Broadly speaking – tao, tech, democracy and climate change are of high interest right now.)

In general, I think the solar power exercise mentioned above has been of huge impact. I’m much more aware of ‘casual’ and ‘disposable’ use of energy (both mine and my battery’s) on smartphones. I’ve come round even more to the idea that the convenience of smartphones is really just a way to cram more stuff badly, into less time and space. The whole setup – that we should do everything through a bad interface – just feels so unsustainable now.

So alongside getting into content into more depth again (like my Uni days), I want to get back into my interfaces in more ‘depth’ again. I love keyboards – there I’ve said it. There’s a mechanical feedback there which makes me feel part of the machine, and I miss that in touch-screens. I feel so separated.

(Personal goals skipped – you can see them in the original post though.)

Here are my professional goals this year:

  • Find a way to be ruthless about email
  • Spend personal time at work to relax and read
  • Spend more time thinking and observing – strategy and support
  • Clear up cruft in processes
  • Be more open internally about my own work and the team’s work
  • Be calmer about asking for things and negotiating change
  • Bring together the people that should talk more

Let’s see how it goes. Come on 2019, I’m feeling good about this one!

Weeknotes TEN:1

IT’S 2019eeeeeeeeeeeeeen. I’m feeling so old that the numbers of a year don’t mean anything to me any more, and could easily be replaced with random-character codes, like airports. Welcome to the year EIGTBD.

It was only a two-day week. My aims were:

  • Come back to work feeling relaxed and focused, not diving straight back into the thick of things.
  • Pick up reviewing tech (team) strategy from where I’d left off.

Reviewing our tech (team) strategy

I started by getting my head back into things. I wrote up the white cards from our dev session at the end of last year, which had our proposed quarterly focuses scribbled carefully on them. This was the first ‘proper’ dev meet I’ve run in a while, which came out of chats with the developers. It’s too easy to get sucked into sprint work and deliverables, and forget to (or – more realistically – avoid) making time for technology as a whole. Which runs the very real risk of leaving us blindsided.

Tech notes from last year on lots of cards
Deliberately dark and fuzzy, because, ummmm, GDPR?

I really like cards for this process – even more than post-its. Cards don’t bend and curl, or pretend to be sticky then fall off the wall, or inversely get stuck in the wrong place. Cards force you to get a table or a floor and look down from above. Their nature inherently inspires that helicopter view that you need when trying to make out clusters and correlations. With cards, I survey everything. I become as God?

I wrote up a summary set of notes and passed this round the meeting attendees to check accuracy, before sending round the whole team.

But I was still dissatisfied – there were a bunch of suggestions and changes here – all good, all fairly focused – but how did they compare against my intended Roadmap, and my identified objectives? CUE MATRIX SPREADSHEET.

Note 1*: Strategy is all about navigation, through SPACE and TIME. That’s why we talk about “Roadmaps” so much, but really any OS map will do. Except for business strategy, SPACE is the “what”, and time is (still) the “when”. Both are important to get a single, coherent route through the problem-space ahead of you.

  1. SPACE. Where does the work fit in against overall aims and objectives? Does it map to somewhere important or necessary? If not, is the work extraneous, or is the strategy lacking something important?

  2. TIME. Where does the work for in against timescales? Is it late, early, or on time? If it’s on time, that’s probably a good sign that everyone’s in the right place at the right time. If it’s late or early, is this because something has changed externally requiring a shift in time, or should the work be clamped down (if late) or delayed (if early)?

* Technically, the only note.

So my spreadsheet tried to compare our proposed and roadmapped focuses against objectives. But which objectives? I had so many – or at least, enough to make the spreadsheet HORIZONTALLY UNWIELDY. Which is basically structural death.

Confused, I resorted to thinking via Blog Post. I want to use this approach more this year, as I’m generally doing more thinking out loud, and maybe inspired by Steph Gray’s post on blogging too. I think a lot of what I do is still fairly obscure, so I’m going to try just spitting more stuff out there, and if anyone gets something from it, great. #OPENBYDEFAULT

The post didn’t get finished, not yet. Maybe longer-term blogposts are a thing?

