Weeknotes #60–61 — Storms

Somewhere over the Atlantic

Somewhere over the Atlantic

An incredibly eventful fortnight in which I…

  • Had a very busy week in London, getting ready to head to New York for the configuration and rollout of my client’s new IT stack.
  • Made a good connection with the account manager at my client’s laptop supplier. The devices have been brilliant and the support we have been getting has been very welcome.
  • Started to think about how we can respond to staff impacted by the coronavirus. It would be simple and easy to just delay our IT rollout in China, but much better if we can somehow work around the problem, bringing the new IT equipment to where people are to enable them to work more easily.
  • Was impacted by the Microsoft Teams outage for a few hours, along with the rest of my colleagues and bazillions of other companies around the world. It failed for a shocking reason, but it was refreshing to see a large company like Microsoft admit what it was. My client is so heavily-dependent on Teams that it caused a few problems, but a great feature of cloud software is that you don’t need to do the running around yourself to fix it — the best people for the job will work on it and let you know when it’s sorted.
  • Debated what a good post-incident root cause analysis (RCA) looks like. The write-ups from Monzo set the gold standard for me. Attaining this level of quality is probably unachievable, but it is great to have something to aim for.
  • Revamped our daily team ‘standup’ meeting. We’re trying out LightningTalks on Wednesdays. Eventually I hope that these can be shared with a wider audience but while we get them off the ground it seems right to keep it within the team. On Fridays we are running a ‘wins’ session as described in Christina Wodtke’s Radical Focus:

“In the Friday wins session, teams all demo whatever they can. Engineers show bits of code they’ve got working and designers show mockups and maps. But beyond that, every team should share something. Sales can talk about who they’ve closed, Customer Service can talk about customers they’ve rescued, Business Development shares deals. This have several benefits. One, you start to feel like you are part of a pretty special winning team. Two, the team starts looking forward to having something to share. They seek wins. And lastly, the company starts to appreciate what each discipline is going through and understands what everyone does all day.”

  • The wins session has been amazing right from the start, for all of the reasons above, plus the fact that everyone gets to speak. I wish we had started this years ago.
  • Was sent flowers by a colleague in South Africa. I had joked the week before when we met on a video call that he never wrote, phoned or sent flowers to me anymore, so he took it upon himself to rectify it. I don’t remember ever having been sent flowers before!

  • Felt proud to be part of the team that enabled a couple of excellent office-wide collaboration sessions to take place in London. My client’s CFO is one of only 70 women who have scaled all of the Seven Summits, something she has completed in less than a decade, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear her talk about how she did it. A couple of days later the space was used to discuss client strategy, and it was amazing how everyone had an opportunity to get involved. A wise person once said to me that if you find something difficult or challenging, do more of it, so I put my hand up to give feedback from my group to the rest of the office and I am glad I did.

  • Spent a lot of time at the weekend preparing for our school governor Finance Committee meeting. I felt I was well briefed to chair it, and we got through everything we needed to. Unfortunately I couldn’t make our full governing board meeting due to being out of the country, but I tried to read as much as I could for that one as well.
  • Went out with my old pal Mat to see the Smoke Fairies play at the beautiful Hoxton Hall in London. I first heard them in 2010 when Through Low Light And Trees came out and saw them live a couple of years later when they launched Blood Speaks. After that I lost touch and their eponymous album in 2014 passed me by. In January they released a new record, Darkness Brings The Wonders Home. It is incredible —possibly the best thing they’ve done — and we both can’t stop playing it. Live, they seem to have become much better, more confident players than I remember from all those years ago. The gig had the hairs on my arms standing on end from the first song. We’ve booked in to see them again when they play The Lafayette in October and I can’t wait.
Photo by Mat Harden

Photo by Mat Harden

Photo by Mat Harden

Photo by Mat Harden

  • Had a weekend of socialising, with a lovely dinner at Mat’s house for his birthday on Friday and then attending my first ever bar mitzvah on Saturday night. The bar mitzvah was amazing, with a big emphasis on getting everyone up to dance at regular intervals — including before any of the wonderful food was served. The dancing was helped along by a very vocal DJ and two dancers up on stage facing the crowd leading the moves. There was a lot of bringing everyone together in circles and dancing around the boy at the centre of it all as well as his family, and you couldn’t help but get swept along by the joy of it. The highlight of the evening for me were the speeches — a hilarious Stewart Lee-style delivery from the dad, an amazing poem by the boy’s younger brother and sister, and a final one from the boy himself. Everyone had a brilliant evening and went home smiling.

  • Watched as Storm Ciara put paid to my travel to New York on Sunday. In retrospect, with Storm Dennis now hitting and pulling down a massive chunk of wall between our and our neighbour’s front garden, it could have been worse. Virgin cancelled the plane and put me on a later Delta flight, which itself was then cancelled. A couple of calls to the travel agent got me set to go on Monday instead, compressing an already busy week into an even smaller number of days. What was bad for us going west seemed to be great for those going east — a couple of flights broke the records for subsonic transatlantic flight, with a Boston to London plane making the journey in 4h48m!
  • Once again had the privilege of enjoying one of Virgin Atlantic’s new planes. I spent the entire journey working, but had the wonderful tail camera on to see what was happening outside, and loved the view under the plane as we landed at JFK.

