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.

Weeknotes #53 — They’re behind you!

A week in which I…

  • Saw the team start to drift off on their Christmas holidays, some of them combined with summer holidays if they live in the Southern Hemisphere. Laughed as I heard one of the team was going down to Margate; the South African version looks a little more upmarket than our one here in England.
  • Kept leaving work every day with more on the to-do list than I started, for the second week running. I am looking forward to having some focused time to catch up when I get back to work the week after next, with most of the team still being out.
  • Continued to be very involved in the process of selecting the right kit to run in the new meeting rooms in my client’s London office. It seems that you have to pick a platform to be the centre of your universe and then bolt on other things around it. So, for example, if you mainly use Microsoft Teams then you’ll need to look at purchasing interoperability add-ons for BlueJeans, Zoom, Webex etc. It’s a bit of a gamble as the videoconferencing market is so fluid. Given that my client is focused around Microsoft it makes sense that Teams is the primary platform. It doesn’t look like our dream of simple self-service for every meeting is achievable just yet.
  • Was impressed by a BlueJeans who went out of their way to work with us as quickly as possible. We had someone rush halfway across London to provide some sample kit a few hours after we first spoke. Really impressive customer service. It’s such a joy to work with people who go out of their way to help.
  • Got some key orders over the line such as new laptops for the New York office. Most of the kit is now there, but we couldn’t close out on the networking gear in time so they will have to be ordered as soon as everyone is back in January. I’ll be planning the details of the rollout soon and hopefully we have enough information to make a solid plan. Next year is likely to involve quite a bit more travel.
  • Ran a pilot training session for our new soft phone system. I knew that session would be guided by the participants and we wouldn’t cover half of the things we wanted to; this is exactly how it played out. The participants brought sots of questions, some venting as a pressure-release valve from recent experiences and we also had a senior executive popping in late to telling us that they “only have 20 minutes” — all par for the course. The session was as valuable to me as I hope it was to everyone else, and gave us some good ideas as to how we need to restructure the training before we open it up in January to a wider audience. The consensus is that although we still have a lot of work to do to get the phone system to a level of quality and reliability that we are happy with over the next few months, being able to use the ‘land line’ phones from an app on any mobile device, anywhere you are in the world, is a game-changer.
  • Said ‘welcome back’ to a colleague who sits next to me in the office who had been out of the office for a few weeks. He’d been missed.
  • Had lunch with my client for the first time in a long while, to mark the end of the year.
  • Scratched my head as our SD-WAN reported connection blips for different sites, which seemed to resolve themselves as soon as they occurred and had no visible user impact.
  • Somehow managed to squeeze in some governor work on my commute and late in the evening. I still feel like I’m treading water and just about getting the urgent stuff done. I am hoping that I can catch up next week when I am off for Christmas, although I’m also trying to not be too ambitious as I know the holiday will slip through my fingers in a flash.
  • Joined the WB-40 Global Canteen videoconference for a Friday afternoon catch-up. It’s only the second time I’ve been able to hop on the call, and once again I found Matt Ballantine to be the only one there. The concept is great — a coffee and a catch-up with people beyond the office — and it was lovely to hear about Matt’s new job and the challenges he’s facing.
  • Attended Album Club #106 to hear Ben Folds Five’s debut. Great hosting and a lovely evening of music and talking nonsense. We’re going into our ninth year next year and it’s still the best night of the month. I enjoyed the album but it wasn’t up there with the greatest things I’ve heard; it took a few songs for me to get into it and I’m not convinced by Ben Folds’ ‘geeky’ vocals.
  • Spent Saturday in London with the family, meandering our way and shop-hopping from Euston to the London Palladium to see the panto. A lunchtime visit to Leon saw me tuck into my third delicious LOVe Burger of the week, perhaps one too many. The pantomime was good, but not as great as I had hoped; the review in The Guardian nails it with the description of it as “a case of double the entendres and half the story”. There’s always some fun at the panto where there are rude jokes that largely go over the childrens’ heads, but this one had the balance wrong — there were whole sections of nothing but innuendo, much of which seems very dated now.
  • Saw a silent disco walking tour, where the group sing along as they move from place to place. Nice concept!

  • Watched Stand By Me for the first time in years. It still really holds up. It’s weird watching it now that I’m around the same age as the dad telling the story, given that I was around the same age as the boys in the film when I first saw it. I hadn’t realised that it is based on a Stephen King short story.
  • Caught up with some sleep, and got back on the bike again with a couple of turbo trainer rides. The day feels a whole lot better once some exercise is out of the way.

Next week: A week off for Christmas.

Weeknotes #52 — Another naan bites the dust

A week in which I…

  • Felt like I spent most of my time in videoconferences and conference calls, picking up tasks, and not having a lot of time to get them done.
  • Helped my client with a separate project to refit their London office. Reviewed the bill of materials for the audio/visual equipment and raised a lot of questions, many of which come from me being new to the work. There’s an intersection with my programme which is deploying new technology to each of the offices. There’s massive pressure to hit a hard deadline, which means it is even more imperative than usual to keep a cool head and not be pushed into going down the wrong technology route.
  • Worked from home on Monday so that I could attend our final school Full Governing Board meeting of the year straight after work. I’m still carrying forward too many tasks and not getting as much done as I would like to each term. I am hoping that I can use some of the time at Christmas to catch up a little. We had two new governors in the meeting, and one of them came out with us for our annual curry-based social night. We get so little time as a team to talk about anything that isn’t on our meeting agendas, and it was lovely to get to know each other better and to build our relationships for a change.
  • Made progress with our equipment orders in Dubai and New York, and continued to wait for feedback on our chosen vendor in São Paulo. We’ve made some key decisions around our telephony and Internet service provider in Dubai and I now need to plan the detail on how we get the main changes done in all three locations in January.
  • Had a Wi-Fi survey completed in the New York office. We’ll use the results to determine specifically what wireless access points we should install and where they should be placed. I’m not sure how reliable or specific it will be given that the Wi-Fi is likely to be doing battle with an ever-changing landscape of other networks in all directions in midtown Manhattan, but we’ll see.
  • Completed a review of the ‘level two’ support contract with our vendor to clarify some elements of what we expect from them, given that we have now been live for almost half a year and have the benefit of experience. It’s good to work with a pragmatic supplier who sees mutual benefit on getting something like this right, and doesn’t just insist on ‘working to rule’ on what has been signed off.
  • Had a rare evening out with my wife and a whole bunch of our friends for a bizarre ‘curry and Freddie Mercury tribute act’ night. The whole curry house had been booked out for the event, so there was one sitting of food followed by an evening with Luke Antony singing Queen songs, and getting everyone up and joining in.
  • Felt dismay when the night out was sadly punctuated by the release of the general election exit polls. If I could have voted for a hung parliament, I would have; a gigantic Conservative majority wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The news quickly spread around the room and it took the shine off of things for a lot of people. When the morning came, we found out that it was as bad as we had feared. It’s going to take time to get used to the thought of having Boris Johnson and his band of rogues in power for the next five years. I don’t know what happens next, but I do know that there are a lot of motivated people out there who will want the electoral system to be reformed. I’ve always said that if I was one of the nearly 4 million people — 12.6% of the total — to have voted for UKIP in 2015 and found that I was represented by only 1 MP out of 650 I would have been outraged. Again, this time we have the Green Party pushing nearly 1 million votes for the first time and only having 1 MP. Given the focus and protests on climate change this must be a gross under-representation of the issues people care about. I have no idea how we could move from a first-past-the-post system to one of proportional representation, given that the governments in power have zero motivation to change it.
  • Enjoyed the 1992 version of Of Mice And Men with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I’d seen it a long time ago and though that the rest of my family would enjoy it, and they really did. My 10 year-old was really touched by Malkovich’s acting as Lennie, and we were all taken aback by the emotional ending. I was surprised how much of an impact it had on me, especially given that I had recently read the book and watched the 1939 film version, so the ending wasn’t exactly a surprise. There are some really interesting differences between the book and the two films, which I may write up if I can prioritise the time.
  • Spent Saturday with my parents, my brothers and their families for a ‘mock’ Christmas Day. Everyone had a lovely time together and it felt more relaxed and less rushed than usual, probably as a consequence of the children all getting older. Christmas dinner was lovely. I had my first Christmas pudding of the year (definitely my favourite festive food) and rolled home with that ‘I can’t possibly eat anything for tea’ feeling. We’re all going on holiday together next year which should be a lot of fun; I’m looking forward to getting to know my niece and nephews as we really don’t see them enough.
  • Watched the latest instalment of His Dark Materials with the family, and sadly found myself getting bored. The series started well and had us all gripped at the beginning, but something about it is not sticking for me. We may skip it this week in favour of watching BBC Sports Personality Of The Year together for the first time.
  • Cleaned out our big envelope of vouchers that people have gifted to us and have come to the conclusion that we are really, really awful at remembering to spend any of them. The good news is that we have some money towards a meal at The Waterside Inn in Bray (given to us as a Christmas gift in 2008) and some Theatre Tokens from our wedding in 2004 that were to be used after our honeymoon, both of which are still valid. The envelope is no more, and I am hoping that leaving the vouchers in an annoying place on the kitchen table will push us into finally using them.