Feeling relaxed and focused

Getting everyone back into work at the same time feels like the end of ‘Inception’ when everyone wakes up and finds themselves in a strange place, and everyone’s trying to remember where and who they were at the start of the film. The first few days back are a good time to adjust slowly. We kicked our sprint planning meeting back to the afternoon so that we could spend the morning re-orienting ourselves. The prep work done last year for lining up tasks in the meeting worked well though.

Tip to self: Always leave something in an unfinished, yet easy to pick up state when going away, to help make re-entry easier.

Looking at the calendar ahead, next week could be busy, so it’s important to keep that in mind as the plans for the immediate future are set up. I didn’t give myself anything too onerous in the sprint, and will be on more of a support and PO role than a dev one.

So far, pretty good. But then, it’s easy to say that after only 2 days…

15 Tips for Running a UKGovCamp Session

UKGovCamp logo

With only 2 weeks to go until UKGovCamp 2019, I thought I’d carry on in the spirit of open work and open thought by writing up my own approach to getting ready for the day.

As it’s an unconference, and therefore participant-driven, and as so much amazing work goes into organising it, I like to get some plans together to bring some sort of idea along, even if it’s vague to start with.

Full disclaimer. I’m really not confident at public speaking to say the least (although usually enjoy it once it’s done), but over the years I’ve attended, UKGC has been a real opportunity to push myself, and is often my only real annual chance to stand up and blabber in front of 200+ people. The 15 tips below reflect the prep work I’ve gradually evolved as my confidence and familiarity with the event has grown.

And of course, it’s still changing. Further tips very welcome, of course.

  1. Ahead of time (usually just after the Christmas booze has just run out), think of a vague idea that interests you – maybe something you’re working on, been working on, or would like to work on.

  2. Turn it into a question, eg “what can we do to improve X?

  3. Turn into a provocative or catchy question, like “X is rubbish. What would X look like in a John Woo film?”. This is your title. “If John Woo did agile procurement.”

  4. Come up with 3 or 4 questions you have about the idea – ones that you are generally curious about. Keep these at the back of your mind, they will help guide things if you need to move the session on or get it back on track at all.

  5. Decide 1 or 2 things you would really like to get out of a discussion – this might be something you want to do as a result, or something you want to write up, or some sort of networking after the day, for example. Again, this is useful for pushing things forward if needed.

  6. Pitch. On the morning, stand up, get in line, and pitch. Personally, this is the scariest bit. Do it anyway. Be succinct and clear about your idea, using your provocative title, above.

  7. Run your session – get there on time (ie. before more than 3 other people) so you can get a good position, so that attendees know that it’s you hosting it, and so they and you have a chance to swap introductions and ideas while things are still quiet in the room.

  8. Set the scene. Use your provocative title and rough questions and outcomes as a way to introduce the session. It’s OK to be less provocative and a bit more boring at this stage.

  9. Don’t worry if things go in a different direction to what you had planned or expected – so long as people (including yourself) are finding it interesting, then there’s value to the discussion.

  10. Also don’t worry if conversation seems to get stuck or lose its way – you can refer back to your questions and ideal outcomes to get you back on track.

  11. Only take notes for things that are vital to you – it’s better to stay “in the conversation” and write notes up after, or use the “official” govcamp notes. You can always ask the note-taker to specifically jot something down, rather than write it yourself.

  12. Keep track of time, as it’s helpful to then…

  13. Attempt to draw things to a close by summarising what you’ve (personally) learnt, and what any next steps might be. And be sure to thank everyone for coming along.

  14. Chat to anyone that wants to chat afterwards, or get contact details if you really have to rush off. Remember, spin-off/corridor conversations are also just as valuable (and encouraged) as heading off to attend another session.

  15. Take a big breath and let it sink in before moving on.

Hope that’s useful to someone one there. Look forward to seeing everyone on the 19th!

Weeknotes 09×06: Wrapping up the year

Hello weeknotes diary. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m afraid the momentum got too much, and the last few weeks have been a balance of doing Those Last Finnicky Bits, and crashing into illness, like a lot of people.

