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…


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



I’ve been listening to podcasts for what must be ten years or so, mainly on my hour-long commute to and from work. Although sometimes I listen to music on my journey, this is rare—I usually reach for podcasts instead as there is so much knowledge to be gained from the recordings and it feels like a better use of time. Recently I’ve found myself in lots of conversations where I’ve been recommending specific podcasts and episodes to people and this made me think that it would be a good idea to jot some thoughts down here and share them more widely.

I’m old-school in that I use iTunes to download my podcasts and then sync them on an irregular basis to my 160Gb iPod Classic. I assume that most Apple users today are using modern applications on their iPhone or iPod Touch such as Overcast, Downcast, Instacast etc., however I have no idea how they manage to regularly get through more than a small handful of podcasts each week. I have nearly 1,000 unplayed episodes (20Gb worth!) and a lot of these I don’t want to skip—I’ll just get to them when I get to them.

My general listening process is to cycle through the different podcasts one episode at a time, i.e. listen to the oldest unplayed episode for podcast 1 and then going to the oldest unplayed episode for podcast 2 etc. This stops things getting ‘samey’ and makes sure that I’m covering all of the different feeds I want to hear. However, there are some podcasts that are either such good quality (e.g. Dan Carlin’s Common Sense) or so time-sensitive (e.g. FT Banking Weekly) that it is better to catch up with all outstanding episodes before moving on.

In the list below I have used a couple of tags:

  • [Recent] Means I keep the most recent five-or-so episodes only. This is typical for long, time-sensitive podcasts where it doesn’t make sense, for example, to be listening about the new features of a phone or operating system, or what happened at a particular technology conference, where the release or event took place over a year ago. You can set iTunes up to do this for specific podcasts while keeping all the episodes from the others. I don’t care if I miss shows in these feeds as for me it is like missing an ‘episode’ of the news on TV or the daily newspaper.
  • [Catch-up] Means I catch up with all outstanding episodes at once before moving on to the next podcast in the list, either because it is so good or because it doesn’t make sense to let them build up.

If you’re an iTunes user the best way to get access to these podcasts is to search for them in the store and subscribe to their feeds. If you use some other tool to subscribe then I have linked to the podcast home pages directly so that you can find their feed URLs or individual episodes and add them to your device.

Without further ado…

The cream of the crop

  • Hardcore History: If I had to pick one podcast above all the others, this would be it. I have been listening to this since episode one and have watched it grow from 15-20 minute shows on particular historical topics (e.g. the influence of narcotics in history or the number of chance things that came together to enable the 1066 invasion of England) to epic six-part dissections of major events such as World War I that are released over a period of 18 months in shows that are over four hours long for each part. If you have even a slight inkling that you are interested in history, go to iTunes and download all of the past episodes now—you’ll need to pay for old episodes but they are worth every penny. Dan’s style of storytelling is unique and compelling and listening to his work completely fits the definition of time well spent. Because the quality of the output is so good, both for this podcast as well as Common Sense (see below), I currently donate USD 5/month for this to support his shows.
  • Back to Work: An amusing, insightful and often delightful podcast with Merlin Mann, of 43 Folders, Inbox Zero and general GTD1)Copyright DavidCo 2001. productivity fame, and Dan Benjamin, owner of the 5by5 podcast network. There are lots of in-jokes and banter in each episode; having listened since the first one I feel like part of a club even though most of the other club members are way ahead of me in terms of episodes (I’m currently at episode 107, approximately 2 years behind)! Again, because of the number of hours that I have spent enjoying this podcast as well as other shows on the 5by5 network I currently donate USD 5/month to support them.
  • Common Sense with Dan Carlin [catch-up]: Despite having listened to Hardcore History (see above) since episode one, for a long time I had avoided listening to this as I assumed it would be a USA-focused political show and I wasn’t sure whether that would be interesting to me. After @linseyt mentioned to me that it was really good I thought I would give it a try and now wish that I had dived in much sooner. The show comes out more frequently than Hardcore History with perhaps two episodes every month and covers a very broad range of political topics and current affairs. This show always makes me think about something I hadn’t considered before, or gives a new angle on a topic, and is far less USA-focused than I had originally thought. I worked my way though a whole bunch of old episodes and every one of them was of fantastic quality. Thoroughly recommended to everyone.
  • EconTalk: A weekly show covering economics-related topics in an interview format. I’ve listened to this for a very long time and it is another one where I have a large backlog to get through. Russ Roberts is the host and covers a variety of subjects, such as the financial crisis, interviews with authors of recent economics-related books, discussions with other academics and in one particularly memorable episode where he covered a complete dissection of the MMR vaccine scandal. Very worthwhile.
  • Little Atoms: A weekly show from Resonance 104.4FM which covers topics of science, freedom of expression and secular humanism. Typically follows an interview format. The guests are varied and the show often delights with a topic that I didn’t know or hadn’t thought about.
  • Manager Tools: Over the years I have invariably recommended this to people as “the best free business resource you can find on the Internet” and I stick by this claim. They have recently been celebrating their tenth anniversary, a fantastic achievement when you see the quality of what they have made available. There is a wealth of knowledge in the episode archives that teach you how to be a better manager, whether covering the basics of one-on-ones, feedback, coaching and delegation to more advanced topics such as how to handle the situation where somebody has body odour at work. When I come up against a new management problem, their podcast back catalogue is one of the first places I turn to for help. Their multi-part series on ‘How to resign‘ was invaluable when I wanted to leave my previous employer after being there for 11 years—they start off by getting you to really think about why you probably shouldn’t resign and all of the things you will be giving up if you do, before getting into the actions you should take if your mind is made up.
  • The Infinite Monkey Cage: This is the podcast version of the BBC Radio 4 show, with an additional 10-15 minutes of content that they cut out for the radio. Brian Cox and Robin Ince2)I was privileged to meet him in person last year. What a great guy. are the hosts and each episode covers a particular scientific question or topic with excellent panel guests and audience participation. The content can jump from a profound and serious point to a joke and back again within the space of a couple of minutes and manages to balance between the two to great effect.

