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.

Weeknote #34 — Autumn Leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeknote #33 — New routines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeknote #32 — Back to work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a little podcast roundup:

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

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

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

Weeknotes #30–31 — Holiday Road

I’m writing this on a TGV train that has just pulled out of Geneva station, heading for Paris over the next three hours. We’re at the end of a holiday, having spent a few days in Geneva city centre and then a week with good friends in a chalet in Châtel, just over an hour away from Geneva by car in the French Alps.

Spectacular views. Mont Blanc in the background.

Spectacular views. Mont Blanc in the background.

Work seems a very distant memory. I’ve never had a problem in switching off; typically the first day of a break is spent tidying up some loose ends and unwinding but after that I’m all set. On the way down here I had to spend some time reviewing a document and getting it back to one of our vendors but other than that I’ve not looked at my work email at all. Text messages from the team were minimal, and everything will all be there for me to pick up next week when I get back.

Before I left, I spent quite a bit of time on Monday and Tuesday getting through an email backlog that was a couple of thousand items strong. The team are busy getting things done so I took the opportunity to catch up. I do tend to get to everything eventually, but I’m never able to process all of my emails within a short timeframe — if I did, I would never do anything else. I didn’t quite get to ‘inbox zero’ but made significant headway which was pretty satisfying. Anyway, enough about work for this bumper instalment of weeknotes.

In order to be a little more eco-friendly, and to enjoy the journey to our holiday, we had decided to get the train from Berkhamsted to Geneva. Door-to-door from our home to our hotel took us on three overground trains, an underground train and a tram, and about ten hours of travelling. We’re currently travelling at 158mph and despite being still quite a way from Paris we will get there in just over an hour. Both the TGV and Eurostar trains are super fast, but the former are not quite as plush and have an air conditioning system that doesn’t seem to cope too well with a hot summer and full carriages.

Surprisingly just over an hour outside Paris

Surprisingly just over an hour outside Paris

It has been fun to get the train and despite the additional length of the journey it felt like less hassle than going by plane. All of your luggage stays close to you and it was lovely to be able to get up and wander around. Heading to the buffet car felt a little like being in business class with access to an in-flight bar, with less free stuff but better views.

Checking out the TGV buffet car

Checking out the TGV buffet car


Geneva was an interesting place to spend a few days, but I’m not sure I would hurry back. It seemed very functional — very Swiss — but more of a place to live than to visit. That is, unless you have stacks of cash and enjoy luxury shopping for all of the highest of high-end branded goods. We spent some time wandering down the main streets, marvelling at the wares in the windows. Luxuries aside, Geneva is by far the most expensive place I have ever been, and this includes having visited both Zürich and Stockholm in the past few years. Having a weak pound doesn’t help, but I don’t think it is fundamental to just how much everything costs. We didn’t get much change out of £80 for a family meal each night and even filled bagels from a sandwich shop in the city centre cost CHF 18 (about £14). On one of our days out walking we stumbled across a Lidl and made do with a roll and slice of cheese, saving our money for dinner. France is cheaper; not by much for a proper evening meal, but it offered the boulangeries to feed us during the day.

We stayed at the Starling Residence which is a hotel used for training people entering the hotel management trade. This meant it was cheaper than most hotels, but was still around £150 per night. The room was small but quite big enough for us, with a double bed for the adults and a sofa bed for the kids. The air conditioning sounded like the engine of a 747 and seemed to expend most of its energy in making this noise so we stripped the duvets off of the beds and use slept with the sheets. The hotel uses a restaurant next door to serve breakfast to guests that book through their website — this is a little bit sparse with a very basic continental fare and service with not too many smiles. We felt like we were constantly hassling them for croissants as no sooner had they cooked a batch that the basket was completely emptied by the other guests.

To ease the crippling financial burden of dropping in for a visit, everyone staying at a hotel in Geneva gets a pass for free travel on public transport. The city is very pedestrian-friendly and we spent a lot of time wandering around on foot, clutching an iPhone running a walking route on Google Maps1, but it was extremely handy to be able to jump on a tram and head somewhere in double-quick time.

Something free in Geneva

Something free in Geneva

The main tourist attraction is the very straightforwardly-named Jet d’Eau, originally a safety valve for the hydraulic power network but later recognised for its aesthetic qualities. It was quite fun to venture close to it and watch the tourists run away as soon as a gust of wind made it change direction.

The city is really clean and even has various free ‘Caninette’ doggie-doo bag dispensers attached to lampposts for people to use.

