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.

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…

Weeknotes TEN:4 – Flappy

How do I feel?

It’s Friday, and I would say that I feel “flappy”. This week has been a rather mad buzz of ideas and different strands of work. I’ve been quite heavily involved in most of it, so it’s largely been good, if tiring. I haven’t had much time to prepare for each thing and – ironically after my ukgovcamp session on making time to think* – have often just been jumping context without a break.

I’m not sure if that’s life, or if I’m at a particular point in projects, between all the different worlds going on. It feels quite fragmented, like everyone has the confidence to have their own pet project, and I’m not quite sure if my attempts to get some focus through a planning spreadsheet are working or not, and causing me stress or not. I know I like having it there as a checklist, either way. And I suspect there will come a time when it all comes in use across the whole team. Just not yet…

* Still planning to write this up. Wow, when do you other people get time to write more than just weeknotes?

What was I proud of?

  • Finally running a quarterly update for the management team on what the Tech Team have been up to (see below). This is something I’ve learned from marketing head Kim over the last few years – presenting your work isn’t just a status update for others, but a way to show and prove the value that is important to you – to highlight what you’re bringing to the table. At a higher and vaguer level of work, or when your area is not so easily understood, communicating that value to others really helps to clarify it.

  • Trying out some User Story Mapping techniques in our UX session for a new data dashboard. I’ve read the User Story Mapping book and loved it, and caught the end of @Darwin‘s USM session at ukgovcamp at the weekend. Back in the meeting office, we plotted out major steps and used it to break down user needs, raise questions, and locate ideas. Between three of us, we had very little experience with doing this, but we managed to cobble something together, and what we did do really helped us to work out what was the important stuff.

A photo of our dashboard story mapping session.

What could I have done better?

  • Mostly, going to bed earlier. Ukgovcamp on Saturday left me pretty exhausted, as did going to bed later than hoped (11pm rather than 10pm), and being woken up in the night by #son2. Been running on coffee and that notion of momentum mostly. Fortunately the work has all been constructive, ‘comfortable’ work and there’s not been much need to ‘cover up’ or pretend to be too serious, etc.

  • Chasing up little admin-type things which are starting to build up. I feel like I’ve been letting this happen a bit this month, and suspect it’ll overwhelm me in a week or two.

  • Writing things down. I had a question to ask the week noters crowd, and I’ve totally forgotten it.

Monday

A photo of the frozen pond outside the house.

  • The week began with a total lunar eclipse and the first frozen pond of the year. Jogging through the frost of the morning was a good way to wake up after sleeping badly. #son2 is getting quick on his scooter.

  • Spent the morning diving in to hotfix a live bug. Useful test of a git merging script I’d put together before. And kickstarted a hotfix review process – we haven’t done this before IIRC, but now is a good time. Web dev John started a handy document for people to chip thoughts in. Sometimes that’s all it takes – when something fails, I think it’s good for people to have somewhere to write down thoughts for later. Maybe error review process is similar to the therapy aspect of week-noting?

  • Two good meetings in the afternoon, delving into story definitions and interface design. I think I did a good job in the first of staying at the “Why” level – pulling people away from the detail when the conversation started to go that way.

Wednesday

  • Chatted with Alex (developer) to go through his process for merging and releasing code at the end of a sprint. We broke the steps up into stages, and by type of task, and compared this to the script we already have for hotfixes. (No, autocorrect, not “bodice”.) A few clear, distinct scripts emerged from this, which along with understanding Alex’s brain more, made it fairly easy to write up a much clearer spec for what we should do next.

A photo of Alex's process and notes.

  • Spent a good, solid chunk of time writing up slides for presenting tech team progress to the rest of the management team. This felt good because two reasons:
  1. I’ve come to realise the value of telling people what I do, in order to avoid feeling/being taken for granted. Sometimes you can’t just sit back and wait for people to appreciate your own work.

  2. I got to put a bunch of gifs in of animals and typewriters

A monkey typing on a laptop.

  • Found out Mary, our recently-new researcher, researched blockchain use in international aid at Uni, which means I have someone I can waffle on to about blockchains when I get really drunk?

Thursday

  • Caught the management team up with what happened last quarter in the Tech team, what we learnt, and what’s coming up next. That middle one, “what we learnt”, felt like the most valuable section. We’re all learning, but it can often be that we only realise we’re learning that we turn out into “experience”.

Friday

  • Trying to focus on my sprint work while trying to make sure some incoming work got the planning it needed. As I mentioned right at the top, we seem to have a lot going on and kicking up, and there’s a good chance that we’ll end up very fragmented, chaotic, disrupted and frustrated in about 2-3 weeks. I’m trying hard to navigate a route through, between doing the work I’ve lined up, and responding to work coming in.

  • Idea to self: Get some time to work out where my skills are needed in all the work going on, as it doesn’t look like anyone else is going to sort out the work planning side of things.

  • I still love unit testing. I wonder how it could be applied to non-coding things, like politics and communication. Test-driven democracy, anyone?

Random stuff

(Unhappily for everybody, a utopia, as a perfected human condition, is a static society, and static societies are dystopias)

Weeknotes TEN:3 – Twisty and Strange

Can you believe it’s Monday already? Last week feels like eons ago, as I jumped on a train Friday night, and then UkGovCamp 2019 happened. I want to write that up separately, but just wanted to say that the weeknotes session organised by Lizzi and Jenny was great. It was amazing to see all the people in the room who had started, or were thinking of it – almost as amazing as seeing Jukesie seem to wonder and tremble at what he hath created. 😯

This week we went for a truly eatable lunch to celebrate Joel leaving and Mary and John having birthdays, at Chilli Pickle where the ceiling was stars and a green pepper wiped me out for a good 5 minutes.

