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.

Weeknote #28 — Milkshake

Very much the week after the week before. Most of the participants in last week’s workshops had returned to base and it was time to consolidate. The key thing to do was to try and keep the momentum by sending out details of exactly how we would coordinate the follow-up work; I had a late night in the office on Monday but got it done.

A key note to self — which I knew already, but it needs reiterating — is to make sure that any meeting actions get written down verbosely, particularly when everyone is tired. After a long week, the last two mini-workshop meetings on Friday quickly faded from memory. On Monday morning I found myself with a couple of colleagues trying to decipher cryptic actions from a photo of a whiteboard which seemed oh so very clear to us when we wrote them down at the time.

It felt like a bitty week. I spent it catching up on a number of fronts and trying, unfortunately in vain, to get back on top of email again. (I’ve been told that I have a reputation for being on top of my email but I don’t think this is justified; does everyone have the same feeling?) Our programme is gaining real momentum now but there are still big things outstanding with me such as reviewing reports from vendors (and potential vendors), getting steering committee minutes written up and sent out and working to get the right team structure in place. Even with late nights in the office over the past week there is still such an immense amount of stuff to do.

Our software rollout in Asia went extremely well over the past two weeks and we now have only one city remaining. This last one is particularly tricky due to network restrictions; we’re having to do a substantial amount of pre-work to ensure that the staff will continue have a good enough experience after we make our changes. One of our team has helpfully agreed to go there for a few days this week to do some on-the-ground testing, even though he has already been away for two weeks. I’m extremely grateful to him.

One of the components of our programme is a fixed-price contract with a vendor for some specific deliverables in a particular timeframe. I’ve worked with a few of these arrangements over the years and so far I’ve never seen one pan out exactly as originally envisaged. This always seems to be a function of how much interaction and input the contracted firm needs with the client team. We’re already a few weeks behind where we had planned to be, but it does feel like we have a good partnership with the vendor, making it easier to collaborate on a sensible way forward. There are a few key decisions that we still need to make and it is important that we take the time to get them right; my biggest fear is discovering something in a few months’ time that means our solution has fundamental flaws, resulting in a need to backtrack on a substantial amount of work. Better to delay now and get it right than rush ahead and pay the price later.

We have started to shape the cost of the infrastructure solution that we are putting in, going through our stack from top to bottom and making some conservative estimates for what we need to budget in each category. The results are eye-opening when all added up, and we have some work to do to shape our plan financially.

This week I also learned about the complexities of wayleave agreements and will need to factor this into our planning for the next stage of the programme. My understanding is that if this goes badly it can be months before everything is agreed and signed off, so part of my job is to push this along and make sure we can keep the team moving forward on productive work if there is a big delay.

Brexit is never out of the news but this week I’ve noted a shift of the topic back to the foreground in my own consciousness and the people around me. Things seem to be coming to a head. Ian Dunt’s blog on what a ‘no deal’ Brexit will mean for food is scary as hell, and even more terrifying given it is just one component of the whole thing. I’ve also come across the excellent Brexit Blog by Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, which is worth following.

I’ve been watching a management restructure from afar and have seen how much time and mental capacity it has taken up for the people involved. I’m so glad to be removed from worrying about things like this and to just be contracted to get on with a job. It keeps everything so much more simple.

This weekend I have spent far too much time looking into turntables. There’s something purposeful about making time to listen to vinyl and I’d like to get into it. Decent equipment isn’t cheap, although I only want something that I can use as input into my Sonos system, so a decent entry level model would be fine. Choosing something is made more difficult where the manufacturers have something to suit every budget — you can always improve this bit or that bit for just a little more cash. I’m planning a visit to the local hi-fi shop soon to get some advice. And then I’ll be saving up.

Friday night was fantastic. Going out with my wife to a gig felt like the years fell away to a time we’d long forgotten, before we had a million responsibilities between us. The Jazz Cafe is a cool, intimate venue, not unlike a very upmarket students’ union, and you would find it difficult to be more than ten or fifteen people deep. Kelis didn’t disappoint; she had a ‘band’ of a live drummer (one of the happiest-looking people I have ever seen on a stage), a very relaxed backing singer, and DJ Nikki Beatnik who had entertained us with a set prior to Kelis hitting the stage. Ms Rogers was only with us for an hour and it flew by, with a non-stop set that had the whole place singing. With transport into London, gig tickets and babysitters to pay for it’s an expensive night out but it was worth it and we’ll have to do it again soon.

The rest of the weekend was hectic with a quick visit to a family reunion and a house full of nine-year-olds for a birthday sleepover; Sunday was pure recovery mode and trying to keep our eyes open.

Next week: Holiday season gets into full swing with lots of people in and out of the office. I’m on my own for a few days with my wife and the boys being out of town. Time to double down on getting as much done as I can before we’re off on holiday ourselves.

Weeknote #27 — Smallfoot

What a week. Last weekend was largely full of family time and sporting events, with the Ashlyns festival on Saturday and a ruinous 100km bike ride followed by the World Cup final on Sunday, leaving little time for anything else. I had predicted that it was going to be a full-on week, and so it proved.

The bike ride completely zonked me out. Once you’ve been on longer rides of 100 miles plus it feels like a bit of a waste to go out for a short one (although I’m sure that’s not actually true health-wise). By chance I met up with a couple of local cycling friends at the festival and soon we were plotting to get out early on the bikes the next day, with me as usual egging everyone on for a longer distance. When we pushed off at 8:30am it was pretty warm and a couple of hours later the sun was brutal, beating us down with every turn of the pedals. It was one of those rides that left me feeling that no matter what I did, I just couldn’t quench my thirst for the rest of the day, despite having downed four water bottles’ worth of liquid on the ride itself.

