Weeknote #35 — Jozi redux

Johannesburg felt different this time. After a tragic fatal shooting close to my client’s office a couple of weeks ago, I saw the landscape through a new lens, my senses heightened as I walked to and from my hotel. I am so grateful to live in a place where I don’t feel the need to continuously think about my safety as I wander around. It’s hard to understand how people can tolerate the potential of armed violence at every turn, wearing you down as time goes by.

The week was focused on catching up with all of the key SA-based people involved in my programme and making sure that we are aligned on how it will be funded and executed in the coming months. Having regular calls in the diary is no substitute for catching up face to face and having the space for the conversation to diffuse and expand. As well as focusing on the agenda I also picked up lots of feedback on the direction that the teams need from me as Programme Manager. I finished the week with a renewed sense of purpose and clarity on what needs to get done. We are going to need to be super-focused as a team in order to deliver the work to the agreed timeframes and we need to start now.

I had my least successful week ever in terms of connectivity, with far better access from my hotel room than from my client’s office. All travellers within our part of the firm have difficulties when they visit the head office and it was useful to feel their pain myself. The programme we are running will fix the issues, but it is some months away from delivering and we need to continue to do enough to minimise the current problems. Not easy when the team is small and there is a lot of future-state work to do.

Our software rollout continued to go very well. I had an early wake-up on Tuesday morning to take a call with the team. We needed to navigate a miscommunication — and subsequent misconfiguration — that dated back a few weeks, but luckily it wasn’t anything too serious. It was another reminder of just how difficult communication can be, particularly with physical and language barriers in place. The team on the ground running the rollout have been doing a great job, and overall it is our smoothest deployment yet. They still have another week to go and I am hoping that they will have a good amount of time to focus on showing people how to utilise some of the new tools as opposed to just dealing with issues, and it looks like this is on track.

Following my spot at the ‘meet the teacher’ evening last week, I had a parent of a very young pupil get in touch to find out more about being a governor. It’s always such a pleasure to talk to people about the role and I haven’t yet found anyone who has been put off by anything I’ve told them. Hopefully we’ll meet up for a coffee and informal interview in a week or two to take things further.

I got back from my trip on Saturday morning to find a number of new vinyl albums waiting for me. Getting music through the post is another unexpected joy, and it was very exciting to unwrap the discs. I spent a lot of the weekend with the turntable spinning my slowly-expanding collection as we pottered about the house. So far my experience with buying records from Discogs has been really good and the records have been just as described. It has got me thinking about what albums make good purchases — do you buy things you think you might like, or commit cash only to those that you know that you do? I can see Spotify being a place where I discover new things and I can then support the artists I like by buying their albums.

Next week: Crunch time to get ourselves organised with budgets and plans, and school governor meetings start again.

Weeknote #34 — Autumn Leaves

Monday and Tuesday were packed to the rafters with meetings and it wasn’t until Wednesday that I managed to get time to myself to get some things done. Those things mainly consisted of trying to get our budget profile in place; the work we started last week has continued, but at a slow pace. I have come to realise what I’ve always known at the back of my mind, that I will have to do the work myself and estimate it. Budgets, like project plans, are never correct, but they are a model of how things could play out in the future and they are far far better than flying by the seat of your pants as you go.

One of the key things about managing a project or programme — or anything, for that matter — is that you can never actually make anybody do anything. Everything in a plan relies on the motivation and goodwill of those that are tasked with getting the work done. Some weeks I realise this more vividly than others. In this past week I feel as though I have been chasing a lot of people to little avail. This is much harder when those people are in an office thousands of miles away as it is a fine line between keeping in touch just enough to be at the forefront of their mind and hounding them until they don’t want to help you anymore. In the grander scheme of things, my programme is a tiny piece of the worlds that they manage and when it is a contest for attention between my programme and resolving an issue with a production system impacting vast swathes of users, there is only going to be one winner. I had a little more luck with people in the same building where I managed to get the right person in a room and iterated multiple times what I need from them. Although we’ve agreed that we’ll have something by the end of the week I am sure I’ll need to still chase a little bit. Our global software rollout — the first phase of our much bigger programme of work — will be complete in a couple of weeks and I need to make sure that there is enough of a ‘what’s next?’ plan in front of everybody so that we keep the momentum going.