More great podcasts

  • A Point of View: A podcast version of the Radio 4 segment, typically a ten-minute monologue. I started by subscribing just to the Clive James episodes (the BBC Radio 4 website lets you filter the feed by host)—the man is an understated genius and his discourses are splendidly entertaining. I have recently branched out to listen to all of the Point of View archives available in the feed so will now be hearing from the likes of Will Self and Alain de Botton.
  • Accidental Tech Podcast [Recent]: Marco Arment, John Siracusa and Casey Liss talking about technology—mainly Apple-related. Their mixed backgrounds mean that they all bring something different to the table and have interesting and informed takes on the topics they cover but the episodes are (and feel) very long at nearly two hours a show.
  • Amnesty’s Comedy Conversations: A recent addition. A series of interviews with comedians at the Balham Comedy Festival and Edinburgh Fringe by Amnesty International. Interesting insights into the comedians themselves.
  • FT Banking Weekly [Catch-up]: A ten-minute weekly roundup of what has been going on in the world of banking. As this is the industry that I work in but I don’t often have make time to read the FT in as much depth as I would like, this keeps me up-to-date with the gist of what is going on.
  • HBR IdeaCast [Recent]: Covers one or two topics a show that are occasionally interesting. There is a gigantic episode backlog that you can download that goes back almost 10 years. Recently I deleted most of my backlog and have started focusing on recent episodes as I was too far behind and wasn’t getting much value out of trawling through the archives.
  • Invisibilia: This is a relatively new show from NPR (National Public Radio, the US ‘equivalent’ of the BBC) and is a joy to listen to. Every episode tackles a topic related to things that are not visible to us, such as how some blind people have learned to echolocate themselves in their surroundings through ‘clicking’. Very professionally produced and consistently interesting.
  • IWM Voices of the First World War: Given last year’s anniversary of the start of the First World War, I searched out a podcast that would compliment the Hardcore History series on the subject give me a greater insight. This is set of short episodes, each of which is made up of audio clips of people who lived through the War and the memories they have. There is something about spoken oral history that is very compelling and definitely gives another angle to the historical analysis format.
  • Morning Becomes Eclectic: KCRW is an incredible radio station in the U.S. that features live studio sessions with current artists. This podcast showcases a number of these live recordings from one or two sessions from the previous week. Not an episode has gone by so far without me following up by looking into one of the artists on Spotify. You can also look at videos from some of the live sessions on the KCRW website.
  • Lesterland: More of a short audiobook than true podcast. This is the audio version of Lawrence Lessig’s book ‘The United States is Lesterland’. The work details the institutionalised corruption in the way that political and presidential candidates are funded and how the politicians that get into power are beholden to the richest people in society.
  • Mastertapes: Another excellent music podcast. This is a relatively new Radio 4 show which dissects a classic album through two ‘sides’ (episodes) for each. The ‘A-side’ is an interview with the main player from the album in front of a live audience and the ‘B-side’ is where the studio audience ask questions. This again has got me exploring works that I know very little about, whether that is Suzanne Vega‘s second album or a 1981 album by Aswad. Yes, that Aswad—turns out that there is more to them than their 1988 hit ‘Don’t Turn Around‘.3)This podcast reminds me of something Ed Hammel said on his live album from 2000: “Because VH1 Behind The Music is my new crack. I will watch it 15, 16…20 hours in a row. Bands I don’t give a s*** about, I watch. And they hook ya, and they hook ya…did you think I give a f*** about The Osmonds? Do you think I do?” (Hat-tip to my friend Michael for pointing me in the direction of this podcast.)
  • Out of School [Recent]: A podcast with Fraser Spiers and Bradley Chambers about technology in schools. Both of the hosts work in a school and have lots of first-hand experience to relate. Fraser’s school was the first one in the world to provide every pupil with their own iPad. It’s interesting to get their take on issues you need to think about specifically for a school. Very useful.
  • Reith Lectures (plus Reith Lectures archives 1948–1975 and 1976-2012): I had been meaning to pick this up for a while and finally took the plunge recently. Named after the BBC’s first director-general Sir John Reith, these are a series of annual lectures given by leading figures of the day. After listening to a couple of excellent art-focused lectures by Grayson Perry (and knowing nothing about him beforehand) I was hooked. The lectures are presented in three podcast feeds which is actually quite good for mixing things up a bit. As well as working my way through Perry’s lectures on ‘Playing to the Gallery‘ from 2013 I am also currently listening to Bertrand Russell discuss ‘Authority and the Individual‘ from 1948 and Colin Blakemore on ‘Mechanics of the Mind‘ from 1976. I will be here for some time.
  • Shift: Having followed Euan Semple on Twitter for many years and having read his fabulous book ‘Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do‘ I have recently picked up the podcast that he hosts with Megan Murray. I’m only a few episodes in and already think it is one of the better, more useful podcasts that I listen to and often gives me lots to think about. We ran an experiment at work back in 2010 where we rolled out Yammer ‘virally’ and I have also started one or two internal blogs. As a social media user it is interesting to me when other people have different attitudes to mine with regard to the usefulness and benefits of these technologies. The podcast covers this as well as topics such as where organisations try to impose ‘culture change’ top-down.
  • The Critical Path: Hosted by Horace Dediu of Asymco, this show covers a variety of technology and business topics. I first came across Dedieu’s work on Twitter where he regularly presents fascinating graphs about historical rates of technology adoption and smartphone adoption over time to name but two. The podcast has a co-host but Dedieu dominates the ‘conversation’, typically providing an insight into what he has been up to and been thinking about. A recent topic has been ‘Jobs To Be Done‘ thinking which is now something on my follow-up list for looking at its applicability to my workplace.
  • The History of English Podcast: I am only three episodes into this an am already loving it. In the first episode it was fascinating to hear a well-known English verse (The Lord’s Prayer) being spoken in modern, middle and old English, the latter being almost completely unintelligible to my ears. I have already learnt so much from this, for example how English has sometimes adopted two different words for the same thing (e.g. ‘father’ and ‘pater’) but that these themselves often have a common root.
  • The Nerdist: Very interesting interviews with famous people. There is a massive online backlog of hundreds of episodes—instead of subscribing I have gone through the backlog and downloaded the individual episodes that I am interested in, e.g. Kevin Bacon, Mel Brooks, Billy Crystal, Rick Moranis, Ozzy Osborne etc. The interviewers seem to have a way of making their interviewees very relaxed so that the conversations seem very natural and revealing. Consistently entertaining.
  • Turning This Car Around and Unprofessional: Two podcasts that I’ve been listening to for a while that are both hosted by Lex Friedman (amongst others). Both of these are listened to for pure entertainment value only and not knowledge or life advice. ‘Turning…’ is a show all about being a parent and ‘Unprofessional’ is a potpourri of random chat. Very amusing.