Just like last year, I’m planning to work over the New Year period whilst most of the team are off so that I can get prepped ready to hit the ground running in 2020. It has felt like I have been treading water over the past couple of weeks, doing just enough to keep any catastrophes at bay, and I am really looking forward to having some days with no meetings in place so that I can get some focused work done.

Next week: The last week of work before a week’s holiday for Christmas.

Weeknotes #51 — Power steering

A week in which I…

  • Focused on working from the list I already have, trying to ignore distractions that turned up in my inbox.
  • Met with the CEO of my client’s Brazil office to review progress on the main programme, and to draw a rough sketch of a timeline for the rollout in São Paulo early next year.
  • Made good progress with equipment orders and deliveries for the New York office. I’m still waiting on some pivotal installation dates which prevent me from planning the work in more detail.
  • Had a kick-off call for a Wi-Fi survey in New York, and took receipt of a ‘predictive survey’. I’m not sure how much value there is in a paper-based exercise when the office is in the middle of a tall office block in a densely-occupied area of Manhattan, presumably with other wireless networks firing signals in all directions.
  • Started to wrestle with telecoms and data discussions with our vendors for the Dubai office. I have had to to plan my days around calling in-country vendors as early as possible to get the most out of each day. Major public holidays in the UAE meant I couldn’t start the work until everyone was back at work on Wednesday.
  • Put to bed a discussion on whether my client should implement a remote access solution. It doesn’t represent value for money to do it right now for the odd occasion where it might be needed; the organisation isn’t big enough to justify the fixed cost initial investment.
  • Provided some input into a project on how to manage an organisation’s unstructured data. There are so many tools to do the jobs these days. The trick is understanding the business, picking the right tools for the right reasons, and producing some simple rules that people can follow on ‘how we organise work here’.
  • Met with our architect and builder for our small home extension planned for next year.
  • Took a day off from paid client work to attend the TBD Conference. I’m still processing my thoughts from the event and need to turn this into a write-up all of its own. It was good to have a day thinking about, and being exposed to, something completely different. However, I am not sure I was really part of the ‘core audience’.
  • Rode my bike out to Cowley near Oxford to see my eldest boy compete in the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships. I hadn’t been out on my bike in many weeks, and the last-minute prep meant I set out late and had to push to get there on time. I made it just as they were lined up and ready to go. He had a great run but was so muddy by the end of it.

    Ready to run

    Ready to run

  • Bought our Christmas tree and put the decorations up. Somehow every year we seem to always need new lights for the tree and nobody remembers why. Emergency lights have been purchased (again) and we are now fully illuminated.

    The traditional Christmas tree picture. With me looking ridiculous, with added shorts to make me slightly less embarrassing in non-bike riding situations.

    The traditional Christmas tree picture. With me looking ridiculous, with added shorts to make me slightly less embarrassing in non-bike riding situations.

  • Went for a pre-Christmas lunch with our close friends at The Fox and Hounds in Englefield Green. We’ve been there loads over the past few years, including for a friend’s wedding, and it has been consistently good up until now. Lovely food, cosy atmosphere, and a great location with easy access to Windsor Great Park for a post-food stroll. Sadly the food and service weren’t great this time so we may need a new venue.
  • Got taken home from the same lunch on a flatbed truck when the power steering failed on our car. The lack of being able to change direction was accompanied by a burning smell, so it didn’t seem a good idea to drive home. It’s only been two weeks since we had a new clutch fitted. This may be the tipping point where things start to go wrong on a regular basis and it doesn’t make sense to keep spending money to fix them.

Next week: Trying to lock down delivery dates for Dubai, New York and São Paulo. More car repairs, a governor meeting, and a curry with Freddie Mercury.