Monday was largely spent prepping for the rest of the week. I had an early morning videoconference with everyone in the Hong Kong office to kick off our software rollout and then turned my attention to getting ready for all-day architecture and delivery planning workshops from Tuesday to Thursday.

The workshops went so well. Things that struck me during the week:

  • There is still absolutely no substitute for business travel. Being together in a room, particularly when you are not all aligned at the start of the work, is such a rich experience. If we had tried to do this over videoconference or any other medium I am doubtful that we would ever have got to where we needed to be.
  • Having said that, you are so vulnerable when you travel. The inbound team were diverted to Marseille due to a techical fault and were stuck there for 10 hours or so before being flown on to Heathrow[^1]. As they were finally coming in to land in London they were told by the staff that their luggage was still stuck in France. Not great for getting your head focused on the work in the coming week.
  • Say the thing, and then say it again. And again. It is only when you see the ‘lightbulb moment’ on someone’s face that you realise how misaligned you had been and why the conversations have been so tricky up to that point. We had one of these moments late on the first day and you could almost hear the pieces clicking into place.
  • A well-drawn diagram on a whiteboard is worth a thousand words. Don’t just explain the thing, look at it together. I now have a collection of whiteboard photos from the week; our scrawling would have made a great time-lapse video.
  • Nobody has told me that our goals — or the way in which we will be going about them — are crazy, and we’ve shopped them around to quite a few people now. Confidence is building.
  • Having said that, I am guilty of ‘wishful thinking’ in our overall timeline and didn’t leave enough of a gap for reviews and consultation along the way for the work we are doing right now. I don’t think I would ever have factored in the amount of time that it is taking even if I had been extra conservative.
  • A few people in a room for a few days can get through a lot of coffee, tea, water and biscuits.

On Friday I had to run another smaller workshop on a different topic entirely. Same room, different people, with a few joining us via videoconference. This one fascinated me as I floated a point of principle at the start and asked whether everyone agreed with it — the conversation drifted five or six times over the course of half an hour before we were finally all in agreement. The rest of the conversation would have been built on sand if we hadn’t established this principle up front. The meeting generated a few actions but we aren’t able to change the bigger picture and system flows within the organisation. At least everyone there should now have a common understanding of where the problems are and the issues we need to manage in the short term.

We now only have one office left on our software rollout journey. Concerns about how good the network is in-country and how well the solution will perform once we go live are holding us back, although we met on Friday to agree a number of actions to push this forward. We really need to get this over the line so that we can fully focus on the larger piece of work that we have been discussing in our workshops all of this week. As we approach the end of the rollout I have had to be conscious of ensuring that this remains a ‘first class’ piece of work on the programme and has our attention despite the more fundamental changes that will follow; for the staff getting the new software it is a major upgrade and we need to ensure that we make it as smooth for them as possible.

At the end of last week I bought myself a couple of pairs of new work shoes, as mine reached the end of the line a while ago and had been looking pretty scruffy. I’d previously invested in a pair of Loakes, and although they were expensive I had been really happy with them so I figured I would go for the same again. Customer service at their shop was excellent, although within a few minutes I felt like a child for never having owned a pair of shoe trees and being told that my shoes were way too big. I have been buying size 11 since I was in my late teens but the salesman told me that I was actually a 9½, which is why my current pair had developed unsightly folds and creases. “When you came into the shop I could immediately see that your shoes were too big.” How embarrassing. I tried on a size 10 and then he pushed me to go smaller as there was still too much room. Apparently. Size 9 seemed a little snug but he told me he was happy with them and a few minutes later I was on my way with two pairs. Plus shoe trees, like a gentleman.

By Tuesday afternoon I was hobbling about, almost in tears. Blisters on both little toes and an ache in the knuckle of my left big toe had left me with a limp. I’d tried both pairs over two days and found that they were just as bad as each other. I’d gone from feeling like a child in the shop to feeling like an idiot outside of it, albeit an idiot in very shiny new shoes.

I took them back on Wednesday. Of course they wouldn’t accept them as the soles were now worn, but I wanted to make the point that they had left me crippled as well as to plead with them to do something — anything — to help. They agreed to take them back for a long visit on the in-house shoe stretcher, so I won’t see them again for a couple of weeks. Amusingly, the manager said something along the lines of “We tell our customers to wear them for 3–4 hours a day, and never to and from the office.” How can that be right for a pair of shoes that supposedly fit? Does everyone go through this and I’ve just missed out over the years? If this is part of being a grown-up I think I was happier being a kid. In all seriousness, I have a newfound respect for people with chronic pain — throbbing feet meant that it was so much more difficult to concentrate at work and I am so lucky that I could just remove the shoes and go back to my old ones.

School governing saw the usual mad scramble as we approached the end of term. My wife is a teaching assistant in another local school and this week we found ourselves having to juggle her commitments to end-of-term events on top of our own, a particularly difficult job as our eldest was leaving primary school forever and had a bunch of special events of his own to go to.

Over the past couple of weeks I had been collaborating with fellow governors on our annual newsletter and it was now up to me to drag it over the line. Every night after dinner I had edged it forward a little bit more until it was time to go to bed, and late on Wednesday evening after a bit of last-minute trimming I finally got it submitted for publication. Although I’m not off work for six weeks, the school summer holiday is a welcome reprieve from the pressure of keeping up-to-date with another set of actions before we start again in September.