Others I’m listening to that I either tend to skip through or haven’t heard enough of to give a solid recommendation

  • 99% invisible: I found this from exploring the podcasts shown by Marco Arment in one of his slides in his presentation at XOXO in 2013. A short podcast which takes on a topic each week about something you may not have thought about. Sometimes feels as though it is a little more style over substance but the shortness of it and occasional payoff with a very interesting subject keeps it in my list.
  • Beyond the To-Do List: Interviews with people that have a productivity angle to their work. I often find with this podcast that I skip through them as I find that it isn’t as interesting as I would have hoped for, but occasionally there is a gem that is worth listening to right through.
  • CMD+Space: General technology/Apple interview show hosted by Myke Hurley. This podcast has been discontinued for some time—Myke started the show on his network 70 Decibels which was subsequently acquired by/merged with 5by5. When he left them to form he started Inquisitive which seems to be a direct replacement. I am still working my way through the backlog!
  • Inquisitive: Weekly technology/Apple interview show with Myke Hurley, a replacement for CMD+Space mentioned above.
  • Mac Power Users: I probably listen to about one in four of these shows. I don’t own a Mac but I do have an iPhone and iPad and the episodes are sometimes very relevant. There are also more general topics covered such as running a paperless workflow or going into how people use web software such as Evernote etc.
  • Technical Difficulties (formerly Generational): Another smorgasbord of technology topics.
  • Systematic: Hosted by Brett Terpstra, I’ve dabbled in this podcast before when it was on the 5by5 network and for some reason it has never stuck with me. The podcast was recently moved to and they pulled me in with a gigantic, excellent show covering the life and times of John Roderick (which is worth listening to even if you have no idea whatsoever who he is). Sticking with this again for now.
  • The Accidental Creative: Haven’t made up my mind about this one yet, feels a little more style than substance but is sticking around on my iPod for now.
  • The Biggest Story In The World: The Guardian‘s podcast about their attempt to promote climate change awareness and action through the newspaper. I’m only a couple of episodes in but am already filled with the hopelessness of the cause as they battle to find an angle on the topic that would be actionable and appeal to the masses. I believe they eventually settled on a ‘keep it in the ground‘ campaign with a tactic of lobbying people, companies and funds to divest their holdings of fossil fuel company shares, but it didn’t (ahem) set the world on fire. Joking aside, this is without doubt the biggest challenge that we face and it is interesting to think about why it isn’t being addressed as such.
  • The China History Podcast: My employer was recently taken over by a Chinese firm. This podcast is my first step on a journey to understanding more about Chinese culture. There are lots of episodes to get through and they are (fortunately) not presented in chronological order. I’m only a few shows in and have already learned a few things. I’m curious as to whether the amateur production quality increases as time goes by as this podcast has been out there for some time and has good reviews.
  • The Productivityist Podcast: Just starting out with this from episode one, but seems right up my street in terms of content.
  • Unmistakable Creative: Another that feels a little bit style over substance. I haven’t managed to work this one out yet as some of the episodes have been interviews and others have been quite inwardly-focused about the podcast itself. Sticking with it for now.

