Just dropped my bike off at the bike shop for a tune-up. Very grateful for the walk home; what a beautiful day! A stark contrast to a month of cloud and rain.

Weeknotes #117 — Golden

The endless pre-summer continues, with barely any let-up in the cloud and rain. Our lawn is now so long that the grass blades have literally gone to seed, and anyone who drops something out there is in serious danger of never seeing it again.

It was another busy week. At the start I had been feeling like I had lost my mojo and was feeling a little melancholy, but my zest came back as the days went by. The weekend was very strange in that we spent most of it socialising, in stark contrast to the past year and a half. Although I wasn’t used to it, getting together with friends and family was just like riding a bike. It was so lovely to see people. I am not sure I want to go back to cramming everything into the two days though; I went to bed on Sunday having not finished all of the personal jobs and getting nowhere near finishing these weeknotes. There’s a healthy balance somewhere.

Meeting up with people felt like a step back to normality. But on Sunday evening a text message and email landed to say that our eldest is a close contact at school with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. He now has to self-isolate for 10 days. There’s a lot to be grateful for — his own tests are negative and we’re all fine, and I am grateful that my wife and I have had a vaccine — but it felt like a cruel end to the weekend. I do wonder how long this stop/start will go on for.

This was a week in which I:

  • Finalised the Beijing IT infrastructure journey presentation and submitted it to the committee where it will be presented.
  • Met with our Internal Audit department to discuss the scope of a potential audit later in the year, and agreed an approach to preparing for it.
  • Spent more time in many meetings about the big group-wide programme. The work is so vast and spans so many areas that it is often difficult to navigate or understand at what level the conversation is taking place. I have enough material to start to craft our approach to the work for our part of the organisation and now just need to prioritise the time to create a draft.
  • Had too many meeting clashes. Lots of meetings now get recorded and at one point on Thursday I seemed to be constantly one meeting behind and watched everything on catch-up throughout the day.
  • Coordinated a detailed analysis on the different communication paths open to staff in the organisation, and the status of each one from a monitoring and compliance perspective. I had to summarise this information into a single slide over the weekend. As George Michael might didn’t quite sing, you’ve ‘got to get down to get up’.
  • Published an article about our weekly ‘wins’ sessions on our business unit-wide Teams channel. Later in the week I made the mental connection between Teams channel posts and blog posts — they are effectively the same thing.
  • Discussed with a colleague in HR how we could go about moving highly confidential data from one place to another in a safe and secure way, and evidence that access to the data wasn’t misused.
  • Spent time walking through another of the team’s Kanban boards, helping to get them to a start line for managing their work.
  • Took some colleagues through my ‘random coffee pair generator’ with a view to them using it for their own team. In doing so, I realised quite how complicated it is and how proficient you need to be in Excel to make it work. There is always so much value in walking through a process to see it through someone else’s eyes.
  • Had my own random coffee with a close member of the team. It was lovely to talk about non-work things for a bit.
  • Pondered how our organisation has grown into two schools of meeting culture, those that keep their cameras on and those that only put them on when talking, if at all. Keeping the camera off always makes me think that the attendees are doing something else. We have a written team rule of “cameras on if you can” and I think that is probably the right approach.
  • Wondered why more people don’t take the time to reject or cancel the meetings in their diary when they know they will be on holiday. It avoids people turning up to meetings that don’t (can’t?) exist, and is cathartic!
  • Attended our school Full Governing Board meeting. I’ve now come to the end of my second four-year term as a governor, and signed up to continue in the role for a while longer. We have a healthy pipeline of governors now, but it takes at least 6–9 months for a new governor to become effective, and even longer to think about stepping into a Chair or Vice-Chair role. Hopefully over the coming year or two more people will get additional experience of different roles.
  • Agreed with our school Full Governing Board that the majority of our meetings will be run remotely via Teams, with one or two held at the school each year. We are much more effective online, and are able to start and finish broadly on time, every time. As a school in the commuter belt around London we no longer need to deal with people messaging that they will be late because the trains are invariably messed up. Everyone agreed that we will avoid the ‘hybrid’ model of some people in the room and some remote, which is the worst of all worlds.
  • Loved meeting my wife’s parents to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. We had booked a garden tent at Cowley Manor with the idea of spending the day in the garden, but the weather had other plans. The hotel asked us if we minded moving to a private room instead, which turned out to be an incredible free upgrade. It was so lovely to spend time with them again and flick through their wonderful wedding photos. My wife has an amazing talent for organising special events and she outdid herself once again.

