Got in last night and had a positive result from a lateral flow test. I requested an NHS home test kit around 7pm. Seriously impressed that it will be here today already.

📺 The Beatles: Get Back

Finished watching The Beatles: Get Back. What a treat! It was well worth the wait.

This is how history is made.

This is how history is made.

The Beatles have always been part of my life. My awareness as a child moved to obsession as a teenager in the early 1990s. I listened to as much of their recordings and hoovered up as much information as I could, reading books such as The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia from cover to cover. My obsession has waned but my interest is still alive; I continue to pick up the odd Beatles-related book or movie every now and again.

I’ve never seen the original Let It Be movie from 1969. It was always out of print and unavailable to buy. But the recording sessions were infamous. I’d read and heard so much about them I felt like I knew the story. It turns out that I did, but there is so much more colour to the narrative than I was expecting.

The three episode format, each one longer than many films, seems like an odd choice at first but makes sense upon watching them. Each one covers a period of about a week or so. The first is based on the sessions at Twickenham Studios, the second when they move into Apple Studio in Savile Row and the third covers the concert on the roof of the Apple office. Eight hours seems like a long running time but it didn’t feel that way. Usually when I watch a music documentary I am always clamouring for the ‘super deluxe director’s cut extended redux’ edition and feel a bit short-changed, but not this time. Jackson has judged the running time superbly, having edited it down from approximately 140 hours of audio and 55 hours of video. The edits are superb; you can spot the audio-only segments as they are cut away from the person talking but it isn’t distracting. The first episode seems to run at breakneck speed as different snippets of songs appear before we quickly move onto the next one.

Jackson has thoughtfully added visual context to the films, interspersing the footage with brief interludes to explain things such as the incredible-looking venue in Tripoli that Michael Lindsay-Hogg was trying to persuade them to play at, and exactly who Enoch Powell was.

The most incredible scene comes in the first episode where McCartney and Starr are waiting for the others to arrive. McCartney is noodling a riff on the bass guitar and suddenly the basic shape of Get Back, the song, emerges. It is absolutely extraordinary to watch; the audio equivalent of seeing someone take a piece of clay or a blank canvas and create something amazing, new and unique.

Harrison seems to be particularly productive, staying up late and writing new songs such as I Me Mine which he demos to the others in an almost finished form. Through the first episode I can see why Harrison gets annoyed and ends up walking out. The full attention McCartney gives to Lennon is totally different to the poor-quality attention he gives to Harrison. It seems so passive-aggressive and I’m not sure McCartney was even aware of it. I have to remember that he was only 26 at the time. At one point McCartney disparagingly refers to a Harrison tune as “one of his ‘last night’ songs”. They touch on gems such as All Things Must Pass but never come back to them again. The others didn’t recognise the wonderful treasures he was bringing to the table.

The story of The Beatles being Lennon’s band at the start and McCartney’s at the end is well-known. Lennon had already started taking heroin at this point and seemed content to let someone else be the driving force. Towards the end of the first episode, McCartney is talking to the room, saying how they need to have more structure to the work that they are doing and Lennon sits next to him playing seemingly hungover or stoned word-games. I think McCartney comes across well here, showing incredible patience.

As we move to Apple Studio in episode two it struck me at how expensive the whole adventure must have been. The Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me was recorded in a single day. The contrast with the Let It Be sessions couldn’t be more stark; seemingly endless recording with no proper numbered ‘takes’ to speak of and a vast number of people milling around the studio. They seem happy to bumble along, singing silly versions of their songs as they record that they know will never make the final cut.

The second magical air-punch-worthy moment takes place in episode two when Billy Preston arrives. He instantly delivers the secret sauce on the electric piano. The riffs are recognisable in the final versions of the songs that you hear on the Let It Be album and the whole room seems to lift just from him being there. I’ve heard snippets of his work before, such as the live version of That’s The Way God Planned It at the Concert for Bangladesh, but I need to give his studio albums a listen.