  • Enjoyed getting stuck into the rollout of another site. Seeing the office go live on our SD-WAN network console gave me a feeling of accomplishment, and watching our staff start to enjoy their new kit both inside and outside of the office was fantastic. Once again I was glad to have such great members of the team on site as they worked through the various challenges; IT infrastructure work does seem to involve much more improvisation than I am used to with software projects. Due to the storm delays and staff being out we still have a lot more to get done than I had hoped, so a lot of my week next week will be taken up with the one-by-one ‘white glove’ user process.
  • Loved introducing New York to one of my South African colleagues, who had never been to the USA before. I lived here for a twelve months almost two decades ago, but it feels like yesterday. We managed to cover a lot of ground in the evenings and on Saturday — Grand Central Station, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, the Strand Bookstore, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the World Trade Center. It didn’t help that on Saturday the temperature was a bone-aching -8C with a frosty wind to boot, which must have been shocking for my colleague who came from her Southern Hemisphere summer. There was ice everywhere, and we even found a fountain in Bryant Park that looked like it was straight out of Tom and Jerry’s Mice Follies cartoon.

  • Had some lovely meals out and about in NYC. It has been great to spend time with colleagues without having to rush off to the next meeting, I am very grateful for the opportunity. I hadn’t been to the lovely vegan Candle Cafe since I visited with my friend Marc 18 years ago and it was great to find it in rude health.

  • Ran a few times in Central Park. When my knees don’t hurt, I really enjoy running, and love the fact that I can just put my trainers in my suitcase and run anywhere I happen to be.

Next week: Getting the New York user rollout finished, trying to shape the same in São Paulo, and attempting to turn the various pieces of work that the team are picking up into something that looks like a project portfolio.

Weeknotes #59 — Moving

A week in which I…

  • Did very little other than client work, with quite a few late evenings in London.
  • Helped my client move into their new office space. It is beautiful, and people seem to really appreciate the new space and facilities. The technology we have put in through the programme I have been running has allowed staff to get up and move around the office for ‘activity-based working’, and this is further enabled by the different types of space in the office. There are sitting desks, standing desks, single-person soundproof pods, two-person meeting rooms, collaboration desks, and a large communal space with plenty of technology such as a Surface Hub and a big presentation screen. The office is now completely Wi-Fi enabled and all of our desk screens use USB-C, so staff can pick up their laptops and headsets, and plug in with one cable wherever they need to.
  • Held my head in my hands as the keyboards, mice and dongles that were meant to be at each desk became separated from each other during the move. The Microsoft Wireless Desktop 900 model doesn’t allow you to re-pair the devices with different dongles so we ended up with lots of devices that we need to try and match together. It was like trying to pair up socks for people with three feet after having spread the washing across multiple launderettes. One of the team looked like a hurried Rick Wakeman at his 1970s peak as he ‘played’ each keyboard in an attempt to match them dongle by dongle. Sadly, we now have a cupboard full of wireless junk until somebody gets some more time to try pairing them up again. We’ll now be (a) labelling the three elements of each device and (b) looking at buying a different model in the future, one that can be re-paired if it gets separated from its partners.

  • Marvelled that the keyboard and mouse issue was the biggest problem we had. There had been so much IT work in the background to make the move a success that we breathed a sigh of relief when things went well. The first week in the new space went by in a flash and everyone felt like they had been working there for a very long time after just a few days.
  • Closed out on a couple of snagging items for the Dubai office. The technology there is now completely independent from our previous vendor, and run by us, paving the way for them to decommission all of the old equipment over the next couple of weeks.
  • Tried to delegate as much as I could so that I can continue to focus on the bigger aspects of the main programme. We still have many small projects in the sites where we have already gone live so pulling people in to help is going to be key to getting it all done.
  • Confirmed our rollout schedule for the New York office, and booked up my travel.
  • Watched as lots of people in the team were out sick on various days. There seems to be something (or some things) going around at the moment. I felt like I was catching a bug as the end of the week approached and it stuck with me throughout the weekend. Hopefully it will go before it gets any worse.
  • Spent quite a few hours getting up-to-date with some of my school governor work, ahead of a Finance Committee meeting on Monday evening. It reminded me that to do it justice it really takes one or two days every week, particularly if your want to do more than the bare minimum. I’ve been struggling to prioritise it over the past year or so with so much going on at work, and it felt good to get a few things out of the way.
  • Watched Catch Me If You Can with the family. I’d missed the film when it first came out nearly 20 years ago (!) and it really holds up. Amazing story, even more so that it really happened.
  • Caught up with the first two episodes of Star Trek: Picard. My boys and I think it’s brilliant already. It’s a bit shocking to see how much Patrick Stewart has aged in 18 years when they seem to have gone by in a flash.

Next week: More chasing of vendors for quotes, deliveries and installations, with focus shifting to Brazil. A school governor meeting. And seeing the Smoke Fairies with a friend.