‘Caninette’ sounds a lot better than ‘pooper scooper’

‘Caninette’ sounds a lot better than ‘pooper scooper’

Like any other city they have their fair share of graffiti, ranging from the basic to the impressive. We loved stumbling across the one on Avenue Industrielle in Carouge.

Carouge itself is worth seeking out. We found it on our second attempt and loved the little streets, fountains, one-off shops, cafes and the incredible ice cream parlour selling the best we have ever tasted.



We had a couple of lovely meals out, although both were Italian to make sure that there was something that everyone liked. Luigia served excellent food and had a great modern vibe, whereas Pizzeria Da Paolo was a little more rustic. Our kids enjoyed both of them, especially the latter where they were able to roll their own dough and eat the results once they had been cooked. We skipped dessert at the restaurants to save some cash and bought ice creams from the convenience store near the hotel; it was lovely to find Mövenpick ice cream in the freezer. On our last night we had dinner al fresco at La Cuccagna in Carouge which ended up being a pretty grim experience with clumps of hair in the food and rude service.

A visit to Switzerland is incomplete without getting seriously involved in chocolate. I’d been to Zürich a few times when I worked for UBS and had discovered the Sprüngli shop at the airport. Confusingly similar in name to Lindt & Sprüngli, it is a different business with products aimed at the more luxury end of the market. Remembering how delicious the chocolate was, I suggested seeking out their store in Geneva and my family offered little resistance to my proposal. Sprüngli are famous for their delicious Luxemburgerli macarons. I had seen people buying them by the bucket load at the airport but had been put off by the instructions that they had to be kept chilled and consumed within 24 hours; this was a great chance to try them. We had fun each picking out a couple of different flavours to try. Expensive but delicious.

Luxemburgerli at Sprüngli!

Luxemburgerli at Sprüngli!

Wandering along a couple of streets away we then hit the chocolate jackpot by finding the Läderach store. I’d never heard of the brand before, but we were quickly mesmerised by the wonderful giant slabs in the window. Each of the slabs has a unique edible logo on the back to remind you what flavours you have bought. After an extensive sampling session we each bought 100g, with Framboise being the firm favourite with the boys.

Just as incredible as it looks

Just as incredible as it looks

But the chocolate adventures didn’t stop there. Later in our trip we paid a visit to the Cailler factory, an hour’s drive away from our mountain chalet in Châtel. Now very much part of the Nestlé family, the chocolate is nowhere near as good as the others we tried. Apparently the most popular type of chocolate in Switzerland is milk, and it showed from the samples we scoffed at the factory which were very sweet and sugary. Still, it was fun to be in the place where it was made, watching the extraordinary machines and to sample as much as we liked on the tasting tour.

A place of my childhood dreams

A place of my childhood dreams

The sampling room

The sampling room

Back in Geneva, we spent a rainy couple of hours at the Museum of Natural History, which reminded me a lot of our local one in Tring in that it was full of stuffed dead animals. Seeing a dodo (or ’Dronte de Maurice’ as you might say) ‘in the flesh’ makes you realise how easy it must have been to wipe them out in a short space of time, and what a shame it was that it happened.

I am not sure why the French word for ‘amber’ sits ominously above this model of the museum.

I am not sure why the French word for ‘amber’ sits ominously above this model of the museum.

Dronte de Maurice

Dronte de Maurice

Other fun things in Geneva were a child-powered pedalo ride on the lake, deliberately aiming for the wake of the big boats that went past…

The ominously underpowered engine room

The ominously underpowered engine room

…seeing Geneva from above on the ‘Swisswheel’

Aboard the Swisswheel

Aboard the Swisswheel

…spending £12.50 on 10 sticks of churros with some Toblerone dip…

Tasty, but not an everyday treat at £12.50 a time

Tasty, but not an everyday treat at £12.50 a time

…and chuckling at the local name for candy floss (‘daddy’s beard’, anyone? Humm, it’s good!)



That’s quite enough of that.


After three days in Geneva had made a huge dent in our funds we set off by car to start the next part of our holiday, a week with our close friends — two other families — at a chalet in Châtel, France. We had the best part of a day between checking out of one hotel and checking into another. Mrs D had done her research and found that there was a local Parkrun 30 minutes north in the French town of Divonne-les-Bains, so it made sense to make an early start to get to the run and then continue around the north side of Lake Geneva/Lac Léman so that we saw a bit more of the area.