My attempt at trying out a new approach of using some of my commute to write down five things to absolutely get done that day has been useful, but will need some perseverance to get right. With any new habit it is very easy to stop early on and very difficult to keep going long enough to learn how to fine tune it. The first day I tried the process I found it very helpful to keep going back to the small list every time I had a spare moment, and I managed to get four out of the five things done. The second day I managed two and a half and then days three and four I barely scratched the surface. I am sure that there is a trick to taking this list and knowing when to block out the time out on the calendar to get the work done, but it is difficult when there are days of essential or immovable meetings and there is only an hour or two to work on the items, particularly when they involve interacting with other people who are either in different timezones, have decided to go home on time, or both.

It’s been interesting to finish reading The Culture Code this week which covered a lot of detail on what makes great teams great; the key message that is resonating with me a few days later is that:

This reflects the truth that many successful groups realize: Their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself. If they get their own relationships right, everything else will follow.

It’s interesting to look at teams I have been in before where things have been highly-functional and cooperative versus being on a negative downward spiral and the effect that has had on the work. I’ve started to slip behind with the WB40 book club but still have a week to get through the rest of Everybody Lies, which is already excellent.

One of our long-standing team members leaves us next week. On Friday we had a lovely lunch at Wahaca St Paul’s, made memorable by a breakdown in communication between the waiter and I which meant we ordered food to feed a table of almost double the size. The food turns up in little tapas-style dishes and at some point, where there was no more room for anything else, we realised that there had been a mistake and asked them to stop bringing more. It reminded me a bit of the weird scene in Magical Mystery Tour where an evil-looking John Lennon keeps heaping piles of food to Jessie Robins and Ivor Cutler.

The menu had confusingly listed meals for two with the price for one or two. I said to our waiter that we would start small and add some more dishes if we were still hungry, and as we spoke my ‘two of these’ (i.e. a meal for two) was turned into ‘two meals for two’, i.e. for four. I wonder if I’m the first to do this, or if it is a general usability issue. The restaurant manager was good about it, and we ended up paying for four instead of six ‘meals for two’.

It’s sad to see our teammate go. She pre-dates my time with the programme and really came into her own with some significantly difficult parts of the work we did with our software rollout. The role is changing and while we find someone to take up the reins of the reshaped role longer-term we have a team member joining us for a month from an overseas office; it’s a great solution as they get exposure to a different location and we have someone that was already in the team picking up the work.

The week was rounded off with a visit from a design agency which I came to know through the WB40 podcast. A couple of weeks ago my client has asked if I knew any companies with a very specific skillset and I immediately thought of them. It’s a great feeling to be the glue to bring two sets of people together and to watch them get to know each other. Hopefully they will be able to do some good work together.

It’s been a week of new beginnings at home with my wife going back to work at her school, our youngest boy starting his penultimate primary year and our eldest going off to secondary school for the first time. Despite everyone being pretty tired as they got back into sleeping and waking at normal hours I don’t think it could have gone much better. Everyone seems happy. Home life seems to get more fun as the boys have been getting older (although the arguments we sometimes have get more complicated to navigate) and it’s strange to think that I now have two boys who walk themselves to and from school. I’m sure there will be lots of ups and downs ahead as we approach their teenage years but it’s lovely to be together as a family right now.

I went to school on Wednesday for the annual ‘meet the new teacher’/‘new to the school’ evening. At the end I spoke for a minute or two to the assembled parents about being a school governor. Recruiting new governors is an ongoing task no matter how many people you have on the board already; there is such a long runway before they take off, feel like know what they are doing and are effective in the work so you need to have people lined up to replace those that leave. I hope to hand the Chair role over this year; one of the first and most important jobs the incoming Chair will need to do is to put in place a succession plan for when they move on.