Weeknotes #58 — Young Voices

A week in which I…

  • Got hit with a complete office networking outage first thing on Monday morning. I was so grateful that it happened just before 9AM, when most of the team were there, than an hour or two beforehand. It didn’t take long to resolve. We still have much to do to improve the resiliency of what we’ve built.
  • Locked in the dates for the end-user rollout in New York next month, and booked up travel for the team that will be going there. We still have a few key things to complete, but we’re now at the stage where we will be able to improvise if necessary. I’m very excited about getting another of my client’s sites online.
  • Agreed in principle the support model for my client’s sites in the Americas. The details need to be ratified, but I’m optimistic as we seemed to reach a general consensus very quickly.
  • Spent Thursday and Friday evening at the office as we completed the migration from our old infrastructure in Dubai. Yet another change that took far longer than it should have. I’m not sure if the world of infrastructure is always like this, with more improvisation during a change than the sort of detailed testing beforehand you would have in a software release. I suspect that we have much to improve. The unexpected late nights meant that I nearly missed my youngest boy’s performance as part of Young Voices at the O2, and sadly missed Album Club. I woke up very early on Sunday to check in with the office and was so relieved when they reported that all was well.
  • Really enjoyed the Young Voices concert, and was so pleased that my son and all of his classmates had a great time. The school works so hard to make Year 6 a memory factory with lots of rich experiences; I’m sure he’ll look back on his time there with a lot of fondness in the years to come.

  • Tried to find yet another angle for getting a Microsoft Teams telephony project up and running across my client’s remaining sites. For some reason it seems very difficult to get much traction with any vendor we’ve been speaking to. I had a good new lead on a company we could work with and I’ll be following that up next week.
  • Got things moving again with the vendors in São Paulo, ready to start ordering the bulk of the equipment we need next week.
  • Added the coronavirus to our programme risk log. I remember how locked down things got when SARS appeared in 2002–03, and then swine flu in 2009–10, with people needing to stay at home for incubation after coming back from business trips. Like everyone, I am hoping it will pass without much of an impact on people around the world. It may well curtail any plans we had to travel to China for the final part of our programme in the first half of this year.
  • Enjoyed a ‘welcome home’ celebration in my client’s refurbished offices. Move in day is Monday and the whole team needs to be in early to pre-empt any connectivity and other IT issues that people may have. There has been a lot of change in a short space of time, with server room moves, wireless access point deployment, desk migrations and implementation of a completely new audio/visual system in the meeting rooms, so I am sure there will be a few glitches. I have my fingers crossed for everyone as they have worked so hard to get it ready on time.
  • Watched as the ‘digging things out’ stage of our home extension came to an end, moving into foundation-laying and building things up.
  • Kept up my fitness regime, jogging with my wife on Saturday morning, refereeing my youngest son’s football match on Sunday and also jumping on the turbo trainer. I may be getting fitter, but all the calories and then some are getting replaced by all the snacking I seem to do.
  • Finished reading Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke after hearing the WB-40 podcast on OKRs. The book is so much more accessible and practical than John Doerr’s book on the same topic. Like a lot of new techniques, a little consulting and coaching would go a long way and I might approach my client to look at this for the IT team at least.
  • Watched Star Trek: Nemesis with the boys. It was so much better than I was expecting, and is probably my favourite film of the four Next Generation movies. From what I have read, it suffered from being released in 2002 alongside the latest Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond films and got lost as a result. The story is great and the effects are excellent, even 18 years on.
  • Rewatched The Sixth Sense with my eldest boy. He’s been on at us to watch a horror film for a long time and I don’t think it is a good idea, so this seemed like a good compromise. The film holds up well but he wasn’t overly impressed. “It’s not really horror, Dad — more romantic gore.” I’m not sure that’s a genre, but I know what he means.

Next week: Early start in the new office, getting my bearings with not having a regular desk every day. Pushing to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s for New York, resolving any snagging issues in Dubai, trying to make quick progress with the equipment orders for Sao Paulo and watching the news closely on the coronavirus epidemic. Plus prep for the next round of school governor meetings.

