Mary MacLane

I stumbled across Mary MacLane’s first book on the Melville House Publishing website where it features as part of their Neversink Library series. Instead of picking that up, I discovered Human Days: A Mary MacLane Reader and bought it with the hope that it would give me all three of her books as well as historical context and commentary.

MacLane has been called ‘the first blogger’ and I think that this is a fitting description. Her first book, The Story of Mary MacLane (also known as I Await The Devil’s Coming) reads like an introspective LiveJournal, all meandering thoughts, feelings and rumination on her place in the world. Completely fascinating.

Whenever I pick up an old book I am regularly jarred by the contrast between my automatic assumption that it will be a difficult text and the reality of how readable and modern the thoughts and feelings of the author can be. When you look at pictures of MacLane it seems that she belongs to another world but upon reading her it feels as though she would not have been out of place whatsoever on an early blogging platform 100 years later.

The book is in equal parts compelling and frustrating. In retrospect, reading a ‘complete works’ in one go was probably the wrong thing to do. My initial excitement about her writing wore off somewhat when I read the articles she had published once her first book was a success. Her second book, My Friend Annabel Lee was much less enjoyable and felt more contrived — as I read it I could feel that this was someone who knowingly had an audience and was now performing in public.

I would have loved to have had more context and commentary about MacLane the person and her works, particularly at this point, but the text that had been added was very brief and devoid of detail. I appreciate that this addition could have added massively to the length of the book but I felt that as presented there was little advantage to buying all of the books together, unless you wanted to read all of her non-book articles as well.

By the time we got to her third book, I, Mary MacLane, it had started to feel like a bit of a slog. I was reading so much of her thoughts but felt I was learning so little; perhaps that was her intent. A couple of times I thought about stopping but as soon as I did so I would get hit by a brilliant chapter and be compelled to keep going. Highlights for me at this point were the following chapters, which are worth reading by anyone:

I regularly found myself going off to look up some of the names that she mentions, for example Theda Bara, a famous actress of her time but now tragically unwatched due to her films being largely lost in a 1937 fire. There are many of these rabbit holes to disappear down. At the end of the book I discovered an extensive notes section which I only wish was hyperlinked in the eBook so that I could have read them in real time — going back to notes on a chapter some 600 pages before was not that useful.

So, overall this is well worth picking up but be warned — for me this was like diving into the ‘director’s cut extended special edition’ when I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like the main feature in the first place.

No Other

Years ago, before podcasts entered my life, I used to wander everywhere with my headphones in my ears and my iPod on shuffle. Smart playlists gave me a constant stream of both music I knew and had rated highly along with a few tracks I hadn’t played.

One morning on the platform at Euston Square, waiting for a westbound train, a song came on which I had never heard before and demanded my attention. It wasn’t loud, it was just beautiful — I had seldom heard such an honest heart-achingly longing song before. It sounded as though it had been recorded on a home cassette deck and reinforced my theory that great songs shine through no matter how poor the sound quality is. The song was Dark of My Moon by Gene Clark and it is a track on a free Uncut magazine cover CD from the early 2000s. Give it a listen, it’s amazing.

From that point on, Gene Clark was on my ‘music to investigate’ list. A couple of weeks ago I found myself coming back to this song and I wanted to find out more about it and Gene Clark himself. Clark was a member of the Byrds and co-wrote Eight Miles High, one of their biggest hits.

Whenever I get into a new artist, I head over to Allmusic — it gives you the complete output of an artist along with ratings by both Allmusic staff as well as their users. His album No Other had five-star reviews by both and looked like a great place to start investigating more of his work. I wasn’t disappointed. This album is incredible and gets better with every play.

I haven’t felt this way about an album in a long time. It has hooked itself into my brain and won’t let go. Every time I hear it I notice something different, whether it is the second slide guitar solo on the first song, the frantic woodblock in the title track or the way in which the final tune builds from a sweet beginning to a magestic and sweeping end. As soon as it finishes I want to start it again. There is so much in this album.

When it was released in 1974, the record label didn’t do very much to support the album. Clark had a fear of flying which meant that he wouldn’t tour or promote the it much himself either. Reviews weren’t great and two years later it was deleted from A&M’s catalogue. It became a lost masterpiece.

Since it was ‘rediscovered’ and reissued a couple of decades later it has gained an ever-greater following. A couple of years ago a number of bands collaborated together to bring the music to a new audience through a small number gigs where they played the whole album from start to finish. I’m not that familiar with these artists (Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, The Walkmen) so didn’t know what to expect. Their performance is amazing — the musicians all gel so well together and the singing is superb. It gave me goosebumps the first time I saw it. If you’re looking for a way into this album you could do worse than watch this.

Response hierarchy

It was really interesting to read Michael Lopp’s latest blog post showing his relative probability to respond to an incoming communication based on the medium through which it is sent:

…I realized that I had updated the prioritized hierarchy to how likely I will respond to a piece of communication. From least likely to most likely, this is the hierarchy:
Spam < LinkedIn < Facebook < Twitter < Email < Slack < Phone < SMS < Face to Face

This struck a chord with me. A while ago I wrote down a list of all of the electronic inboxes that were playing a part in my life as I needed to take a step back and see it all. Discounting the ones that are both from and to myself (namely my unprocessed Drafts entries and my Evernote inbox), my own response hierarchy today looks something like this:

Spam < Flickr comments < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Blog comments < Personal email < Goodreads/Strava comments < Facebook mentions < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face

Maybe I am over-thinking it as the comments and mentions don’t always require a response (although the notifications do nag at me on my phone and I have a lingering guilt about not looking at them as often as I perhaps should). Anyway, let’s remove those:

Spam < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Personal email < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face

Lopp’s analysis of each form of communication is interesting. I’m impressed that he manages to get to Inbox Zero every day both at work and home. I get there sometimes, but it isn’t as frequent as I would like.

