Time for a change

I left my job today.

Since I graduated from university I have only ever worked for two companies, albeit in a lot of different roles that have included being a software developer, a business analyst, a business manager and a project, programme and portfolio manager, sometimes with multiple hats on at the same time. I feel very lucky to have started my career by landing in an amazing team and for all of the education and opportunities that then stemmed from this. Leaving my first company after 11 years in 2010 felt like a giant step — I remember worrying whether I was just good at working at that firm or whether I had value to offer more generally. My fears were soon allayed once I started and it gave me a massive confidence boost to know that I could make a switch to something new. I continued to learn, working with interesting people on challenging problems across a wide variety of different functions. The past seven years at this company were very different and it has been great to get access to senior people and a breadth of understanding of how an investment bank works, things that would be much harder to do in a larger firm.

As of tomorrow I will be working for myself for the first time, offering my services to clients as a portfolio, programme or project manager. I’ve always considered myself to be a very risk-averse person when it comes to employment so deciding to ‘go solo’ is a big change for me. I’m excited by the challenge — it will be motivating to be judged solely on how happy my clients are and whether I am continuing to add value to them. Over the past few weeks I have had to get to grips with small business accounting, insurances of many different kinds (both for my new small company as well as my family) and getting used to the idea of no longer being an employee. Hopefully I have everything covered and I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough if I haven’t. My new working life — and a new adventure — starts on Monday and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Response hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magical Internet, making connections and asking the right questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan: Totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”

Raising confident, competent children

My employer has recently signed up to the CityMothers network which gives staff the opportunity to network with other working parents and attend seminars and events organised by the group. Yesterday morning I went along to my first one, hosted at the law firm Bird & Bird, on ‘Raising Confident, Competent Children.’

The presenter, Anita Cleare, was excellent. I gathered from the comments of other attendees that some had been to her seminars a few times before; lots of them had very glowing feedback about her presentations and a few mentioned that they had taken action based on her advice which had changed their home lives for the better.

The seminar was good in that it reinforced to me that my wife and I are already doing—I think—a reasonably good job with our children. Time will tell! However there were also a few tips that I picked up as well as some tweaks that I think we need to make in terms of how we deal with certain situations.

The session was divided into six subject areas and here are my notes from each one:

Encouraging cooperation

  • If you need your child to do something and have a request of them, use the following process:
    • Get close to them
      • Makes you more difficult to ignore
      • Means that you do not need to raise your voice
    • Use your child’s name
    • Give a clear instruction—don’t be ambiguous
    • Pause for at least five seconds
    • Praise them if they do as you ask
    • Repeat once if necessary—don’t ask more than twice, otherwise you are giving a signal that it is okay to ignore you
    • If you are ignored twice, back up the instruction with a suitable consequence.
      • This will be difficult at first
      • Make sure you keep calm and do not shout
  • This is all about getting into a habit of listening and doing what is asked the first or second time

Being considerate

  • Children are unable to truly empathise when they are young—they are unlikely to truly empathise until they are much older—however they can learn the behaviours of kindness
    • Listening
    • Taking turns
    • Ask what others would like to do
    • Etc.
  • As a parent you need to model good behaviour for your children
    • Avoid criticising others
    • Point out others’ good points
    • Praise your child for being helpful
    • Ask your child about feelings
    • Encourage your child to make amends
    • Provide a consequence for inconsiderate or hurtful behaviour

Social skills

  • Encourage friendship
  • Expect appropriate behaviour from your child and from visitors
  • There was a tip from someone in the audience where she is part of a group that take it in turns to have random Friday off and have the kids over in a group. “This is a lot easier now the children are older.

Having healthy self-esteem

  • There is a self-reinforcing cycle about having or not having self esteem. If children don’t have it they will exhibit behaviours such as giving up on things easily, not making friends etc.
  • Things that are related to positive self-esteem in children:
    • Thinking and believing good things about themselves
    • Receiving lots of praise, affection and attention from parents
    • Having achievements recognised
    • Having clear limits and appropriate discipline
  • An example was given about a child who comes off of a football pitch and says “I had a rubbish match, I played terribly.”
    • Don’t contradict this, especially with an untruth such as “No, you played great!” Instead, help them interpret this and think about what they would do differently next time.
    • What they said was perfectly reasonable as long as they are not globalising and catastrophising it such as “I don’t like football, I’m rubbish at all sports.”
    • Try to help them to look at what happened objectively and avoid negative thinking.
  • Someone in the audience raised a point that their elder child says to their younger child that they are better than them at something and this makes it hard for the younger child to gain or keep self-esteem.
    • Again, don’t contradict this if it is true—don’t say “no you’re not!”
    • Instead, try to help interpret why this is (“he’s two years older than you”) and look towards the future (“when you’re grown up you may be better than him at that.”)
  • Encourage your child to set goals and work towards them.

Problem-solving steps

  • Children need to be guided through the process of problem solving, i.e.:
    • Define the problem
    • Come up with solutions
    • Evaluate the options
    • Decide on the best solution
    • Put the plan into action
    • Review how it worked and revise the plan if necessary
  • How to help them do this
    • Set a good example and model doing it yourself
    • Play games that promote thinking
    • Encourage your child to find answers
    • Prompt your child to work at solving problems
    • Congratulate your child when they solve a problem on their own
    • Involve your child in family problem-solving, e.g. “What do we think we can do so that we aren’t shouting at each other to get out of the door every morning?”