Weeknotes #57 — Furrowed glabella

A week in which I…

  • Kept driving forward on our focused list of tasks for each city in our IT programme. Orders were placed, network capacity was upgraded, and detailed plans were made for the work we need to finish before the end of the month to meet a hard deadline.
  • Saw the team solve the key problem that caused us so much trouble when we made infrastructure changes last weekend. Never underestimate the power of ‘turn it off and on again’.
  • Facilitated a new architecture proposal from the CTO which will see us use the same building blocks, but configured differently, as a pattern for our future country rollouts. Hopefully this will lead to an infrastructure which is much more simple and easy-to-maintain. This change in direction comes at a critical juncture, as we are trying to close out on the contract to configure the equipment, but in this case it makes sense to absorb the cost of a couple of days’ delay for the potential payback it will bring.
  • Welcomed back the last key team member from their Christmas and summer holiday break.
  • Attended a Town Hall meeting about our move into a revamped office in the same building later this month. As part of the efficient use of space, the organisation will be moving from desk pedestals to personal lockers for storage, so they ran a Dump The Junk Day to clear out anything no longer required, including an amnesty on stationery and IT equipment.
  • Continued to focus on chasing vendors across the globe for quotes, reports, proposals and orders, as well as holding some introductory meetings. My client’s small footprint in each city means that I am often doing the chasing, which feels very different to being pursued by pushy vendors. Perhaps we need to do a better job of selling the organisation as a whole, which is in twenty countries with tens of thousands of staff. I had a couple of early morning meetings with companies in China, and need to get used to these as we turn our attention towards Beijing in the first half of this year.
  • Was let down by a vendor putting in our Internet circuits into our next office on our rollout schedule. It’s a critical keystone to our whole setup, albeit not quite yet on the critical path. While we wait, our colleagues in-country managed to deploy all of our new desktop equipment — monitors, wireless keyboards and mice — and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
  • Agreed to start looking at business demand for end-user applications, such as business process automation. This will ramp up as a focus for the team as we complete the global IT infrastructure deployment. It is going to be a challenge to balance spending the right amount of time on this without compromising the timeline of the core infrastructure delivery.
  • Ran the first Steering Committee meeting of the year. In line with the point above, we have tried to re-brand this as the IT Steering Committee which looks at all demand, not just that of the core Infrastructure rollout. I managed to get the slide deck down from the usual 41 slides to a more palatable 11. I am used to producing packs with lots of appendices, so that if there are difficult or controversial questions on the facts in the meeting, they can be resolved there and then. However, experience over the past couple of years with this particular committee, and the fact that we now have all of the data available to us everywhere through Office 365, shows that this really isn’t necessary.
  • Had a meeting to dig into a production issue I discovered on the evening of New Year’s Day. My focus was less on the issue itself (which had a straightforward fix) and more on the monitoring, alerting, and how we managed the incident to a conclusion in the early hours. We avoided an outage, but we have a long way to go before we are able to say that the processes are working like a well-oiled machine.
  • Worked from home on Tuesday as we commenced our next home improvement project, a small extension to give us more living space downstairs. It should only take 8-12 weeks. So far, the builders seem really lovely and are being very considerate, particularly with keeping things tidy, although there is still so much stuff everywhere. The amount of earth taken from digging out a metre or two of our garden is incredible, and filled our entire front lawn as it waited for the grabber lorry.
  • Met up with a prospective school governor. They would be an excellent addition to the team, and hopefully at some point in the near future they will decide that they want to join us. Part of being a governor is a constant quest for new members of the board. My experience of watching people over the past seven years as a governor is that it takes an average of nine months from joining to feeling like you are adding value to the board, having the confidence to speak up, ask questions and challenge effectively.
  • Took receipt of a new pair of glasses. To keep things simple, I bought the same frames as my last two pairs. This meant that (a) I didn’t need to go trying on specs in any shops and (b) I could just order them online with confidence that I knew what I was buying. My prescription had a significant change as I’m now having to sport varifocal lenses. So far so good — there has definitely been a big reduction in the amount of ‘bringing the words right up to my face and peering over the top of my glasses’ which made me feel ancient over the past few months.
  • Finished reading Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love. I bought a copy for my wife for Christmas, then saw it come up as a 99p Kindle Daily Deal and thought it would be fun to read the same book for once. I really enjoyed it; it’s very well-written, and a good balance of introspection, humour and poignancy. My twentysomething years are way behind me, and the chapters on the existential crisis of turning 30 described in the book really hit me when I reached 40. It was fun to have a book that could be so easily picked up, and I must have ploughed through half of it on my phone.
  • Started, and quickly abandoned, a biography of John Lennon. I don’t mind a conspiracy theory backed up by facts, but when they are so easily disprovable so early on it felt like a waste of time.
  • Somehow found time to watch the first three Next Generation movies with the boys. Generations was better than I remembered from the cinema and First Contact was pretty great, but Insurrection just felt like a long, big budget episode of the TV series. I don’t hold out much hope for Nemesis, but it will be good prep before Picard starts to air on Amazon later this week. It’s amazing how dated the movies look compared to recent sci-fi films (and even TV series), and I have to keep reminding myself that they were made two decades ago — it’s like watching something made in 1970 in 1990.
  • Didn’t make it out for Sunday’s Harp Hilly Hundred due to the freezing conditions. I came off a bike on black ice a few years ago and landing in the middle of the road both hurt and scared me silly, so anytime the temperature drops close to zero I won’t ride. A friend of mine took a tumble on ice right at the end, along with a few others; I’m glad to say he’s fine. I felt pleased to have stayed in for a go on the turbo trainer instead.
  • I’ve been making my way through Matt Forde’s Political Party Podcast, starting from episode one. There’s a lot of material to get through and it’s fascinating listening. He started the podcast a couple of years prior to the 2015 UK general election, and it’s interesting to them now with the benefit of hindsight. Cameron versus Clegg versus Miliband seems like very recent history, but when I listen I realise just how much time has passed since those relatively innocent days. Brexit is part of the discussion but it isn’t the main narrative, and it will be interesting to hear it come more to the foreground as the episodes go on.
  • Didn’t make much time for music, although I have been enjoying The Big Moon’s new album. I love this song:

Next week: Another big go-live, an attempt to lock down the detailed plans for our next site rollout and getting the orders underway for the one after that. Watching my not-so-little one at Young Voices at the O2, and an Album Club.

