Weeknote #22 — Johannesburg

A week away on business always goes by in a flash and this was no exception. I’m writing this from the plane home, sitting here on the tarmac at Johannesburg airport and not quite believing that the week is behind us already. And what a week; we finally kicked off a stream of work on our programme that I’ve been working on for over six months and it’s great to get this ‘cab off the rank’. We flew down with four team members from the vendor that we have chosen to work with, and for each of them it was their first time in South Africa. It was really interesting to see the country and the scale of the firm’s Johannesburg operation through their eyes. Years ago in a previous job I used to come down here once a month or so and I always love coming back — the people are so great and there is always such a warm welcome.

Our main event was a workshop on Tuesday with IT Architecture staff from across the firm. I spent Friday afternoon and evening getting prepared and making sure that everyone had their presentations and discussion material in order. My role was to run the day and to present an overview of my programme at the start, drawing links to why we had our attendees there and setting the scene for what we needed from them. The afternoon was spent in three ‘deep dive’ sessions where we captured a bunch of things for follow-up later in the week. The workshop could not have been better attended and our team felt very supported throughout the day; we all left feeling that everything had gone really well and we were all set for the rest of the week.

A colleague booked out a room in one of the big office buildings for the rest of the week so that our team had a well-advertised base for people to drop in and see them. From Wednesday to Friday there was a steady stream of visitors to come and cover a massive variety of IT architecture and infrastructure topics, giving our team direction on what was happening in the South African operation and what things they need to consider in the wider context of the firm. In a very real sense the work is just beginning but it could not have got off to a better start.

Unusually for a week away I spent a couple of evenings at the hotel with room service for dinner. Typically there are meals every night with different people but this time a few people were suffering with stomach issues so we didn’t go out so much. We had a great team night out at the Wanderers cricket ground for a braai and to watch the opening game of the World Cup. Those of us from the UK like to rib the local team about how mild their ‘winter’ is but once the sun went down we really felt the fact that central heating is non-existent in Johannesburg and shivered our way to the end of the evening. Great fun and lovely to catch up.

There’s always so much to do on a trip away. It always feels that time is best spent catching up with people and building relationships, which inevitably means that the email backlog stacks up and I end up having to do any ‘real work’ in the evenings, with a lot of it just being reshuffling my calendar for the remainder of the week. This means late nights, leaping into bed with my head still buzzing and very little wind-down time, and an increasing level of tiredness as Friday approaches. By the time I get to being at the airport I’m toast.

My iPad really came into its own this week. To get a ‘proper’ work environment I had to connecting back into the company’s remote desktop was via my laptop which felt laggy and clunky. It was great to be able to quickly deal with emails and documents from the iPad and also to use BlueJeans for videoconferences no matter where I found myself throughout the week. BlueJeans is a bit of a battery muncher but works really well.

Faces and names hidden to protect the innocent!

Faces and names hidden to protect the innocent!

Evenings in meant that, for the first time I can remember, I made use of the hotel gym. It was only thirty minutes on the exercise bike but I sweated buckets. Every little helps, right?

Next week: Keeping the momentum. Consolidating everything the team learned this week. Trying to work out how we can get software rolled out and data migrated in our final two countries whilst struggling with resource constraints at our supplier. Turning my attention to getting more things going, getting the next programme steering committee pack in place and putting together a roadmap for the remainder of the year.

Thoughts are with Berkhamsted local Michael Broadwith who is attempting the record time for cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. His ride can be tracked live here and tweets are being posted at @endtoend2018.

Debating with someone as to whether email server to server connections over the Internet are secure. I assumed no. I think this backs me up. And this tool goes into specifics for a given domain.

Weeknote #21 — Curb your enthusiasm

This week continued the theme of the previous two with wall-to-wall meetings pretty much every day. However, for some reason it actually felt like a ‘glass half full’ week and I was pretty satisfied at the end of it. I’m not sure why it feels different; perhaps because the meetings went well? I felt like I had a clear purpose and direction at almost all of them and that I was moving things in the direction I wanted them to go.

I still can’t lose the feeling of just having too many things going on. This weekend has been tough with childrens’ running, the annual running club social evening, a football tournament, a summer street party, packing for a business trip as well as lots of computer-based admin like doing our monthly household budget. Serendipitously, my wife spotted a note that someone locally is offering ironing services so for the first time ever we decided to try it out. Having six shirts ironed for £5 and getting over an hour back into my weekend feels like a fantastic trade so I’ll definitely be back for more.