Notable one-offs

  • 5by5 at the Movies: This podcast has only had three episodes in the past three years but they have been fantastic. Dan Benjamin and a co-host dissect a classic film. If you have seen Goodfellas and enjoyed it then run, don’t walk, to download this episode—John Siracusa does a fantastic job of explaining why this film is so great and it took my appreciation of it to another level. Straight after listening to this I immediately rented it to watch again and noticed so much stuff that I had never been conscious of before. Likewise, the Glengarry Glen Ross episode is excellent if you are a fan of the film. I am saving up the Big Lebowski episode for when I get around to watching that movie again.
  • WTF: Another podcast where I have downloaded just a few selected episodes. The show with Louis C.K. was awarded ‘best podcast episode ever‘ by Slate and while I would probably not agree with that, it’s definitely a very good listen. I’ve just finished listening to an excellent episode with Henry Winkler (of ‘Happy Days‘ fame) and am looking forward to hearing the show where the guest is none other than Barack Obama!

Classical music

There are a couple of very high-quality podcasts of classical music that I have picked up and work my way through on occasion, typically in the office while I am working. Both shows feature one or two pieces each episode along with a short spoken-word introduction into what you are about to hear.

What I’ve stopped listening to

There are a few notable podcasts that have succumbed to the delete key in iTunes, presented here for completeness:

  • Serial: Everyone was raving about this and I think that for quite a few people this was their first venture into listening to podcasts. I picked it up to see what all the fuss was about but gave up after four episodes or so—the show felt so drawn-out to me and I didn’t feel myself caring for any of the characters, so I didn’t see any point in going on.
  • The Project Management Podcast: I listened to this from episode one for a couple of years and even blogged about it nearly a decade ago. In my line of work as a portfolio/programme manager in a financial services firm it hasn’t been necessary to have any formal project management qualifications for any of the jobs I have held. This podcast was very focused on the Project Management Institute qualifications and interviews with people in the world of project management but increasingly felt more and more misaligned to the areas I was interested in such as agile, lean and product development flow. Each episode felt quite drawn-out and eventually hit a tipping point of not being worth the time I was investing in listening to it.
  • Coverville: A very good show, hosted by Brain Ibbott. When I was listening to this he was creating 3-4 shows a week and there was no way I would have ever caught up. Each episode has a theme around a particular artist or topic and then presents a bunch of cover versions of songs relevant to the theme. Occasionally I would come across a gem of a song, such as Emm Gryner‘s ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me‘, Jon Brion‘s ‘The Game‘, Off The Beat‘s ‘Plush‘ or Steve Acho‘s Rio but like the Project Management Podcast I eventually felt that the time investment did not have enough payback so I abandoned it. Sorry Brian!
  • You Look Nice Today and Roderick on the Line: Two podcasts, both of which feature Merlin Mann of Back to Work fame (see above). I listened to a few of these episodes but gave up on each as the humour wasn’t quite in-tune with my own and I didn’t find myself laughing out loud enough. ‘Roderick…’ has a cult following and for good reason—it’s pretty unique—but I wasn’t getting enough out of them for them to continue to make the cut.

And there you have it!

I look at the amount of things that are accessible to us through the Internet and can’t imagine that I will ever be bored again. Podcasts are so great in that you can listen to them while doing other things, such as walking to work or doing the ironing. Now, if anyone has any life advice for how to manage a balanced media diet of podcasts, newspapers, periodicals, books, PDFs, blogs, tweets etc. I am all ears.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Copyright DavidCo 2001.
2. I was privileged to meet him in person last year. What a great guy.
3. This podcast reminds me of something Ed Hammel said on his live album from 2000: “Because VH1 Behind The Music is my new crack. I will watch it 15, 16…20 hours in a row. Bands I don’t give a s*** about, I watch. And they hook ya, and they hook ya…did you think I give a f*** about The Osmonds? Do you think I do?”

Of project portfolios and an uncertain future

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend the Gartner Project Portfolio Management (PPM) and IT Governance summit. I approached the event with some trepidation—this is my field and it would clearly be useful to be amongst peers and understand what the latest thinking is, but I expected it to be full of vendors voraciously pushing their wares and lots of attendees who were wrestling with nuances of Microsoft Project and getting ‘resources’ to work with the processes they had rolled out. Although there was indeed some of this, 80% of the content over the two days was extremely valuable. Many of the sessions had big overlaps with topics covered in Lean Enterprise, a fantastic book I read earlier this year which has really honed my thinking about the right way to approach IT and product development work within a large organisation.

The final keynote presentation of the day was extremely thought-provoking. Donna Fitzgerald and Robert Handler gave a talk called ‘Gartner Predicts the Future of PPM’ but it was so much more than just a talk about project portfolio management. The key issue is on how fast the world is changing around us and how quickly we will need to adapt. Early on, they quoted Ray Kurzweil in saying that:

“Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference.”

The basic messages that I took away from the presentation were as follows:

  • Technological advances are exponential (think Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s law etc.)
  • Anything that can be automated will be automated.
  • Things that yesterday we generally believed were impossible to automate are being automated (e.g. self-driving trucks, textual analytics etc.—this table from this paper was reproduced in the Gartner slide deck)
  • Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts.
  • Applying this to PPM, classic project management will be a generic skill, versatility of skills will be a necessity and the role of the PM will be to enable the team to get things done and shift obstacles out of the way.