Our school has had a wonderful set of results this year and I could not be more pleased for the children, and the staff that have helped to grow and support them. It’s such a privilege to be involved; the staff work so hard, and all the changes that our Headteacher has put in place over the past four years or so are really bearing fruit.

My eldest boy won a special end-of-school award for outstanding achievement in his class, giving us yet another reason to be proud of him. I really hope he starts secondary school in September in the same way that he finished primary and makes great friends. The school seem well-equipped to welcome him and his peers in a couple of months and I’m hoping that he’ll love it there.

On top of everything else my youngest boy turned nine. I distinctly remember sitting in my car all those years ago after a traumatic day at the hospital, tucking into a very late dinner from the only place I could think of.

I then got back to my house to find my in-laws had left the windows open and lights on, a terrible summer night combination.

It honestly feels like yesterday. Life is so short.

By Friday night I was so worn out I ended up going to bed the same time as the kids. I always know when I’m completely overtired as I find no joy in anything — TV, reading, writing, music — and have to admit defeat. I’m glad I did as we had an epic Saturday at the Silverstone Classic ahead of us, our fourth annual visit in a row and a lovely time spent with my boys, my dad and friends.

Next week: Out of workshops and back at the desk. Time to consolidate the conversations, turn them into action and keep the momentum going. I also need to catch up with a lot of email and make sure that any hot potatoes lurking in my inbox get dealt with before they overcook. And on Friday — it’s Kelis time.

Weeknote #26 — Half-year, results

Where my mind has been this week:

  • Half a year of weeknotes, gone by in a flash.
  • The boys had their school reports this week and we’re so proud of them, we couldn’t have asked for more. Even better is that they are proud of themselves and wanted to read their reports to us. They both also had to do some reflective work at school where they looked back over the year and considered their achievements and areas to work on.
  • So impressed with our choice of secondary school when we went to ’transition evening’ this week. Feeling envious of my son who hopefully has many wonderful experiences ahead of him over the next half-decade or so. Our eldest has just one more week to go before he’s done with primary school (already!) and our youngest will be walking to school by himself from next term.
  • Our eldest added to his sporting glory by picking up ‘Young Sports Achiever of the Year for Upper KS2’ at the Dacorum School Sports Network awards on Friday. What a fantastic year he has had.
  • Sometimes when you need to get something over the line, you just have to keep working until it’s done, particularly when it’s all in your head and is simply a case of cranking it out. I didn’t get out of the office until 10pm on Monday but it paid dividends to have good materials in all of the meetings for the rest of the week.
  • I feel like the most important thing for me to work on is my ‘presence’. I have confidence in what I want to say or present but sometimes it falls short in the delivery. I noticed this once again in a couple of big meetings that I ran this week. I’m investigating options for how to get some coaching with this; the Intelligence Squared course with Graham Davies might be a good way forward.
  • Too many things are still single-threaded through me on our programme but it’s not clear how to approach it any other way. The backlog will get cleared eventually.
  • Getting hold of someone who really understands an issue to the right level of detail is difficult, and always has been.
  • We had our last school Governing Board meeting of the year. Very sad to say goodbye to four of our governors, a couple of whom have been with the team for 7–8 years. Need to work on getting parents involved from lower down the school so that we have the next generation ready to take the reins when the time comes. The recruitment quest is never-ending. Still got a few things to get done this week and it’s a race against the clock with Friday being the last day of school.
  • Learned about Destination Reader, a really interesting way to approach reading at Key Stage 2 in schools. It reminds me of the kind of work we did in English lessons at secondary school where we tried to understand an author’s motives for writing things a certain way, and it’s amazing to see this ability to question being given to much younger children. I’ve seen it play out with my nine-year-old as we watched Harry Kane in an advert during the World Cup; he turned to me and said “I bet he got paid a lot to say that.”
  • Finished The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday, the WB40 book club book for the past fortnight. I’d suggested the book as I came across Holiday on an interview he did on an early Tim Ferriss podcast and found him very interesting. Sadly, the book fell short of my expectations — it presents a thoughtful view on being resilient and making the most of whatever life throws at you, but the majority of it is filled with cherry-picked examples of achievements of historical figures without much. For example:


 Yes, her achievements are incredible and I absolutely do not want to diminish or belittle them. But, what the book fails to mention is that she disappeared in 1937, presumed crashed, in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe — not exactly “defying the odds.” What lesson are we meant to take away?
  • Waiting for the next WB40 book club book, I’ve gone back to Cultural Amnesia again, and it’s been a welcome relief from business books. On reflection, it probably is the kind of book to dip in and out of. Nearly halfway.
  • Been listening to Nick Clegg’s podcast for a couple of months now. His interview this week with Joe Biden is unexpectedly moving. He has had so much loss in his life which he has handled with so much positivity. I’m not very familiar with his politics but was moved by the human story and his self-awareness of what great support he has relative to others who may have been through similar situations.

Next week:

  • Crunch time. Feels like a ‘make or break’ week. All-day workshops Tuesday to Thursday with another couple of smaller ones to bookend the week. All whilst starting our roll-out in Asia (at last), working on budgets for next year and trying to keep up with the email flood. Could not have come at a worse time with so much going on at school and home for the final week of term, but we’ll navigate it.

Weeknote #25 — Barbecues

There’s so much going on. I’m hanging in there until July is behind me. Lack of time means that these weeknotes are going to be in bullet point form for now.