I still have lots of unfinished work in my various inboxes that I haven’t been able to get anywhere near to. I’m on a business trip for the next week so I’m hoping that the evenings will give me plenty of opportunity to catch up. Partially I need to try and curb my enthusiasm for new things before I end up with new commitments — over the past few weeks I’ve joined a book club as well as a monthly lunch club. All good fun but they take up time. It’s been a great month for the companies that have issued insurance renewal notices to me, as I’ve had no time to look at them and shop around!

I really enjoyed reading Now The Chips Are Down for the WB40 book club, which covered the BBC Micro’s place in history as a platform, but I was a bit disappointed that only a couple of us read it. It’s been interesting to hear the reactions to the ‘academic’ style of the text — I tend to prefer this to the more colloquial style of The Power of Moments (our previous book) or The Excellence Dividend (which we’re reading now). I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with having the main book that I’m reading being dictated by the list we have put together, particularly if not everyone is up for reading the books, but we’ll see how it goes.

We have a big workshop scheduled for Tuesday where we’ll be trying to build a team between a vendor that we have brought on board in London and key staff who are working in Johannesburg. There’s an always a little nervousness before an event like this that it will fall flat on its face but I’m pretty confident that it will go well. I managed to squeeze just enough preparation in over the past week or so to get the right names on the attendee list and an outlined agenda together. Although I still have a few slides to organise for the kick-off, there should be enough time to get them done.

I spent a lot of time in vendor meetings this week, some with those that we are using already for various projects and others that we met for the first time. We’ve covered an overview of IT security and GDPR with a Microsoft slant to it, we have visioned the workplace of the future and the users and technology within it, dived deep into the world of audio-visual, and looked at the best practices of how to move team-based ‘shared drive’ data to the cloud1. Troy Hunt got a mention at one of the security sessions and it was interesting to encounter his name outside of the context of the weekly podcast and regular blog posts that he puts out. If you don’t follow his work, and have even just a passing interest in IT security, then you really should.

Taking a step back from all of the meetings has made me realise just how much change we are potentially introducing into the organisation over the next 12-18 months. The big theme that runs through everything is how much work we will need to do in order to bring everyone along on the journey with us. Training and cultural change are going to be all-important. So far we have rolled out a relatively small desktop change and moved a couple of workloads to the cloud, but we already have a big spread of people ranging from those who struggle with finding their emails to others who are leaping ahead in trying to use as much of the new technology as possible. Thinking about more advanced security technology is interesting in the context of most people not even knowing that email sent over the Internet is completely unencrypted. We can always do more training and support to ease the transition and it will be interesting to see whether we get it right. Will we even know if we have?

One of the most interesting discussions we had was on the psychology and etiquette of meetings. Over the past six months I have got very used to running a daily 30-minute project meeting from my desk via BlueJeans, with 10 or so other project team members videoconferencing in from wherever they happen to be, including offices, homes, cars and walking along the street. I love the comfort of being at my desk and having all of my materials to hand — if I want to show the team a document or a drawing I can just pull it up and share my screen. It can feel a bit strange when there are a number of you in the same office all joining the videoconference from your desks but it is a great leveller in that everyone is getting the same experience. As soon as those of you in the same office move to a conference room and still have other people conferencing in remotely you move to a two-track meeting, with one conversation happening in the room and needing to remember to bring people in. I recalled an article by a company who understands this well and prefers conferencing from the desk even if there are just a few people who are mainly in the same office. My client going ‘remote first’ would be a massive cultural shift. It will be interesting how people are working a year from now.

A small company has so few internal abstractions compared to a large one. Working in a small company is like being much closer to the machine with the engine cover off. Years ago when I ran projects for UBS we were given a budget and could broadly spend it across the globe however we needed to. We didn’t worry too much about the shape of the project changing from a geographical perspective, nor were we concerned about things such as FX rates fluctuating throughout the year. Any one project was so small relative to the whole portfolio that the Finance department dealt with any collective over/underspends and budget changes. A project or programme manager in a smaller company has to worry about all of it. We had a couple of meetings with our Finance team this week that vividly highlighted some difficulties with what we plan to do — the fact that our programme has budget in locations X and Y whereas we want to spend money in locations A and B really matters and it isn’t immediately clear how we can do it effectively. We could be over budget in a location A and under by an equivalent amount in location X, but unless someone is looking at that consolidated view of the budget, owners of both A and X are going to be upset. I’ve still got to unpack the detail of the implications but it may be that the plan changes dramatically in response to this new knowledge.

