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.

Weeknotes 09×03/04: The Colin McRae of Software Delivery

Dear Reader. I will admit I have struggled to get this set of notes out, for all the reasons of time and energy set out below. I just didn’t have the wherewithal to post last week, so this covers a couple of weeks, referred to lovingly as “Week 1” and “Week 2”.

Screenshot of a rally car skidding round a dirt track, from the game "Dirt"

Momentum, drive, setup. Project delivery with style.

  • Torn between workflows again, and spun out across trips to London and planning birthdays. Week 1, I’m out Monday and Tuesday for half-term including a trip to London’s Science Museum, and I’m not sure where I am by the time Wednesday hits. The week doesn’t particularly want to let up either. So many jigsaws litter my head.

  • I’ve been playing a rally game called “Dirt” recently, which has super-realistic physics, in my view. I’m struck by two lessons to take from it : 1) Momentum counts. In learning that the key to rally driving is to understand the route notes so that you can set up the car in the right way – speed, position, wheel direction, etc. Once you have that, going round the corner is just a matter of momentum and fine control – trying to correct a bad setup once the corner is happening often results in things getting worse.

  • 2) Throttle is dangerous. If momentum is everything for delivery of a corner, then keeping the throttle down is the worst way of driving. It took me a couple of days to learn to brake, to learn to learn, even. I had to begin by accepting I was going to come last at first, that you can’t go quickly just because you’ve played a hundred driving games before. I started feathering the throttle to avoid hitting turns too quickly. I braked more than I needed to, to find out how the car reacted under very controlled situations. I used practice time to go through the motions 5 or 6 times and get a feel for the track.

  • All of this has real world learning. Humility in your assumptions about what you can achieve realistically. Time for practice and, in particular, to slow things down and really “exercise” in how you approach things. Thought about set-up and planning. All of it.

  • Week 1: I think I’m really not building in enough rest /thinking time at the moment – or building it out.

  • Week 2: I’m cut down by exhaustion. Looking back, September and October have been a constant barrage of organisation, and I’m not really one of those people that organises stuff naturally. Balancing work at the same time as balancing people and contexts takes its toll – jumping from work life to home life and back again with only half-hour breaks in between. The pace is unsustainable, and has left me feeling like I’ve done a good job, but with treacle where my energy was.

  • I tried to rest up from home on the Wednesday of week 2, but some server issues had me chasing old domain names for most of the day. It’s frustrating to have to clear out legacy and debt in a reactive way, but at the and time therapeutic and work that needs doing. But it means I was proper wiped out by Thursday, especially with a few hours of sleep missing. I struggled to get up, then switch off, managed to go for a walk. Felt a lot better for just a morning of my own head space and no demands. So much better.

  • Thursday, week 1, and a meeting with Flo (user support, notionally) who has been looking at redesigning our dashboard page. She’s started to look into UX more properly and thoroughly than we usually do, which is very encouraging – a few of us are interested in the design side of things, but it’s not something we spend much time on as a company, so it’s great to see more people cotton on to it. It has the (good) potential to affect our how workflow and approach to development, of course, and the discussion bounces between the dashboard itself, users, and general philosophy.

Photo of a 'Dashboard Epic' powerpoint slide

  • Friday in week 1 made up for only a three-day week. Had a really interesting catchup with Angie from Community Works on the Taking Account project, delving into charities and politics and local budgets and national budgets and Brexit. And ended the chat with some practical next steps to help drive the research forwards – we’ve now got some good ideas for follow-on work, which serves to both limit the scope of the current effort, and to sell the potential of the work when it does get released, I think. I really enjoyed that crossover between societal trends and movements, and a technical solution that acts on a particular, known point within that context.

  • I then picked up #son1 – hello again half-term. He was pretty good on the office – he’s getting a bit cheekier as he settles into being 8, but is now tall enough to play table football properly, and managed to pass a good amount of time chasing after the cat which invaded.

  • After some rewarding coding (hands in the air, I love optimisation work), I had a few minutes to start on some kind of dashboard/planner tool in Google Sheets. The aim of this is to get a concise list of company objectives, map them to the planned work for each project and product, and allow us to 1) get a rough timeline in place for concentrating on things, and 2) get an instant overview of how the plan feeds into company objectives. Spreadsheets are an amazing resource for throwing this stuff together, and I’ve realised I’m drawing heavily on the social impact work I’ve been product-managing for a few years, just without any translation into financial metrics. The bones are in place now, but the tricky bit will be working out weightings between everything. Bring it on.

  • Read an interesting piece on the end of ‘Mr Indispensable’ in the FT, on being a solution finder with a duty to those you serve. I think I’m a solution finder. But increasingly in the sense of “healing” a system in order to keep it resilient, like a gardener finding a solution to something troubling a garden. What does all this mean?