  • With all the years behind me, I found that I really do have the confidence to make it up as I go along, and I generally hit the mark.
  • Fixed price contracts don’t mean that you wait until the end to get the thing delivered that you paid for. There’s lots of work for you too along the way.
  • Language barriers are still a thing, and there are times when email is far superior to audio or video conferencing, particularly when accents are difficult to understand and line quality is poor.
  • Taking half a day off to work on the School Development Plan with other governors and the school’s Senior Leadership Team is always rewarding. Gets to the heart of why I wanted to become a school governor in the first place. We have a remarkable team and need to use them effectively.
  • I think we have a solid core of a plan for the key governor roles from September. Am excited about putting the changes in place.
  • Not been enjoying The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday as much as I thought I would. Some good lessons in terms of worrying about what is in your control, owning your reactions to stuff that happens etc., but the book could be a lot shorter and less pompous.
  • Things are starting to get real for my not-so-little-one who is off to secondary school in September. Have my fingers crossed for him that he gets off to a great start.
  • Summer cycling is fantastic and I wish I could prioritise doing more of it.
  • Loving the heatwave — it’ll make a great memory — but sometimes it has been getting to be a bit too much. A kids’ football tournament in Aston Clinton felt like it was being played in a volcano, and we still haven’t managed to pick up a decent fan for a comfortable night’s sleep.
  • Barbecued food tastes so much better than oven-cooked. New patio furniture meant we spent both Saturday and Sunday evening having dinner outside and it almost felt like we were on holiday.
  • The last time I watched this much sport I was either between exams (Euro ‘96) or off school ill for a long period (Mita World Masters). And it’s all been brilliant.
  • I never knew that https could be so easy! More great work by Troy Hunt.

Next week:

  • Prep for our next programme workshop in mid-July. A lot to get done against a tight deadline.
  • Our final Full Governing Board meeting of the year. Saying goodbye to four brilliant governors, two of whom have been with us for many years and pre-date me. They’ve contributed so much to the school and I am very sorry to see them go.
  • Another termly meeting with our School Improvement Partner, for an independent insight into where the school is right now.
  • Getting the governor newsletter over the line and out the door.
  • A football match on Wednesday!

Weeknote #24 — High track temperatures

Hard to believe I was freezing here after work just a few weeks ago.

Hard to believe I was freezing here after work just a few weeks ago.

Scorching. All week my weather app has been showing the kind of unwavering forecast that you normally only see when you are looking ahead to a holiday somewhere near the equator.

Berkhamsted over the next week...

Berkhamsted over the next week…

Mrs D was away for most of the week on a Year 6 residential trip, which meant I had to work from home. I was very grateful to be able to spend my days in shorts and flip-flops, away from the stupefying heat of the London Underground and melting suburban railways.

Couldn’t help but feel grateful when these messages started coming through on Monday evening

Couldn’t help but feel grateful when these messages started coming through on Monday evening

It felt good to work at home. I spent most of it on audio or video conferences with people in the office and it didn’t make much of a difference from being there in person. I even ran our programme steering committee via video with the majority of the rest of the participants in one room. For some reason, being on video emboldened me to keep the meeting on task even more than I usually do; I felt very comfortable telling the room full of important people to take things offline as I was determined that we got through all of the decisions we needed to make. I’ll try and translate that to the next one when I’ll inevitably be in the same room.

The programme is started to get pushed from a number of sides. Finance are asking for details on exactly when we will be making changes to the ongoing cost profile of the organisation. Other senior teams in IT in Johannesburg are pushing us for technical details and challenging us on the approach we are taking. Particularly on the latter, we’ve had to dig in as a team and make sure that we are on solid ground with what’s e are doing. It feels painful at first, but all of this is good for us and will help to focus the team on the work ahead.

It was lovely to spend a bit more time with the boys and be involved with them more than I usually am. They were really great and generally helped me out a bit too. We spent a couple of evenings watching World Cup matches which meant slightly late nights, but with it being so hot I don’t think they would have got much more sleep if I sent them up to bed earlier. We spent Wednesday night at Watford track where my eldest boy ran the 1,500m; he did great, and was less than a second away from breaking the five minute barrier.

On Thursday Mrs D came back and we both went to school to watch his final primary school performance with the rest of Year 6. They were fantastic and all the parents had a brilliant time. It’s hard to believe that in just a few weeks he’ll be off to secondary school.

There’s so much going on over the next few weeks, both at work on the programme as well as for the end of term at school. Having back-to-back F1 Grand Prix each weekend and World Cup matches in the evenings isn’t helping! Am going to need to be very harsh with time to get it all done.

It’s been interesting to read Measure What Matters by John Doerr as the WB40 Book Club book for the past couple of weeks. It could be titled How To Set Great Objectives and Use Them To Excellent Effect Across Your Organisation as it is basically a masterclass in this process. Most people have objectives at work but typically they fall into an annual cycle and are generally despised. Doerr’s ‘Objectives and Key Results’ (OKRs) are very specific in how they are articulated, are visible at all times across the organisation and are typically reviewed every three months. He presents a compelling case. Trying to sell this as a way of working would need to push through the ‘but we do objectives already’ barrier, but I think it would be worthwhile as I can see that the benefits would be immense. The book talks about tools that people use to log OKRs and make them transparent but is light on the specifics; it would be great to know what applications there are and how successful teams have been at introducing this specific method aside from the many case studies in the book.

Next week: Reviewing vendor reports (quickly — I hate the ball being with me), more planning and weaving together a programme structure for the rest of the year, getting ready for another technical programme workshop in mid-July, catching up with a vast amount of governor work, a half-day on Wednesday to go to school and work on the School Development Plan for next year, and rounding the week off with yet another Album Club.