My hierarchy isn’t always consistent. Voicemails on my mobile from strangers get much less attention than voicemails from people I know, but even then iOS doesn’t do a great job of nagging me about the ones that I have listened to but not actioned. Occasionally I’ll flick across to voicemail and find six or seven that stretch back over the past few months.

I don’t answer the phone to external numbers on my work phone as 95% of the time it is a sales call; unfortunately for those callers I have also removed my work Voicemail so I don’t need to deal with changing the security PIN every month. The value of voicemail is far outweighed by the inconvenience of accessing it — most of the time my missed calls list is sufficient for me to know who to get in contact with. People who really need to contact me in a work context from outside my company will have my email address or mobile number.

Email is fine for business type things but completely broken for ‘proper’ correspondence in that the more important a personal note is to me, the longer I’ll tend to leave it until I find the time to sit down and write a considered, meaningful response. I fully understand that this may be no more email’s fault than it is the fault of the letter-writing paper that also goes untouched in our house. Perhaps the long-form two-way personal communication is dead in the era of instant responses, or only useful when you have a lot to say to the other person and don’t want to be interrupted or get a reply.

We use Skype at work for instant messaging but it is almost completely on a 1:1 basis with barely any shared channels. It feels like a missed opportunity but multiple attempts to get it started have never caught on. Perhaps our company is too small, or we don’t have enough geeks.

Slack doesn’t feature at all as an inbox for me yet — I’m a member of three ‘teams’, none of which are directly linked to my employer. I mainly lurk and therefore don’t get many communications that way.

Twitter used to occupy a giant amount of time but my usage has tailed off significantly over the past couple of years. For a long while it felt like a real community and that I was part of something — I even organised a small handful of well-attended ‘tweetups’ in our town for everyone to meet — but over time I had subconsciously given up trying to keep up and have gone back to reading blogs and books. I get very little direct communication from it and when I do I’m pretty responsive. The main role it plays in my life now is as an aggregation source of interesting things to read via the wonderful Nuzzel app.

It’s interesting to me to write this down as it gives me a realisation of how complicated things are these days and how much of a cognitive burden it is to keep up with it all. It’s no longer sufficient to get to Inbox Zero with my three email accounts and feel that I am ‘done’; all of the others need to be checked and drained as well on a regular basis.

The magical Internet, making connections and asking the right questions

The Internet has given us an embarrassment of riches in terms of our ability to connect with people. This is an obvious statement, but sometimes I take things so much for granted that I forget the opportunities that this puts in front of me.

When I started work at my current firm in 2010 the managers in the team were all walking around with newly-released iPads in their hands. I distinctly remember my boss raving about how he had been in contact with the developer of a mind-mapping app he was using and how changes he had requested were being released to his iPad just a few days or weeks later. It felt magical. Compared with the computing experience we had grown up with, it was magical. The iOS App Store’s ubiquitous links back to application developer websites made it so straightforward to get in contact, and the rise once again of applications created and maintained by solo developers meant that emails got straight to the right person. My boss’s enthusiasm gave me an ‘of course, why didn’t I think of that?’ feeling.

A few years later, I became very involved as a user of the Readmill social reading platform. Talking to the team via Twitter and providing regular feedback led me to having good long Skype conversations with a couple of members of the team. It felt great that they cared so much that they wanted my input and I really wanted to help them to make it more successful.

Serendipitously, I’ve heard three podcasts in the past few days which have made me start to think again about the connections we are able to make and the value that they bring. Firstly, Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris‘ podcast spoke about how mentors aren’t necessarily people with whom you have struck up a formal relationship:

Ryan: People think mentorships are these very official relationships — the way that an apprenticeship was like your parents basically sold you to someone in exchange for like room and board for a number of years and then you officially learn a trade. A mentor is anyone who you learn from, who gives you advice and teaches you things…and you don’t actually have to meet them for them to be your mentor…I think a lot of people they hold out for this sanctioned, official relationship rather than learning from anyone who has wisdom or advice or value that they could pass your way, and if you put it into practice and you do something with it, they see value in that as well.

Tim: Asking someone to be a formal mentor is the absolute best way to never have a good mentor.

Ryan: Totally.

Tim: Because it’s like, “Hey! Do you want to sign up for an unpaid part-time job, because you have so much free time?” It doesn’t work. So I’d just be curious to hear what you did and what you would recommend people do if they were trying to find or looking for that type of teacher. I think ‘mentor’ is problematic as they think of it in such formal terms. Maybe you can talk on that point.

Ryan: I think it was once every couple of weeks — no, couple of months probably — and I would just ask questions that I thought would be helpful to me but very easy for him to answer. It’s like hey, if you want me to read your manuscript that’s a lot of work for me to do…if someone wants you to give a five-second instant opinion on a title, you’re like “Sure, that’s one email.” And so I don’t think people think about 1) what they are actually asking and then 2) they ask a lot over and over again.