  • Had to do a school and work pick-up and drop-off for the second week in a row in order to take my eldest boy to the orthodontist.
  • Read and admired Troy Hunt’s account of how he ‘optimised his life to make his job redundant’. I know blog posts like this never paint a full, rounded picture, but it is good to get some insights into ideals to aspire to.
  • Appreciated the work of our handyman as he spent three days installing new internal doors in our house. We never loved the cheap ones we put in when we moved here; when the handles started falling off we had to prioritise getting them changed. I could barely lift a single one of them so I’m not quite sure how he did it, but we’re really pleased with the results.
  • Enjoyed the F1 Monaco GP despite the racing being a yawn-fest. I am sure the races were more exciting and had some overtaking even just a few years ago. It’s interesting how one result can turn the tables on the championship. I can’t wait for Baku.

Next week: More of the same at work, and taking my bike for a service ahead of the big rides in a couple of months’ time.

📚Read about Mary Toft last night. Glad I had eaten my dinner long before. It seems the desire to gain notoriety and fame, and the ability to do pretty much anything in order to get it, stretches back a long, long way.

📚 The Year Without Pants

Finished reading The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun. I picked this up as I’ve started to think about the potential shift back to the office as the pandemic abates here in the UK.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Berkun’s Confessions Of A Public Speaker. He has a very readable style with an honest approach to his writing, and that is also true of this book. It’s a quick read.

The book documents his life as an employee of Automattic, the company that runs wordpress.com. He worked there in 2011–2012, a time which feels like it was only yesterday, but clearly isn’t. I think this is a consequence of me getting old. Everything feels like yesterday as time speeds up.) At that time, the company had grown to 50 staff, an inflexion point where they felt that they needed to move away from a completely flat structure to having small teams. Berkun was appointed by the CEO, Matt Mullenweg, as team lead for group that developed the social features of WordPress. He’d agreed to join for at least a year, on the condition that he could write this book about his experiences. It’s interesting to note that ten years on the company has now ballooned to 1,486 employees.

The book gave me food for thought, but not always in the way that I was expecting. It isn’t a book of tips and tricks. As one Goodreads reviewer said:

It’s interesting that a book about the author’s experience working for a company with a distributed work model focuses so much on his time spent with his team during in person meet-ups.

In our Teams, Zoom and WebEx-fuelled existence of today it is difficult to remember how things worked ten years ago. In the book, the Automattic teams depend on IRC text-based chat, Skype and writing on their team blogs (known as P2s), as well as a little bit of email. Back in 2006 when I was working at a large investment bank I remember some of the executives getting desktop videoconferencing; a very expensive affair involving dedicated hardware at their office desks. We now carry this capability wherever we have a computer, tablet or smartphone. It would be great to understand what impact this technological shift has had within the company.

Almost nobody at my current firm would consider themselves to be a blogger, but writing has snuck in the back door in the form of threads on Teams channels. I see people using Teams chats and channels very differently, with the former being ephemeral, ongoing conversations similar to Automattic’s IRC, and the channel posts being longer-lived items under a common topic. Any further chat on that topic is effectively a comments thread.

There were a few passages in the book that really resonated with me. In the past I’ve said to team managers that “the reason the team are laughing at your joke is that you’re the boss”, something that nobody likes to hear but is often true. The power wielded by people in charge can be wielded on chats and blogs too, and there is a real danger from dipping in and out. It’s not clear whether the CEO was conscious of this:

An example was something that came to be known as “Matt bombing.” This was when a team was working on something on a P2, heading in one direction. Then late in the thread, often at a point where some people felt there was already rough consensus, Matt would drop in, leave a comment advocating a different direction, and then disappear (not necessarily intentionally). Sometimes these posts were cryptic, for two reasons. First, it wasn’t clear if he was merely offering an opinion for consideration or giving an order, and even if it was an order, it wasn’t clear what the order was. Other times it was unclear how much of the thread he’d read or what his counterarguments were that led to his disagreement. Matt was brilliant, but it was hard to believe he had the same depth of understanding on every aspect on the thread that those on the project did.

This isn’t quite as bad as the Jeff Bezos ‘question mark email’, but it would still leave staff guessing about what was meant. I assume that if everyone had been together and weren’t working asynchronously via blogs there would have been room for some quick clarifying questions. Could you just call Mullenweg up to ask? I assume not, and Berkun identifies the lack of co-working space as muting the understanding that develops in an organisation in terms of how to go about challenging and questioning those people in positions of authority:

Most companies have confusing politics about who is allowed to disagree with whom and how they’re allowed to do it. However, in conventional workplaces, everyone gets to observe how their boss handles different situations and how other leaders challenge and convince them.

This past year of home working has left me feeling both better and worse about different aspects of my day-to-day life. Berkun nails it when he talks about remote work resulting in the highs and lows being more muted than before:

But the best things about workplaces, like sharing an epiphany after working for hours at a whiteboard, were gone too. Working remotely mellowed everything out, dropping the intensity of both the highs and the lows. Depending on your previous experience, this made things better or worse.