One of my team asked me in our 1:1 who inspired me as a child and who inspires me now. Right now I would have to say it’s those people who seem to be able to regularly deliver great things, still have time for a family, and that are able to ‘work out loud’. Troy Hunt. Manton Reece. If I could get to be even halfway as productive and impactful as them I would be doing okay. I don’t think I had any ‘inspirations’ as such when I was little, but I definitely had people in my life that meant a lot to me. On Saturday night at our annual running club social I got chatting to one of the other parents who is a primary school teacher. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about a teacher I had at my school in Feltham before we moved away from the area when I was nine. She was friendly, kind and really pushed me to do more with the BBC Micro we had in our classroom, setting me on a path with technology which has shaped the rest of my life. I’ve tried to trace her to say thank you but unfortunately she had a very common name — Miss Brown — and the school have no record of her working there. I took the picture below of her and my classmates on my last day at the school in 1986 (on my recent Christmas present of a Halina 110 ‘flashmatic’ camera), while my dad waited behind me ready to drive us off to a new life in a new town.

I had some interesting conversations with a colleague on the topic of people annoying you. I talked about the ‘Buddhist’2 approach to thinking about this in terms of actually what’s going on is (a) someone had done something and (b) you’ve chosen to get annoyed. I think this helps — it’s certainly helped me in the past — but it isn’t always that straighforward and I know I need to practice this more, particularly at home. We also spoke about the Feedback Model from the amazing Manager Tools podcast; their write-up of the process is well worth a (re)read. Things would be so much better with more feedback, every day.

At home it was strange to have our eldest boy away for a whole week on a residential trip, by far the longest time he’s been away from us. Parenting one is so much easier than parenting two as there are far less arguments, but I’m sure I speak for both my wife and I in saying that we wouldn’t change anything. They are great kids and we are so lucky to have them. Our lounge only took a couple of days to decorate so I managed to get the TV and Xbox wired back up so that the youngest one could get some solo gaming in while his brother was away. It looks great. We also took the opportunity to purge a shedload of books, DVDs and CDs that we were never going to consume again. People of Berkhamsted, your charity shops runneth over with our old media.

School governing saw us come to the end of a long line of meetings which will hopefully result in something very special and worthwhile at the end of it. I have my fingers crossed for the next few weeks.

Next week: Johannesburg, for the first time in nearly a year, to kick off one of the critical streams of our programme. Looking forward to being back with the team.

(I’m writing this on the plane and was hoping to post from here, but it seems that the in-flight Wi-Fi doesn’t want to play with my VPN…so publishing on Monday it is.)

  1. We were thinking that Office 365 Groups is the answer as you get a SharePoint site plus a lot of other tools, but it sounds as though there is a lot more structure and flexibility provided through provisioning a standard SharePoint site on its own. We’ll be digging into this a lot more in the coming weeks. 
  2. I’m not sure it’s actually Buddhist. 

Hertfordshire School Athletics Association Track and Field Championships 2018 — 600m silver. Great job!

Cracking team night out at Flight Club in Shoreditch. The cameras never missed a dart and the food and drinks were excellent. Completely won over the skeptics who raised an eyebrow when I asked if they fancied a game of darts!

Weeknote #20 — Say No Go

It felt good to have taken Monday off (along with the rest of the UK) to get some things done around the house and not worried about work. However, the long weekend translated to me firing on what felt like only three of the four cylinders the next day. It’s very difficult to be ‘off the ball’ at work when you’re in a leadership role. Many years ago in my career I might have a day where I didn’t feel like talking to too many people and could just get my head down to do some solo work; this is impossible now.

I found a fantastic feature in Outlook that I had never known about which allows the use of logical OR in search folders. I use search folders all the time; this feature is a game-changer for me in being able to keep up with all of the most important stuff in my email. In broad terms, I’ve given up for now with trying to read everything that comes in and am instead focusing on emails where I am in the ‘to’ field. Anything where I am ‘cc’ed’ is being generally ignored at my desk; I may pick these up later on my commute using Outlook on iOS which doesn’t have the search folder feature. I stayed up late on Monday night trying to get on top of the most important emails and it was amazing how quickly this setup helped me to get through them.

It was lovely to have someone randomly speak to me about being a programme manager and telling me (with tongue somewhat in cheek) “that’s what I want to do when I grow up.” They’ve asked for a coffee and a chat which of course I’m very happy to do. It stopped me dead in my tracks and reminded me of where I am in my career. It’s easy to forget what my current role would have looked like to a much younger version of me.