I had a morning mini-meltdown when I came down to breakfast this week, finding that the cats had seemingly been trying to reenact the climactic scene from Carrie overnight. I have no idea what was killed, but it couldn’t have been small to have had that much blood in it. I wouldn’t mind so much if it was a one-off but they are slowly wearing me down. We’ve had the cats for four years or so and despite people telling me at the start that they would grow out of catching things, bringing them in, killing them and occasionally eating them, things they so no signs of letting up. I have such a love/hate relationship with them which in recent times has been veering much more towards the latter.

This week a lot of my spare time has been spent learning more and more about vinyl and enjoying my new turntable. I may be a little obsessed. I have a tiny collection of records, mostly from a batch that my parents dropped off to me that they had lying around at home, and I have to say that the equipment is making songs I thought I’d never play again sound quite amazing. I’m now working on expanding the collection and dealing with the reality of buying vinyl where demand vastly outstrips supply. Any thoughts of getting an original mono copy of the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debby have been scuppered by the eye-watering £1,000+ asking price, as has even trying to get an original Modern Life Is Rubbish by Blur which is now going for around £55. I’ve ventured into the world of making a couple of second-hand record purchases on Discogs and am loving the anticipation of the records turning up in the post. I’ve found some excellent blogs and podcasts and will try and put some more thoughts into a separate post of my own when I make the time. A bit like when I took up cycling, I somehow can’t believe I’ve waited this long to really enjoy the qualitative experience of music again when it has always been such an important part of my life.

Next week: Johannesburg again. Plenty of meetings, dinners, and continuing to build relationships with the people that are going to play a big part in our programme as we go through the next year.

Loving the Dear Data project. Beautiful visualisations, one a week, recorded analogue on a postcard and sent across the Atlantic to a partner doing the same thing back at you. What a massive commitment this represents.

Some days I love being a school governor. Kicked off the academic year by introducing myself to parents this evening at the ‘meet the teacher’ event, trying to encourage them to participate in governing. Such a privilege to play a very small part in a great school.

Weeknote #33 — New routines

The start of a new school year and never-decreasing pressures at work are making me feel that my weeknotes are becoming a bit of a bind. I know I need to find a better style but I don’t think I would get the reflective value out of them if they were as super-brief as others that I read. I’ll keep trying.

Just like last year, having already had a few days off in August I didn’t feel as though I needed to take yet another day of leisure for the Bank Holiday so ended up working at home. Being a contractor means that I have more freedom to pick and choose when I work, and being able to invoice for it is a motivator. My main concern was the impending programme Steering Committee meeting on Wednesday which still needed lots of prep. As the Programme Manager, it’s one of the most important meetings that I run; I am organising the work and running the programme on behalf of the programme sponsors and their colleagues and this is a key point of focus where we get together. It is seldom straightforward to go through the process of assembling materials for the meeting that are as brief as possible, whilst still giving plenty of information on where we are and the challenges ahead so that they committee can do their job of steering effectively. The end result always looks small compared to the effort that went in. Monday was spent pulling all of the raw material together and getting the flow of the key messages in place; a call with my client that evening and a very long day on Tuesday were needed to get it over the line. The main focus of the meeting was to walk through and get feedback on our vision for our new IT architecture as well as to soften the ground on a complex internal budgeting discussion for next year1. We used a single diagram as a jumping-off point into the vision and it worked well, despite having some attendees following along on a teleconference. The work to prepare was well worth it.

For this meeting I put together a slide showing all of the decisions that the Steering Committee had made since its inception. Our meetings take place roughly every six weeks and it was interesting to see that we had three key ‘clusters’ of decisions a few months apart. This is really reflective of the programme where we have key points where we need to turn left or right and other times where we are just getting on with the work.