Weeknotes #50 — Of Mice and Men

A week in which I

  • Started to ask around for consultancies that provide training on and running of Failure Mode Effects Analysis sessions. I think that something structured in this way would be very useful for a team that has just put a brand new IT infrastructure into production, but I need to talk it over with someone who has experience in it.
  • Spent an hour and a half on a video call with agile coach Stuart Mann, getting his advice and feedback on how our programme team are working and what I intend to put in place get the rest of the programme delivered. It took me 40 minutes to give the background and context, but it’s always good to talk it through and see it through someone else’s eyes. Stuart’s a great guy to talk to. My conclusion is that we are doing a lot of things right and are on a good path. As usual, we need to take just what we need from the methodologies available and focus on the outcomes. Getting this advanced is at the forefront of my mind.
  • Got a hard copy of our LeanKit Kanban boards and various reports up on the wall in the office. A really interesting experiment to see the whole thing at once instead of having to scroll up and down on a web page, and the reports generated some good discussions within the team.
  • Continued to push forward with vendors in New York and Sao Paulo. Our initial kit orders in New York are on their way and we need to finish them off early next week. Brazil is proving to be an order of magnitude more complex to do business in than anywhere else so far, with all kinds of exotic import/export, billing and taxation issues to manage. With one month to go until the end of my client’s financial year, getting our orders in is my top priority.
  • Stepped in to give an update to one of my client’s Management Committees on where we are with delivery of our programme. Made a ‘note to self’ for next time that I should ask whether there are any actions I need to be aware of before going into the meeting.
  • Brought our school’s Pay Policy up-to-date to the 2019–20 version and caught up with my actions from our Finance, Premises and Personnel governance committee.
  • Worked from home to meet a plumber to get a leaky radiator valve fixed. We have an insurance policy so we ‘only’ need to pay the £60 excess. They were meant to turn up a few weeks ago but called on the day to say they weren’t coming, and automatically sent me a £10 cheque as compensation, considering the matter closed. Service is not what it used to be.
  • Got back into refereeing my youngest son’s Sunday football matches again. I’d not refereed a match in many months. I find it a real challenge, particularly as I’m not a dad who is into football, but it’s definitely the best job to have at the match on a cold winter’s day as you get to run around and keep warm. The boys had a great game today, with a 3-2 win and an exciting opposition corner to finish.
  • Got on the turbo trainer every day where I had the chance to. It takes up time, but boy do I feel good for having done it.
  • Had my eyes tested for the first time in a couple of years. Feeling like an old man as I am now slightly long-sighted as well as being very short-sighted. I knew this before I went in there, from the way in which I sometimes have to peer over my glasses and bring something close to my face, grandad-style. No time to shop for new glasses this week, will need to do that later in the month.
  • Finished John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and read Of Mice And Men again. Of Mice and Men was my introduction to Steinbeck when we studied it at school in the early 1990s as part of GCSE English. I fell in love with his writing, and remember our teacher assigning us to parts to the book like it was a play, with one of our classmates having a brilliant mock-American twang in his voice for the role of George. What struck me from reading it again this time is how compact the novella is; it has nothing superfluous to the story and it moves along at a very rapid pace. I bought the 1939 movie version on iTunes and watched most of it on Saturday; it’s excellent, and fascinating to think that it was made when the depicted events were still contemporary.
  • Watched The Shawshank Redemption for the first time in a long while. It deserves to be #1 on the IMDB ratings chart. Great story, great acting.
  • Had a lovely lunch at The Swan in Southrop with my wife’s family. A stunningly beautiful village and pub. We had our own private room complete with log fire, which started to get us into the Christmas spirit.
  • Watched the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the last of the year. The circuit always looks the part but never seems to deliver an exciting race. Just over 100 days until we start all over again in Australia.

Yearnotes 2019

Elevators at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Dubai — just makes me think of a scene from _Star Wars_

Elevators at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Dubai — just makes me think of a scene from Star Wars

No, the irony of writing a blog post about how I will keep up the challenge of blogging and then promptly stopping writing weeknotes after just one more is not lost on me.

It’s been an amazing year. As Christmas approached in 2018, instead of relaxing my way into the holiday in typical fashion, I knew that I would have to take advantage of everyone else in the team being out of the office in order to get organised. We had to hit the ground running in 2019 as it was truly make-or-break time. The IT programme I have been running effectively had no budget; the high-risk strategy was to spend money to build a completely new IT infrastructure stack — from the cables coming into the buildings, to the delivery of applications to the desktop and everything in between — and then run a ‘big bang’ go-live, moving people over to the new equipment and switching off the service level agreements for the old technology. The savings in the second half of the year would then pay for what we spent in the first half of the year. We had a deadline of 1 July that we had to hit, and we absolutely had to hit it.

Request for feedback on our planned end-user computing technology

Request for feedback on our planned end-user computing technology

I have never worked so hard in my life. I knew it was going to be tough. I had warned my wife and two boys that I would have to give work a priority for half a year or so, and I am so glad that I had realised this. Late nights, and work almost every weekend in order to take stock of the previous five days while preparing for the next five, became the norm. The first full weekend I didn’t do any work was at Easter, where I managed to indulge myself with a bike ride to Ross-On-Wye and then to Bristol for family events before I got back to work. Somehow we wrestled the new infrastructure live on time. Although it is not completely finished and there is still a very large amount of optimisation to do, we did enough to hit our deadline on the nose and avoided an expensive overrun.

Out with the old and in with the new

Out with the old and in with the new

As soon as we hit the deadline, it was as if someone had come along and thrown the room upside down. instead of the whole team being focused on one common ‘go-live’ goal, there is now a production environment to run, some stability, remediation and optimisation work to complete as well as the next set of deadlines for the next cities where we need to go live.

Over the past two-and-a-half years we have had to continue to change tack and refine the approach to delivery of the programme, shaking things up when they have got stale or are no longer working. The micromanagement approach to wrestling the work over the line in July is no longer appropriate or managable, and the team are currently in a transition between ‘large scale Kanban’ and something more date-driven like SAFe Programme Increment planning. My goal now is to get the new approach to work agreed and bedded down ahead of next year so that we can start to plan some predictable deliveries, and in particular decide what things we will not do.

It’s been difficult to recover from being so work-focused. Back to the ‘four lightbulbs’ analogy from weeknote #1, I had been putting almost all of my available 100W into the ‘work’ lightbulb and the little left over was shared between health, family and recreation respectively. I’m trying to restore the balance but it is difficult to get out of the normal pattern of behaviour and leave the laptop off at night time.

We still have some critical deadlines to hit on the programme and I am determined that we will keep ourselves on track, but the extreme pressure has lifted a little.

As our attention has turned to rolling out the IT infrastructure in other cities, it has been fun to visit Dubai and New York over the past couple of months.

When I’m on a work trip my hotel is typically close to the office and I end up missing the exercise I get from my daily commute to London. I fixed this in Dubai with a morning run almost every day. Dubai didn’t really have much ‘weather’ to speak of, only degrees of difference in humidity. It’s strange to feel that it’s a bit chilly at 6:30am when it’s 31C, just because the humidity is down a few percent from the day before.

View from the morning jog

View from the morning jog

Breakfast in Dubai

Breakfast in Dubai

Home from home

Home from home

I love visiting New York. It feels like yesterday that I lived there, but it’s now almost 20 years ago. It was a bit of a shock going from the gigantic modern hotel room in Dubai to the one-quarter the size (but twice as expensive) pokey room in New York. The faded glory of the hotel was propped up by the champagne vending machine in the lobby, a bizarre melding of tacky convenience and luxury that I couldn’t get my head around.

A work visit to the Microsoft store in midtown led us to the gaming room upstairs, where I took on a few laps of Forza on the biggest console screen I’ve ever seen.

I’ll take it!

I’ll take it!

A Monday afternoon, filled with regulars

A Monday afternoon, filled with regulars

The week in New York was hectic. We had a production problem that developed halfway through the week; I ended up on a call from 10am until 6:30am the next day as we worked through a resolution with the team. Everyone was exemplary in dropping what they were doing and getting stuck in until we were done.

At the end of the week, I indulged myself with a late night metro trip downtown to Chelsea, finding my old apartment building and then nostalgically wandering the long route back to my hotel, through the streets where I used to live. It was strange to be back there and to think about how much time had passed. Since I turned 40 I’ve been thinking about how short life is and it seems to get more pronounced with every year. I know I’m not the only one to feel this way. This quote from an FT magazine article I read on the plane over continues to echo in my head.