The Verso Books podcast featured an interview with Ilija Trojanow, author of The Lamentations of Zeno, where he explained how he got in contact with a scientist as part of his research for his novel on glaciers and climate change:

Ilija: After a while I had the backbone of the story and I realised that if I was to write about it I would actually have to get seriously involved, I would have to get seriously informed about stuff like geology and particularly glaciology. And then of course in regard to the more scientific aspects of climate change. So I looked up on the Internet who is a well-known glaciologist and I found a professor in Zurich who has a very Swiss name, Haeberli. I called Professor Haeberli and he very kindly invited me [to visit]). I went to the university in Zurich and told him the story and asked him to brutally honestly tell me whether from his point of view as a specialist if it makes any sense. And when I was telling him the story you could see how his face kind of changed a little bit; I was thinking to myself “Oh boy, he’s going to tell me ‘No, forget about it. This is utter nonsense.'” And quite the opposite happened, he actually said “Where did you get the story from?” And I said “Well, I dreamt it up, basically.” And he said “This is incredible, this is exactly the way I feel and this is so pertinent and so close to my personal experience and the experience of so many other scientists I know. So, by all means, go ahead and write it and if you need any help…”

Anil Dash featured on the wonderful Track Changes podcast where he noted that:

The Internet was for people to communicate. The main thing people do on the Internet today is send messages to each other. That’s the most popular thing.

Anil takes this to an extreme by featuring his email address and phone number in his online profiles, for example on Twitter, which sounds crazy but doesn’t seem to have caused him any problems:

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about people I admire and want to be around — whether physically or virtually — in order to learn from. As I have grown up with the web over the past twenty years there are a few characters that have always seemed to have popped up in multiple contexts — Matt Haughey, Anil Dash, Jeff Atwood, Merlin Mann, Michael Lopp, Andy Baio, Euan Semple, JP Rangaswami and Marco Arment to name a few — and continue to do so. Their work and thoughts have been very valuable to me. I’ve always felt like a simple consumer of the great things they produced, admiring from afar, reading their blog posts and tweets, listening to their podcasts and watching their videos. On occasion, I’ve spoken to some of them through email, or more often Twitter, and in each case I find it amazing that they have ever found the time to respond.

Sometimes when I am grappling with solving a difficult problem or making something better, particularly at work, I forget that there are lots of experts out there who are just a few taps away. Remembering to cast a wide net with my communications is something I need to do much more often. However, as per Ryan Holiday’s comments above you need to make sure that you aren’t placing an unreasonable burden on people and that ideally the question has value to both of you.

Building an eBook library at minimal cost

Quote from 'A Life With Books' by Julian Barnes

Quote from 'A Life With Books' by Julian Barnes

I highlighted this sentence while reading Julian Barnes’ ‘A Life With Books’ as it really resonated with me. Among my many faults I am a book kleptomaniac and find it very hard to resist when someone recommends something to read. This isn’t something I want to change — I love having a large library looking back at me every time I want to quickly pick up something a new book — but it can be expensive.

A few years ago I developed a workflow which has allowed me to slowly build a big library at minimal cost. Here’s how it works.

If I get a book recommendation from somewhere and think that it sounds like it is of interest to me I will search for the Kindle version on Amazon and add it to my wish list:

Add to list

Add to list

I’m pretty liberal with what goes on there. I harvest book recommendations from friends, newspaper articles, blog posts, podcasts etc. and as a result I have hundreds of eBooks on my list. Putting Kindle books on there is only really useful as a reminder to yourself as for some reason we are still not able to buy eBooks for other people from their wish lists.

Once you have a number of books on there, the next thing to do is to navigate to your list page:

Navigate to your wish list page

Navigate to your wish list page

You can use the filtering and ordering options to show only ‘items with price drops’, sorted by ‘price (low to high)’:

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Choose the correct filter and sort options

Choose the correct filter and sort options

You will now see anything on your wish list that has dropped in price since you added it, with the cheapest item at the top. At this point it is a good idea to either bookmark this URL or save it somewhere so that you can come back to it.

Amazon Kindle books change their prices all the time so you need to check the page frequently. I have a personal rule that if a book on my wish list drops below £1.99 I will buy it, as this is around the same minimum price that you would have to pay for someone to send you a physical second-hand copy.

For a long time I regularly visited this bookmarked page to see if anything had dropped in price. This was a pain to have to remember to do, especially as most of the time it resulted in discovering that nothing had changed. Then I discovered VisualPing.

The VisualPing homepage

The VisualPing homepage

VisualPing is a webpage monitoring service. On the homepage, you give it a URL to monitor. VisualPing will retrieve a copy of the webpage as it is right now and display it for you. You then need to select the area that you want to monitor; for my Amazon wish-list page (filtered for items with price-drops and ordered from low price to high) I have found that just monitoring the top few items gives the best results:

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

The VisualPing service will check the webpage on a regular basis and if there is a difference found it will send you an email alert, complete with screenshots showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. You can then navigate to the page and buy the new cheapest items that have made it to the top of the list.