Weeknotes #56 — All good things…

A week in which I…

  • Had almost every waking moment completely dominated by work. Every night I found myself heading home, seeing my boys and my wife for a little bit before reopening the laptop and carrying on until midnight. It was a race just to get back to ‘net zero’ every day. It was lovely to have most of the team back in the office, but I really could have done with being in ‘everyone’s out of the office for Christmas’ mode for another week. Having said that, by the end of this week everyone will be back, which means that I can hand back some of the additional work that I agreed to take care of over this period. It was also lovely to be genuinely grateful to see the team members back at work; they are a lovely bunch and a lot of fun to work with.
  • Once again relearnt the lesson that things in IT are always more complicated than you expect. I think the fact that the code I wrote for my final year project at university compiled and worked first time was unfortunate in the long term, as it lulled me into a false sense of security which still lives with me now. Having now spent nearly two decades managing IT projects and implementations, I have learned to include plenty of contingency in my plans so that we have time to work around problems, but I still feel bad when my optimism is sometimes crushed as it meets the gargantuan weight of reality. A two-hour infrastructure change scheduled for Thursday night in an office in the Middle East ended up being a multi-day event, taking up all of Friday and Saturday, capped off by a 3:30am start on Sunday to make sure people were able to work when they got in that day. Back to bed for a few hours sleep, and then some clean-up the rest of Sunday morning. I felt so grateful to my wife for stepping in to take over the football run on Sunday while I was stuck ‘at work’. A big chunk of the start of the coming week will be to assess what our next steps are to complete the work we had to de-scope during the weekend, before an immovable deadline hits at the end of the month.
  • Spent lots of time talking to a smorgasbord of vendors across five cities, juggling agendas and action items so that we kept momentum on all fronts. Everything from initial introductory chats with Beijing in the early morning through to monitoring desktop equipment rollouts in New York and chasing up delivery dates for kit we have ordered for Dubai.
  • Ventured into meetings to discuss technical topics that I don’t understand very well such as Cisco ISE and VMWare VMotion. I’m proud of my ability to search the Internet for things, but from the short time I spent looking I’ve not been able to find good introductory resources on these that are pitched at the right level for me. Either they are so rudimentary to be next to useless, or they leap deep into the pool so quickly that they are quickly unintelligible.
  • Marvelled at the science behind a really well-executed Wi-Fi survey, and took pleasure in being in the hands of an expert in his field as he took us through it. Learned about RX-SOP, which forces wireless access points to reject connections from devices below a certain RSSI threshold. This stops those devices from getting stuck on particular APs even though the device may have moved some distance away and be closer to a neighbouring AP. It’s an advanced feature and is one tool in the toolbox for establishing a great Wi-Fi network.
  • Purchased a couple of additional licences for LeanKit due to our expanding team. This has become an invaluable tool for us in keeping track of all of our shared work. Its beauty is its simplicity. We have a long, long way to go to find our optimal way of working but after six months I couldn’t imagine being without it.
  • Had an iPhone repaired in ‘while you wait’ lunch-break fashion, by iSmash at Bank station, in one of the smallest shops I have ever seen. My youngest boy was over the moon when I gave him my old iPhone for Christmas but I felt sad that I’d chipped the screen and that after a couple of years the battery was on the way out. They did a brilliant job of replacing the glass and the battery, and had it back to me in less than an hour.
  • Finished watching the final episode of the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the boys. All Good Things… was a fitting ending, and genuinely made me well up in the final scene. Half of the reason for being so emotional was probably that over the past few years the three of us have journeyed through through the entire Original Series and Next Generation episodes and now it’s all over. Yes, there is Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise, but these are uncharted territories for me as I never caught them the first time around. We’re going to have to choose between watching the TNG movies, the sadly un-restored Deep Space 9 or the new series Picard which is due to come out soon.
  • Smiled when the boys came up with the idea of turning our lovely new kitchen table into a table tennis arena. They’ve invested in bats and balls and even had their friends around for a tournament. As much as we don’t want our new table to get damaged, when they are telling me that they are so happy to be doing something that doesn’t involve screens, how can you resist?
  • Was impressed and proud of my eldest son’s Chiltern League cross country run, although sadly I couldn’t be there to see it. He had a fall during the run but kept going. It looked incredibly tough — it amazes me that the children are happy to put themselves through the torment of running through water hazards in January. I am sure I would have long since given up when I was his age.
  • Managed to do a little bit of governor work for an hour or two. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
  • Wondered how everyone keeps up with their reading. I’m working my way through Stratechery posts that date back to the middle of last year, and have no hope of catching up with the NGA newsletters I have missed. Does having time to read The Economist mean that you’re a person of leisure and have already made it in life?
  • Saw my fitness slide after not getting on my bike at all this week. I’m hoping to get back in the saddle for at least one turbo session before the Harp Hilly Hundred next weekend.

Next week: More of the same, plus the first programme Steering Committee meeting of the year, and work starting on our next home improvement project.

Weeknotes #55 — Forty-three

A week in which I…

  • Worked from home for the whole week. With people out of the office and barely any meetings to speak of, I managed to get my email backlog down by about two-thirds, and caught up on a number of important items that I had missed. I questioned whether chunking through emails was the best use of my time, but there were so many items that revealed themselves and needed to be actioned that my conclusion was a definite ‘yes’. I managed to get lots done, but there is still so much to do and I didn’t get close to completing all the tasks I wanted to. It is going to be an extremely busy first quarter.
  • Was able to get my head down and work on things continuously without interruptions or meetings, which was lovely. Quite a few people started to come back from their holidays on Thursday but due to it being the traditional summer holiday in South Africa, we won’t be back up to a full compliment until the middle of the month.
  • Worked for the first time ever on New Year’s Day. A lovely, quiet day’s work ended up turning into a very late night when I found an issue with one of our critical infrastructure systems that evening. After working through it with the support teams we managed to resolve it around 3am, so that people could come back to work and be up and running, oblivious to anything being wrong in the first place.
  • Felt no guilt at all for indulging myself with all the Christmas food. I’ve now had three years with no alcohol, and managed to either run or ride my bike every day of the Christmas period. I’ve probably not been this fit since I was getting ready for Ride 999 and it feels great. At the primary school where I am a governor, their philosophy is to focus on getting children in a place where they have their basic needs met before they focus on teaching and learning. In a similar way, I’m finding that if I focus on keeping myself fit, everything else is easier — I’m more alert, feel happier and have more energy to get things done. Sadly my daily routine will come to an end as I start to commute again from Monday, but hopefully my fitness will stay with me.