I’m feeling a lot better now though. A few days off with daytime TV and Kung-fu films. An ultrasound scan and the office Christmas outing (separate events). I can feel my brain and my stomach again, and it’s nice to have a lot of stuff officially sorted out and behind me. I actually feel like I can rest and relax over the week ahead, which makes a change. The reminder in my calendar which I set last year agreed with me: “RELAX,” it prompts, “CHRISTMAS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN.” So true.

Meta

A bunch of things happened while I wasn’t weeknoting:

  • We shunted Local Insight over to fresh geographies as planned.
  • We also decided to switch our databases to a whole new server, just cos we could.
  • There was lots of fallout from the above.
  • I tried out collaborative live-journalling (daynotes?) with @jacattell – you can see our side-by-side notes here and while it could be made easier, it was interesting to ‘virtually shadow’ someone totally unrelated throughout the day. Would do it again, but would also write a proper blogpost about it beforehand.
  • The Taking Account project to audit charities in Brighton, which I’m helping steer, launched its survey and it’s nice when something you’re working on gets published like that. It’s been a while since I did project-like work.

I had Tuesday and Wednesday off this week.

Monday

So I spent Monday trying to relax while I caught up with emails and postponed meeting dates. I’ve lined up a lot of catch-ups for Thursday, so I’ll need to extra-relax that day. I’ve been reading the Upanishads and reminding myself that the world of work is not the world of brahman, and that existence, well, exists and takes up a lot of space all by itself, putting any stress that work can cause into paltry shade, really. Aum etc.

I missed the Board meeting last week, in which there were some changes to the Board. There are interesting opportunities in such changes, and so the future of the company next year will be shaken up in ways yet-to-be-decided. Haven’t really thought it through yet though.

I spent a bit of time revising my work/epic/objective* planning board, so that it now supports two sets of work. I set it up wihh 4 “related” streams previously, to allow for economies of scope, but decided this precluded our “diverse” approach to focus, and so re-purposed two workstreams into their own, “secondary” workstream. This made it a lot easier to add in my own IT and Systems objectives alongside Product objectives.

* Maybe “Workstream Object/Epic Planner”, or WOE planner for short.

I had a haircut.

I also finally went through various potential projects, and the workstream planning, wihh Stefan – been meaning to do this for a month at least, but it really has been that busy. We agreed that one set of work probably wasn’t going to work out, and another work.

It was also useful to check in on what the Research Team have planned for the next few months. I definitely want to move more towards a “strategy and support” role to help people think through this kind of stuff – I’ve noticed that any conversation on thinking ahead seems valuable, and I think it’s really valuable to have a second head to make the time, and bounce discussion off. One to pick up next year.

Thursday

After a couple of days off. The train ride in is quiet at the moment, with none of the regular acquaintances commuting at the same time. I’ve been deliberately trying to use it as a space for thought and focus, instead of slack and email, to set me up for the day.

I figure focus is actually a really important part of what I do – a clear head helps in so many ways; to keep everyone calm, to make rational and confident decisions, to make sure everything is happening in line with plans, and to keep everything running smoothly in the face of the unknown. All that stuff is glossed over in “traditional” productivity, but can you imagine an organisation that is anything but calm and focused? Of course you can, there are plenty. And all because people are too busy doing stuff to actually think about what they’re doing.

I also knew that I’d need brainpower today, as I’d booked in back-to-back catch-ups with most of the devs, plus a session on strategic thinking with Luke, and lunch with an old friend. I love talking to people, but it’s not natural and does take it out of me. I think this is something that the reflection of weeknotes has really helped me understand, so cheers for that.

Wanted to basically catch up with my team to check in before we broke up on Friday – make sure they’re OK coming out of some tough work the last few months, and prime them for a tech meet on Friday to set out thoughts for the quarter ahead.

I actually enjoyed doing all the chats in one day, and felt like it gave me a real “snapshot” into the team at a particular point in time. Usually I scatter 1-1s around to avoid overloading myself, but it does make it more fragmented, and individualistic. Not always a bad thing, so maybe a mix of timing is useful.