Weeknote #23 — Thought You Knew

So busy. Travelling home on Friday night my overwhelming feeling was that the waves are coming into the boat faster than I can bail them out. In the middle of conversations I keep suddenly remembering things that I have taken on and need to get done. The GTD ‘trusted system’ has left the building.

On Monday we have the next programme steering committee, the first for a couple of months. Despite blocking out as much free time in my diary as I could at the start of the week, I still got to Friday without the materials being done so I had to finish them off at the weekend. There are so many distractions and little chats at work, ranging from the important to the trivial. On Thursday I had a block of free time and resorted to donning my headphones but it didn’t help much. I’ll be working at home for most of the coming week and I’m looking forward to it.

I feel like the programme is still in ‘setup mode’ for the real work to come. I have hours and hours of stuff to get through with the team in order to get ourselves organised for the rest of the year. I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that it’s going to be great but I am continually worried about loose ends not being picked up by the team, and not doing enough myself to keep us on track. Twice this week I woke up in a heart-beating panic at 5am filled wit terror that I had missed my alarm; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t jetlag from last week’s trip to Johannesburg that caused it.

In the middle of the week an appointment was slapped right in the middle of one of my ‘keep frees’ to spend time with two young people on work experience. Despite initially being annoyed at another obstacle being put in the way of me getting done what I needed to last week, it was great to meet them, try to see the world through there eyes and describe the bizarrely abstract nature of what we do at work. A few months ago we had an apprentice join the company aged only 16; she already seems many years older than the two work experience children that I met and now brims with confidence. The conversation took me back to my own work experience at their age — I spent a week in the office at Mill Ride Golf Club doing not much of anything. My overriding memories are (a) the turkey and cranberry sandwiches for lunch in the club house, (b) learning what a debenture is and (c) being let home early. It was hard to judge how much of an impact I had — they might have been thinking anything from “please, tell me more, this is gold” to “this is the most insanely boring thing I have ever heard in my life”; it was difficult to get feedback. Maybe in 25 years they’ll be writing some weeknotes about their memories of it.

The team we are working with who own the desktop build for our final two offices have been working hard and we’ve now got some tentative dates for our software rollout there. There are still some tests to be done and issues to work through but it is good to start planning around something concrete again.

I had a couple of meetings this week which reminded me how magical it feels to have a blank whiteboard, to use it as a conversational tool and then step back at the end to find we have created something very useful out of thin air. It gives me the same buzz as writing a blog post; you start with nothing, do some stuff and at the end you have created a thing. So satisfying.

We had a Surface Hub installed in the office for the past 2-3 weeks as a bit of an experiment. It was interesting to see how many people were brave enough to approach it, particularly that the default screen displayed a message to encourage people to interact with it. My experience was mixed — up-close the light from the screen was blinding and made it difficult to work with for long periods; it reminded me of the times as a child that my mum told me that I was sitting too close to the television. Being able to ‘lasso select’, move and resize a whiteboard-sized drawing was brilliant, although unfortunately at one point it crashed with a pop up box that I couldn’t get rid of so I had to resort to taking a photo of the screen. I’ve never had a whiteboard crash on me.

Surface Hub dialogue box that would just not go away. Screen contents pixellated deliberately by me.

Surface Hub dialogue box that would just not go away

On Thursday I had a great night out with some very old friends at a swanky bar in London. I used to work with one of them nearly 20 years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. I was so lucky to start my career working with such a great bunch of people that I still keep (sporadically) in contact with. It’s been a couple of years as they now live in Singapore after having had a stint in New York. I didn’t know anyone else there and it was fun to meet such an eclectic cast of characters that all had a friendship in common.

I continue to be just about keeping afloat with my school governor responsibilities. We had a long meeting this week which went really well, with some key strategic decisions being made for the school. We now only have one Pay Committee and one Full Governing Board meeting left this year and I want to try and make it a strong finish. My lack of time means that I am massively underperforming in the role of Chair and it needs someone else to pick it up and kick it back into gear. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to hand over the reins during the summer and stay on next year in a smaller role, but I need to make sure that we have someone who is happy to step up first.

It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve noted anything cultural here in the weeknotes. I have somehow picked up listening to a gorgeous album called Thought You Knew by Snowpoet. It’s a thing of delicate beauty that rewards repeated listens; it’s been a long time since I heard an album that made me press play again as soon as it finished. Here’s a live version of Pixel from the album. Just lovely.

Next (this!) week: Working at home for most of it while my wife is away on a school Year 6 residential trip — a great chance to ‘eat my own dogfood’ and experience mobile working for an extended period with our current tools. The Programme Steering Committee with a governor meeting (by teleconference — go us!) in the evening. More diary battling and orchestrating the many-headed hydra of a programme that we are developing. Plus all of the usual things Mrs D does (which I am already so grateful for) in sorting out the kids, cats and the rest of the household. Already looking forward to a strong finish to the week with an inaugural monthly ‘Lunch Club’ where we will start to test out the many wonderful places to eat in the vicinity of my client’s office.

Weeknote #22 — Johannesburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces and names hidden to protect the innocent!

Faces and names hidden to protect the innocent!