This really struck a chord with me

This really struck a chord with me

As a school governor, it never feels as though I’m contributing enough and this year this feeling has been running deep as I have had to focus so much on my other work. Now that the term has started again, I’m trying to make up for this a little bit. It is still a collective struggle for all of us, particularly as we have said goodbye to some great governors this year as their terms have come to an end. There seems to be an eternal quest to recruit good governors who are willing to get involved and have sufficient time available to do it justice. It doesn’t help that the role is getting increasingly more demanding and complex; in recent years we have taken responsibility for setting the performance-related pay policy, taken on the role of the Data Protection Officer and now having to increase the amount of regular financial reporting for the Schools Financial Value Standard. All of these things are laudable but each one needs to be picked up by someone on the governing board, adding to the overall burden. The role of a governor is so very different from the one I put my hand up for six years ago.

At home, we had a big summer project of installing a garden building, including a shed and an outside room both for home working and keeping fit. The process of getting it installed was amazing. Someone turned up to fit some ‘ground screws’, which are simply MASSIVE SCREWS that go into the ground. A little later, the installation team turned up and spent two weeks transforming the space to a building complete with windows, plastered walls and electricity. We’ve been making great use of the room and I’ve been spending a lot more time on the turbo trainer; the mental barrier of setting up all of the kit every time I want to use it has gone away. The boys have both been having a good go on the turbo as well, with Zwift’s free accounts for the under-16s tempting them for a workout.

New rooms in no time at all

New rooms in no time at all

The children have really been enjoying their sport this year, with the eldest recently coming second in his first duathlon and the youngest enjoying a new season of football as well as taking up judo. They both have so much more of a love of sport than I did as a child and I really hope it continues.

Duathlon racing

Duathlon racing

Cross country

Cross country

I can’t sum this year up without talking about Brexit. Prior to 2017 I think I had only been on one political march in my life, against the Iraq War in 2003, but I now seem to have found myself on umpteen of them. I’m still of the mindset that I can’t sit on my butt and complain about and and need to do something, and I fully expect that the marching isn’t going to stop for some time. I now find myself listening to hours of commentary from the Remaniacs, Political Thinking, Cakewatch, On The House, and the Guardian’s Brexit and Politics podcasts every week, as well as wading through a book called How Parliament Works. I’ve never been so informed, which I guess is one good by-product of what’s been going on. I worry for the upcoming election in that personality and celebrity seems to completely trump reason and respect in who we are putting in charge. I fear that it would take some universally reviling news about Boris Johnson to emerge for the Conservatives to not be elected.

Marches, marches, marches...are all political rallies around the world as rude as ours?

Marches, marches, marches…are all political rallies around the world as rude as ours?

Wandering through Berkhamsted High Street this weekend I was stopped for a chat by a campaigner for David Gauke. I explained that I was undecided and wanted to see some local polling before committing to whoever has the best chance of beating the Conservative candidate. (When or where this polling data will come out, I have no idea.) A few paces on, the Liberal Democrats had a team of four or five people on the street and one was being shouted at by a man who was incredulous that their policy is to revoke Article 50. “You will lose so many seats!” he said. The Liberal Democrats didn’t have many to start with, but I know what he meant — and who knows if he is right?

Weeknotes #49 — The days are long but the years are short

It’s been a ‘quietly confident’ start to 2019. I had intended to take off all of the days between Christmas and New Year, but as the week before drew to a close I realised that this wouldn’t work. There was so much planning and organisation to be done; we have such a tight schedule that it would make no sense for me to be doing this whilst everyone else on the programme tries to gather themselves and get going again in January. So, I worked from home for a couple of extra days. I’m so glad I did. I now have a very large list of tasks, more than halfway to becoming a detailed plan, which I’m already using to good effect to set direction and give focus across the team on what we need to complete. Having an ‘old school’ project plan feels a bit strange in this day and age where people are practicing Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and all other manner of agile development methods. However, it feels right to me given that the programme is mainly infrastructure-focused (there are little in the way of ‘features’ to prioritise), is heavy on dependencies and critical path analysis, and is a much bigger piece of work than a classic agile team of 5–9 people could manage. There are too many things going on to fit into my field of vision and this ‘advanced checklist’ approach feels right.

I have a new project manager that joined the team on Friday who I will be handing this immediate detailed management work over to, so that I can spend more time looking further out and across the programme. The work we are doing will impact six cities around the world and everything we are focusing on at the moment is just for the first one.

The detail-oriented approach feels right, and it is helped by the start of a new financial year. With the calendar ticking over from 2018 to 2019 we suddenly have funding to buy the new infrastructure components that we will be deploying. I’ve also been working with the internal communications team to kick-start a plan for how we will present and absorb a significant amount of IT change across the organisation this year. It feels like there is some excitement in the team to be getting on with the work; I hope it isn’t just me.

Over Christmas I started to read the Word for Windows 1.0 postmortem, which although 30 years old I am sure will have some useful lessons and prompt some thoughts on how to avoid issues on our programme. I’ve already made a note about avoiding introducing too many new techniques and processes along the way.

I also took advantage of the Christmas break to get back on my bike again. I managed to get out and about, or on the turbo trainer, almost every day that I had off. It was a slow start, but I’ve got some momentum with me now. I’ve learned that a 30-mile ride of two hours isn’t unreasonable to fit into a Saturday or Sunday around family activities; previously I felt glum if I couldn’t go out for double that. Maybe this is one advantage to starting over. I’ve managed to fit longer rides in where the family have been going somewhere and I can meet them there. On the days that I work from home I’ve also been getting the bike set up on the turbo so I don’t have to think too much in the morning before jumping on. I really want to embed cycling as a thing that I do all the time, not just a thing that I do occasionally as a special event.

There’s plenty more to note but the topics will have to wait. The past two weeks have seen a few 9/10pm finishes with work and today is no exception, plus I spent the weekend ill with a little fever which I only seemed to get over this morning. Battling my way into 2019 but feeling positive.

The discipline of a blank piece of paper

The ever-excellent Track Changes podcast caught my ear today. They have an interview with Michael Shaoul, who is the Chairman, CEO and Portfolio manager of Marketfield Asset Management.

I think that it’s always interesting to hear about what someone’s job involves day-to-day, particularly when they have such a senior position. Shaoul says that he spends a lot of his day reading articles to get a sense of a broader economic picture. From the podcast transcript linked above (light editing and emphasis mine):

I have the Terminal, so obviously it’s Bloomberg News,  but what I have is the raw news feed which has hundreds and hundreds of newswires. So you know, I literally have the world’s news scrolling past my eyes in real time and if I ever see something interesting, I click on it, and I probably read two, three hundred stories a day. I don’t necessarily finish them all […] If it’s really interesting, I might email it out. I might send it to someone, I might, as you say, jot it down in a notebook. You know, I’m lucky that I have really an excellent memory and the Terminal itself makes it relatively easy to go back and find something that you looked at […] but that altogether sort of forces me to […] have a constant view on what I think is going on.

I’m on the telephone, talking to people. I’m constantly reading stories. It’s a lot. So how do I synthesize it? Partly through the discipline of writing. I’ve been writing daily and weekly stuff now for years […]  people say, “Well how do you have enough time to write if you’re like reading and talking to people?” I’m like, “Unless I write something, I don’t know what I understand.” And it is that discipline of a blank piece of paper — or a blank screen and typing away — that forces you to decide what you actually care about and what doesn’t really matter.

I think this goes hand-in-hand with one of my favourite quotes:

I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.