I was exhausted on Wednesday afternoon as the late nights caught up with me. Thursday was filled with lots of bitty meetings and Friday was similar. We held a short ‘go/no-go’ meeting for our plan to roll out software to our final city on our worldwide journey and it was brilliant to get the go-ahead. It felt a little emotional to now be at the final milestone of this part of the programme that we started a year ago. Although most of the team have turned their attention to the next, larger piece of work, we need to keep focused in September to make this a success.

I think I need to change tack with my daily routine. Somehow I need the really important stuff to be front and centre of what I do every day and make sure that I’m pushing the work along that will make a difference. Lots of great stuff gets done every day, but I with the days feeling ever-shorter as I get older I need to ensure that my focus is laser-sharp on doing the things that matter. Late on Friday afternoon an old tweet from JP Rangaswami popped into my head:

…and eight years on, there’s no harm in trying it.

I had some valuable feedback this week on how I present myself to the team that I work with. After nearly two decades as an employee and just over a year of being a contractor, I am very conscious of being happy to be out of the loop of appraisals, bonuses and the politics of internal job reshuffles and changes. However, I need to keep my joy to myself and be sensitive to what they are going through as full-time employees. A good team is built through shared experiences and challenges so I should check myself before emphasising our differences.

The weekend came and went very quickly. My youngest boy started a new year of football training late on Saturday morning which now coincides perfectly with my wife and my eldest boy coming back from running training a little further afield. Something tells me that a regular family Saturday cafe lunch will be a feature for us this year.

On Saturday afternoon I drove over to Deco Audio in Aylesbury to get advice on buying a turntable and ended up coming home with a Rega Planar 2. I’m already in love with it — it sounds beautiful — and am looking forward to getting into a new hobby of collecting and listening to vinyl.

I had a catch-up with a fellow school governor on Sunday morning as I hope to be handing the Chair role over to them this term. I’ve been Chair for three years now and although I love it, it is very difficult to do with a full-time job. I’m very grateful to have someone willing to pick up the reins and will be very pleased to support them.

On Sunday afternoon the boys and I took our bikes along the canal path and found ourselves chugging along in gorgeous late autumn sunshine towards Hemel Hempstead. I went out grudgingly, as I felt that I had far too much to get done that day, and had an impending sense of doom that there was barely any time left for everything I needed to do. I soon felt awful for making my feelings known. Within a few minutes of being out on the bikes I was loving being out with the kids, feeling ashamed for being a grump and wishing that I was a better, less selfish person — or at least better at taking a step back, realising what’s really important and keeping my ‘to do list anxiety’ to myself where my children are involved. Nobody said it — and maybe I read into things — but as we rode along it did feel a little bit like a marker of the end of the summer holidays just before the boys start their new school year and our eldest goes to secondary school. They don’t seem fazed, and I think my wife and I are more nervous for them than they are for themselves. I hope they both settle in really well.

Next week: A focused, short to-do list every day. A big focus on budgets. A short presentation to parents who are new to our school on what being a governor is all about. And a farewell to one of our team members.

  1. The way that finances work in large companies can be staggeringly complex. If you’ve never experienced it, JP Rangaswami’s blog post on the topic will give you a flavour. 

Overwhelming support in Berkhamsted for a ‘People’s Vote’ on the Brexit deal. Who are these people who think the government are doing a good job of negotiating it?!

It’s all relative

On my walk with the boys on Monday night we had a great ‘ramble chat’ that covered a vast range of topics. It was so lovely to hear them ask questions and respond to each other on how they interpreted the world. We got to talking about my work and I told them that my team had been tackling a problem of helping staff in different cities to have a faster connection to each other, but that there is a natural limit to how fast this can be. We talked about computer networks, the speed of light, and relativity. I gave them my understanding that time isn’t a thing that just exists on its own; it is related to space, and that time is perceived to be (or is?) slower for things that move faster. We watch a lot of Star Trek together and my youngest boy pointed out the connection where various fictional spaceships have ‘slingshotted’ around the Sun in order to gain enough speed to travel through time. I told them about the experiments where very accurate clocks were flown around in aircraft and got out of sync with the same clocks on the ground.