As I sat there in the audience I couldn’t help but drift away from the PPM world and think back to an article I read in Wired magazine fifteen years ago. The article had such a profound effect on me that I can still remember exactly where I was as I read it—on a Northern Line tube train, heading to work one morning. It’s called Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us and is by Bill Joy, then Chief Scientist at and one of the founders of Sun Microsystems.

My main memory of the article was that humans pursue technological and scientific progress for its own sake, because it is in our nature to explore and discover. Out of this could come unintended consequences such as self-replicating nanotechnology that takes over the world in a horrendous ‘grey goo‘ scenario. Over the past fifteen years, this quest for scientific progress has become synonymous in my mind with the quest for continual ‘economic growth‘.

On my way home from the conference, with thoughts from the keynote still fresh in my mind, I decided to re-read the article. Two things surprised and struck me when I did so: (1) first part of the article focused on Joy’s meeting with Kurzweil so the keynote and the article seemed to have a common thread or root and (2) the article didn’t just focus on technology but also economic growth:

“Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven – this time by great financial rewards and global competition – despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and imagining.”

“I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.”

I tweeted that the keynote had got me “worried about our drive to automation and the unemployed masses” and a friend responded, stating that I should read about the so-called ‘lump of labour fallacy‘.

I did look into this, and found out that this basically says that the following line of thinking is fallacious:

  • There is a finite amount of work to be done.
  • Where work is automated, the overall pool of work is decreased, so the people unemployed by automation will not be able to find new jobs.

The reason it is ‘widely accepted’ as a fallacy is that historically, through technological, economic and societal change there is new work to be done and over time the labour force shifts to having these new skills. Think about the industrial revolution and the jobs that were lost because of the changes and how the population developed new skills over time for new jobs that had previously never existed.

Of the various excellent articles I have read on this, three things make me think that this historically has been a fallacy but may not be in the future:
  1. The speed of technological change. As per the Kurzweil quote at the top of this post, progress is not linear and it is getting faster. The speed of progress means that people may not have time to re-skill within their own lifetime.
  2. If it is true that “Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts” then how do you become a seasoned expert if there are no lower-level tasks to be done that allow you can learn the ropes? Will your field still be un-automated by the time you get to be a seasoned expert with a couple of decades of experience behind you?
  3. The work to be done may shift and new jobs may be invented, but who is going to do that work? Will it be automated from the get-go?

I think there are genuine reasons to be concerned. Personally, I do not understand how we blindly accept ‘economic growth’ through capitalism as a singular goal that is commonly agreed on as being an aim for a company, a society, a country or humanity. Expanding populations and finite resources surely mean that there are limits to continual ‘growth’. I know that many people much smarter than me must have examined this question and that people can point me towards countless texts where this is considered. What I do understand is that even through something as gigantic as the recent financial crisis we did not come up with anything better than what we have today—even though many great minds were questioning it and reasoning as to where we should go from here—and that while our current configuration is still in place, it is not an option for an organisation to avoid seeking growth in the form of increased revenues and lower costs through technological innovation, automation etc. If you are participating in capitalism and not striving to be the best that you can be then someone else will take your customers and you will be out of business. The pace at which this is happening is accelerating. 50 years ago, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was 75 years; as of 2014 it was less than 15 years.

I don’t have any conclusions right now. I know that as an individual with a family to look after, a mortgage to pay etc. I am very much an active participant in this process. But as per Bill Joy’s article that I read all those years ago:

“My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of software. Software is a tool, and as a toolbuilder I must struggle with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I can now imagine such a day may come.

This all leaves me not angry but at least a bit melancholic. Henceforth, for me, progress will be somewhat bittersweet.”

What a ride

It hit me like a brick. As soon as I saw the inflated red finish line in the car park of the hotel in Milan I felt completely overwhelmed. It was so unexpected—for the past couple of miles we had been leisurely cycling our way to the end, laughing and joking as we had for so much of the 900 miles beforehand. For these last few miles we were taking it steady as we were accompanied by ‘Tour Dad’ Fred, the amazing father of one of our riders and core organisers of the trip, who hadn’t been on a bike since he was fourteen. We had also agreed to come over the finish line as a team. I didn’t expect to be overcome with emotion but I couldn’t help it—everything seemed to converge all at once. All of a sudden I now knew that I wouldn’t be getting up for another ride tomorrow with these amazing people. I couldn’t help but think about all of the training hours that I had put in since January, spending time away from my beautiful and incredibly supportive wife and children to get fit, my short stay in hospital that I thought was going to set me back so much and of course all of the donations and words of encouragement from my colleagues, friends and family. And now it had slipped through my fingers and was almost gone, just as soon as it seemed to get started, and it choked me up. It was one of the most amazing nine-day periods of my life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself!

I sincerely apologise for not having been able to write a blog at the end of each evening while I was away. As I said in my last couple of posts everything was such an incredible rush. A typical day started with an alarm at 6:40am, hurriedly getting dressed into cycle gear and filling my pockets with stuff (energy gels on the left, energy bars and spare Garmin in the middle, technical items on the right) that I had carefully laid out the night before, heading down for a big breakfast (muesli, three to four croissants, scrambled egg on toast, tons of orange juice and a cup of tea), making sure I had the appropriate things on my body (for the weather) and in my day bag (in case the weather turned), loading things onto the van, getting going on the bike, stopping for a rest in the morning after 25–35 miles, grabbing lunch in the early afternoon, having another brief refuelling stop a few miles later, rolling into the hotel in the early evening, showering, going for dinner, laying out stuff for the next day and going to bed. Repeat x9. People, myself included, started to get very blurry after a few days as to what had happened when—we would recount a funny tale of having to follow a Garmin route up some stairs the day before only to be corrected that it actually took place that morning. There was little time to reflect and think let alone write things down. I’ll try and correct that now.