  • Turned 43. An age where you stop being able to instantly recall how old you are and have to do a little mental arithmetic to check. We spent the evening with some very good friends a few doors down from us, eating and seeing in the New Year with the kids. My friend hasn’t been well over Christmas and had to cancel all of his planned family events, so it was good to see him doing a little better.

  • Signed up to the BFI Player and then cancelled it again. Even though it is only £4.99 a month and is an organisation worthy of support, I will never make use of it enough to justify the subscription. Of all the things I prioritise in my life, watching movies isn’t one of them, although I would like it to be. Perhaps becoming a movie buff is something I can do when I eventually retire.
  • Was awestruck by how amazing the Chernobyl TV series is. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a better drama. My wife and I watched it over a few evenings and were entranced as the story unravelled. I was nine years old when the disaster happened and I remember the news reports on the fallout cloud that was spreading across Europe, and the questions as to whether the food supply was safe in the UK. The screenplay is so well put-together; it shows you enough of what went on without ever being gratuitous, and the acting is completely first-rate. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • Continued with preparation for our house extension which starts later this month. Cleared cobwebs from our garden shed that Miss Havisham would have been proud of, and made a couple of major trips to the recycling centre. A few more hours left and we’ll be ready to go.
  • Bought a lovely kitchen table to replace the almost 20-year old workhorse we bought when we lived in New York. My wife had been on the lookout for a bargain on eBay and pounced when the right one came up. We hired a ‘man with a van’ to collect it for us; all seemed to be going well until his assistant dropped it onto one of its corners as they unloaded it at our house. Despite the resulting dent, it looks great and it’s so nice to be able to stretch ourselves out. We’re hoping it will inspire us to have more people over for lunch or dinner this year, something we’ve really fallen out of the habit of.
  • Refereed my youngest son’s football match. Something clicked for me in this match where I started to share the accountability with the linesmen and didn’t feel as much pressure to monitor everything that was going on, which worked really well. I am one of the least football-minded parents in the team and find refereeing a challenge, which is one of the reasons I do it and enjoy it. The other is that it’s a great job to have on a cold winter’s day as opposed to just standing around and watching! At the same time as the match was in progress, my eldest boy was running to ninth position at the Hertfordshire County Cross-Country Championships and we are so pleased to see him do well.
  • Set up a monthly $25 deposit to the microfinance lender Kiva, inspired by Ton Zijlstra’s blog post on how he gives Kiva Cards as client Christmas gifts. I’ve made a couple of deposits and loans in the past, and even given cards as gifts to friends, but I ended up with just a few dollars left in my account and stopped thinking about it. I’m looking forward to watching my micro lending portfolio grow and to see some of the projects that the money helps bring to fruition.

Next week: The proper start to 2020 at work. Writing up minutes from last year’s final steering committee meeting and planning the focus of the next one. Getting a baseline plan in place for Q1 that we can share with the team and a the wider audience, and trying to deal with the puzzle of team members needing to be in multiple countries at once. And trying to pick up and give some focus to my school governor backlog.

Weeknotes #54 — Christmas

A week in which I…

  • Mainly did Christmas. We travelled up to Ross-on-Wye on Christmas Eve to stay with my wife’s parents for a couple of days. It was lovely to be there with them. The awful rainy weather cleared up on Christmas Day and let us get out for a run and an after-dinner walk. It all felt very chilled out, with the boys taking themselves upstairs for an early bedtime on Christmas Eve, a not-too-unreasonably early start to Christmas Day and plenty of family games of Scrabble and Ticket To Ride.
  • Watched Uncle Buck for the first time in years, with the family, when it was shown on TV on Christmas Day. I love John Candy so much. I recently came across a new biography of his life and have started reading it as a treat.
  • Missed out on the first (annual?) carol-singing with the neighbours in our road due to our eldest boy suddenly being sick just before we went out. I had to ditch our plans in favour of an emergency trip to the supermarket for a boat-load of household cleaning products. It sounds like there are a lot of norovirus-type things going around and I’m glad he was only poorly for a short time. The videos and photos of the carol-singing looked great. Maybe we’ll join everyone next year?
  • Managed to exercise every day of the holiday, mainly on the turbo trainer but also out for a couple of runs. My wife and I have only run together a couple of times before, when we were on holiday in August, but it was great to go out together on Christmas Day. Hopefully we can do a bit more of it next year.
  • Went on a family trip to see Star Wars Episode IX at the 3D IMAX cinema in Hemel Hempstead. We’ve made a habit of going there every year as a Christmas treat; for an action movie I think it’s worth the extra expense to get the full experience. I felt a bit meh about the film. When we saw Rogue One in the same cinema I literally punched the air with joy at the climax of the film, but I felt nowhere near as joyous this time. I’ve never been a hardcore Star Wars fan so I spent the first few minutes searching my brain for who is who, as there are so many characters. I think the self-contained episodes have been better over the past few years. I can’t imagine that there will be no more when there is so much money to be made from the franchise, so it may continue to be a Christmas tradition for us.
  • Really enjoyed watching the BBC’s new take on A Christmas Carol. I read the novel a couple of years ago and although this version was quite different it stayed true to the essence of the story. The drama was even darker than the original book but the embellishments didn’t feel out of place, just brought up-to-date a little. The Muppet Christmas Carol remains my favourite, though — who can resist the One More Sleep ‘til Christmas song?