The interview got me thinking about the weeknotes that I’ve written here during 2018, and more broadly why I’ve kept a blog — on and off — for the past 15 years. I’m not a CEO of an asset management firm, am not selling anything and typically don’t get too many views of the things I write. The audience for ‘everything Andrew is possibly thinking about’ is an extremely narrow one, and doesn’t even include my wife or my mother. But that’s okay — the main purpose is for me to work out what I think about things and what I want to say about them. Connections made with anyone else are amazing, but they are a bonus.

I’m going to try and continue with my weeknotes in 2019. I need to seriously work on keeping them brief so that they don’t take up quite so much time, as I already have more things to do than I can possibly complete this year. I’ve no idea if I’ll succeed or not, but the point isn’t the output as much as it is the discipline and process of creating something on that ‘blank piece of paper’.

Weeknotes #47–48 — Ask me again

The past two weeks which have bled into each other to make one big fat week. We’re still battling away at work and unfortunately won’t have finished all of the things we intended to complete this year before people disappear on their Christmas holidays. It’s not a disaster but it does mean that we’ll need even more energy for the start of next year to complete the things we didn’t finish, as well as start the rest of the critical work. I’m going to need to take advantage of the coming relatively quiet week before Christmas to get as much prep done as I can so that we start 2019 well. It’s going to be a massive year in so many ways.

We’ve been interviewing people this week to join the team as a project manager. It’s critical that we get the right person on-board; interviewing seems so inadequate a mechanism to decide who that right person is, but we don’t have much else. Hopefully we’ll find the right person and get them in place for the start of January.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about get fit again. Strava’s annual update reminded me that my exercise levels have been relatively pitiful this year, with less miles completed than I did on a single event a few years ago. I’m surprised they still think I am alive.

Thanks Strava.

Thanks Strava.

I love being out on the bike. I’m holding myself back from committing to a regular schedule for all kinds of reasons, but the reality is that I need to prioritise my health and fitness somehow. Both of my boys have different sports at the weekend that my wife and I need to take them to. This, together with the need to use some of the time at weekends to get school governor and client work done means that I’m non-committal. It was so much easier when I had a big event to aim for and needed to get fit for it. At that time I had publicly declared that I was going to do a big ride and was raising sponsorship, so I felt I had to prioritise fitness so as to not let anyone down. My boys were younger then and didn’t have as much going on, so I could easily disappear for hours of pedalling. Their earlier bedtimes meant I could jump on the turbo trainer before dinner, something I can’t really do anymore. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing the Chiltern Classics reliability rides but it may not be the right year to do them again for all of the reasons above. Something to give some thought to over Christmas.

Last weekend I had to pull together the materials for our programme Steering Committee meeting. The past two weeks have been pretty much back-to-back with meetings so I knew I didn’t have time to prep during the day and would need to use the weekend. However, Sunday 9 December saw yet another ‘People’s Vote’ rally being held in central London which I felt I had to attend. Saturday and Sunday became a mad blur of work, travel, rallying and more work, all before heading back to the office on Monday for wall-to-wall meetings. I managed to get things done although had to compromise with a ‘catch-all’ slide in the deck containing a simple big list of things I needed to either inform the Committee about or get their decision on.

The rally itself was really good. It is weird to be a few feet away from people whom you seemingly know so well from their presence in the media. The speakers were excellent, particularly the ever-articulate Caroline Lucas. Michael Heseltine stole the show with his unexpectedly moving speech. He talked of the EU being an effective peace project which had followed centuries of various wars between its member states. The whole room was quiet as he gestured to the young people behind him and made reference to the fact that generations of people like these were sent off to fight in Europe’s wars. See here from approximately 9 mins in, but the whole thing is worth viewing. His point is very well made; a long-lasting peace is a bigger ideal than the ‘take back control’ narrative.

Most of the speeches were excellent, but the one from Rosena Allin-Khan rankled me and left me with a sense of annoyance all the way home. When she was announced and she came to the stage it seemed that she was coming out in support of a People’s Vote. Her speech reached a crescendo with her stating that she supports a People’s Vote only if a call for a general election is dismissed. She seemed to be at the wrong rally — the crowd wasn’t just a bunch of Labour supporters. It was great to hear some of the crowd chanting “People’s Vote first” as she walked off stage left.

Brexit is occupying my mind massively at the moment. My attention turns from the ever-present ‘live blog’ horror show on the Guardian homepage to slower, more considered blog posts that people are putting out. Both Chris Grey’s post on his excellent Brexit Blog and Chris Weston on the WB-40 podcast WhatsApp channel pointed me in the direction of Sir Ivan Rogers’ speech at the University of Liverpool. It’s sobering reading and leaves me feeling despondent for the future. If we get what I want — a second referendum resulting in us remaining in the EU — I can completely understand that people who want us to leave would feel cheated based on the result of the 2016 referendum. I disagree with them, and personally believe that more democracy of being asked again is absolutely not undemocratic, but I do understand how they would feel. If we do end up leaving, and in the worst case completely crashing out, I will have to do what I can to moderate how bitter I think I would feel at the people that got us there. If we have a second vote and people still want to leave with all of the information that we now have available to us, I’d have to accept that this is the country I am living in and would need to make my own views about what is best for my family and I in the long term. Plenty of people have done the same thing in the past during difficult times. Sir Ivan’s speech makes me realise just how divided we are and it is so difficult to see how we can come together again.

One thing I have noticed recently are blog posts mentioning a potential narrative of people being ‘stabbed in the back’. This could come from the extreme Brexiters if they don’t get what they want. A similar narrative took hold in Germany after World War I, contributing in the rise of the far-right:

The stab-in-the-back myth (German: Dolchstoßlegende) was the notion, widely believed and promulgated in right-wing circles in Germany after 1918, that the German Army did not lose World War I on the battlefield but was instead betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially the republicans who overthrew the Hohenzollern monarchy in the German Revolution of 1918–19. Advocates denounced the German government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as the “November Criminals” (German: November­verbrecher).

When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, they made the legend an integral part of their official history of the 1920s, portraying the Weimar Republic as the work of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. The Nazi propaganda depicted Weimar as “a morass of corruption, degeneracy, national humiliation, ruthless persecution of the honest ‘national opposition’—fourteen years of rule by Jews, Marxists, and ‘cultural Bolsheviks’, who had at last been swept away by the National Socialist movement under Adolf Hitler and the victory of the ‘national revolution’ of 1933”.

It’s chilling to see people involved in the ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march the other day as it has similar echoes. I hope I’m just putting two and two together to make five.

In other news…it’s been busy a couple of weeks of socialising with various festive events. We had our annual school governor Christmas curry which was lovely — it’s really nice to get to know each other better when we spend almost all of our time together focused on the work. I’ve been to a comedy night on a boat in the Thames as well as a marathon karaoke session, both of which were a lot of fun. December is a constant reminder to me of why I gave up drinking a couple of years ago; I’m tired enough from just attending different events and would find it so hard to cope if I had to carry a hangover around with me as well.