Back in the world of fact, it got me thinking about how much relativity really has an impact on everyday life. I wondered if going on lots of international business trips kept you younger, for example.

I had read before that GPS satellites have had to be designed to take relativity into account:

…the relativistic offset in the rates of the satellite clocks is so large that, if left uncompensated, it would cause navigational errors that accumulate faster than 10 km per day! GPS accounts for relativity by electronically adjusting the rates of the satellite clocks, and by building mathematical corrections into the computer chips which solve for the user’s location. Without the proper application of relativity, GPS would fail in its navigational functions within about 2 minutes.

So much for satellites that are moving at 14,000km/hr in orbits 20,000km above the Earth. What about people?

This article explains the impact on someone that travels around a lot at relatively high speed to the rest of us:

For this example we will look at an airline pilot. For simplicity let’s say that our pilot spends his or her whole career on the Atlantic route, flying (on average) 25 hours a week for 40 years at an average speed of 550 mph (880 km/h). This is undoubtedly a lot of “high” speed travelling but how much time will our pilot “save” due to time dilation?

… in a lifetime of flying our airline pilot saves a total of 0.000056 seconds as compared to an external observer.

Not much to be concerned about, but that number of 0.000056 seconds (56 microseconds) still seems big in that there are things in the real world that the that long. It’s roughly the same as the cycle time for the highest human-audible tone (20 kHz), or the read access latency for a modern solid-state computer drive which holds non-volatile computer data.

The boys shocked me when they said they wanted to come with me on a walk this evening, much needed after a day stuck working at home. An absolute delight; we had such a great time chatting, joking, listening to the sounds of the woods, finding traces of animals and spotting deer.

Weeknote #32 — Back to work

Back to work with a bump. On Monday I spent a minute or so staring blankly at my keyboard trying to remember my password, so my week and a half out of the office must have been a decent enough break. It felt as though I needed the Monday and Tuesday to fully warm my brain up, but by Wednesday I was firing on all cylinders.

We hit a key programme architecture deadline last Friday and reviewed our progress on Monday afternoon. The team have done well, but like everything, 80% of the work was done and agreed quickly and there is a danger that the remaining 20% could drag on for some time. It’s my job to ensure we have a well-understood definition of what ‘done’ looks like for this phase and then to push to close it out so that we can move onto the more detailed work.

There are a ton of things coalescing that all require attention right now:

  • Finishing off our initial software rollout in our final city in September. We have logistics to plan and some more testing to do, but we’re nearly there.
  • Closing out on our broader key architecture vision and getting agreement from all of the key stakeholders that we are done.
  • Off the back of the agreed architecture, pulling together an outline plan for how and when we will deliver across all of the sites.
  • Budgeting for next year within the strict deadlines for the firm. This is more than just a spreadsheet exercise; we are going to need to prove and justify why and where we need to spend, and win this argument internally. To do this, we’ll need to complete the budgeting for the whole department as the programme has a big impact across everything.
  • Representing all of this information into a programme Steering Committee pack that shows that we know what we are doing, gives the Committee sufficient levers for ‘steering’ the programme and doesn’t make commitments that we can’t meet.

Our Steering Committee meeting is on Wednesday and there is still lots of work to do to prepare the materials, so I am going to spend my bank holiday getting these put together as best as I can. It always feels as though the pack would be better if we just had one or two more weeks to get more prepped, but this feeling seems to exist no matter what — there is always more information that we could gather.

There’s only one week left to go until the children are back at school, and my eldest boy starts secondary school. I’m nervous for him but he seems quite relaxed about it; it’s going to be interesting living in a house with a boy who is well on the way to growing into an adult over the next few years.

A new school year means that I need to spend time getting prepped for our school governor year ahead. Every summer break I start the six weeks thinking that I will use some of my time to catch up with email, get our schedule of events drafted etc. but always find myself doing it just before the start of the autumn term. We are going to be a reduced team for a while as we said goodbye to some experienced governors last year, which may prove to be challenging. I am also expecting some shuffling of roles within the team. Hopefully we’ll hit the ground running. A year as a school governor always goes by in such a blur and it’s very difficult with a full time job to keep on top of it all.