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

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

Weeknote #21 — Curb your enthusiasm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeknote #20 — Say No Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeknote #19 — Night on my side

These weeknotes are primarily a tool for me to gather my thoughts and reflect on the past week. After many attempts at private journaling, the discipline of getting some structured thoughts down each week has been good for me1. I’ve been reflecting on how getting the posts out publicly changes what I write, particularly after reading the thoughts of Colin Walker and James Shelley, two bloggers I have discovered through the wonderful micro.blog. Colin Walker notes in Writing in the Social Era:

Is it a surety in our thoughts and our words, an arrogance that leads us to share them with the world? Or is it the opposite, an uncertainty that requires confirmation?

Knowing our own mind is an internal, personal act but, being so closely linked to our perception of who we are, does it become a projection of ourselves. Is there a desire to be seen, to be known, to be acknowledged? A cry of “this is me” and the only way we know how to do that, the only way that is readily accessible, is to publish that cry to the web and hope someone hears.

For those who claim to write solely for themselves to hit publish, moving from the private to public sphere, has to be something so fundamental to who they are, something incredibly individual – otherwise why post publicly at all? What would be the point?

There are definitely notes I capture during the week which get removed when I edit, either because they are too revealing about my client or people that I work with, or that I don’t want to say in public; perhaps the weeknotes are then less useful to me than a private journal because of this. I know from my experience of being involved with the Readmill platform that the very fact that I was ‘reading out loud’ meant that I became a much more prolific reader. For me, being public isn’t trying to ‘show off’ to an audience, it’s a genuine desire to engage with other people in interesting conversation, although I am sure I am also seeking some form of validation in the feedback from others.

The reason I have been thinking about this is that I am now aware of how many of my notes seem to start off along the lines of “It’s been an incredibly busy week” and talking about how many things I’m trying to juggle. This week it has been incredibly busy once again, and I find myself being very self-conscious about starting yet another weeknote the same way because (a) it’s monotonous and (b) I’m sure there are many people who would read this who have had even more of a hectic time as me. I don’t mean to moan, it’s just how it feels.

Despite being conscious of having too many plates spinning and cautious about adding to the number in rotation I’ve continued to take on more.

Continuing a theme of recent weeks, my diary looked like this:

I’m in a Programme Management role so most of my time should be spent talking to people and working with my team to keep things aligned and pointing in the same direction. The trouble is that I’ve also got some chunky items that I need to deliver myself as well — reviews of documents for each programme stream, putting together a coordinated plan, integrating the programme with others that are also executing at the same time. Focused time to work on these doesn’t exist, and the only time I’ve managed to find is in the evening. I’m sure the answer is to block out time in the calendar if I can, but this is a whole new discipline that I will need to master. Needs must?

It’s a bank holiday Monday next week. I spent no time at my desk on Friday and have emails galore to catch up on; another day’s worth building up from the team in South Africa while I’m away fills me with dread. I’m currently contemplating working on Monday just to focus on getting through the backlog and getting organised, but it also doesn’t feel like a good answer.

Our software rollout in Brazil was the most difficult since our pilot in London back in November. We spent a few evenings working as a team this week to try and resolve the issues; this was made a lot harder by personnel changes in the company that provides our IT infrastructure and our need to beg, borrow and steal to replace them. Communicating via group text messages across multiple countries and time zones is hard to do well and it’s so easy for information to be misinterpreted — there’s no substitute for stepping through an issue as slowly as you can so that you can ascertain exactly what’s going on: Who has the problem and who doesn’t? When did it start? What changed? What did we do so far? I am grateful that the office is small so that the team on the ground could keep the users easily informed. We got there in the end through a great team effort; I’m hoping that the success continues now that our team members have flown home.

We have a ‘snagging list’ backlog issues from our rollout across the four countries that we have gone live in. Given our resource shortages it’s going to be difficult to get these dealt with on top of turning our attention to getting the builds ready for Asia. Frustratingly, we have a different desktop stack in the three regions we operate in, and different stacks again for the virtual desktop/remote access solutions. Part of my programme is to move us to a brand new stack and I will insist on the success criteria including having (as much as we can) one build everywhere; users and the support teams should be able to pick up any laptop and know that it will work exactly the same as all of the others.

At school, our Full Governing Board meeting went really well. We managed to spend the right proportion of our time on the important things and reach some good collective decisions. I even managed to use my commute the next day to follow up with some urgent actions from the meeting, which felt great to have completed so quickly. We will lose a few governors over the next six months and have some important roles to assign to those who have left; the team have stepped up and most of these are now in place with a few notable exceptions. I’m sure we’ll get the rest assigned before the summer term ends.

I’ve had Mariah Carey earworms all week (don’t ask — this deserves a blog post on its own and I’ll spare you here) so it felt a little strange to switch gears to a choice for Album Club. My selection went down quite well and I was happy that it generated a bit of discussion, which is always so much better than where everyone just agrees on a common view. I don’t think anyone loved it anywhere near as much as I do, but there’s a lot of joy that comes from repeated plays — it’s a real grower — and Album Club is mainly about immediate impact and a bit of follow-up in your own time. As host, I executed my role of quantity surveyor for beer and snacks near-perfectly, with just a few ales and a couple of bags of crisps left over. Once again I felt grateful the next day that I don’t drink anymore; a tough day would have been made even tougher if I had carried a hangover with me.

I’ve been avidly ploughing my way through Alison Gazzard’s Now The Chips Are Down, the next selection for the WB40 book club. It’s very well-written and has brought back so many memories of being introduced to computers through the BBC Micros we had in school. I’ve got tons of notes and will have to write up my thoughts once I’ve finished this one.