In episode three we get to see the ‘takes’ that ended up on the Let It Be album, helpfully annotated on-screen. Throughout the series there are snippets of conversation that ended up on the record, such as “‘I Dig A Pygmy’, by Charles Hawtree and the Deaf Aids; phase one in which Doris gets her oats!” and “That was ‘Can You Dig It?’ by Georgie Wood. And now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Angels Come’.” It’s strange to hear these out of context without the music kicking in straight afterwards. Whatever you think of the lush ‘wall of sound’ strings that he applied to some of the tracks, Phil Spector did an incredible job to create a now much-loved album out of what he had.

In the same episode we also see Starr playing Octopus’s Garden. You can see from the film how much Harrison contributed to developing the song. I assume it was de-prioritised in favour of the Lennon and McCartney numbers, only to reappear later that year on Abbey Road.

The final scenes featuring the rooftop concert are well worth the wait. They blew me away. All of a sudden, the band that had spent endless hours noodling and clowning around in the studio look like a proper group again. Their run-throughs of the songs are electrifying, even when John fluffs some of his lyrics in Don’t Let Me Down. It was amazing how much of the album was derived from the rooftop concert, given that it is outside and they only have late 1960s technology to capture it. Jackson does an incredible job to intersperse the live music with everything else that was going on — people being interviewed in the street about what they were hearing, and the police being held off for as long as possible. The simultaneous multi-camera shots add to the excitement.

I absolutely loved this series. It is perfect — I don’t think I could have asked for more. The years of work that were poured into making this series have paid off in a massive way and I am so glad that it exists. What a wonderful thing.

Weeknotes #145 — Gigantic portions

The combination of the calendar flipping over to December and the feeling of deja-vu from the new growing presence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant meant that this week felt like a slog. One of my Internet friends described it as having a browser tab in your head whirring away, burning CPU cycles and causing your cooling fan to spin up without knowing exactly which tab is causing it. I know exactly what he means. Lots of friends and colleagues reported feeling the same way. There are only two weeks of work remaining and it feels as though people are hanging on for a break.

We’re suddenly in the depths of winter here in the UK, with freezing cold temperatures, overnight snow and days where the sun never quite makes it out of bed. I’ve had the oil heater on in my home office and have tried not to heat the house when everyone else is out at school and work.

This was a week in which I:

  • Continued to think about the ideas in the book A Seat At The Table. Wondered if a logical conclusion from the ideas in the book is that IT as a department largely disappears and is integrated with the individual business teams.
  • Took part in a workshop to tackle the latest thinking on our department’s strategy.
  • Watched with delight as our team completed the work to get Teams telephony up and running in another of our offices. Incredible teamwork at odd hours to get it up and running.
  • Revised the detailed cost profile for moving to Teams for telephony in the two remaining offices that are still on the old platform. Submitted the final documentation for some prerequisite work to enable mandatory compliance recording before we go ahead with a move. Caught up with colleagues on a vendor proposal to do the work of the migration.
  • Reviewed the latest quote for a replacement door access system for one of our offices.
  • Created and submitted a timeline showing the key events from our department’s perspective for one of our locations. This is the second of five that I need to create over the next week or so.
  • Took delivery of two Raspberry Pi 4s and accessories. We plan to experiment with some cheaper digital signage solutions than the one we started piloting last year pre-pandemic.

  • Met with the COO of one of our offices to talk through some administrative/IT challenges.
  • Agreed some changes to our remote access protocols.
  • Heard that my employer will be implementing a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, at least in the country where it is headquartered.
  • Had my final one-on-one coaching session as part of the team effectiveness work that we have been doing. It was super useful, and uncovered some things that I hadn’t been conscious of.
  • Attended the latest quarterly LeanKit product update. Their format is excellent, going through a reverse-Kanban ‘done’, ‘doing, ‘to-do’ list. I’ve been thinking about how we could potentially reuse this format internally to present our work to a wider audience.
  • Enjoyed a random coffee with a close colleague that I work with every week.
  • Heard the sad news that we lost a governor from our school governing board for personal reasons. We’ve now got some important roles that we need to distribute across the rest of the team.
  • Attended the school Pay Committee meeting. I’ve taken on the role of clerk of the committee so now have some minutes to write up.
  • Joined the latest Herts for Learning Headteacher Update. As usual, they crammed information into every nook and cranny of the meeting and didn’t waste a minute. It’s so hard to put the time aside to go into all of the topics in sufficient detail.
  • Booked in two plumber visits over the next couple of months to fix a small leak and to service our boiler.
  • Dabbled with some Christmas shopping. As usual, my wife has got us organised and we only have a couple of people left to purchase gifts for.
  • Bought our Christmas Tree and put it up in the kitchen. Decorated our house in the usual way, with tinsel everywhere. We seem to be packing the decorations away and getting them out again so quickly now. It’s slightly terrifying.
  • Had two wonderful dinners out, on Friday with some old friends at The Greyhound in Wigginton (GIGANTIC portions) and then on Saturday with more friends and our collective entourage of children at the newly reopened and refurbished Crystal Palace in Berkhamsted. I feel so well-fed after this weekend.