Our journey around Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as you might say)

Our journey around Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as you might say)

I didn’t join in with the run but wish I had. It’s a lovely flat course around the edge of the beautiful lake in the town. The rest of the family did great, with the eldest boy coming fifth with a time of 19:32 and surprising some of the more athletic-looking adults by how well he did. There were far more English than French people participating but apparently the latter is on the increase.

After a coffee and a croissant in the town we headed east. As we drove I realised that we would be going past Montreux and that there was a statue of Freddie Mercury there, overlooking the lake — the same one that appears on the cover of their Made in Heaven album. Queen had owned Mountain Studios in the town and recorded lots of their albums there. It wasn’t far out of our way so we decided to pop down and take a look.

The location was easy to find and handily has an underground car park a few metres away from the waterfront. When we emerged into daylight we found the place abuzz with an event called the Waterings Contest. The main event involved super athletic young men doing spectacular ring gymnastics on the edge of the lake followed by a dive, judged by a number of people in red t-shirts with pens, paper and laptops sat precariously at the edge of a platform. What’s not to like?

They had also laid on a free inflatable water slide. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to do something for free in Switzerland, we hastily found some swimming gear for the boys and set them off.

The most unexpected free fun of the holiday

The most unexpected free fun of the holiday

They also had a dip in the lake where there were lots of free inflatables to jump around on.

More free fun, for those prepared to go in

More free fun, for those prepared to go in

I had expected the Freddie Mercury statue to be located somewhere tranquil and quiet but that wasn’t the case — it’s in a prominent spot on the waterfront and was very busy, with an almost endless stream of people posing for pictures with it. Most people seemed to clutch his microphone stand which means that it is kept shiny whereas the rest of the statue is dark.

Freddie Mercury, in a spot that seems much less contemplative and private than it does on the _Made in Heaven_ album cover

Freddie Mercury, in a spot that seems much less contemplative and private than it does on the _Made in Heaven_ album cover

At a quieter moment a lady decided it was a good place to sit and look at her phone whilst finishing her cigarette, which she then stubbed out on the base. Some people!

We probably spent a couple of hours at the waterfront and it was lovely to have been there.

The next part of our journey was south-west, up and into the Alps. The scenery en route is stunning and we were all dazzled as we drove back into France and up into the mountains. Pretty Swiss chalets turned into pretty French ones and we soon found ourselves at Chalet Cannelle, our home for the next week.

The communal space at Chalet Cannelle

The communal space at Chalet Cannelle

The Chalet is lovely and dates back to 1808 when it was used as a cowshed. Owners Lorraine and Andy took it over a few years ago and have continued to renovate it in a respectful way, keeping as much of the original doors, beams and walls as they could. It has a rustic, relaxed feel. Lorraine greeted us at the front door and gave us a brief orientation. After a little unpacking we still had a few hours until our friends arrived, so we filled the time by heading out for dinner in nearby Châtel, an alpine town just a few minutes up the road. This was equally beautiful and has some lovely places to eat; I had a great dinner of locally-caught fish at Le Fiacre which made a fantastic change from all of the Italian food we had been getting through.

Châtel itself is beautiful and is a great jumping-off point for going up into the mountains.



We headed back and didn’t need to wait very long until everyone else turned up. The kids went a little potty, excited to see each other and to share rooms over the next week. We stayed up late, catching up with everyone after their journey.

It hadn’t quite dawned on me how Chalet Cannelle was set up. It is operated on a bed and breakfast basis and it took me a few days to realise that a lot of the time they have different parties all staying in the Chalet simultaneously, with everyone being able to make use of the communal areas such as the huge dining and living room. We had booked the whole place between six adults and six children and I had thought that it would be similar to where we had rented villas together in the past. I knew that the kitchen was out of bounds to guests but hadn’t realised that this was primarily because our hosts would be using it for most of the time we were there — I got used to it but it was strange at first to see so much of the owners of the property. Although the chalet has a relaxed atmosphere, it wasn’t quite as laid-back as it would have been if we were completely on our own. Sometimes we would put our music on the stereo and occasionally Lorraine and Andy would have theirs on. It took a few days for us to understand what we could and couldn’t do, e.g. we could use the dustbins under the sink and get water from the tap even though these were both in the kitchen which wasn’t for our use. As our friends were arriving late on Saturday we had agreed to get some basic food in for them; I made a faux pas of getting a case of beers from the supermarket but as it is a licenced premises we weren’t allowed to drink them. This was completely my mistake as I hadn’t done enough reading on the setup; our hosts were lovely about it. Lorraine and Andy have a good selection of wine on offer for guests which you can take from the lounge minibar in an ‘honesty’ arrangement; you can buy your own but there is a €5 corkage charge which means it’s not worth doing, unless you have bought something really special.