Becoming independent

  • If you’re a working parent, don’t compensate for your absence by running around and doing everything for them when you are at home—you’re not helping anybody in the long term
  • Give the children simple jobs to do
  • Know they won’t be able to do them very well at the start but they will get better
  • You need to teach and show them how to do it or they won’t do it
  • Examples (for my family) are making their own beds, putting dirty clothes in the wash basket, tidying up, feeding the cats, putting things in the dishwasher
  • Families live in houses and families need to take responsibilities for the things that happen there, not just the grown-ups
  • Children doing jobs will create more quality time for you as a family!
  • Morning traps
    • Getting up late
    • Rushing
    • Not being organised
    • Taking over and doing everything for your child
    • Giving too many prompts and reminders
    • Can be all about priorities and power. Align the priorities and hand over power. Structure it so that if these things are done they can play or have a reward. Ramp it up gently—if there are five things to do then the first day reward them if they do one thing on their own!
    • Someone in the audience says this has been amazing for her family life—her child has to be at the door ready by 8:15am and then gets to use the tablet in the evening.
    • Suggestion from someone of having a stopwatch to see how fast they can get ready for school
  • Have a set time for homework

It was definitely worthwhile and good to have some time to reflect on how we do things in our house. The view from the office was pretty fantastic too:

Gerard Venes, 1963-2013

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It was incredibly sad to learn on Friday evening that Gerard Venes had passed away after being ill for the past few months. I worked directly for Gerard for a number of years in Human Resources IT at UBS and have very happy memories of those times. This picture is typical of how I remember him, deep in thought about one of the many issues we encountered on the big project we worked on together.

As well as the intense amount of hard work that we got through over the course of those few years I also remember spending time talking and debating all kinds of things with Gerard and the other guys we worked with, whether religion, gardening (I had just found myself in possession of my first garden and Gerard was an incredibly enthusiastic gardener) or London winning its Olympic bid. He took the conversations very seriously and they were always enjoyable because of it.

I learned a lot from working for Gerard. He really pushed me to be as successful as I could be in my role and always gave me food for thought in terms of my approach to my job. He supported me and took his role as my line manager seriously, spending a lot of time making sure I had an annual review that I could use to better myself, pointing out things that I could improve on and ensuring my achievements were recognised.

In January I dropped a note to Gerard to see how things were going and didn’t think much about the fact that I didn’t get a reply. I hadn’t heard that he had been ill until I received a note from a friend out of the blue on Friday. It’s such a shame that I won’t be able to talk to him again, even more so that he was only 49 and won’t be able to grow old with his wife or see his three children grow up. He was a lovely man who will be missed.

Another long night

At 17:05 last night I was told about a problem we had with one of our systems at work. I’m starting to become more involved as a testing/ QA manager and so I started to help to look into the problem. I thought I’d be just a couple of hours late home but I ended up getting back over twelve hours later. Not great! We’ve made some progress but still have some things to work through today so bang goes spending a relaxing weekend with my wife. Ah well, I guess in the world of IT that’s the job you sometimes have to do. I’m feeling a bit giddy today but I’m hanging in there.

Coincidentally, on the subject of software defects, I saw a great blog posting yesterday about a new software certification program called “It works on my machine” – an oft-heard but seldom comforting phrase that developers seem to say when confronted with a user problem. I think we’ll have to start stamping this on the front of our applications at work if this continues!

Not flying short haul

TrainAs the months and years roll by I find myself questioning more and more things that I do. I’ve been asked to go to Zürich for some meetings in a couple of weeks; a little while ago I would have been looking forward to a business class flight and eating out on expenses for a few nights but now the first thing that pops into my head is how bad the trip will be for the environment. There are stories appearing every day about the Siberian permafrost melting and revealing loads of woolly mammoth tusks as it does so (if that doesn’t mean much then take a look at the definition of permafrost) and the polar ice dramatically disappearing. I don’t really want to contribute to that more than I do already.

Yes, I know that I can carbon offset my flights but what good does that really do? The Carbon Trust aren’t a charity and to quote Rob Newman I can’t see them funding a project to put Bangladesh on stilts any time soon. Who they are, where they come from, who regulates them and how they came up with their pricing scheme is a bit of a mystery.

So, I’ve taken the step of looking into how to get from London to Zürich by rail. As soon as I did so I came across a splendid website which not only explains exactly how to do it but much more besides. If you’re off to Europe and enjoy travelling or simply hate flying then I seriously suggest you check it out. There are suggested routes, tips on how to get the best fares and information and pictures on the different types of carriage you can expect to encounter. The site also makes the point that a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted from a plane does 2.7 times the damage of it being emitted at ground level.

Basically, a trip to Zürich via Paris will take the best part of a day. I figured I could probably travel on a Monday and then get a sleeper service back to Paris through Friday night/ Saturday morning. I raised the thought with a few people at work today and can report that 80% think I’m nuts to even consider it. For example, when I called the travel desk to enquire whether they handled train bookings and said that I wanted to go to Zürich I was asked “Why on earth would you want to do that?” I lamely responded “Green reasons…” and started to feel a little bit nuts myself – hopefully she didn’t think that I had an obsessive colour preference or some kind of nasal condition. My boss called me “Swampy.” More seriously, he made the point that the time wouldn’t be as productive as time spent in the office – this is true, but during the whole office/ airport/ queue for security/ departure lounge/ short haul flight with food/ passport control-taxi rigmarole there is no opportunity to get a lot done whereas on a train I could at least work offline for a few hours. I might even catch up with all the emails and documents I’ve been meaning to read and get one or two of my own written.

In terms of cost, there isn’t that much of a difference between a first-class train fare and return business class flights; the train fares just seem a bit more random depending on what website, currency and method you choose to buy them.

I must admit that I do have utopian dreams of setting an example that the whole company begins to follow but in reality I know that I’d just be doing it because I believe it’s right. Plus, it would be great to see a bit of where I’m travelling to on the way.

What do you think? Have I lost the plot or am I right to be pursuing this?