VisualPing will allow you to monitor your wish list with a daily check every day, free, forever. This will catch all of the major price movements at the top of your list which usually occur on the start of the month. However, I have occasionally found that some books are dropped in price late in the evening UK time and don’t stay cheap for very long. It is therefore worth considering upgrading to a paid account so that you can check the page more frequently. I have mine set to check every six hours which seems to be about right:

Now, if only there was a workflow for sitting down and spending more time reading the books…

Britsoft

Beautifully and immaculately presented, this book was a delight from the moment it landed on my doorstep to when I finished the last page. It documents the history of the UK home computer and gaming industry through a variety of first-hand accounts from people who played key roles at the time.
At the age of nine I was given my first home computer, an Acorn Electron, and it changed my life. Looking back and reading this book, I think I was probably just a few years too young to be hit by the first wave of computers such as the Acorn Atom, ZX80, ZX81 etc. when they came out. By the time I started programming in 1986 the games industry was already well-established.

My dad worked at an airport cargo terminal and used to be given sample copies of magazines that were being imported or exported — he used to bring the computer titles home for me to read, which I did so avidly, even when I didn’t have any experience whatsoever of the machines they were covering. Despite being an Acorn owner, I have so many fond memories of reading both Zzap! 64 and Your Sinclair, magazines that had a lot of personality and humour running through them. Magazines were a massive part of UK computing culture in the 1980s and Britsoft brought it all back.

The first couple of sections of the book gave me itchy fingers. Although I have a technical Computer Science background my work has taken me in a different direction and I haven’t coded in a very long time. Stories of starting off with a BBC BASIC program and slowly refactoring parts of the code into assembly language (in-line with the BASIC) made me want to go and explore again. I never learned much assembly the first time around; in our age of massive computing power it doesn’t feel as relevant anymore but there would still be some joy and satisfaction in it.

It is very interesting to look at the industry arc of hundreds of one-person bedroom developers in the early 1980s turning into smaller numbers of ever larger teams, which were eventually culled when the consoles came along at the turn of the 1990s. It hadn’t occurred to me that the rise of mass mobile platforms such as Android and iOS coupled with Internet distribution means that we once again have a large number of single-person developers who are able to get their games and applications out there. We’ve come full circle.

If you have any interest in the history of computer games or home computing in the UK then I strongly recommend this book.

Democracy theatre

I’m not sure where to begin. On Monday night I attended a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council as a member of the public. They were due to discuss the planning application for an eight-storey car park in the centre of our town and I wanted to be there, to see the process for myself and raise my concerns. The council had given people a week in December last year to formally review and comment on the proposal and this had passed me by in the pre-Christmas rush.

In case you aren’t aware of the proposed multi-storey car park (MSCP)—and I think a lot of people aren’t—here are a impressions by an urban designer of what it will look like:

There were about 25 members of the public at the meeting, seated around the outside of the room. The town councillors sat in the middle around a table. We were each given a programme of business and asked whether we wanted to speak at the appropriate time. When I turned up I had no intention of talking but while waiting for the meeting to begin and reflecting on what was happening I raised my hand and said that I too would like to speak. I had little idea of what I was going to say.

First up was a planning application for 19 flats on a site by an existing residential area near Bank Mill. It turned out that a large number of people had come to the meeting specifically to raise concerns about this. The proceedings were suspended to allow people to speak, two local residents read their written speeches and the council thanked them. The application was quickly dismissed with the council members citing the numerous policy violations that the development would make. “This is great!” I thought. “The council seem to know exactly what they are talking about and are clear on the policies.” From the extensive work that people had done looking into the numerous policies that the MSCP would conflict with—including Dacorum Borough Council’s own transport and parking policies—I knew that the objections stood up and hoped that the council would be just as diligent in dismissing the application on similar grounds.

Dacorum Borough Council have spent over £350k on putting the application together. Despite spending all of this money, the application is deeply flawed. By deeply, I don’t just mean that there is some controversy over the technical details of impact to traffic flow and air quality (although there is that too!), I mean that it has basic issues such as saying that no trees will be impacted where in fact there are many across the whole of the site and multiple conflicting messages about what the core purpose of the car park is. Many people have written to DBC, Berkhamsted Town Council or commented on the proposal with their objections based on these issues and many are more eloquent or detailed than me.

Everyone agrees that parking in Berkhamsted is a total pain. So much so that there is a local parking forum that meets to discuss the issues. Anecdotally, you only need to drive down Lower King’s Road on a Saturday to experience the cars queuing back from the entrance to Waitrose onto the road itself. However, the ‘solution’ of a MSCP is short-sighted—even the representative of the parking forum said so at the meeting! We are very fortunate to have an independent traffic consultant in the town as well as a number of volunteers who contributed to an independent traffic survey. From the data they collected and the professional model that they used it is clear that there would be additional traffic in the area as well as significant pollution.

Here’s the thing for me—I don’t see how the MSCP will be good for the town whether it is full or not. If it is a ‘success’ and gets filled up with cars as is intended then we will have the added pollution and traffic—the main junction at the high street and Lower King’s Road will both become more of a nightmare than they are today. If it is unsuccessful and people don’t use it then we have spent £3.5m of public money on something that will have changed the character of our town centre for a very long time, with no payback.

