Weeknotes #45–46 — Extravaganza

I’ve spent the last week suffering with a severe eye-watering, nose-blockaded man-cold. The second in a month. It’s left me feeling exhausted in the evenings and craving little except sleep. No sympathy required — it’s on the wane now and I’m glad that I no longer feel like I am wading through molasses.

We’re behind schedule on our programme. Some key documentation is overdue and people will now start to drift away on their summer holidays in the Southern Hemisphere. I am hopeful that ultimately it will make little difference as there are still a lot of other paths of work running in parallel, but I am keeping in mind that every task is on the critical path if it becomes late enough.

My role in keeping things going is currently turning into one of chasing people up for things — documents, plans, legal agreements. The analogy that keeps coming to mind is that of someone who is moving house and has to keep on top of their solicitor so that the days don’t just tick by.

We have a key team member leaving us at the end of this month and given how long it takes for a recruitment process to run I am likely to have to pick up the project management aspects of his work in order to try and keep the programme on track. A big part of the next couple of months will be just working harder and longer to get through this additional work. He’ll leave a big hole in the team which will be difficult to fill in the short term.

I’m making progress with helping the team to show their work but this is still ripening and hasn’t yet come to full fruition. We’re getting better and I can see that some things are starting to click. I spent some time with a couple of our workstream managers, explaining how to use a burn down chart to visualise the planned work and to reflect whether we are on track. We have a workshop on Monday where I am hoping that it everyone will come away with an improved understanding of how the whole programme hangs together. As well as looking at our milestone map I am trying to get in the habit of keeping all of the agreed actions front and center each day so that we make sure we are following up on the things we said we would do. It’s more effort on my part but I am hoping that it will be worth it.

It’s been interesting to see how people shy away from conflict, and it is a good reminder that part of my role is to make sure we focus on areas of disagreement between people in the team and make sure that we resolve things quickly. People may agree to something in a meeting, either having thought that they heard something else or deciding that agreeing is the quickest route out of the current conversation, deliberately pushing it down the road. It’s painful when it comes home to roost days and weeks later. So much of work is about the people, not the processes.

Security is so hard, and I am sure it will keep people like Troy Hunt busy for the rest of their lives. There are lots of technical challenges out there but we don’t even have the basics right. I am sure that hardly anyone in the general population uses a password manager. Sometimes I come across processes where people send passwords via email and struggle to find the energy to explain why this should never be done. On Sunday I came across this in the ‘stocking filler’ section of John Lewis and held my head in my hands:

Nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ more than a book of your very own security vulnerabilities.

Nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ more than a book of your very own security vulnerabilities.

I have also fallen victim to somebody (accidentally, I guess?) using my email address for their eBay account. I’m getting to see their bids, purchases, name and address. I am sure that this is a GDPR issue but I can’t for the life of me find where or how to report it.

Somehow over the past couple of weeks I managed to serendipitously schedule my nights out around my periods of illness. Our babysitter has been clocking up some serious hours at our house and the boys have been getting very used to her being here. We’ve had some great meals with friends; it felt like we hadn’t socialised in a long time and it’s been so lovely to be out with everyone again. I also managed to meet up with a lot of old friends from UBS1, where I was first employed as a graduate almost 20 years ago. We’re all older, a little wiser, and lots has changed in our lives but it’s so funny how we’re all still largely the same.

My brothers, our wives and I all went to see The Queen Extravaganza — the ‘official tribute act’ — at the Hammersmith Apollo. I’d booked the tickets on Christmas Day last year as I was gushing to them about the lead singer Marc Martel’s amazing voice. Here’s the video he used to audition to Roger Taylor, who was assembling the band, along with a completely mind-blowing rendition of The Prophet’s Song:

Eleven months passed. As the date drew near I re-checked where we had to be and looked up a bit more information on the band. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Marc Martel had left them earlier in the year. I was gutted, but possibly not as much as this guy on Twitter:

A bit harsh, but the new lead singer Alirio Netto really doesn’t sound like Marc Martel. Or Freddie Mercury, which I guess was the point. When he first came out and announced himself my face dropped and I was worried about the next couple of hours. But…the musicians were absolutely incredible and by about the third song we were all having a brilliant time. It was a concert that gave me goosebumps in places and I was so glad I went.