Next week: Back to work! Planning to work at home this week. I will try to make some good progress while most of the rest of the team are still off. Writing up meeting minutes, getting on top of email and planning out the next few months are all on the agenda. And turning 43.

🎧 A baker’s dozen of the moment

I love my commute home on a Friday night. It’s the one guilt-free evening of the week where I stop thinking about work, give my podcast-saturated brain a rest and spend a bit of time with my headphones on, getting lost in an album. Being involved in our little Album Club (and, more recently, investing in a turntable) has brought a lot of music into my life, and I’ve been on many voyages of discovery. On one of my recent Friday night commutes I collected together a playlist of 13 songs from the best albums I’ve heard over the past year or so.

Track-by-track

Oyster Trails — Blue-Eyed Hawk

After falling in love with Snowpoet’s album Thought You Knew (more on that later), I dug around to find other music that the band members had created. Blue-Eyed Hawk’s Under The Moon features Lauren Kinsella’s beautiful voice front and centre, and pre-dates the latest Snowpoet album by a few years. It’s a really interesting album — it definitely pushes up against the boundaries of the kind of jazz that I like, but has some great songs on it. Oyster Trails kicks off the album in a very bizarre, dream-state fashion, kind of like an updated version of the start of Kate Bush’s Moving, the opening track from her debut album. This song then takes a different path when when the distorted bass and drums kick in, followed by Kinsella’s wonderful vocals and a gradual crescendo of the most incredibly beautiful trumpet.

Les Fleur — Minnie Riperton

This track is one that turned up on my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist and made me sit up and take notice. The opening few bars were so warm and resonant and felt really familiar, even though I was sure I had never heard them before. They immediately got me into a place where I know I could be about to hear something really good. Riperton’s vocals are wonderful and delicate, and the song soon builds to a big crescendo with the backing vocals singing the main chorus. Like the album it comes from, Come To My Garden, it has a very strange vibe and reflects the out-there musical collective of Rotary Connection, the band that Riperton had emerged from. The album isn’t a straightforward listen and is a bit of an acquired taste; some of the songs leave me with feelings that no other music seems go give me, almost as they are not from this world. The final minute or so of Rainy Day In Centerville is a case in point; it is haunting and unnerving, and I cannot work out whether this was intended or if I am just hearing it with ears not tuned correctly to the 1970 vibe. Stevie Wonder was a big fan and collaborator, and said in an interview that he played this album so much that he wore out multiple copies.

Oh I Wept — Free

I spotted a copy of Free’s Fire and Water album while flicking through the bountiful vinyl crates in Aylesbury’s Deco Audio. I’ve loved All Right Now since my mum introduced me to it as a child but I’d never explored their music further. The super-cheap price lured me to take a chance and I am glad I did. This album has a lovely warm and organic vibe to it. Oh I Wept is the second track and has a sound that belies the bands age at the time they made it; when it was released in 1970, lead singer Paul Rodgers was only 21.

Send My Love — Marika Hackman

I wrote about my love for this album in a recent post. After many plays, this track remains my favourite. It comes at the end of side one and is achingly beautiful, starting as a quiet, understated message to a loved one and building to an incredible three-note guitar riff which sounds as though it is being played at the top of a mountain, resonating across the valleys all around. The song is a brilliant, clever bridge between the first and second halves of the album, and like all of the tracks it works best when heard as part of the whole.

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) — Sly & The Family Stone

Another ritual of many a Friday night is tuning into iPlayer, to see what music programmes have turned up. I thought I had already seen Janet Jackson: Taking Control but although it was a few years old, either I had missed it the first time around or wasn’t paying enough attention. I never owned any Janet Jackson records as a kid but her music was definitely something that I enjoyed, and it was a love shared with my school friends. In the documentary they broke down the details of Rhythm Nation and I discovered that the main riff that underpins the whole song comes from a break in this amazing Sly and The Family Stone tune. It’s a strange song — very monotonous, almost hypnotic, and only breaks at the end of each chorus. But it chugs along with such an incredible vibe that you don’t want it to stop. Soon after watching Taking Control I was fortunate to catch The Story of Funk: One Nation Under A Groove where I learned that this is the song upon which Family Stone bassist Larry Graham invented ‘slapping’. Maximum funk.

We Are The Light — The Alarm

Another discovery thanks to the BBC4 documentary team. Smashing Hits! The 80s Pop Map of Britain and Ireland with Midge Ure and Kim Appleby hit all the right spots for me, with new interviews with many different artists through a geographical lens. I settled into enjoy the series but didn’t expect to find anything revelatory. Then in episode two they focused on Rhyl, North Wales, and The Alarm showed up. I’d been aware of the band since I was very young; some forward-thinking relative bought me a copy of the Look-in Pop Annual in the early 1980s and I had started to read about groups and artists that I had never actually heard. Music was very expensive for a pre-teen on 50p pocket money a week and I had no access to explore anything I was reading about. The Alarm stayed in this bracket for me until a few months ago, when this documentary exploded them onto my screen playing 68 Guns from Top of the Pops in September 1983. The song is instantly likeable, as is their over-earnest performance and laws of physics-defying haircuts. It was like I had struck gold — a good eighties band that I had never heard of, hidden in plain sight. So far I’ve only managed to explore their debut, Declaration, and have been taken aback by how many great songs are on there. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of them on the radio and cannot fathom why. We Are The Light is a real highlight and gives you a taste of the kind of music you can find on the album; it’s as good as anything else that came out of the 1980s.