Five members of the public spoke against the car park, including me, one after the other. Numerous policy violations were cited as well as yet another recent survey where local residents object to it. The representative of the town’s parking forum expressed disappointment at the lack of engagement from the Council. One final person then spoke in support of it. I learned later that this was Julie Laws, an ex-town councillor and former Mayor of Berkhamsted, who had been significantly involved in putting the original proposal together and was at the DBC Cabinet meeting where this was approved and the money allocated. She asked the room not to listen to the negative voices as they “always speak the loudest.”

Proceedings reconvened and I assumed it was an open and shut case. To my dismay, the councillors then started to give their own speeches in support of the work. First up was Tom Richie, our current Mayor. Incidentally, Mayor Ritchie is also an elected official of Dacorum Borough Council and sits on their Development Control Committee. DBC are the applicants in the planning process and are also have the final say in terms of whether it should be approved. So, Mayor Richie played a part in submitting it, was speaking (and had a vote) in supporting it at the Town Council level and will then assess it when it goes through DBC. Not only was this not declared at the start of the meeting when conflicts of interest were requested, it seems perfectly normal to everyone that this is the way of things! In my role as Chair of Governors at a local primary school I am often thinking about the seven principles of public life that came out of the Nolan report and making sure I ask myself how my actions look; at the very least, this participation as submitter and adjudicator seems to be at odds with the spirit of the principles, if not the letter of them. It feels like democracy theatre. Mayor Ritchie acknowledged that the application was flawed but effectively said that we should not turn down this opportunity to have £3.5m invested in Berkhamsted as the opportunity would not come around again—and we wouldn’t get the money for anything else if we turned it down.

Ian Reay, another former mayor, then spoke. His words reflected that of the Mayor in that we should be taking this forward. He said that we should approve it ‘with concerns’ and try to engage Dacorum Borough Council on the issues. I am not sure what this means in practice.

Councillor Garrick Stevens sat through this, shaking his head at what he was hearing—as did a large number of the public attendees, including people who had come along for the Bank Mill application. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Councillor Stevens made an impassioned plea to his fellow councillors not to approve this due to all of the factors that have been highlighted, however two more councillors spoke in support of the application.

The chair, Julian Ashbourn, then proposed that the Committee vote on the proposal. He offered a choice of rejecting it outright or approving it ‘with strong concerns’. Only one person, Councillor Stevens, voted against it. Everyone around the room was confused as to what this meant and Councillor Stevens himself had to ask for clarification as to what they had all just agreed on. Is ‘approved with strong concerns’ appropriate for a planning application of this magnitude? Councillor Stevens finished by saying “Right. You’ve sold yourselves down the river,” and this is exactly how we felt.

Where can we go from here? I get the impression that the majority of the councillors are keen to do something rather than the thing that is best for Berkhamsted. I do not see why there is such a rush to get this through. For example, could we test the impact of a temporary two-storey structure such as the one that was erected at the train station? These can be hired (for a lot less than £3.5m I assume) and would surely give a good insight into what would happen with an additional six storeys?

The Conservative councillors had the car park in their manifesto and I assume that they feel they are delivering on what they have promised, leaving a legacy for all of us. Many of us believe that we should be pressing pause and thinking again, but no matter how loudly we speak or clear our arguments, it doesn’t seem that we are being heard.

What does a project manager need to know?

One of my colleagues has just moved into a project manager position for the first time and he has asked me for pointers to help him get started. In the spirit of ‘share, don’t send’ I thought I would post something on our internal blog (as well as posting here) instead of just emailing him.

I have been working as a project/programme/portfolio manager for almost all of my career and it has been some time since I was asked for project management reference material. The question got me thinking about what a project manager’s role really is right now and I don’t have a single simple answer.

Traditional answer

The basics

Most people would say that a project manager is someone who looks after the plan, risk and issues log, runs status meetings and updates the status report. All of these are true but what is the best way to approach them?

There are three main recognised bodies that are responsible for traditional project management methods. Each has its own reference work which will give you lots of information about what a project manager does:

You can find training providers who will take you through the material and offer you exams and certificates. In my experience you do not need any of these qualifications to work as a project manager—I don’t know of project managers in my industry 1)Financial Services being prevented from getting a job because they didn’t have a certificate. Having said that, the background knowledge of basic ‘classic’ project management is very useful. I did my training through an in-house course at a previous firm that didn’t result in a recognised qualification and supplemented my learning by reading a book called ‘How to Run Successful Projects III’ by Fergus O’Connell which gave me enough of the basics to get going.

You need to know about the following no matter what ‘flavour’ of traditional project management you pick:

In addition, there was a good blog post that I used to recommend to people called ‘How to be a project manager. For free. Starting today.’ which gives a few useful pointers as to how to behave and act like a project manager.2)It’s disappeared now but the link takes you to an archived snapshot of the page.

At the firm where I work our project managers need to make sure that they are familiar with our programme and project lifecycle and are using the most up-to-date templates for their work. Speak to somebody at your firm to find out what they use.

What experience gives you

You can (and should) read all of the material you want; however, there is no substitute for getting on with managing a project and striving to do the best job that you can. The amount you will learn from just being a project manager and doing the work is immense. You do need the theory, but just like learning to drive you need to try and put it into practice to really build your skills.