Musically, aside from the concert I have been continuing to work my way through the batch of LPs my Nan gave me, complete with white-label Strawbs LPs, signed Rick Wakeman records and a few other odds-and-ends2. I’ve also been completely obsessed with Amber Arcades’ two albums, and in particular this song:

Next week: A billion things at work with only three weeks to go until Christmas. Thinking about signing up to the Chiltern Classics Reliability Rides to start 2019 off on the right foot. And yet another anti-Brexit rally; I don’t really want to give up my Sunday but it’s still too important not to stand up and be counted.

  1. Known to me as Warburg Dillon Read at the time. 
  2. These deserve their very own blog post as there is an interesting history behind them. 

Weeknotes #43–44 — Rallying

The past two weeks have felt like a whirlwind. I’ve felt like giving up on writing these weeknotes as they have seemed like just another rock in the sack that I’m carrying around. It’s a little bit chicken-and-egg: taking time to reflect on the past week (or recently, fortnight) in these notes is very useful to me and helps me focus for the week ahead, but I also have lots of things that I need to just be getting on with.

Work is hectic. When I first started working in an office in the mid-1990s I would sometimes have days where 5pm felt like it would never come. I cannot imagine ever feeling like that again. I know that life speeds up when you get older but recently it has felt ridiculous, a mad scramble to do as much as I can every day. It’s never felt more important to be focused on the most important work.

We’re rapidly heading towards December, a time in South Africa which is equivalent to August here in the UK. Most people disappear off for a summer holiday and the office is quiet. We have some big dependencies on people and processes over there. We need to make sure we get as much done as we can before December hits, otherwise things will tend to spill over into January by default. This week, things suddenly got a lot more difficult with a big reorganisation in the wider team and now we’re not sure exactly who we need to talk to and what processes still apply. It’s going to be more critical than ever to keep talking to everyone and make sure we’re all aligned. Where we can’t find a good answer on who to talk to we’ll just have to keep going and broadcast what we are doing far and wide.

I’m feeling the pressure. We still have ‘just enough’ planning in place and I need to make sure this doesn’t end up being ‘not quite enough’. My client went headlong into Scaled Agile a while ago, but we don’t have time to suddenly move to a new set of agile processes across our dispersed team. I realise that many would argue that we don’t have time not to switch. I’ve tried to decentralise the planning work with each of the owners of our ‘big’ milestones between now and the end of the current project, but they are not project managers and will not become highly skilled overnight. I am not sure how I can avoid taking what they have done and weaving something together in Microsoft Project so that we can manage the dependencies and focus points across the various streams. I’ve started to look for a consultant infrastructure project manager who would spend time looking at the plan detail all day every day which will give me time to keep abreast of the whole programme. I’m trying to do both the programme and project management roles at the moment and I’m not sure it’s sustainable.

I’ve relearned that you can leave a one-to-one conversation where you have both been nodding at each other, believing you are completely aligned, only to find out later that you never were. Writing down what you agreed after the meeting is an incredibly useful and simple tool. And when the discussion relates to something that needs to be created, there is no substitute for quickly drawing an example.

Since I have become a contractor, I have become much more discerning about taking time off to attend a training course. It has to be worth both the cost of the course plus the lost revenue from a day away from a paying client. It took a bit of thought before I signed up to Mastering The Art of Public Speaking with Graham Davies. The course caught my eye as something that could help me with having greater ‘presence’ in meetings. I’m generally fine running everything from one-to-ones with senior executives to workshops and presentations in front of scores of people, but I have often felt like I am not thought of as an authoritative senior voice in the room. The course itself was excellent, particularly for something that lasts just one day, and Graham Davies did a fantastic job of bringing the whole room along with him. Ten attendees made it an intimate setting; we quickly built a rapport between us and were offering each other suggestions on what we needed to improve. I left with the impression that I have more confidence and a better delivery style than I thought, and just need to remember this.