Things I had left out of my blog post of the first couple of days

Over the course of the trip we were very lucky to have such few incidents on the bikes. The crashes that did take place happened on the first couple of days. Aside from a plethora of low-speed “Argh! I can’t clip out of my pedals!” events the worst two crashes were (a) Nicky Bollard (nee Lampard) riding head-first into a metal post and giving her legs a proper bruising (see below) and (b) Dean ‘Woah, Deano’ Keeling having his front wheel taken out by an erratic move by ‘Uncle’ Phil while they were riding at speed. Dean’s accident was relatively serious in that he suffered cuts and bruises and was saved from facial scraping by his helmet going along the ground; he was fine but it was a good early reminder for us all to be careful.

After the near-mutinies related to people being rushed for breakfast, lunch and dinner we tried a new approach of setting out in a number of different groups with the slower riders leaving at 7:15am and one or two other groups following up to 8:15am. This worked really well as generally we were roughly in the same place by lunchtime and nobody needed to add indigestion to their list of cycling-related ailments.

Day four: Eindhoven to Spa

Day four started as day three had ended with lots of cycling along big long Dutch cycle paths. We hadn’t quite got into our stride of riding in a group and didn’t spend too much time in a chain gang. I remember this day as being pretty wet and having roads that stretched out towards a vanishing point, like a more sedate and unspectacular Dutch version of an Eagles album cover.

Entering Belgium was a shock after the luxury and beauty of the Dutch roads—the pot holes and poor road surfacing was like switching from a triple-quilted brand of toilet roll to the green paper towels that we used to use at primary school. We had to be on our game a lot more now.

At the end of the day as we approached Spa we encountered our first proper taste of hills. I half welcomed them after the endless flats of the past 48 hours but relatively speaking they were little beasts that left us with a sense of foreboding:

I had also started to develop some deep ravines in my thumbs which meant I had to tape them up each day for the rest of the event so that they didn’t get any worse:

Day 4: Spa to Luxembourg

I distinctly recall pinching myself at the end of this day and saying to myself that ‘I rode to Luxembourg on my fricking bike!’ which seemed like an apt thing to do after riding to Luxembourg from London. On a bike.

Today started as the previous one had finished. Immediately after leaving the hotel we had to tackle a 1,000ft climb, leaving us with stomachs that threatened to eject their freshly-ingested contents onto the Belgian tarmac. By the time we had got to pit stop one we had barely gone anywhere and I started to get worried about the time we would be getting to the hotel that evening.

A comedy moment happened just after we past the Spa racing circuit. Our Garmins (or ‘vermins’ as they came to be known) were telling us to go up a service road. This was obviously wrong—it was clear from the map that the tool was planning an ill-advised short-cut and we should go on and take the hairpin bend a few hundred yards away. Gayle (daughter of ‘Tour Dad’ Fred) asked me “shall we go on?” and I had barely muttered “Yes, but…” before she and two other riders had rolled down the hill, missed the hairpin and continued going at speed until they disappeared from view. Being the gentleman that I am, I waited with the others at the hairpin for their return. Someone more valiant than me went to fetch them and returned some 20-30 minutes later. It turned out that the two girls in the group had their Garmins off and the guy following them was, well, following them.

Other highlights of the day for me were seeing the monument to Sean Kelly (see below) and experiencing some amazing drafting as we rode in a group. In the long line of bicycles I couldn’t believe how much speed we could carry up hills—I would never get to those speeds riding solo—and that downhill my trusty cyclocross bike runs out of gears at about 33mph!

By this point in the trip we had a firmly established ‘late crew’ who would hit the beers as soon as they were showered and ready for dinner and stay up until at least 2am every night. I remember thinking ‘I don’t know how they do it’ and then realising that at 38 years of age I was one of the older ones on the trip. Seeing them drink with little ill-effect was giving me beer-envy and I started to dabble in a drink myself, just one or two, for the remainder of the event each night. Tom ‘The Voice’ Osborne entertained us in the hotel bar this evening, aided with much hilarity by ‘Uncle’ Phil:

Day 5: Luxembourg to Nancy
We were joined today by a guest rider, Emma Littmoden, daughter of Penny Ferguson who was one of our corporate sponsors. Emma was a great rider and really held her own. She even brought a camera crew with her who made this lovely video of the day:
We also managed to get a great average speed today thanks to an incredibly long and relatively flat cycle path and the wonders of a chain gang. It was so much fun rolling along at 22mph as a group, eating up the miles as we went.

Nancy itself was beautiful (the little we saw of it) and I wished we could have spent a little more time there.

Day 6: Nancy to Freiburg

This ended up being my biggest day of riding ever (so far), clocking in at a whopping 127 miles, beating my previous record of 120 which I had set on a day’s training where I rode from Berkhamsted to Wimbledon, did a 40-mile loop in the Surrey hills and rode back to Berkhamsted again. In summary, it was a long way. Today’s ride included a fantastic climb in the Vosges region of France up the Col De La Schlucht, high enough to have a ski lift at the top of it.