Over time I have come to the belief that the best project managers are usually the pessimists in the room. I don’t mean that they always look downbeat, but that they tend to never sit back when things are going well and are always thinking about what could go wrong to derail the project. The developers on the team are usually optimistic (“That shouldn’t take us long at all!”) and it is the project manager’s job to be pessimistic (“What about all of the other work on your plate? What about the fact we need to check the design with the architecture team?” Etc.) On more than one occasion I have had people tell me that “project management is basically risk management” and I think that this is what they mean. I would agree that anticipating things that can go wrong and moving obstacles out of the way so that the team can get on and do the work they have committed to should be the vast majority of a project manager’s day-to-day job.

As you manage more projects you get a deeper understanding of the situations when certain tools are useful. More importantly you get to realise when to put them down. I remember using Microsoft Project for the first time and coming up with an extremely granular plan of some 1,500 tasks which read more like a to-do list (‘Jim is going to be working on this item for two hours exactly 26 days from now’). I spent days and nights with a nagging doubt that I just wasn’t doing it right; I almost constantly needed to change the plan when people inevitably found themselves blocked and just did something else on the list instead. Microsoft Project is extremely useful and you are well-advised to become familiar with it, but over time experience will tell you when to put it down and focus on the delivery as opposed to the plan.

There are such things as bad project plans (tasks that start ‘in mid air’ without predecessors, dependencies being linked to summary tasks, people being assigned to summary tasks, tasks at too granular a level to be useful) and good project plans (every task except for the first one has a dependency on tasks before it, ‘leveling delay’ has been used to move tasks where there is a resource clash etc.) There aren’t too many books out there that go into the detail about what makes a ‘good’ and ‘robust’ project plan but I highly recommend ‘Dynamic Scheduling’ by Eric Uyttewaal—it’s out of print but you should be able to pick up a cheap second hand copy.

As you get called on to manage more projects you will inevitably find yourself walking into situations where your job is to try to structure order out of chaos. Time and again I have found teams where each person feels that they know what they are doing and how they are contributing to the project but in actual fact they are moving in different directions. Your job is to get everybody together and write down what the project is trying to accomplish, what defines it being ‘done’, what assumptions have been made, what is in scope and out of scope, and play it back to the team (including the project executive or sponsor) so that they can debate it and come to a common agreement.

In many ways your job as a project manager is to act as a ‘mirror’ to the team and senior stakeholders about how things are. Staying up all night fretting about an inbound dependency making your project late won’t help anybody, and it won’t make the task get done any sooner. Your job is to try to anticipate the problem, think laterally about how to solve it to reduce its impact on the work and to let people know what is going on.

I always tell project managers to remember that you cannot actually make anybody do anything—other people are always outside of your control, even those who report into you. You only have influence on what they do and therefore on the project eventually being completed.

Business teams have a reputation for adding scope to the work you are doing. Your job is not necessarily to resist this, especially if it means that the project will deliver something more aligned to what the business needs. However, it is absolutely your job to tell the team what the impact of the additional scope will be (‘mirror’ the impact back to them) so that they can make an informed decision on what should be done.

One of my ex-colleagues, Susanne Madsen, has written a couple of useful books (1, 2) on learning to develop your leadership qualities as opposed to your technical skill. I would recommend this as something to focus on once you feel like you have got to grips with the basics in the section above.

What I would say today

Today I think you need to know ‘all of the above’ as well as getting yourself familiar with agile and lean tools and methods. In 2008 I was fortunate enough to be invited to a presentation by Dean Leffingwell who was promoting his latest book on scaling agile within large enterprises. It was a complete lightbulb moment for me—agile felt as though it was scratching a vast number of the itches I had with the traditional methods that we had been using. I am completely convinced that for a large amount of what we do—delivering unique software products against a backdrop of changing requirements—agile and lean methods are more appropriate than traditional project management.

I find that Agile has a very poor reputation within both the Technology and business teams. It seems as though a lot of people have had a lot of bad experiences with project groups that have said that they are ‘agile’ and then proceeded to mismanage the work. I try to avoid talking about Agile with a capital ‘A’ and instead focus on the things that both agile and lean methods brings to the table, all of which have value:

  • Breaking the work into smaller chunks so that we can:
    • Deliver something of value to the customer/client sooner (a ‘minimum viable product‘ in the first instance)
    • Get early feedback as to whether we are going in the right direction (“I don’t know exactly what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”)
  • Work out where the pain points are with our delivery process and improve them
    • We can’t release every two weeks because testing takes too long? Automate our testing.
    • We spend too much time integrating all of the code changes and ironing out the defects? Use continuous delivery tools.
    • Estimate the work, measure the speed at which we are getting through it and look at how we can improve our estimates and/or our velocity.
  • Avoid having projects that are ‘green’ until they go red at the last minute and fail (a phenomenon known as ‘carrying watermelons‘—green on the outside and red in the middle)
    • Don’t rely on guesses/approximations of whether we are on track, look at the evidence of what we have delivered and use this to forecast how long the remaining work will take. Show this using burnup charts and other visual techniques such as demonstrations.
  • Avoid getting through 80% of the work quickly and the remaining 20% taking us well beyond the planned end date
    • Tackle the hardest known problems first
    • Use an economic framework such as ‘Cost of Delay divided by duration‘ (CD3) to work out which of our planned items has the highest business value with the quickest payoff and prioritise that

There are a number of agile and lean methodologies that you should become familiar with. Training courses and certifications are available for these as well:

When digging into these you will notice that the ‘project manager’ role is typically not present. For example, Scrum has a role of ‘Scrum Master’ but this is not exactly the same thing. This does not mean that the project manager is redundant. I recently went to a Q&A session with Kelly Waters who proposed that a project manager covers multiple teams whereas a Scrum Master works within a specific team; project managers do the higher-level release planning and coordination.