Photo of decorative stars hanging from a restaurant ceiling.

1. The path of a manager is twisty and strange

I finished reading The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier this week. I can’t remember who recommended this originally but I think it was one of the weeknoters. If it was you, then thank you!

It’s a very readable book, and comes across with the air of a gentle, experienced mentor. There isn’t lots of detail or huge practical exercises to try. What it did do was confirm that I am on the right path – as far as I can tell. There was enough advice in the book that made sense, and fitted with I already do. Up until now, without a particular mentor (but some management training courtesy of Martin Johnson), I feel like I’ve been running off instinct and personal values (or “making it up”).

So that’s a nice boost. There’s also some really good advice on structure and cultural strategy in the final chapter, and I’d love for others in the company to read it. I’ve suggested it, but I still struggle to hook people into the things I find interesting. Maybe it’s just their loss. Maybe I’m not persuasive enough?

Here are my takeaways from the last chapter anyway:

p. 192 looks at what kind of teams a structure-light setup works well in – namely, task-oriented, small and homogenous, lots of communication, and low skill specialisation. That’s basically my team, and it’s fascinating to think which bits have been consciously guided vs unconsciously guided, vs by accident. (And yes, the point on homogeneity has very important implications for diversity, values and process.)

Quotes on the interplay between failure and structure, which reassures me that it’s not “One Right Answer” but all about context and learning:

  • “there comes a time for adding structure, and that time is usually when things are falling”
  • “… failure is the best place to investigate and identify where your structure needs to change.”
  • “Using failure to guide evolution lets you apply structure at the right level.”

And something I really want to remember from p. 183: “If you want a team that feels comfortable taking risks and making mistakes, one of the core requirements is a sense of belonging and safety.” I think this ties in with my own sense that I don’t know anything and nor should I. Isn’t it better to find out quickly, rather than assume slowly?

There are also some good thoughts on creating culture, but I want to come back to them separately, one day.

2. The endless cycle between actions and values

Apparently this week is one of the most depressing weeks of the year, but I don’t know. I’ve been feeling pretty good this week – I’ve got a bit of mojo on as various plans develop and emerge. I’ve started using Daylio on my phone as a mood tracker recently, and last week’s chart is reassuring:

Screenshot of a line chart of daily moods, generally pretty good moods too.

My wife described me as “sort of arrogant” some time ago. I think she was being kind? I’m not sure if/where arrogance blurs with confidence, and at the and time I’m not sure I’d describe myself as either 🙂 But perhaps there’s something else, something that treads that fine line.

Personally, I try to be neither arrogant nor overly-confident. I find it’s easier and more effective to concentrate on practical things, and the adjectives come out by themselves – Do, don’t Be. The things I try to do (or avoid) are pretty simple really. Something like:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Don’t jump to conclusions quickly
  3. Do think things through based on previous experience

Or, even simpler: assess a situation, then think about what will happen.

3. Walk the work, re-walk to work it out

Craigmod’s newsletter* on walking, lines, and re-walking tied in with my re-visiting of my tech strategy at the moment, in particular:

Rewalking grounds the walker, allows the walker more noticing.

There is a joy of exploration when walking – that you simply cannot get to the endpoint quickly, that slowing progress down is key. You observe change, you enter into a much richer world, full of feedback and ideas-that-move-even-slower. The landscape adjusts, but in a way you can think of and reflect on. Walking is thought-movement.

Is strategic planning and review like this? “Making a strategy document” is not a case of just writing a bunch of words. How long do you need to create such a thing? How much time should you spend “re-walking” your original plan, and comparing it to what has really happened, and is continuing to happen now?

I’ve ended up making copies of my original documents, and going through the process of re-writing it, as if the “Final” version from September was nothing but an unkempt draft, a scratchpad. The themes are still there, but this re-writing is my own re-walking. An opportunity to think faster than the words are changing.

* Worth a subscribe if you like walking. And Japan.

4. Thursday day notes

  • Calendar Tetris. Lots of team meetings to think through upcoming work, which is great. But it takes a while to then organise – knowing who’s involved in each is essential, as is shared calendars. Maybe I need to give Jeni Tennison‘s new calendar tool a go. Should I be worried about her hacking my calendar though?
  • I deliberately added 15 minutes to these meetings with a specific agenda time to write up notes. I can’t remember who suggested this originally either. 🤔 (Extra Monday note: This didn’t work.)
  • Hence Discovery tag” is my new motto to stop people thinking about detail at the wrong time. But I’ll stop saying it, because mottoes get annoying really quickly.
  • Writing up meeting notes is one of those things that gets easier with practice.
  • We started our new sprint naming scheme. Sprint Zubat hands over to Sprint Ab Fab, to kick off our favourite TV shows. Sprint 141, can you believe that shizzle?

A gif from Absolutely Fabulous, in which, um, Patsy is pretending to have nipple tassles?

Note to self: Totally do an Ab Fab weeknotes gif special.

We were also visited by Luke’s two daughters, who brought us an extra yummy gingerbread house.

Photo of a Gingerbread house that is sadly now in tattered, half-eaten pieces.

And I changed my Slack icon to the face of Totoro, which led to a rather disturbing Totoro murder conspiracy article (spoiiiiler alert) and this photo of some Brighton street art.

Photo of street art in Brighton showing the cat bus from the film Totoro.

And surely there’s no better way of ending a weeknote than with a cat bus picture.