The descent down The Schlucht saw one of our riders hit a top speed of almost 100km/h (about 61mph)!

Day 7: Zurich to Feldkirch

Today we were joined by the CEO of one of our corporate sponsors, who planned to ride the whole segment on a bike without Lycra or clipless pedals. We started the day with a sleepy train journey from Freiburg to Zurich which felt a little bit like cheating as we effectively skipped 100 miles or so, but was the only way we could cover the distance to a major city in the nine days—Ride 101010 doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it? As luck would have it, our seats were double-booked and so we had a free upgrade to first class which although comfortable, didn’t get us out of having to pay £5 for a cup of tea!

At the coach park near Zurich train station it dawned on us how far we had come in terms of a complete lack of decorum in relation to our calls of nature. Gone were the early days where we were looking for a secluded quiet bush or tree to relieve ourselves of the coffee, tea and electrolyte-infused water that had been weighing us down—now we all seemed quite happy to go right in the middle of a major urban area with a wholly inadequate small bush and wire fence to hide our shame. Not great!

Heading out of Zurich was the first time that we had a glimpse of what was to come—the Alps loomed large and beckoned us towards them. We knew that tomorrow we would be making our ascent. For now though we were very happy with a long drag out of Zurich along the lake and down through the alpine valleys. Here we found the most beautiful place ever for lunch, beside a lake with the sun shining and mountains all around us. Most people went for a swim, being careful to avoid the swans, and there was even time for a post-lunch swimming race between a couple of riders.

Views: Quarten, Switzerland by Andrew Doran

Day 8: Feldkirch to Campodolcino

Only one phrase had been dominating my thoughts since I signed up to the ride and learned the route we were taking—The Splügen Pass. Today was always going to be about the climbing. The past few days had taught me that I was pretty average going along the flats but the big climbs were where I could push a bit harder and although we were all helping each other along a nine-day endurance event there were a few of us that secretly/not-so-secretly did want to get one over on the other faster riders.

Most of the day was spent climbing but we did hit an early descent which saw me clock my fastest speed ever of almost 52mph. It felt absolutely amazing and thrilling to be going that fast and I felt such a buzz when I got to the bottom.

After the fast descent we spent most of the rest of the day on a long, shallow climb which slowly got steeper. It felt as though our lunch stop took forever to get to. After we had refuelled, we set off up a few switchbacks and I made good progress—before I knew it I was whizzing past a scheduled rest stop, eager to get on with the climb. I found myself on my own and stopped on the little descent into the village of Splügen which saw the start of the ascent proper.

The Splügen Pass climb was unlike anything I had done before. It wasn’t that it was exceptionally steep, it was more that it seemed to go on forever. Up the hill from the village, turning right onto the first set of switchbacks before hitting another mile or so of straights before starting again on an even longer set of switchbacks, this time with more and more snow around me and less and less oxygen. You could easily see back down the road you had been on and view the riders that were pursuing you (as I said, it wasn’t a race but there was something primal in me that wanted to stay ahead) but you couldn’t see what was up ahead or how long it would go on for. Sweat and mucus dripped from my face but I was beyond caring—all I wanted to do was to maintain some kind of rhythm and get to the top, ideally without being overtaken. I was looking at the snow and marvelling at how it could remain on the ground when it was so warm and then only when I stopped for a while did I realise just how cold it was up there. Later, I was gutted to find that I had stopped short of the end of the Strava segment up the pass and couldn’t see the time it had taken me—luckily Veloviewer came to the rescue and showed that it was almost 50 minutes to complete the ascent.

Getting to the top was an incredible moment—we literally felt on top of the world and that we had achieved something. The crew from the event organisers Action Challenge were waiting at the top and were fantastic—they made sure that they drilled the point home that what we had done was a real triumph. Aside from catching our breath and in one case even retching from the effort we started to realise that we had conquered the biggest climb on the trip. It was fantastic. To make it even better, we all waited at the top for every single member of the group to come up—all of whom made it—to share in the joy at having taken on the mountain and won.

By the time everyone had arrived at the top we were all freezing. We were covered in sweat and knew that we now had to tackle the first part of the descent down the other side so took time to add a layer or two and get ready.

The ride down was crazy. The Italian roads were similar to Belgium’s but even worse and this time we were travelling downhill at speed. We travelled through a bizarre, cold, barren landscape of rocks, snow, water, road and very little else. I had to stop and take a picture of the eeriness.

We also had our first taste of Italian tunnels, some of which would turn out to be truly terrifying over the next 24 hours—broken lights, sounds of vehicles that seemed to come from everywhere at once, traffic lights and roadworks in the tunnels themselves—as we made our way down the Alps.

It took us no time at all to reach our alpine lodge at Campodolcino and settle in for the night. Given the epic achievement of the day we were keen to let our hair down. Most of us had a pretty late night which was eased along by a ‘kangaroo court’ game where we were each accused of something and forced to drink a shot of disgusting grappa if found guilty (or innocent, for that matter) and pay a forefeit. The whole thing had the atmosphere of a sixth-form trip about it and that was no bad thing.

Day 9: Campodolcino to Milan

The final day saw us setting off down the mountain descent which had been cut very short the day before. We had barely gone a mile before I witnessed one of the riders in front of me experiencing a brief case of speed wobble. All he had done was to ride over a different-coloured patch of asphalt but at the speed we were going it sent some bizarre vibrations through his bike. It looked scary from where I was and he told me later that he thought he was going to crash but it was over in the blink of an eye and he carried on down the hill.