A couple of my friends persuaded me to go with them to see a metal band from Seattle at The Black Heart pub on Tuesday (“£8, come on, you can’t go wrong!”). As always, I’m not one for bringing a change clothes to work so went along in my suit and ended up feeling like Chevy Chase as Ed Harley in a biker bar.

I didn’t care too much for the main act — I wonder how much they have got by on their name as opposed to their songs and musicianship — but the support band, Hot Soles, were great, and worth the price of entry alone. The venue was tiny with barely any elevation on the stage so it was very difficult to see, but it wasn’t packed for Hot Soles and we got a good view. From Sheffield, they are kind of a cross between The White Stripes and Peter Kay. In a good way.

The main act’s set was live-streamed to YouTube and is available to view for free.

Here’s a little podcast roundup:

  • This episode of Remainiacs is very good as ever, an excellent blend news and humour. No matter what you think about Brexit, the first nine minutes of the podcast are worth listening to, hearing from Simon Allison, a life-long Tory, about how he is being gagged at the upcoming conference. This is where we are now.
  • I’ve been getting my Formula 1 fix from the excellent Autosport Podcast as well as BBC’s The Chequered Flag. The latter has been excellent this season since they added Jolyon Palmer alongside the usual presenters of Jack Nicholls, Jennie Gow and occasionally Andrew Benson. The argumentative dynamic between Palmer and Nicholls is great and has made the show so much more interesting.
  • WB40 is now back from its summer break and the latest episode catches up with the book club reading list and more besides. I’m still keeping up but I’m not sure how long for. I’m not convinced that there are many other listeners reading along and although the books are great (particularly the current one which I’m enjoying immensely) I don’t have enough time to read these books along with others that are on my list. I need the space for the occasional work of fiction just for sanity’s sake.

I managed to fit in a couple of bike rides this weekend, a 40-mile road ride to a barbecue in Chertsey and then a 12-mile soaking wet ride along the canal path with the family on Sunday. Saturday was great, but without finding a way of fitting in any regular exercise into my week I’m always going to feel like I’m starting from scratch fitness-wise every time I get in the saddle. I don’t have a good answer for this yet but I’ll work on it.

Next week: Holiday season draws to a close, a packed lead-up to our programme Steering Committee meeting, prep for the school governor year, kids’ football training starts again, Album Club #90 and a Ride 999 reunion.

Alcohol and the perception of risk

Having given up alcohol a year and a half ago I was feeling pretty pleased with my choice when I read this story in The Guardian:

Even the occasional drink is harmful to health, according to the largest and most detailed research carried out on the effects of alcohol, which suggests governments should think of advising people to abstain completely.

Moderate drinking has been condoned for years on the assumption that there are some health benefits. A glass of red wine a day has long been said to be good for the heart. But although the researchers did find low levels of drinking offered some protection from heart disease, and possibly from diabetes and stroke, the benefits were far outweighed by alcohol’s harmful effects, they said.

Dr Robyn Burton, of King’s College London, said in a commentary in the Lancet that the conclusions of the study were clear and unambiguous. “Alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer,” she wrote.

But then you get to the concluding paragraphs which got me thinking about the perception of risk. I gave up drinking for lots of reasons, one of them being to improve my chances of long-term good health. However, unless you are an alcoholic, if you get sick you’ll probably not know how much the drinking contributed to it, if at all. I like David Spiegelhalter’s note to keep things in proportion.

But David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said the data showed only a very low level of harm in moderate drinkers and suggested UK guidelines were very low risk.

“Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention,” he said. “There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

Posts created in the micro.blog iOS and MacOS apps create entries on my WordPress blog that have comments disabled, and I can’t work out why. Is this a design decision? Is there any way to change it so that comments are enabled?