The session on strategic thinking was also interesting. I hope I didn’t ramble on with my opinions like an old man, but it was good to delve into someone else’s thought processes, help give it some structure, and identify/prompt what Luke’s next steps could be. It reminded me that strategy requires a lot of different skills and mindsets, and that we need to practice these and not be afraid of making mistakes, despite all the big businessy words and posh docs.

I ended the day by taking Flo and Alex through my slightly-crazy planning sheet. As expected, the draft plan for work over the year ahead needed some further refinement – and by “some”, I mean we electronically tore it apart and booted spreadsheet cells around like balls in soft play.

The tool seems to be achieving its aim of forcing discussion though – I’m treading a careful balance between getting others to figure out their conflicts in priorities, and just making the plan myself (based on input). Really, though, it should develop into a tool that others can use, and not be one that is dependent on me as the operator.

Still, it does remind me a lot of Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory, which is probably the fate of all “clever” spreadsheets the world over.

Friday

My copy of the Toyota Way arrived today, which alongside my new copy of Digital Transformation at Scale and the final volume of the Unwritten means I’m probably going to spend a lot of my Christmas evenings with my nose in books?

(Also reading the Upanishads currently, which is actually helping to bring a lot of calm and perspective back into my daily life.)

Friday was the LAST DAY OF TERM, so we had a few things to wrap up.

Helped out with a few technical support things, one for a client to dig into shapefiles, and one internal issue we were seeing. Both minor, but keeps you on your toes, don’t it?

Then held and hosted a tech meeting for the core set of developers – this was already delayed by a month, but I wanted to do something before we all left and replaced our heads with Christmas food. Need to get back to regular meetings, and as we held this one on the day of the solstice, I think I may aim for quarterly meetings that coincide with equinoxes and solstices, with review meetings in between. ‘A pagan company’ joked one person, but I do like the idea – symbols and rhythms go a long way when gathering teams together.

As this was the first meet since introducing the new tech team strategy back in September, the aim of the meeting was less to review “actual” progress, and more demonstrate the power of metrics. We’ve been starting to label issues in Jira with certain tags (like ‘wtf’ for general confusion, which comes from this comic, and ‘fixwtf’ to indicate work which addresses the root cause of the confusion). I showed some charts which were based on these labels, and which let us/me see if we’re actually making progress in our efforts to clear up confusion, debt, and legacy processes. I think it worked, with some actions to clear up what the labels are for, and to go back and retrospectively add labels as not everyone is using them yet. Moar data, moar evidence.

The meeting also captured a bunch of the team’s ideas on what we should be addressing – firstly as a quick brainstorm to help open up discussion generally, and secondly to narrow the ideas down to what we can address over the next quarter alone. This went well with the help of blank white cards, but I’ll need to write it up and consider seriously whether what we have (plus deliverables, plus other tech strategy focuses) is realistic. Still, planning is good.

Otherwise, the day wound down nicely. I wrote up 1-1 notes from yesterday, and we had a nicely brief sprint-planning session, all ready for discussion when we get back in a few weeks’ time.

Drank beer.

Went home.

And that, one way or another, is the end of season 9, and the end of the year. It’s the shortest day and the moon is one day off being as full as a ripe plum, all of which I take as an omen for … something. Next year is lining up to be one of change, so here’s to some rest and relaxation, and to fresh starts.

Merry Christmas!

Weeknotes 09×05: Screeeeech. Focus focus focus.

Screenshot of a burnt-out Mini from Dirt Rally game

  • After the momentum of drift-slides and gravel over-steer last week, I think this week’s notes are about pressure and speed. Burnout is on my mind a lot, as we head into the dark seasons and hibernation time. Natural rhythms are coming under stress, on many people’s personal level, all the way up to global and social levels. There are some notes on what I’ve actually been doing too, towards the end. One day I’ll read all this back to myself and laugh.

  • 5.30am is not a great time to get woken up at to start the week. My mind is full of dreamed-up fog before I’m out of bed, and every item of furniture hallucinates itself into a pillow. Over coffee, I clear out some menial tasks – checking out a start date, clearing obvious emails, stuff that sits on the brain and . I have enough energy to pick out some small steps to lift pressure this week a bit – getting off Slack, reducing meetings, cutting non-essential comms basically (the introvert head needs some headspace right now) – so the first (ok, second) email of the day jots those down and lets the rest of management know. Got to get some sustainability back.