I ran a Crowdsourcing Christmas session, inspired by Jamie Arnold’s blog post from a few years ago. The idea is simple: you write some details on a sticky note about who you need to buy for, how old they are, what they like and what your budget is, and everyone else then offers suggestions of what to buy with other sticky notes. Everyone seemed to love it and a lot of people found it useful. It has given me an idea for Mrs D which I’m now following up with that I hope she’ll love.

The cats still boggle my mind. We went away for a night at the weekend and left them with two timer bowls of kibble. We came back to find carnage in our kitchen where they have torn the things to shreds in a mad (and presumably successful) attempt to get at the food. They seem to act more like dogs than cats where food is concerned, and for one of them we don’t seem to be able to subdue his appetite in any way.

As Christmas approaches I’ve put the brakes on with my vinyl purchases. However, I couldn’t resist when the Super Deluxe Edition blog pointed out that Amazon US are selling repressed copies of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass for half the UK price, including postage and customs charges. It took a while to get here but it is completely gorgeous and sounds amazing.

Next week: Partying nights out are behind me for this year. Hectic until Tuesday and then a run of minimal-meeting days towards Christmas where I need to use the time to get a lot done. Coffee and headphones all the way.

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.

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.

Weeknotes #39–40 — March

It’s much harder to jot down weeknotes that look back over a fortnight as opposed to a single week. As ever, there’s a lot that’s been going on.

At work we are moving firmly away from the budgeting process and pushing hard on making progress with our plan. We’re getting challenges and looks of disbelief from all sides in terms of what we are pushing to do over the next six months or so. I really welcome this. There are a lot of experts with much more experience than me in the things that we are trying to do. We have been trying to channel the feedback into more detailed conversations to try and surface assumptions and issues we haven’t thought about. At the moment, I am still sitting with a plan that is ‘aggressive but possible’ — no ‘showstoppers’ have revealed themselves yet — so it is going to take some skill and a lot of hard work to make it happen.

The team are working under the ‘principle of mission’ in terms of knowing what the end date is for their workstreams and having to plan how they will meet it. Some will be able to do this better than others, so there will need be room for assistance with this, but we don’t have time for a full bottom-up plan which is unlikely to reflect reality anyway. The devil is in the detail, but the detail needs to come from the people doing the work. One of the hardest things is going to be dealing with over-optimism on the part of our stream leads who may only realise when it is too late that we are out of time. I’ve seldom met someone who doesn’t do this, including myself. Breaking down the work with them locally and stepping through each plan that shows ‘who will do what by when’ will help. At a programme level I will need to continually spend time surveying the landscape and looking at where best to get involved to remove obstacles and reduce risk, and keep iterating on this until we’re done.

Last weekend I spent three hours with our incoming Chair of Governors, immersing ourselves in some of the detail of the job and agreeing a few immediate actions between us. She is going to be great in the role. It somehow doesn’t yet quite feel real that I have stepped down to being Vice-Chair, perhaps because there is still such a backlog of items to get through.

I met up with for a coffee and a chat with a prospective new governor who responded to my request at the ‘meet the teacher’ evening at the start of term. The role sells itself and it’s lovely to talk about it with someone who wants to join the team — once they have been in contact it’s rare that they decide they don’t want to participate.

At home, the biggest event for us was the People’s Vote march on Saturday. I’d spent some time talking to my two boys about it and explaining why I was planning to go. I felt strongly enough about the issue to prioritise being there. Our family discussed it all week — I tried very hard not to deliberately persuade them to my point of view and for them to make up their own minds about what to do. They were very keen, so we gathered together some materials and got up early on Saturday morning to make signs. Both of the boys came up with their own ideas for their placards, and I made my own too.

The march itself was brilliant, but hard work. It was one of those unusual days in London where people notice and talk to each other instead of being lost in their own worlds of phones, headphones and newspapers. The group of friends we went with assembled at Marble Arch just before midday and we then quickly found ourselves stuck with the heaving throng for an hour and a half or so. The boys did really well to keep patient in the crowd once the novelty of seeing so many sweary signs had worn off. As we shuffled forward and the day wore on, people started to leave our group to find food or get to whatever they had planned to do in the evening. I said goodbye to some friends at Trafalgar Square some three hours into the walk and then made my way alone past Downing Street and into Westminster. The speeches had long since finished but it felt good to have completed the route. I was so pleased to have been there and stood with so many other like-minded people. I don’t know if it will do anything to stop Brexit but I am glad that I can say I didn’t leave it to everyone else to fix.

Winter running has kicked off with the first Chiltern Cross Country League race of the 2018–19 season in Oxford. This year our youngest boy is competing for the first time in the U11 group and our eldest has moved up to the U13 group. We were very proud of them both, coming 42nd and 14th respectively. Neither of them left anything on the table and my eldest ran the whole race with an injury he picked up at the start. Next stop is Milton Keynes on 10 November.

My vinyl obsession continues unabated. Following the People’s Vote march I wandered into Soho to see what record shops I could find. Sounds of the Universe and Reckless Records are within a stone’s throw of each other and are both wonderful, filled with new and used records respectively. I particularly loved how the items in Reckless are carefully graded and that the staff actively encouraged me to look at the vinyl before I made I purchase. I managed to pick up a brand new copy of Zero 7’s Simple Things and a vintage copy of Seal’s debut album. Playing Seal was a bit of a shock as the album is substantially different to the one I grew up loving on CD — it turns out that there are actually two completely different versions of the album. We’re not talking 1960s-style ‘slightly different mix between mono and stereo’ differences. Some of the tracks are completely different. I’ll need to give it a few more plays to work out which one I like best; the version I know is so deeply ingrained in my brain it will be difficult to dislodge.

Next week: Flushing out as much of each of our programme workstreams as I can with the team and getting our architectural high-level designs completed and signed off. Some new faces in the office, and a half day midweek to attend the annual Standards Visit at school.

Weeknote #38 — Evening classes

I knew when I was putting things in the diary a little while ago that this would be a busy week, and so it proved. The process of getting the budget done at work has brought our critical work into focus, and I took the opportunity to reboot our daily ‘standup’ team meeting. I now have a small set of graphics for the team to look at each day to remind us of our key goals, how many weeks we have until December when the whole of South Africa seems to go on holiday (eight) and until the end of March when we need to deliver (261). The graphics also show what our immediate and upcoming milestones are that we need to hit. It will take some getting used to — a couple of times this week I stopped discussions about items that aren’t aligned with our key goals — but I can already see the effect on the team as we push to meet the deadlines in front of us. I also plan to include Cost of Delay metrics in the graphics so that the whole team has an understanding about what being late will mean in real terms; hopefully citing these will lend weight to requests we make to teams across the organisation.

We had our first Full Governing Board meeting of the year on Wednesday. I’m both very happy and slightly sad to say that I now have ‘Vice’ in front of my title of Chair of Governors, having handed the main role over to a colleague. She is going to do an excellent job and I am very happy that she is willing to take on the work. It’s been a real pleasure and a privilege to have the Chair’s role for the past three years. I had stepped up to it with some reluctance given that I work full time and it has been a struggle. I love the work of supporting the school through governance and I am hoping that a reduced role will give me the opportunity to do a better, more focused job.

Liberating Structures

On Monday evening I went along to the Digital Project Managers London meetup to learn about Liberating Structures. It had been a while since I attended meetup and the description pulled me in, promising “simple rules for groups, designed to include everyone in shaping the future” which “harness the creativity and intelligence of everyone in the room, whilst having more fun”. I wasn’t disappointed.