Breakfast was provided to us with a great selection of croissants, pain-au-chocolat, fresh fruit, cereals and muesli, yoghurts and cooked eggs, the latter of which varied every day through scrambled, fried, omelettes etc., topped off with vats of tea and coffee. We’d booked our hosts to cook for us on two of our seven nights; however, after we had experienced the first meal we quickly arranged for them to cook for a third time. They are incredible chefs and the food is completely stunning; it is clearly a passion. I had never seen so many cookbooks as there are on their library shelves and they have even written their own.

Every night when we had dinner there was a little menu on a stand in the dining room which although cute, completely undersold just how stunning the food would be.

Waking up in the chalet every morning to a cooked breakfast was brilliant. Knowing it would be there made sure that we got up at a good time and were able to make the most of the day. It was lovely to see Mont de Grange from the lounge every morning and note how different it looked each time.

Staying at the Chalet meant that we were able to each purchase a hugely-discounted Multi Pass for €2/day/person which gave us access to all of the cable cars and stair lifts, free access to local swimming pools, discounts on activities such as the bob luge and even free access to a local cheese factory.



I had never been on a ski lift before. On our first proper day, after buying our passes, we headed up in the cable car (‘télécabine’, you might say) to Super Châtel and then used the ski lift (‘télésiège’, as you also might say) to get up to Le Morclan. I had never used a ski lift before and I was in good company; getting on and off them is a skill and the latter involves getting some speed upon landing to keep ahead of the seats.

All of the ski lifts in the area make very light work of ascending and descending — some of the angles seemed crazy — and we soon found ourselves at the peak with an incredible view, which included Mont Blanc in all of its snow-capped glory.

It was interesting to see the illusion of height due to distance and the curvature of the Earth:

I continued my run of holiday-related health disasters at the Forme D’o swimming pool. When we arrived the kids (alright, well all of us) were excited to find a slide next to the outdoor pool, one where you took a run up, leapt in the air and skidded along as far as you could go. After donning my regulation speedos I started to have fun trying to outdo my two boys for how far I could fling my body along in one go. Getting to the end of the slide after one particularly big skid, I hurried off the end — and promptly slipped on the solid foam jigsaw mat.

The slide and mat of doom

The slide and mat of doom

It happened in a split second; I remember hitting the floor with my back and the back of my skull so hard. The first thought that went through my head was “Oh my god, you really don’t get to know when your time’s up.” I yelled out and was sure that I had done myself a serious injury, I had never felt such bizarre pain. My eyes were closed and I remember lots of people rushing over saying things like “don’t move him” and calling for help. It took me a while to be able to talk back and I remember thinking that I should just let people assess me and look at whether I needed to keep still. One of the lifeguards was very reassuring and held my hand while asking about the pain and after some time had passed helped me to a sitting position, and eventually to my feet. I had a headache and my ribcage felt like I had been in a boxing match; it’s still aching even now. Needless to say, swimming was over for the day and the rest of the holiday was spent in degrees of discomfort. There’s a reason why people tell you not to run at the swimming pool, kids!

Later in our holiday the swimming fun continued with the man-made lake at Lac des Écoles in Les Gets2. They had a Wibit inflated assault course, a little water slide and a lot of Alpine salamanders in the lake.

Webit on the lake

Webit on the lake

Make a hasty exit to avoid the salamanders!

Make a hasty exit to avoid the salamanders!

We had a spectacular meal at La Haute Bise at the top of Col De Bassachaux, getting there just before the sun went behind the neighbouring mountains. Lorraine kindly booked us a table for twelve and we were glad she did as it quickly got very busy. Despite being just a handful of miles away as the crow flies it took a long time to drive there, down one mountain and up the next via tons of switchbacks. It felt literally in the middle of nowhere, was super-basic inside and served superb homely food. The views were breathtaking.

Salad with goat’s cheese on toast, with my hand present in the picture for a sense of scale

Salad with goat’s cheese on toast, with my hand present in the picture for a sense of scale

Gruyères was another delight. Located just around the corner from the Cailler chocolate factory it has a beautiful medieval square inside a castle on a hill.

It is also home to a museum and bizarre bar dedicated to the work of H. R. Giger of Alien fame. Disconcerting.