The week ahead looks pretty frantic too. Maybe see you at the end of it.

Weeknotes 09×02: A form of magic

  • The week starts with a pond as dark and syrupy as treacle, and a few minutes later, what looks like the stilled body of a dog being carried out from the vets. These things frame my mood against the late morning light, but don’t drag me down.

  • Monday morning is already a blur – I have a full menu of things to do and things it would be good to do. I’m going to have to write this menu down so that I can choose clearly, once I find my notebook. The rest of the day throws up clouds of work dust, and we end up wading through a shifting list of reactions. Bugs and hot fixes, tidies and plotting, risk and mitigation and schedules redone. Just another manic Monday, as they say.

  • New shoes, new season. These DCs are the comfiest shoes I’ve had in a long time.

A photo of my shoes and an Autumn leaf

  • A flurried brain on Wednesday, darting between all layers – the intricacies of code rubbing up against product strategy. Feeling like I’m caught between planning, doing, and observing – on different bits of work in different places. A bit of me wishes I could be in just one of these heads, but another bit of me knows this variety is what keeps it interesting, that sometimes my own tangled web of conscious attention just happens to interact with tiredness and biorhythms.

  • We are introduced to Leslie who has started at our partner organisation recently. It’s a couple of hours covering introductions, histories, immediate thoughts, future plans, and sandwiches. I whittle on about products and markets and hope I make sense, and its a good chat, if intense. I’ve oddly come to appreciate that moment of meeting someone for the first time – that “friendly assessment” of how they fit in, and what the team dynamics are going to be as they become a part of it.

  • It strikes me that what I do could be considered a form of magic. “Any sufficiently advanced technology” etc, but also anything unexplainable without a whole system of understanding in place. I run on instinct, but instinct gained from the experience of trying, and the careful inference gained from observing. Failure and senses – these are the most powerful tools available to you. Experiment and be still in alternate measures. Without understanding the importance of these, you will be in the dark.

  • Wednesday washing-up. I wake up to a realisation that focuses my very soul: that my value is not as head of “the technology” but as a team coordinator. All the puzzle pieces fit into this box – a tech team strategy instead of a tech strategy, the need for coordinated plans, the dot-joiner hat, a love of 1-1s, the old notion of organisational chi (warning: ancient site alert) – everything has been lurking behind this hidden umbrella. The realisation re-grounds me too: it is a skill which can be formalised and wielded like a sound system, shipped in like special forces. It explains why just defining roles and responsibilities isn’t enough. It brings together templates and beer, phone calls and optimism. It keeps me awake at night. It’s a form of magic that I always thought was something else, but it is real.

A photo of trees on a van merging wth real trees

  • This piece by Gavin Elliott on Functioning environments and company culture also came along at just the right time and blew me away. I can’t remember which weeknoter linked to it now 🙁 but I shall be forever thankful. It summarises and explains a lot, so much.

  • Friday random reading was
    What Emails Reveal About Your Performance At Work, looking at email metadata and leadership styles and performance. TBH, the language used makes me want to fork my own eyes out a little, and I do cringe at the use of personal emails as ‘science’, even if it’s “just” metadata. but it’s an interesting look to backup communication styles and how it links to leadership/influence. The main take away is that simple words help people understand you, which too many people forget.

  • Some unexpected time away from the regularity of watches and calendars to catch up with John. Helped me see throb the bureaucracy layer again, to remember that standardised operating procedures – in which I include both handbooks and habits – emerge from an average of a group at one time. All warnings have a story to them, and a company’s rules are often there for a reason. But other reasons can always be introduced which require a renegotiation. I am navigating a way between the past and the now. Neither of them are incorrect or invalid.

  • Otherwise I am feeling unfocused, and am aware I’m only making a vague effort to catch up. Friday afternoon I head off a little early to prepare for a long weekend away. What is it I’ve done this week? Have I achieved anything? Was it what I intended? Everything is a soup of code and conversation, context switching at every corner. Was that predictable, looking back at the calendar? Yes – blocky patches all over the place, with invisible extras hiding off-screen. Next week doesn’t look much better either, but it’s only 3 days long.

  • What do I achieve when everything is so fragmented like that? If I were to keep my own meeting data again, like before, then I’d have a vague, aggregated idea of how my energy was split between making things happen vs helping things happen. Responsibility vs support vs pure information gathering. But the fragmented approach also leaves no time for anything to sink in. I feel inefficient in my understanding, lacking in what I’ve observed, what I’ve learnt. Unfinished.

  • Peace.

A photo of the seafront at Eastbourne