Agile teams are usually 6–10 people focused around a particular system or product. Scaled frameworks have been developed which take elements of all of the above and adjust them to work across different agile teams and even the entire enterprise. Again, you can study the literature and earn qualifications in these:

What I will probably say in the future

Agile and the various scaled agile approaches are striking in that they focus around a specific product. This is different to how we currently do it, where we focus around a budget (sometimes known as ‘budget-driven development’). This can cause problems where projects are approved that need to make changes to a variety of different systems, each of which are already undergoing changes for a number of other funded projects. Beyond Budgeting looks to address some of the failings of this approach.

The #noprojects movement is very interesting in that it says that the whole concept of a project is inappropriate a for software/product development. The key reasons are:

  • Projects work to proxies that are set at the start—schedule, budget and scope. This assumes that the value of the entirety of the project is knowable at the start and that there is no value in flexibility. If you have worked on any project before you will know that the world changes around you and so do your requirements; a project could be ‘green’ for schedule, budget and scope as they were initially defined but could actually be delivering something sub-optimal.
  • Projects should be reimagined as streams of value (which might stop one day); don’t ask when the software will be done but instead ask when the software will next deliver value. Focus on the benefits achieved and how recently and often they have been delivered by the team. Address the underlying problems with delivering value on a regular basis. Break the problem into smaller chunks and flow work across the team instead of having them work on a big monolithic project.
  • A projects is by definition a temporary endeavour. Project teams come together and spend time ‘storming’, ‘norming’ and ‘forming’ before they get to the ‘performing’ stage and then at the end of the project they disband, taking knowledge, capability and performance with them. Software delivered by the project lives on and requires continuous changes in response to new business requirements, defect fixes, security patches etc.

I really buy into this way of thinking. However, it is completely disruptive to how things are set up now with annual budget cycles, project business cases and budgets divided up into ‘run the firm’ and ‘change the firm’. Will this be the reality one day?

Further reading

There are a couple of fantastic books that I have picked up recently which are well worth your time. They cover a lot of concepts that relate to the ‘now’ and ‘future’ thinking above:

  • Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly: This book brings together many of the lean and agile concepts mentioned above and presents them as a coherent whole. I have never been as excited by a business book as this one and wish that everyone I work with had read it. The concepts are extremely compelling and make great sense; this is something for everyone in the organisation to get familiar with.
  • The Principles of Product Development Flow by Donald Reinertsen: For ‘product’ read ‘software’ or anything else that we produce which is unique and not mass-produced. The text is extremely heavy-going and dense but contains a lot of information, presented as 175 ‘principles’ in the categories of economics, queuing, variability, batch size, work-in-process constraints, flow control, fast feedback and decentralisation. Having read it once I know that it deserves re-reading to further deepen my understanding. If anyone else has read it I’d be glad to hear from you so that we can explore the topics together!

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Financial Services
2. It’s disappeared now but the link takes you to an archived snapshot of the page.

Hertfordshire Governor Conference 2015

UPDATE 27 NOVEMBER: Hertfordshire County Council have now made the presentations available on their website.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Hertfordshire Governor Conference. This was my second time at the event in as many years. Both times I found the content to be informative and inspirational. I also left with a feeling about how much more I could/should be doing for my school as a governor, but I assume that's a good thing!

Whenever I go to a conference I end up taking copious notes. As well as sharing these with my school's governing body I thought I would post them here with the hope that they would be useful to somebody.

Councillor David Williams opening speech

  • 85% Herts schools are good or outstanding

Matthew Syed keynote—journalist and two-time Commonwealth table tennis champion

  • Natural talent vs working hard for achievement
  • Western culture promotes emphasis on the former whereas the evidence is more for the latter
  • Relate to children thinking “I’m just not good at maths, I don’t have the right brain for it.”
  • Also teachers who struggle with aspects of the job
  • [| Relates to the ‘estate of the mind’ thinking?
  • Need to promote a ‘growth mindset culture’
  • Contrast of aviation industry having a learning culture (from 50% of US pilots in peacetime dying in crashes to 2014 record of 1 crash in every 8.1m flights) to Healthcare which does not have one. In aviation they are constantly learning and wanting to do better by examining all of the data.
  • Politicians don’t look at the outcomes of their policies and if they do—and the data is poor—they spin the information.
  • Example of concentration of 5 of the top 10 table tennis players worldwide in one street. Reasons behind it were great coaching and 24h access to a dedicated table tennis centre close by to allow meaningful practice.
  • Question from the audience about resources/budget: Don’t diminish importance of it, but it is independent of culture.
  • Resilience
  • Don’t keep praising children for their talent, say “well done, you worked hard” and other phrases that praise the effort.
  • Most important people to get into the growth mindset are the teachers.