Being at home when there is an occasional drama going on has been much healthier, but I do miss collaborating with the team and the little jokes and amusing incidents that peppered the days.

I did make emotional connections with my team, just as I would if I were working with them in the same building every day. But that connection was fueled and recharged by the intensity of our meet-ups. Rarely did I think our work suffered because we were working remotely. But I did have times where I thought our work would be even better if we were in the same place and time more often.

There’s definitely something about being in the same place with everyone on a regular basis. However, pre-pandemic my existence mainly consisted of sitting on desktop video calls in our office for most of the day, talking to our global team. I am hoping the days of doing this five days a week are now in the past. For me the advantages of working from home — exercising every day, seeing my wife and children, saving money on commuting and avoiding the stress of the terrible train service — makes it my preferred option.

Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.

I think his conclusion nails it, but doesn’t leave any easy answers for companies looking for a model to turn to post-pandemic. If we agree that remote can work, how much choice should employees get? It’s one thing to decide for a company where everyone is a technologist and does a similar job, but quite another with a less homogenous workforce — should it be one rule for one team and something different for another?

A worthwhile read, and one that I regret getting to so late. I’d love to read a follow-up ten years on.

Wins! (Or, never again having to remember what you did all year…)

Since early last year, my team at work have been doing something which has made a big difference to how we keep aligned with each other, and how we see ourselves.

On Friday afternoon we get together to share our ‘wins’. There is a broad definition of what constitutes a win, but generally it is either:

  • Anything we have got over the line and finished off
  • Anything we’ve learnt in the past week

We go around each of our sub-teams in the room and I make a note of the essence of what gets said. This then gets posted onto an ongoing Teams thread for everyone to see:

The idea was sparked from the book Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke:

We have found that the session has all of the positive benefits pointed out by Wodtke in her book — the team look for wins, feel like they are part of a winning team and hear about what people have achieved. People know what is going on across the team, and it has been excellent for team morale. We also have a great record of our achievements to look back on, especially useful when it comes to writing our annual self-appraisals.

📺 Very much enjoyed Gods Of Snooker. I have so many happy memories of watching snooker on TV with my dad in the ‘80s, wondering how he always seemed to know what shot the players would go for next. I was once off sick from school and watched the entire Mita World Masters too.

Weeknotes #116 — Tomato soup

A cold, wet week. In our garden, the giant beech tree has suddenly burst into green and everything is growing as if someone has pressed the fast forward button.

Once again I barely left the house. With infection rates so low (relatively, at least, for the UK — we’re not quite as fortunate as somewhere like Australia) there has been more discussion about returning to the office. I hope that whatever happens, I am still able to spend most of my working life at home. I’ve never seen my family so much as over the past year, nor had the opportunity to exercise for five or six days a week on a consistent basis. Of course it is important to get together in person, and even more important for new joiners, people at the start of their careers etc. to be around others in the firm. But I am hopeful that the pattern of going to the office five days a week just to spend most of my time on Teams calls is behind me.

I spent some time this week trying to get on top of my work and personal email backlogs, but as ever it feels like a losing battle. I wish I was as good at email as Michael Lopp, but I’m not and it irks me:

Email: I’ll respond in a timely fashion. I have two inboxes: work and personal. Both of these are empty at the end of each working day.

I seem to have to pick my battles with what I can keep up with. This week I’ve been on top of the very busy WB-40 podcast Signal group messages, but have not been as involved in the micro.blog community as I would have liked. There’s just not enough time to do it all.

This was a week in which I:

  • Had to take one of my boys for a planned hospital visit at Monday lunchtime. This meant I needed the car, which meant I had to do the morning and afternoon school runs also. Somehow I found myself standing behind the protective shield in the x-ray control room, marvelling at the images as they were created.
  • Attended our bi-monthly Information Risk Steering Group.
  • Finished the first draft of my slides showing our IT infrastructure journey and future planned project for our Beijing office. Presented this to the team and got some useful feedback.
  • Saw the team close out on a couple of long-outstanding projects, including getting our small IT team up and running in Beijing and removing our final on-premises user-facing shared drive.
  • Attended a couple of architecture presentations on key technical work taking place in the organisation.
  • Pulled together a draft summary of all communication channels, both inside and outside of the organisation, along with relevant references for how they are governed.
  • Attended a presentation by Theo Watson, commercial lawyer for Microsoft Africa, on the topic of Responsible AI. It got me thinking again about Bill Joy’s essay from over two decades ago and the Moral Machine.
  • Prepared for and chaired the school Finance, Premises and Personnel Committee meeting. I really do prefer the online sessions as we seem to keep to time much more easily than before.
  • Saw our London office increase its capacity as the COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease. I’m still nervous about being inside with other people, and would much prefer not to be. But if I’m being honest I’ve also enjoyed becoming a bit of a hermit. Life feels so much better now that some of my time is my own, and not just dominated by everything I need to do for work, school and family.
  • Enjoyed a lovely random coffee meetup with a colleague who has recently moved from Johannesburg to Brisbane, as well as a coaching chat with a colleague in London.
  • Ran the line again for my youngest son’s football match, his last league game of the season. The pandemic meant that the season was over before it really got started, but we both really enjoyed the games that we did have.
  • Enjoyed a Friday night Album Club, with more Talking Heads.
  • Resolved to fix the guttering at the back of the house, if it ever stops raining for long enough to do so.