On Friday nights I always leave work with a big sense of what I need to do and then barely think about it all weekend. I’m sure it’s healthy to switch off but doesn’t feel like it on Monday when I turn my attention to work again and it all comes flooding back.

Outside work has been very busy too. On my way into work on Monday I saw an email from the People’s Vote campaign and Best For Britain about a rally on Tuesday night. I had to sign up for the same reason that I went on the march in October — I want us to stay in the EU, I want to make sure I don’t leave it up to everybody else I want to make sure that I can tell my children that I tried. The rally was great, but I did realise that the speakers were talking to a like-minded audience; it was only as good as the message that got outside of the room. Hopefully the media coverage helped the cause. None of us have any idea what will unfold over the coming days, weeks and months.

School governing has been busy as usual. We had two meetings in the past two weeks and have at least three in the next fortnight. Our new Chair is doing a great job of taking up the leadership role and I’m doing what I can to support her. We need to try and find ways to get parents of younger children involved as governors and will be trying to get in front of them at various events from here on in.

It’s been great to get together with friends, family and neighbours over the past couple of weekends. We’ve just come back from a couple of nights away in Centerparcs at Woburn Forest, which the boys loved. It’s only an hour up the road from where we live but it really did feel like a little holiday. Like any family we have a few arguments, but largely I think we really do enjoy each others’ company and it was great to spend time doing things all together for a whole weekend instead of going our separate ways.

My eldest boy has been suffering with a knee injury which has meant his running has been on hold. Sadly he had to miss out on round two of the Chiltern Cross-Country League, but he came along to support his younger brother. I managed to cycle over to Milton Keynes for the event; it was lovely to get back on the bike again and know that I can still tackle 30 miles or so without any bother.

After discovering Learned League on the second episode of the Hobby Horse podcast I wanted in. Matt Haughey was kind enough to help a strange guy on the Internet and get me signed up. After waiting patiently for the new ‘season’ to start, I’m currently three days in and 19th out of 20 in my rookie league. I think the only person I’m ahead of is someone who had forfeited matches. The questions are so hard. But…it is fun. I’ll keep going for now.

Someone mentioned to my nan that I had been getting into vinyl records which now means that I am the proud recipient of a big bag containing her collection. Digging through the records I have found lots of signed LPs by the Strawbs and Rick Wakeman, who used to drink in and play at my grandparents’ pub in Hounslow in the 1960s and 1970s. There are also a few ‘white-label’ Strawbs LPs. I’m not sure how rare these are, but I’ve had to submit new entries to Discogs as they didn’t exist. It’s going to take me some time to play my way through the collection and I’m looking forward to discovering some new music.

Next week: More of the same, and continuing to ramp things up. Racing to complete as much work as possible before November is over and done with. School governor meetings, a work reunion with a team from nearly 20 years ago, a gig and rounding out the week with Album Club.

Saw the ITN vans as we filtered into the People’s Vote Rally. Now I know that they were getting ready to talk to these two.

In a big queue outside the Best For Britain and People’s Vote London Rally in Westminster. Not sure how big the hall is but I suspect there are far more people here than have got tickets.

If this video doesn’t get you in the mood for a Saturday night, nothing will.

(Just dawned on me that the lyrics are ‘…all he left us was alone’. Not ‘…all he left us was a loan’…which is what have I always thought it was. 🍩 = me.)

A short-formed train service means that it’s standing room only on my commute this morning. It happens far too often. There should be consequences for train operators that run services with too few carriages, even if they are on time.