In a nutshell, Liberating Structures are tools and techniques, ’microstructures’ and constraints, that can be applied to group situations to get people to participate, leading to better outcomes. Yes, I was sceptical too. But by the end of our first exercise I could immediately see their value and wanted to learn more.

The Liberating Structures menu

The Liberating Structures menu

The first exercise we did was Triz. Heaven knows where the name comes from but it does make it easy to remember. Here’s what we did:

  • We were each asked to imagine what an organisation would look like if it had a complete lack of trust, and to write down what things would go on there.
  • After a couple of minutes we were asked to share these with each other on our table, and eventually with the room.
  • Next, we were asked what behaviours from our list we recognise about the the situation we are currently in or where we work.
  • Finally, we had to think about what action we could take to avoid or stop those things from happening.

The effect was astounding. By focusing on a generic situation in the first step we could completely de-personalise the process, with the latitude to be much more creative without getting bogged down by the baggage of real life. It immediately got me thinking that this would be a very useful exercise to do with the programme team that I am leading — they all expect me to know what I am doing and possibly may not always speak up if things start to go off the rails, or if they spot that something isn’t getting done when it should be. By de-personalising an exercise where the team can jot down ideas on the worst programme they can imagine, they would likely get many more insights out into the room that we could then reflect on as a group. In our session, the whole exercise was complete in a very short space of time and was extremely powerful. It wouldn’t take much to apply this technique at work.

Next, we got into groups of three to try out Troika Consulting. One of us agreed to be ‘the client’ and the other two of us were ‘the consultants’. The client had a minute or two to explain to us a situation that they were having a problem with. The consultants we were then given two minutes to ask clarifying questions of the client. After that, the client turned around 180° and stood with his back to us while the two consultants debated his issue and possible solutions to it. The client could say nothing while we were doing this and we discussed the problem like he wasn’t there. This was really interesting to me, as the other consultant and I had completely different views as to what the client should do. When our time was up, the client turned back around and de-briefed us on what he had heard, what he found valuable and what he was thinking of doing as a result. Once again, this was so simple but remarkably effective — our client told us that it was the best meeting he had had in some time.

Finally we had a go at What, So What, Now What? This exercise didn’t land with as much impact as the others but it did get me thinking. David Heath, who led the session, asked us to jot down what we had observed about the evening and its exercises. For this ‘What?’ part of the exercise he emphasised that we should ‘keep low’ on the ‘ladder of inference’ and make sure that we were noting down pure observations only. This is actually a lot harder than it first sounds, and we got a little hung up on whether you can actually ever truly observe whether someone had been engaged by the work. Nevertheless, it was an interesting process.

By the time we reached ‘Now What?’ we had lots of people across the room committing to find out more about Liberating Structures and taking the exercises back to work with them.

At the end of a Meetup there is usually a little bit of pizza and chat with the other attendees. Generally I end up feeling slightly awkward at these things, sometimes finding myself going down cul-de-sacs of conversation that have no easy exits and trying to carefully judge listening and talking too much. This time was an exception — there was a great crowd and I met some very interesting people, swapping contact details at the end of the night with a definite intent to follow up and talk more. A brilliant evening.

Telling stories with data

After work on Tuesday I wandered over to the offices of The Guardian in King’s Cross. I had signed up to a short evening course called Telling Stories With Data: [An] Introduction To Hand-Drawn Data Visualisation. It was exciting to be in a place that plays such a big part in my everyday life with the news that I consume, and after having read many tweets from Simon Ricketts about the late-night happenings there. After a quick security check I was shown up the escalator to reception where I kept my phone in my pocket and people-watched for half an hour or so, wondering who everyone was and what they did for a job as they streamed out of the office. I’m 90% sure that Gary Younge wandered past at one point, but I wasn’t sure enough to say hello.

Once there was a critical mass of us we were shown through the security barriers to the staff canteen where various drinks had been laid on for everyone. There were a couple of evening masterclasses running so there were lots of us there, all engaged in slightly awkward chat as we waited.

Stefanie Posavec was our tutor for the evening. I wasn’t familiar with her work until signing up for the course, but it turned out that we were in great hands. Stefanie had undertaken a project called Dear Data with Giorgia Lupi, a fellow information designer, where they created postcard visualisations about different aspects of their lives, every week for a year. The results are beautiful and fascinating, and the result of many many hours of labour. We only had three hours, which was only enough time to scratch the surface, so we had to get scratching.

Stefanie took us thriough the basics, breaking down what data visualisation is (“a way of presenting data that uses visual perception in order to increase our understanding”) and what it isn’t (digital poster infographics). We learned that the main functions of a data visualisation could be to explain, to explore or to exhibit. (I had a good chat with Stefanie in a break about the exhibit part on how data visualisations can be good just through being visually pleasing.) In a short space of time, we had been equipped with a language and learned that data, rules, visual variables and visual perception all come together to make a data visualisation.

We were put into groups of three and given a simple data set to work with, containing details of the top 20 bestselling albums of all time according to Wikipedia. We had sales figures, years of release, genders of the performers, genres of music and country of origin to work with. We had to come up with a visual language for how we would represent the information and then get to work drawing a single glyph for each album.

I ended up in a wonderfully diverse team, an IT guy alongside a female graphic designer from Canada and a lady studying for a masters in drama. Once we’d figured out what we were doing and had created all of our glyphs we now had to find an interesting way of representing them. We decided to cluster the information by its prominent features and ended up creating a ‘music tree’:

Most of the other teams used some kind of graph axes to plot their glyphs, showing quantifiable data alongside the categorical information. Our creation was missing something by not having the years of release visible on the visualisation, but the size of the circles already showed the amount of sales so we felt that re-using this wasn’t essential.

It was a fun night with a great instructor and lovely people once again. Stefanie has sent us her slides and I’ll definitely be referring to them again.

Home time

Yet another weekend of childrens’ sport kept us busy as usual. My eldest boy must be half-aquatic as he braved the Birmingham rain on his way to achieving second place in the U13 National Road Relay along with his two teammates. Both boys made their football matches on Sunday and it was lovely to be out in the sunshine — we had one win and one loss, but both of them are really enjoying it this season.

Next week

Increasing the focus and keeping the pressure on at work to get through our near-term milestones over the next two to three weeks. Re-establishing our weekly team meeting. Getting out on my bike again, cycling to Oxford for the start of the Chiltern Cross-Country League with both boys competing this year. And Album Club #92.

  1. Look out for weeknote 64! 

Weeknote #37 — Never a dull moment

Managed to get the budget over the line by Friday morning, but not without a lot of sweat, very early morning meetings and a seven-hour videoconference call. I think we’ve met all of the criteria that was asked of us; I have my fingers crossed that it doesn’t bounce back with a new set of requirements that mean we have to go around the loop again. Having the budgets in place is invigorating — our month-by-month financial plan shows when we need to be putting new things in place and decommissioning old things by particular deadlines, and now we need to get on and try and beat these dates. My mind has already turned to how I can bring this focus for the team in our daily and weekly standup/meeting cycle; everyone needs to have a crystal clear understanding of what success looks like and we need to make sure we are prioritising the stuff that helps us to achieve our bigger objectives. We have so much to do and it’s guaranteed to be tough but I’m really excited to get going on this next big phase. Everything else has built up in the background whilst my attention has been on the budget work for the past two weeks and now it’s time to catch up, but it’s great to be able to look at my email backlog and have renewed clarity on what matters.