Not the most relaxing place for a coffee

Not the most relaxing place for a coffee

The ‘Goat Village’ of Les Lindarets was bizarre. After a couple of ski lifts up, another down (where we descended into rain clouds — fascinating but not fun as there was no escape!) and a short walk we stumbled upon a mass of goats in the town square. They roam all over the place and the local shops sell goat food in little paper bags. The goats know exactly where the food is and are pretty aggressive about getting it, resorting to chewing on your coat if they think it will be to their advantage. You had to keep your wits about you as goats suddenly leapt into view, literally butting into conversations, or decided to empty themselves on nearby pedestrians.

All in all it was a lovely holiday, made even better by having great friends with us. Once we’d got all of the kids settled in bed each night we reached for a board game, our favourites being Linkee and the wonderful You Think You Know Me, both of which gave us lots of laughs.

It’s great to be on holiday, but it’s also great to be home.

Next week: Back to work!

  1. From this vantage point in 2018, travelling without a smartphone and a data connection seems crazy. The world is so much more navigable now. 
  2. A town which lent itself to entertaining us with nearly endless punnage as we walked down one of its mountains; “Les Gets going”, “Les Gets ready to rumble”, “Les Gets it on” etc. etc. 

Weeknote #29 — Night Time is the Right Time

I spent most of this week on my own at home as Mrs D took the boys back to her parents’ house for a school holiday visit. I took advantage of them being away to catch up with a few things and ended up not finishing work until 9pm at the earliest for three days on the trot. Early in my career I used to work late all of the time, and to good effect — being there in the evening with no meetings and no interruptions really gives you the space to plough through the backlog. I managed to keep all of the big things moving forward and it was a satisfying feeling at the end of the week.

It’s never the right time to take a holiday. I’m off soon and need to prep for it — there are so many moving parts on the programme that need to be handed over. Plus, I’m really enjoying myself at the moment, and it feels like a shame to stop. Holiday season is weird in that you can go for over a month without seeing some of your colleagues. Staff at my client’s office in Johannesburg are projecting puzzled looks to those of us in London (“Is the whole of the UK going on holiday or something?” Yes!) but they’ll get their revenge in December.

We’re still a few steps away from completing our software rollout in our final city. A couple of calls with Gartner analysts on how other companies have approached it haven’t helped that much but we have one more in the diary which looks more promising.

On the broader project we still have a mountain to climb over the couple of weeks to close out on our architectural vision. We have a regular call with the wider team and there are palpable ‘lightbulb moments’ from each person as they jump over the fence of understanding and really get what it is we’re trying to do. Not everyone has made the leap yet so we will keep having to try and explain it from different angles until we find the specific way that lands with each person.

The client I am working for right now is very good at bringing in apprentices and work experience staff and I’ve had the privilege of spending some time with them over the past few weeks. It’s difficult to put myself in their shoes, where the whole world of work is so new. Years ago, in my school holidays I was employed for a time as an Office Angels temp, doing data entry and junior secretarial work. I remember one of my early assignments at Siemens in Bracknell, where I didn’t even have a clue as to what was appropriate to wear to work. The staff were pretty friendly but one or two loved to tease me and it felt like there was such a gulf between me and everyone else. Somehow as the months and years passed it started to click into place. The young staff I’ve been talking to were all born post-9/11 which is difficult to comprehend in itself One person asked me how mobile phones worked — I guess that as technology becomes ubiquitous it also becomes invisible.

One thing I would say to anyone twenty years younger than me would be to look at getting a financial adviser. I’m going to be 42 this year and wish that I had done it years ago. Leaving permanent employment to set up my own business as an IT contractor spurred me to looking for help and so far I’ve had a very positive experience. Our adviser has reviewed our entire financial situation and have told us what and how we need to save each year to ensure a comfortable retirement, and they have looked at all of our insurance polices to make sure that we have robust plans in place. For a long time I’ve been wanting to move my pensions out of the bog-standard funds that my previous employers chose and into specific ethical investments but it has always felt so complicated. Our adviser specialises in ethical investments and we will soon be rid of funding fossil fuels, arms, and other undesirable things as we grow older.

The weekend was a delight, with the boys making an early start at the Watford Park Run on Saturday followed by a picnic at Savile Gardens with some lovely friends, rounded off by a family movie night featuring The Sound of Music.

On Sunday I managed to get on my bike for a couple of hours in the heat, cycling down to my parents’ house to join everyone for my Dad’s 65th birthday celebrations. My parents have always known how to throw a party and this was no exception — a barbecue, a buffet and a musician to entertain everyone on a gorgeous afternoon.

Next week: Binge-working and prep for a break.