  • I also jot down my aims and key tasks for the week, which is something I do when I have time, something which is most useful when I’m pushed for time, and something that I haven’t done in ages because I haven’t had time/energy. It’s never a complete task, but it acts as a reference guide, map and compass, as the week fires up and gets confusing quickly. I should really stick to this practice much, much more. Maybe there should be some sort of weeknotes support group for getting weekly aims together?

  • Looking back now, the week seems long and short at the same time. Monday feels like worlds away. But everything has happened at breakneck speed. Friday didn’t feel like the end of the week. Thursday was at the beginning, middle and end.

  • Turning off Slack for a day on Monday was fantastic – I really noticed the difference afterwards, and my mind felt focused and more… complete? Everyone (or developers, at least) knows mental context-switching is inefficient. Less people understand how tiring it is. And yet, it’s so easy to do – we do it all the time, we’ve been trained to do it through our social services. No wonder depression is increasing – we’re all too knackered from trying to keep up with everything.

  • Working from home on Wednesday was also useful, but I slipped back to a tendency to converse via – and hence check the rest of – Slack. Also had to pick up kids from 3pm, so a bit of a shortened day, which I always find flustered.

  • son2 has been singing a little ditty about the days of the week, which he contracted from nursery. I think it goes to the tune of ‘Oh my darling, Clementine’ and comes with little wavy hand movements: ‘_Monday Tuesday / Wednesday Thursday / Friday Saturday / Sunday too / Every day is a different day / and every day is something new‘. It’s cute and twee and schmaltzy and unoriginal, and it’s keeping me going. Every day is something new.

  • Currently I feel like I’m holding a lot in my head, and new streams are kicking up and spinning off while the old ones are being held in reserve memory, not dumped out or stashed for safe keeping. So I’m burning on adrenaline largely, which has helped to avoid getting the sniffles at least, but is giving me some twinges. The tech strategy work has been on hold for a few weeks, infuriatingly. As has looking at project scheduling, and tying it into our new aims. It’s annoying because we had some momentum coming out of September, and timing is everything. But inevitable because everyone is ill or on holiday and there’s a bucketload of dev work to do.

  • Things that are moving are moving well though. We finally tested and signed off a big upgrade to our mapping tech (not released yet, link for sales purposes only… 😉 that will make it a lot easier to build developments into maps in the future, and cut out a big chunk of the time it takes to deploy new datasets currently. It’s something I’ve wanted to work on for years, and John has been a huge help getting it together.

  • In among all the existing work, we’ve been forced to (finally) upgrade one of our servers to a newer model. This month is the time of replacement, it seems, and work is no exception. It’s a tough call, as we’re working hard on a massive upgrade due next week already, months in the planning, etc. I talk it through with the devs involved after stand-up though, and there’s an overarching feeling that the opportunity is too good to miss. We need to effectively-disable the site for a weekend to do the upgrade, so dovetailing in with the server move seems to fit. It’s extra work, and a gutsy move, but in our techie hearts, we sort of know it makes sense? Everything will be so much cleaner, smoother, faster and more secure afterwards. It will be the promised land. That’s totally the cliffhanger for next week – WILL WE BE IN PARADISE?

  • Unexpectedly, the server move also gives rise to some protracted decisions and conversations about how costs are shared with different people. Like there’s an easy way to work out costs vs actual value (spoiler: there isn’t.) It’s a conversation that’s needed, but … ah, man, so many rabbit holes. I mean, it’s not a big rabbit hole to fall down, it’s a labyrinthine warren ready to devour any wayward tunneler. Needs some careful thought and negotiation, and right now, there are enough plates spinning.

  • So that’s where we are right now. Plates spinning. Head spinning. World carries on spinning, and the storm is coming because it hasn’t rained in ages. TOO MANY STRATEGIES. Need a strategy strategy, etc.

  • What am I doing next week? Focusing, that’s what. Getting through this and getting out the other side. Heads down, lights on. See you there.