The heavens opened on us early on and we found ourselves working our way towards Lake Como in a biblical downpour. Once you’re wet, you’re wet and there’s nothing to do but to plough on. It was a struggle to see at times as rain came at my face vertically from above and also below from the rear wheel of the rider in front but somehow we made it there without incident and in good time.

Confidence had built up massively over the previous days and quite a few of us now felt pretty adept at riding extremely close to each other. This gave us a dramatic advantage in terms of speed and exertion in exactly the same way as a flock of birds support each other by flying in formation. This, coupled with the thought that we didn’t need to leave anything in our legs as we had no other days left to ride, led to a extremely fast and thrilling day. Four of us ended up together in an early afternoon session where we were as close together as we could possibly be. The environment changed around us and I was oblivious to it except where we went through tunnels, but even then I continued to focus on the rear wheel ahead of me. Keeping going at a steady 23mph for miles on end when you usually potter around at 16–17mph was amazing—we ploughed through the route with ease. After lunch I found myself in another group where we raced along as fast as we could go; all of the usual niceties of group riding such as pointing out potholes and other hazards were out of the window as we pushed with all our might and tried to cling into each others’ paths. I’d never been in this situation before and it was incredible—when we all ended up at the next rest stop it literally had me laughing with joy at the fun we had just experienced. I felt like a teenager again.

Before I knew it we had come to the end of the racing and were entering Monza and the outskirts of Milan where traffic lights naturally brought the speed down. We had all agreed that we would reassemble as a team before heading to the finish line. ‘Tour Dad’ Fred was going to get on a bike and we would come across the finish line as we had started, all together again but this time with thoughts of what we had collectively achieved. We laughed and joked our way there, stopping for a final break at a cafe where we were served bucket loads of tapas alongside beer and coffee before heading on. You know the rest.


On any number of levels this is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Signing up to the ride was a massive commitment for my wife and I—we spent £1,400 of our savings on the entry fee, I had to raise at least £2,000 in sponsorship which seemed like an incredible hurdle at the time and I then had to train so hard for it, spending time away from my family in order to get the miles in. The night I signed up I immediately went to bed and proceeded to have the worst, most stressful night’s sleep for many years; it brought back vivid memories of some dark days I experienced at university and was a useful reminder of why the Get Connected service is so important for the young people who need their support.

The response from my friends, family and colleagues has been overwhelming and I have so far raised over £4,300; as a group we have hit our £120,000 target which is incredible. Thank you so much to everyone who has helped to support this invaluable service. The people involved in the event—at the charity, with the event organisers Action Challenge and the riders themselves—have all been wonderful to get to know and I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to take part. The memory of the trip will stay with me forever.

In Luxembourg, 400 miles in!

We are dashing through our trip and have so little time each day to fit in time to call home, write a blog post, process the day’s thoughts from the ride etc. As I said in my last post I’ll write this trip up properly when I get back. For now, please take a look at my Flickr photo stream and Twitter for my latest updates. There is also a Facebook group with posts from lots of others. Will write more soon!

On to Nancy tomorrow…

Two days in

I’m lying here in my bed in the Pullman Hotel in Eindhoven having earlier today finished 101 miles of cycling from the Hook of Holland. To say I am tired would be an understatement!

The trip so far has been indredible—all of the riders are lovely and there has been enough banter to keep us going. This is great because we always seem to be in a major rush—we’re up early, breakfasted and on the road early and then whistling through the day with riding, two brief rest stops and a little bit of time for lunch. I’m already thinking that I am going to have to post some short highlights here and then pull together a more substantial post about the trip when I’m back and have had time to process my thoughts. Apologies if this is incoherent!

Here are a few notes about the journey so far…

Day one

London to Harwich was a good way to get us started. A beautiful morning, a fun and well-equipped start line (coffee and three croissants on top of those I had before I left the house!), rain within a couple of hours of leaving (I’m sure we’ll need to get used to it) and then brightening up as the day wore on. We ended up finishing the day in a few different groups as the hills, relatively small as they were, split us up. I came in on my own behind the main front pack and didn’t feel too bad body-wise. Lunch and dinner were both a mad rush and there were near-mutinies when people were told they would have to skip their puddings! We had showers at the pub and then a fun 2mi slow ride in the dark from the pub to the passenger port.

Some other pics:


At the velodrome prior to the start


Happy to see Harwich!



End of day one. Smashed it!


Day two

A late night, a switch to Central European Time and a 6:30am wake-up call (to the tune of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, I kid you not) meant that we were pretty bleary-eyed and running on adrenaline.


Grease is the word!



Ready for day two. Note the Holland-themed top!



Getting ready to leave the ferry


Today I found out that Holland is beautiful—the houses are immaculate and the scenery is stunning. The country is completely built for bikes. We must have completed 95% of the 101mi route today on cycle paths! The UK has nothing to compare to this.



After arriving at our hotel in Eindhoven we had a short time to get changed before heading out for an incredible amount of tapas at the lovely restaurant across the road.

I am absolutely knackered and keep dropping my phone as I type this so will have to stop here. Up early tomorrow for breakfast and then we roll out of here at 8am, headed for Spa. Onward!