Seminar: Raising achievement through engaging parents (Carole Bennett, HfL Head of Business Development)

  • Parenting impact is the most overwhelming factor, above the school, in terms of attitude to learning etc.
  • In secondary school friends start to take over but parents still sit above the school in terms of impact
  • Schools can raise attainment by 5%, however…
  • Parents who take an active part in the child’s learning can make a 30% difference!
  • Involvement in learning is not (just?) knowing what the school did
  • Children reading—not correlated to parents spending time reading with the kids or taking to the library. Correlation was with having books in the house. Why? Because the parents read a lot for pleasure and modelled the behaviour. Children learn by what they see. They will think it’s important and want to do it.
  • Nagging the child makes musical tuition a chore. Model the behaviour and pick up an instrument for pleasure yourself!
  • Parental engagement is not performance management, not telling them what to do and them going away again
  • Some areas to think about relating to parental engagement
    • What is being done –> So what? –> What next?
    • Newsletters (also blogs, Facebook, Twitter –> go where the parents are, don’t make them come to you)
    • What is your communications strategy? Don’t add on lots of channels without thinking why and what for. What difference does it make? Can get sucked into logistics e.g. ‘Don’t forget fancy dress day, please don’t park here etc.’ Not learning!
    • Do parents know what your children are learning? If they are doing growth mindset at school, how do the parents know?
    • Themes of learning, let parents know regularly what they are. Remind the parents to ask what they learned. “We had a visitor to the school today. Ask your child what they learned.”
    • Do you get parent feedback on your communications? For the parents who are difficult to reach, ask them why? What can we do to help?
    • MarvellousMe app. Works on interactive whiteboard and pings the parent to say what they have achieved.
    • “You’re really good at tennis!” “I’ve worked really hard at it, that’s why. I do 6h a week.”
  • Meetings/consultations/parents evenings
    • What are they for? Clear view for both parents and the school.
    • Who feeds back on the design, frequency and information?
    • Feedback? Chairs, timings etc.
    • Ask parents what they want.
  • Learning and development for parents
    • How do parents develop their knowledge of
      • Curriculum
      • Learning
      • Approaches
    • How were the topics/areas selected?
    • Who does it? Why?
    • Who goes? Why? Why not?
    • Think about not just subject-based learning, also think about themes, e.g. questioning, growth mindset, strategies for children in terms of how to get unstuck etc.
    • Have the parents had the opportunity to say what they think would be useful?
    • See ‘the learning pit’—don’t helicopter in and get them out of the struggle when they find work hard, let them know that this is a normal feeling and, help them to practise getting themselves out of trouble. Reinforce that it is a normal feeling to be frustrated etc. when in the pit.
  • Parent2Parent
  • How can we as a GB change the way the institution runs?
    • Reshaping the curriculum?
    • Using parents specialisms within the curriculum? (Do a survey to find out what parents do!)
    • Recognise home learning in the school day
    • Feed into the governing body
  • Investor in Parents award is something the school can go for (parents collect the award in front of their children in assembly and the children love it!)

The Federation Journey

  • Chair of Barclay and Almond Hill (both were chairs) and now a federation
  • Hard Federation is one governing body over all of the schools
  • Have separate finances as they have a junior school and a senior school
  • Why?
    • Raise aspirations/outcomes
    • Sharing teachers with opportunities to upskill them too
    • Shared expertise
    • Shared interventions
    • Shared premises
  • Governing Body decision to consider the federation—confidential (staff don’t know, for example, except heads, chairs etc.)
    • Committed core of governors prepared to do it
    • Look at pros and cons
    • Create a consultation document
    • Circulate and get feedback over ~6weeks
  • Decided that they would have a hard federation or nothing
  • 21 governors (option to go to 24), 1 chair, 3 vice-chairs as there is lots more work to do
  • Caused a lot of trouble for the LA as they hadn’t done it before and they wanted to get it right
  • Took two years from start to finish
  • Not a lot of solicitors fees as they are not combined legal entity (although they do have the name)
  • Get money when becoming a multi-academy trust (they are not one) but it goes very quickly, need to be very careful if you go this route. Solicitors fees are thousands to set up new legal entity.
  • Secondary school negotiates purchases for both schools and because there is one GB the junior school agrees at that level to the purchase and gets billed.
  • Secondary school is a grade II listed building and needed £5m of work on it, so the GB didn’t want to go independent and immediately become liable for it. By being federated the council are still responsible and have found the money for the work.
  • Audience point: Biggest thing for a 3-school federation is recruitment and retention. New contracts for all school staff when the federation was established.
  • Joined up with secondary school and concerns about the other 6 feeder schools. Junior school said the secondary could share best practice with the other juniors!

External Reviews of Governance—Pat and Mick Furness

  • Governing body are volunteers but they are volunteering to work
  • Those who don’t contribute are putting on the others
  • 20 (now 21?) questions for governing body to ask itself
  • [| Reminder on ‘School Governance: Learning From The Best’ publication
  • Lots of reviews use two reviewers, one may be being trained in the process
  • Nine criteria for effective governance
    • 45 questions questionnaire
    • Baseline for a discussion
  • Minutes need to reflect ‘matters arising’ from the previous meeting and that there has been follow-up. Show challenge. Evidence!
  • Challenge, impact and ambition—Ofsted love these. Prove we cover them in our minutes.
  • Changed in March
    • Four areas looked at by Ofsted
    • 25 questions questionnaire
  • What do we spend the pupil premium on? How much impact does it have? Trend analysis for the past three years…

Andrew Cook, Ofsted Regional Director, East of England—keynote