Unfortunately we had to call a ‘no-go’ for our rollout in Asia as the technical work is not ready. Our current provider is going through some resourcing challenges which means that we are stuck with a ‘best efforts’ approach to getting things fixed. It isn’t great that we have to delay our plans and is made more difficult by the fact that we don’t have a clear timeline to be back on track; until we know what the issues are we can’t make a sensible estimate of how long they will take to fix. We’ve now got (another) weekly meeting in the diary with the management team in Asia to report on our progress and revisions to the plan.

My programme isn’t the only one happening at the firm, and not the only thing that’s making demands of our incumbent infrastructure provider. In order to help both them and us, we’re going to have to pull together a single prioritised backlog of items for them to work through. It’ll be interesting to see how we can make the prioritisation work and how quickly we will get to the point of making a call on which of two things is more important to the firm.

We have lots of work to do on processes, and not just those for our future end-state. With the small amount of change we’ve implemented so far we have already broken a few things and highlighted problems that were already there. Previously, when users moved between countries, they had no expectations of keeping their data, their email address etc.. It’s now much less clear about whether they can keep these things and if so, who has to do what to make that happen. The volume of these types of issues is low enough right now that we don’t need to drop everything to fix it, but it does need to be prioritised sooner rather than later.

The next few weeks will see quite a bit of change in the makeup of the programme team. We had the first of a number of new team members join us this week and it will ramp up in a couple of weeks. At the start of the year my puzzle to solve was trying to get the programme delivering through multiple streams at the same time and it finally feels that we are starting to see this bear fruit. There are plenty of adventures ahead. We have more vendors to talk to over the next couple of weeks with at least two workshops in the next few days alone which will hopefully kick off more work in parallel. I still have lots to do myself to contribute to the effort aside from overseeing it all; my focus is going to be in trying to find time to plan the work between the streams on the programme as well as with the other projects with which we have dependencies.

A friend of mine had to leave work suddenly in the middle of last week as their child was feeling ill at school. Things escalated quickly and they ended up spending a few nights in hospital to recover. Thankfully they are fine, but it was a bit scary for a time and of course makes you think about how quickly events can change in your day, or even your life. Three years ago I ended up in hospital with pneumonia while we were on a family holiday; it wasn’t fun but it could’ve been a lot worse. In our house our unspoken philosophy seems to be that unless you have a fever or are puking up, you’re going to work/school and getting on with it. There’s very little sympathy and low tolerance for disrupting the things we have all committed to do. I think that it is so much harder for the partner who spends more time with the children; even if you feel rotten you are still expected to do all of the things that you usually do for those that are dependent on you.

I’ve managed to spend quite a bit of time with the kids over the past few weekends. Our little guy was at a sleepover last Sunday so the remaining three of us watched Les Miserables, which the eldest boy loved. I’d never seen/read it in any form and it was interesting in how clearly it showed itself as a stage play that had been translated to film. In the theatre you are expected to use your imagination, whereas film is a lot more literal. It felt a little strange to have the big budget film effects alongside props and sets that could have appeared on a stage, such as the ridiculously inadequate barricade in the street. Still, it was something very different and by the end we were all really enjoying it. I couldn’t help but think about the film of Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench which I watched at school, with sets so sparse but rendered completey unecessary by how utterly engrossing the performances were.

My bike has been serviced and I managed to get out on a 60mi ride on Saturday. My eldest boy had a 1,500m British Milers Club run in Milton Keynes so I made my way there by bike in time for the run and came back again straight after while my wife took the boys in the car. It felt great to be in the saddle again. Incorporating a ride into a thing we’re doing anyway is a very good way to get the miles in and I’m going to try and take every opportunity I can to do it.

This weekend we’ve had to spend a lot of time getting everything out of our lounge ready for it to be decorated for the first time in 13 years. It’s only when you clear out a room that you realise how much stuff there is in it; one of Berkhamsted’s charity shops are soon to be in for a bumper haul of books and DVDs. Also, I’ve learned that untangling the web of wires and dust clumps behind the TV is a job I don’t want to do any more frequently than every 13 years.

Next week: A beautiful new lounge! School governor meeting time again (with plenty of reading beforehand), and trying to get on top of the meetings we have between now and the end of term. More of the same at work with trying to battle for time to get the planning done, both for the immediate future — workshops this week and next — as well as the road further ahead.