Next week: Keeping the plates spinning with on-boarding new staff, backfilling others, planning a technical workshop in Johannesburg, getting as far as as I can with reviewing workstream documentation and putting the first draft of an integrated programme plan in place, talking to a new vendor about migrating shared drive folders to the cloud, getting ready for our rollout in Asia, and so much more besides. And that’s just work…we also need to move everything out of our lounge ready for it be decorated the week after. So much to prioritise.

  1. Thank you for the encouragement Matt Ballantine and Dave Floyd

Weeknote #18 — Gasps

The past couple of weeks have been so busy — this week reaching a ‘having difficulty breathing’-level of busyness — with regular gasps when remembering things I need to or have committed to do. Despite having a good ubiquitous capture tool and a reasonably solid GTD-esque reminder system I still found myself juggling to get through the week without dropping anything.

In my current role I have fallen off of the Inbox Zero bandwagon and am struggling to prioritise the time to get back on again. I remember reading a post by Michael Lopp which said that he gets all of his inboxes to zero every day. How? Surely he must take a brutal approach to processing it. Someone I know recently invested in a ‘GTD coach’ and a couple of weeks later is still finding themselves doing a lot of capturing and processing and not as much actioning as they would like. The coach’s advice is that the GTD process will reflect back at you when you have too many commitments and you need to do something to pull back on them. I’m just not sure what I can pull back on right now.

My calendar seems to be perpetually full. I’ve thought about defensive scheduling, but most of the meetings are with people who are getting work done for my programme and the cost of me having some time back is a potential loss of prioritisation, direction and focus in the team. I’m going to have to do something about it soon as there are some big things to get done before the end of May: on-boarding workshops with our new chosen vendor to help us with where we’re ultimately heading, working through the details of the programme plan with each of the stream leads, integrating the work across all of the streams and creating an approach and plan for hiring. All of this while we continue our software rollout in our final two countries and work on fixes and updates for the locations where we are already up and running. I’m going to have to take a hard line with prioritisation as much as I can, and across the team we need to make sure we are as spending as little time as possible on the old/current infrastructure platform. We have a small team and need to keep everyone focused on making where we are going great.

Late on Monday afternoon I suddenly found myself picking up and coordinating the communications around a significant production issue. As the team is small, if something like this happens it is very easy for us to get sucked into managing the detail. Looking back, it was interesting and unusual in that it only impacted us and not our primary infrastructure supplier, as in the past problems typically hit both of us at the same time. As we continue to move further aware from their infrastructure stack there will be more cases like this. The key thing is making sure that everyone has the same understanding of who is responsible for ownership and communications, no matter where the problem originates.

My contract with my client has been renewed for another year, which is great. The first year of being a contractor has gone by so quickly; I can’t believe that it’s been 12 months since I was preparing to leave my old job and venture out on my own. I still have a long list of things I want to do with the company I’ve set up, not least of which is finishing off my website which has been on my to-do list for months.

My evenings have been spent keeping on top of governor work. May is the time that we close out on last year’s budget and agree on the next one, and I’ve put a lot of time into getting my head around the various views of school financial data so that I can confidently sign them off. The staff at our new Financial Services supplier have been great; it was lovely to get my long list of questions answered so quickly, while the context and reasoning was still fresh in my mind. Next week we have the penultimate Full Governing Board meeting of the academic year and as usual we have a lot to get through; I’m going to have to be on-form as Chair in order for us to finish on schedule.

SATS week came and went in a flash. We’re so lucky that our eldest boy didn’t seem fazed by it at all. The school is so supportive; the year 6 teachers sent the fantastic letter below to everyone they had a special in-school breakfast all week, making sure that they were all settled in order to do their best. I’m clearly biased, but I’m so happy that our boys ended up attending this school.

Our younger boy has made us proud by being chosen as ‘player’s player’ of the season in his football team. He’s so pleased to get the award and it’s great to see him have some sporting success when usually so much of the awards and plaudits are focused on his older brother.

The hastily-assembled WB40 podcast book club tackled our first book, The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The plan was to read the first three chapters (as that’s the assumed distance into a typical business book required for you to understand what the rest of it will say) and then discuss it. It’s been great to join in but I’ve been worried about leaving a trail of half-read books all over the place. So, after reading the first three chapters I ploughed on and finished the book, helped significantly by having the audiobook version to accompany my commute. It’s a good read and has sparked some very interesting discussion, but my conclusion is that in this case the three-chapter rule is correct. I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing book reviews recently but will try and put something together on this one.

I managed to remember to cancel my trial Economist subscription before they hit me with a big charge. They seem a little sneaky in that there is no automated unsubscribe option and you need to send an email to them in order to do it. “That’s how they get ya.”

Next week: More professional diary wrestling, running our next Full Governing Board meeting and then hosting Album Club #87. My turn to host felt like miles away and now it’s here, and I still haven’t settled on an album choice. Here are some tracks from the shortlist of three:

Weeknote #17 — Almost Falling Down

A four-day week that felt like a two-day. On Tuesday I felt that I had left half of my brain in the weekend as I repeatedly found myself struggling to remember names of people and things in the various meetings I was in. And I was in a lot of meetings. Most of my week looked something like this:

Despite defragging my calendar as much as possible I was still left with very little clear time to get anything else done. Lots of 30-minute meetings can leave me feeling unproductive at the best of times, but this week felt doubly worse due to people not turning up on time — or at all — to a significant number of them. On Wednesday morning I made it to the office exceptionally early for an urgent meeting that frustratingly couldn’t get going due to key people being missing. By the end of Friday, a day in which I had been stood up for meetings no less than FOUR times, I felt like I might have a Michael Douglas Falling Down moment. Well, almost.