Drink The Elixir — Salad

My parents bought a satellite dish in the late 1980s when I was eleven years old. Adding 161 channels to our existing four felt like a giant leap into the future, so much so that I had friends come over to my house after school specifically to watch it. The fact that MTV Europe was one of the channels was life-changing, and I don’t think that there were many days from that point on that it wasn’t tuned in for a few hours in our house. Listening to and talking to my friends about music dominated my time at school, and I remember Salad being one of the many guitar-based bands that were part of the chat in the mid-1990s. They stuck in my mind as their lead singer, Marijne van der Vlugt, was familiar to me as an MTV Europe host. At that time I didn’t invest too much of my attention their way. Earlier this year the wonderful Super Deluxe Edition blog alerted me to a new 1990s UK indie compilation called Lost Alternatives2, curated by Steve Lamacq. There are some highlights, as well as quite a few lowlights, but this Salad track is a standout for me. It’s a low-key, lo-fi start with some strange vocals but it soon finds its groove and takes me back to being 17 again. It’s of its time, but it still sounds great. YouTube even have a version of the song where the band appeared on the MTV Europe show Most Wanted, hosted by fellow presenter Ray Cokes, which makes me really feel like I’m back there again.

Fading Lines — Amber Arcades

Over the past couple of years I have spent countless hours listening to Brexit-related podcasts, catching up on news and trying to work out what I can do to help resist the nationalistic, inward-looking path that we are going down. The jewel in the crown is Remainiacs, which strikes a wonderful balance between humour, anger, information and positive thinking. What I never expected was that the podcast would introduce me to new music. Amber Arcades, a/k/a Annelotte de Graaf, appeared on an episode way back in October 20183, talking about her then new album European Heartbreak, and they featured an excerpt of her song Goodnight Europe. I loved it and couldn’t wait to explore more. Fading Lines is actually from her first album, which is a little less laid-back and a bit more indie. The song reminds me of 1990s pop, with its shimmering distorted guitar riff and difficult-to-discern vocals. Best played very, very loud.

Furnaces — Ed Harcourt

Ed Harcourt is another artist that I have been aware of for some time but hadn’t listened to. I’m pretty sure that his name appeared regularly in Uncut magazine when I read it in the early 2000s, but I never sought him out. Once again, Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist brought him firmly to my attention when the amazing Loup Garou turned up one day. The whole Furnaces album is very good, and the title track is a good representation of what you can find there. Great songs, great lyrics, great vocals. From what I’ve read, this may not be his best album which means that there is plenty more for me to get my ears wrapped around as I explore his back catalogue in the future.

Moonshine Freeze — This Is The Kit

From Discover Weekly once more. I’m not sure exactly which song from this album turned up in my feed (possibly Hotter Colder?), but it was quirky and different enough for me to notice and want to explore more. I don’t know much about the band yet, but I love the sound of this track, which blends an eerie folk sound with a beat that makes me want to dance.

Love Again — Snowpoet

I’ve written about Snowpoet here a few times. Their album Thought You Knew was a major catalyst to me purchasing a turntable last year. Love Again is a big track on a very short album, running at seven minutes of the 34 in total, but it’s a lovely thing that it is allowed to expand in the way it does. The main refrain is hypnotic and draws you in as the song progresses. All of the instruments perfectly compliment each other to make something wonderful — the jazz drums and keyboards alongside the most gorgeous, warm bass and a perfect saxophone solo — layered with Lauren Kinsella’s beautiful voice.

Honey — Robyn

Back to MTV Europe again. Robyn came to my attention back in the mid-1990s when MTV were playing Do You Know (What It Takes) and Show Me Love on heavy rotation. I’m an unashamed fan of great pop music and I loved both of these songs. Later, I picked up a cheap second-hand copy of her debut album Robyn Is Here. Ten years later, I noticed from the billboards on the London Underground that Robyn was back as a dance artist with tracks such as Dancing On My Own and seemed to have a new generation of followers, but I never spent the time to check out her new music. Fast forward another ten years to the release of Honey. This time, I took a chance and bought the album. After repeated plays the album reveals itself to be a masterpiece; it’s dance music, but it is so much more than that. I wanted to include both Baby Forgive Me and Send To Robin Immediately (sic) in this playlist as they compliment each other so well as back-to-back tracks, but that would be two songs! Honey is a good compromise. It’s the centrepiece of the album and manages to sound simultaneously joyous and contemplative. It’s wonderful.

You Don’t Care — Terry Callier

I stumbled across this album while browsing Discogs one evening, being drawn in by the amazing cover. This album is a complex affair from 1972, with incredible songs that stretch out without feeling too long, and an opener that runs to nearly nine minutes. I hadn’t realised that I’d first heard Callier’s voice when he duetted with Beth Orton on Pass In Time from her Central Reservation album, a favourite of mine from 20 years ago. What Color Is Love is a real late-night treat, and You Don’t Care finishes things off with a backing-vocal driven refrain and beautiful guitars. It’s the only song on the album that doesn’t feature Callier’s vocals, but it sticks with you long after it finishes.


  1. Potential channels. From memory, not all of the 16 were ‘live’ at the time we had the system installed. 
  2. The entire compilation is available as a Spotify playlist
  3. From about 37:30 onwards.