I was more exhausted than usual by Friday afternoon but felt rewarded by both our team Lunch Club and Album Club taking place on the same day. We had skipped lunch last month as lots of people were out on holiday, but the next one seemed to come at us quickly. Kyms was the most popular venue on the list but they seem to be all booked up for months to come so we ended up heading to Mattarello. The food was simple but delicious — I had the tagliatelle ai porcini and it was cooked to perfection. We each tried some crescentine/gnocco fritto which was a salty mouthful of deliciousness.

Album Club was a complete treat, with the first Fleet Foxes album as the host’s choice, a literal smorgasbord of cheese and snacks, and a few of us going late into the night trying to harmonise our singing as someone played guitar. I knew of lead singer Robin Pecknold from his appearance with the Gene Clark No Other Band and it was great to hear such beautiful songs. I’ll definitely be checking it out again.

Album Club

Album Club

I’ve always been rubbish at going to bed early and it really bit me this weekend, with our youngest boy deciding that Saturday is an exceptionally great day to get up early, and a neighbour’s car alarm kicking things off at 6am on Sunday. It takes quite a bit for me to beat an early retreat into bed but I couldn’t stay up on Sunday night despite the backlog of things to do.

Alongside my vinyl obsession I have recently been delving into music books again. For a long time, I’ve had my eye on the 33 1/3 series, each one an in-depth focus on a particular classic album, and I finally decided to pick up the one on Donny Hathaway’s Donny Hathaway Live. It didn’t disappoint, making me hear the music in a different light and leaving me understanding a bit more about Hathaway’s tragically short life. I’ve now moved on to David Hepworth’s 1971 – Never A Dull Moment to continue scratching my itch. I suppose I am giving the WB40 book club a rest for a little bit. I feel the need to nourish myself with non-work material, particularly after a long day as I clamber into bed.

I finally managed to squeeze in the four and half hours to tackle the latest Hardcore History episode, covering the roots of the Asia-Pacific War of 1937-1945. Nobody does an engaging history podcast — or podcast of any kind — like Dan Carlin. On a lighter note, I also really enjoyed this interview with Kelis about her cooking, music and lots more besides.

Our driveway is all finished and looks amazing, although living on the side of a valley means that it feels unfeasibly steep now that we can finally park our car there. We leave the car in gear with the steering locked to the side but I’m still nervous, so I’ve invested in some rubber wheel chocks to replace the bricks that we are using under the wheels.

We had another typical sporting weekend with the boys running and playing football. Our eldest won his age category in the Moor Park 10k Fun Run for the third time in as many years and was very pleased to pick up another medal. Football with my younger boy was less successful with no goals for our team, but the scoreline didn’t do justice to their excellent performance. They all seem to have matured a lot over the summer and seem to be enjoying themselves much more so I’m hopeful for a good season ahead.

Next week: Back to the programme with renewed vigour. A meetup on Liberating Structures, a training course on hand-drawn data visualisation and our first Full Governing Board meeting of the school year.

Weeknote #36 — You can’t get there from here

It had been some years since I stayed up working long into the night dealing with an IT issue. Around 6pm on Tuesday, just as I was thinking of wrapping things up, I spotted a problem. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one. We had to quickly convene a conference call with all of the relevant technical staff in our various locations to try and work out what was happening. I didn’t know it at the time but this was to become a seven-hour call which we finally wrapped up after 2am, once we were satisfied that staff would be able to work the next day. I decided to work from home on Wednesday, giving myself an extra 45 minutes in bed, and this seemed to keep me topped up until Friday. We don’t have a proper fix for the problem but have escalated it to our vendor and I’m hoping that we will have a clear way forward this week.

The final city in our software rollout journey is now live and our team have come home. They did a fantastic job and we had our smoothest rollout to date. We need to follow up in a few weeks to make sure everything is going well and to explore how we can help with adopting the new tools, but so far, so good. We can now get the whole team focused on the bigger work ahead and start pushing on all fronts.

Aside from helping to resolve our technical issue, my main focus has been on our incredibly complex budget planning process. There are so many ways of slicing and dicing the numbers; very few people will be looking at the whole thing in totality and we need to try and please as many of them as we can whilst still getting the work done. We have a deadline to hit this coming week which will help, as we have to land somewhere. There’s also an imperative to keep driving the wider team with a sense of urgency to get through our design work, and any spare time I have is being spent in trying to give this some structure.

We had our first school governor meeting of the year, with a small group of us that form our Pay Committee. It felt good to get back into it and the meeting went well. I’m in the process of bringing our new Chair-to-be up to speed and it’s been useful to describe why we do the things we do, and the way we do them, if only to remind myself. When I started as a governor we had no say over teacher pay — salary progression was based purely on length of service — but we now have responsibility to implement and apply a performance-related pay policy. There’s so much more work to do than when I started as a governor in 2013.

I’ve been road-testing a Jabra Speak 510 portable Bluetooth speakerphone. As one of our governors couldn’t attend our meeting in person, I took it along and used it to dial them in. It’s been performing brilliantly and already feels indispensable for working anywhere beyond the desk in the office. I was especially grateful to have it with me during the seven-hour conference call earlier in the week.

Work has kicked off on building a new driveway and front garden at our house. We’ve been putting off the work for years as it always seemed such a lot of money for something we only see when we come and go. This year, the weeds came at us in full force from every crevice and I no longer want to live in a house that looks as though somebody might have died unnoticed inside. Cars must have been a lot narrower in the 1950s when our house was built as we have never been able to park our car on the drive. Well, technically we have been able to park, but typically after parking the next natural step is to open one or more doors which itself has been impossible. The company doing the work have been impressive in how quickly they have made progress. Hopefully in a week or so it’ll be done and we’ll have a house we can be proud of again.

Mrs D left me home alone with our boys for the weekend while she had a well-deserved break away with friends. Saturday was a bit of a damp squib and Sunday even squibbier. I introduced the boys to The Boy Who Could Fly, a real ‘guilty pleasure’ cheeseball of a film that I remember watching a few times with my brothers when we were kids. We were up very early on Sunday to aquaplane our way down to Crystal Palace for the South of England Athletic Association Road Relays. Despite the horrendous weather the races went ahead, and our U13 boys’ team came 8th with the U13 girls running to an incredible 2nd place.

One of the fellow dads informed me that the stadium is the site of a football ground which hosted the FA Cup Final from 1895 to 1914. It’s amazing to think how much sport had taken place where we stood. The stadium now has a certain ‘former Soviet Union’ feel to it and is in need of some investment, but you don’t need too much infrastructure to run a road relay.

I’m still obsessing over vinyl. Music seems to have (re-)taken over the part of my brain previously reserved for thoughts of cycling, blogging etc. I am hopeful that some balance will return soon but it shows no sign of letting up just yet.

Next week: Another governance committee meeting, finally finishing the budget, and a Friday night Album Club — the best kind.

Weeknote #35 — Jozi redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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