Somehow we still managed to keep moving things forward, although I did feel out of breath at times as I grabbed any available moment to prep for meetings and to get documents written and submitted. Our vendor selection work is now making good progress and we are starting to plan for what we will do when they come on board. The global software platform rollout is due to start in our next city from Monday and we’re very much on track for it, with only two more cities to go after this. There are quite a few challenges looming on the horizon at all levels — hiring, getting our plans in place, integrating what we are doing with other programmes, executing on the work — but it’s interesting, challenging and (mostly) fun. And somehow I managed to wander outside for lunch this week for the first time in a long while.

We’ve started to roll out iPads to our end users because (a) they provide a useful backup for Microsoft Office if there is a local network or other computing outage and (b) they are fabulously brilliant devices. I’ve been using one since the iPad 2 came out and do a lot of my work on them. I’m writing this on one now. I was halfway to the office on Tuesday before I realised I had left mine behind in my house and had a teeny panic about how I was going to manage my day. We are absolutely going to have to run some training sessions so that people can begin to get the most out of them; although they are very intuitive to use there are a few tips and tricks which can be a major boost to productivity, such as running apps side-by-side, taking and syncing handwritten notes in OneNote etc. The Microsoft Office applications on iOS are now so functional that you can do quite a bit without turning to their desktop siblings.

We’ve been test-driving different phone headsets in the office, from basic over-ear devices to ones with accompanying touchscreen panels which interface with the desk phone, the computer and a mobile phone all at the same time. The one I am using has such a strong magnet to attach the headset to the charging dock that the clip has broken off, the end result being that it needs to be docked in just the right place in order to charge it. On Tuesday morning after the long weekend I found it had been knocked off its perch and I then spent the rest of the day (the same day shown above) juggling between charging the headset and making phone calls. Someone else in the office has a model where the cradle comes with a spare battery which you can swap out if the headset runs out of charge, a little delightful detail that gives it the edge over mine.

On Wednesday night our planned 2.5 hours of school governor committee meetings and training turned into nearly 4 hours. We got lots done, including a run-through of how GDPR will impact the school. It seems at this time that a lot of schools like ours are having to have governors step in to become their Data Protection Officer (DPO), which doesn’t sit well with me at all — governors have a strategic role whereas the DPO sits firmly within the operational category. We are extremely lucky to have a knowledgable and willing governor step up to do this for now but it will not be sustainable long-term.

Juggling when our school governor meetings are is a perennial problem. We have a Full Governing Board meeting every half term and then break out into three committees which meet slightly less across the year. All of them take place in the evening as the vast majority of our governors work full time. The Committee meetings are usually held back-to-back on the same day as each other which tends to mean that the first one bumps into the second one and they both slightly overrun. We could split them across different days, but that is then asking people to give up more evenings, particularly the Headteacher or those who sit on more than one committee. There’s no easy answer and I feel we’ll keep wrestling with it forever. The best I feel I can do right now is to try and keep the meetings on point and on time.


I’ve been really enjoying Adrian Newey’s How To Build A Car. It’s a real cut above the other Formula 1-related books that I’ve read this year — readable, honest and geeky. For a long time I’ve always thought that Newey looks like Malcom McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange so it has been striking that he has mentioned the actor and the film a few times in the book already! Coincidence?

One passage in the Newey’s book gives a great illustration about how hard testing can be, and it made me think back to projects in my career where we have really tried to do testing properly:

On the topic of reading, I asked the WB40 podcast community how they manage their reading queues. I have PDFs, magazines, books and web articles coming out of my ears and have never felt that I’ve been able to prune the backlog enough so that I am always reading the next most relevant or valuable thing. No good strategies came back (besides “serendipity”, which seems to be the default) and the conversation ended up with the community starting a book club. So now I’ll have even more to read.

The FT AlphaChat podcast has a good, well-balanced interview with Jim Millstein which looks back on the financial crisis. Millstein had the extraordinary job title of Chief Restructuring Officer at the US Department of the Treasury and was “responsible for oversight and management of the Department’s largest investments in the financial sector and was the principal architect of AIG’s restructuring and recapitalization” so his insights are worth listening to.

Troy Hunt’s weekly update included a mention of the disclosure by Twitter that they found plain-text passwords being stored in log files. Hunt always offers a well-balanced view and I agree with him that it is understandable how this could happen. Given how many sites store passwords badly in the first place (think of all of those that specify specific character combinations or have draconian limits on the length of the passwords), Twitter are showing that they are actually further up the security maturity scale (in my head) by making a disclosure like this.

I finally got around to watching Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk from a few years back. It’s very moving and illustrates very well the problems with social media and the impact of our online behaviour. There are real people behind the stories and I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be publicly shamed. Even clicking links to gossip and trash websites isn’t victimless; for years I have avoided clicking Daily Mail and Daily Express links as the more clicks they get, the more they can use their click numbers to attract advertising and funding for their hate-filled pages.

Euan Semple’s words that “we’ve all got a volume control on mob rule” come back to me often when I see people being hounded in the media, and Lewinsky’s talk illustrates the point well.

I’m one week away from hosting the next Album Club and it’s getting to be crunch time for picking something. I played PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake in the house a couple of weeks back (one of the most brilliant albums I have ever heard) and it’s been strange to now hear my 11-year old son walking around the house singing the macabre lyrics to The Glorious Land. But what a song.

Next week

Software rollout in South America, more planning workshops, getting my head around hiring, putting vendor contracts in place and tons of prep/catch-up with school governor work.