  • Delighted in the things my teenage son has been cooking as part of his Duke of Edinburgh scheme. Tomato soup, homemade bread and a pad thai have all been excellent this week.
  • Finished season 5 of Spiral. My wife and I have agreed that we need a break from police dramas for a bit.
  • Signed up to do the Hemel Hillbuster with my eldest son in July.
  • Agreed to meet up with some friends in a pub (well, outside it) in June.

Next week: More of the same at work. Another school run, a school Full Governing Board meeting, and a 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

I didn’t pay a lot of money for an iPhone only to have the Music app nag me to subscribe to more services every flipping time I open it. For years.

📚 Finished reading Personal Kanban by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry. Disappointed by this; I was hoping for a book that assumed some existing Kanban knowledge and gave insights into using it for personal productivity, but it was more of an introduction to the theory.

🚲 Found something to do one sunny Saturday this summer. I’ve plotted a similar route a couple of times at my desk, but with no knowledge of the best roads to take. The fabulous folks at the Tring Audaxers have plotted a route with plenty of coffee stops along the way.

Weeknotes #115 — Barbershop

I notice the weather a lot more now that I’m working from home and not squirrelled away inside a big office. We’re just a few weeks away from the longest day of the year, but my jumpers were out in full force again. Conditions have been cold, windy and rainy with the odd blast of sunshine. Things start to warm up next week but it still looks showery. Hopefully summer will put in an appearance soon.

Monday was a public holiday in the UK and although I only worked for four days, it felt like a full week. My mind may be playing tricks on me, but I still feel as though I am getting over my first COVID-19 vaccine as I struggle to stay awake in front of the TV at the end of the day. Or it could just be that I’m getting old.

This was a week in which I:

  • Spent time putting together a slide deck on the IT infrastructure journey so far for one of our regional offices, in order to bring the senior management up to speed with where we are and what we still need to do.
  • Completed my backlog of document reviews of project completion materials and invoices as well as new project proposals.
  • Met with the vendors we are working with for our flagship conference to refine the IT plans and associated quote.
  • Met with our primary IT vendor in the UK to get aligned on a very long list of projects and licence renewals.
  • Attended a detailed information briefing with the finance team working on the large group programme that we are involved with.
  • Hosted a talk by our Head of Procurement on the new system and processes that are now in place.
  • Had a short random coffee with our head of Wealth Management in the UK, and another with one of our Compliance officers. Good to catch up with both of them.
  • Spent a little time adding our latest full-year actual financial data into our budget projections for school, ahead of our next Finance Committee meeting.
  • Took delivery of a bunch of internal doors to replace the ones in our house. We put the current ones in when we moved here almost two decades ago and have never loved them. They’ve started to fail, with handles coming loose, so it’ll be nice to give the house a little refresh by replacing them.
  • Cleaned the windows on our house again, fighting back against the dive-bomb onslaught from the town’s bird population who have used us for target practice.
  • Went for my first haircut at the barbershop in over a year. My wife has done a brilliant job learning how to use the clippers, but this weekend it was easier to nip in and out to get it done.
  • Had a random flat tyre on my turbo trainer. I’m guessing that the inner tube punctured just due to age as it failed near the seam. I’m glad it happened on the weekend as I had the time to replace it and get back in the saddle.
  • Finally purchased a proper amp and speakers to go with my turntable. I bought everything through Deco Audio in Aylesbury, who have been nothing but super helpful. It was fun to get the boxes home and assemble everything, trimming speaker cable and trying not to lose too many copper wire strands in the process. The results are amazing, and I’m already hearing things in my records that I’ve never noticed before.

  • Saw my youngest son’s team win their latest football match. It feels like we’ve barely got started, but the end of the season is just around the corner.

Next week: A hospital visit with my eldest boy, a school Finance Committee meeting, and more of the same on all fronts at work.

🎶 Here’s a mixtape* of stuff I’ve been enjoying over the past year or so. Female vocalists all the way!

(*ok, yes, it’s a playlist.)

Very sorry to hear that Nuzzel is going away following Twitter’s acquisition of their parent company. The app has long been one of the main ways I use Twitter, scanning the most-shared links from the people I follow, and the people that they follow, along with their comments.