Flickr just dropped me a note to say that on 5 February they are going to delete all of my photos except the last 1,000. I’ll check back in Jan to see if anyone has created a tool to replace my Flickr-hosted images on my WordPress blog posts with locally stored ones. 🤞

Weeknotes #41–42 — Determined

Work has been hard over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get each member of the team to focus on planning their piece of the programme, with enough detail considered in their plans for us to get confident that we can deliver by the dates that we need to. I know that you can’t suddenly make a project manager out of everyone overnight. Each person will need some assistance with planning, seeing the bigger picture and making sure that we have captured any dependencies. We don’t have time to suddenly stop and all learn to implement an agile technique across the team; as we are putting in planned infrastructure and into building a software product I am not sure that the agile methods that are within easy reach would even be appropriate. The problem is that the task is so large that there has to be a ‘divide and conquer’ approach instead of just taking lots of time to build a plan from the bottom up. I’m hoping to bring on a project/implementation manager soon to help with getting into the minute detail, so that I can continue to focus on the broader programme.

I put a lot of preparation into an important meeting between my client and their incumbent vendor, the aim of which was to make sure we were aligned on our goals and budgets for next year. What we are doing will have a knock-on impacts that they need to plan for and I anticipated a tricky conversation. All of the prep was worth it — the meeting was a success and we are all lined up. Now it’s just up to us to make it happen. I’m determined that we won’t fail.

I (re?)learned a good lesson of making sure to stop and take a step back when times are busy and not just charge at everything. On my morning commute, churning my way through emails, I saw a notification of a change someone in the broader IT group planned to make that day. I went straight into reactive mode, looking at how we could minimise the impact to our users. It was late in the day where I realised that the right thing to do would have been to stop and asking whether the change was valid in the first place. We managed to halt it and the problem was averted. I could have used that energy on something else.

Everyone in our house was worn out after the People’s Vote March weekend. It took us some time to recover from the walking and mental stress and excitement of wandering the streets with our placards. A week after the march I ended up going down with a cold and battled all week with a runny nose, watery eyes and a feeling that my general existence was being taxed. Working at home on Monday helped — I spent my day in the house with two jumpers, a scarf and regular paracetamol-laced hot lemon drinks. I’m sure the South Africans that joined me on videoconferences throughout the day thought I was a strange sight, particularly as they start to reach the height of their summer.

Last term, after many years, we said goodbye to our School Improvement Partner. A couple of weeks ago I took a half day off from work to go to school and meet his replacement, get feedback from their visit to our school and then to go through the end-of-year Headteacher appraisal process. Our meeting ended up going for a marathon four hours but it was so valuable to get her insight and feedback. It was amazing to see the world through the eyes of an expert, who could tell us what conclusions she was drawing and pointing out the evidence to back her views. The most valuable feedback is always about the things that you can improve on; we are lucky to have such a reflective and driven senior leadership team at the school, who are receptive to receiving this kind of input. I am sure that they will take on the challenges that have been highlighted and drive the school to further success.

My cold brought with it a sense of lethargy and I found my interest in things waning. This only seems to happen to me when I am ill or massively overtired. Getting old and sick would worry me immensely if it meant I would end up spending lots of time with no passion to listen to podcasts or music, read books etc. I hope that time doesn’t come.

The boys and I continue to plough through Star Trek: The Next Generation when we get the time. We’re just about to start season five. The episodes are well into their stride and season four has definitely been the best so far. When the series was on BBC2 and Sky One in the early 1990s I only caught a few of them and I am sure that I watched a lot of them out of order. It’s interesting to see now many references there are to other episodes and how many storylines make a reappearance, whether it is Picard’s famous encounter with the Borg, Worf’s shamed family name, LaForge’s infatuation with the scientist who developed the warp drives for the ship, or references to Yar, the chief security officer who died in the first series. Wil Wheaton isn’t in the series as much as I remember. His character is now off training at Star Fleet Academy and I have no idea whether he will be back. The fact that we all really love the show is a real testimony to how good it is, almost 30 years after it was made.

Next week: Pushing the team on their plans and helping out where I can. Getting ready for the next round of governance meetings. A potentially long evening at a school governor meeting. And a rare day off work, to attend a training course on public speaking.