  • Enjoyed another Saturday morning of cycling with my eldest son and the Berkhamsted Cycle Club riders. I love being out on my bike, and it’s great to have a reason to get out so early on a Saturday.

  • Ran the line for my eldest son’s football match at Sarratt. Possibly the muddiest line in history, causing me to ballet my way around so that I didn’t end up a laughing stock on the floor.

  • Watched the brilliantly exciting Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix. I’m so excited for next weekend’s championship decider.

Next week: A management workshop and a year-end event at work, the last school governor meeting of the year, a visit from a plumber and we find out who the next F1 World Champion will be.

📚 I hadn’t realised that Steinbeck’s East of Eden had wrestled with the concept of multi-factor authentication.

“Listen to this,” he said to the operator.
“I already read it.”
“You did?”
“It comes over the wire,” said the operator. “I wrote it down.”
“Oh! Yes, sure. ‘Urgent need you telegraph me one hundred dollars. Coming home. Adam.’ ”
“Came collect,” the operator said. “You owe me sixty cents.”
“Valdosta, Georgia—I never heard of it.”
“Neither’d I, but it’s there.”
“Say, Carlton, how do you go about telegraphing money?”
“Well, you bring me a hundred and two dollars and sixty cents and I send a wire telling the Valdosta operator to pay Adam one hundred dollars. You owe me sixty cents too.”
“I’ll pay—say, how do I know it’s Adam? What’s to stop anybody from collecting it?”
The operator permitted himself a smile of worldliness. “Way we go about it, you give me a question couldn’t nobody else know the answer. So I send both the question and the answer. Operator asks this fella the question, and if he can’t answer he don’t get the money.”
“Say, that’s pretty cute. I better think up a good one.”
“You better get the hundred dollars while Old Breen still got the window open.”
Charles was delighted with the game. He came back with the money in his hand. “I got the question,” he said.
“I hope it ain’t your mother’s middle name. Lot of people don’t remember.”
“No, nothing like that. It’s this. ‘What did you give father on his birthday just before you went in the army?’ ”
“It’s a good question but it’s long as hell. Can’t you cut it down to ten words?”

Got notified of the opportunity to go and see Magdalena Bay at their gig in London tonight. It was so tempting, but I couldn’t face being in a packed room with everyone singing along while the new COVID variant is out there. I really miss live music.

Weeknotes #144 — Five weeks young

The working week only lasted until Thursday as I took my first day off since the summer. The children were off school on Friday, so we had decided to use their long weekend to go to Bristol in order to meet our five-week old nephew/cousin. He is beautiful. It is always so lovely to meet up with them, and great to see how well they are coping with their new addition.

On Friday evening we wandered from our hotel over to their house for dinner and then Saturday saw us pottering around Bristol for a few hours, meeting up again to enjoy a pizza lunch at the Left Handed Giant ‘brewpub’.

Our late Saturday afternoon journey home was a cruise-control affair until we hit the M25. An accident happened about half a mile ahead of us; we watched in horror as Waze started to add to its estimated arrival time in gigantic chunks. Fortunately, both the accident and the delay ended up not being too bad. We started moving again just as I was contemplating how we would manage a cold overnight stay in the fast lane, toying with the question of who in my family I might have to eat first.

We stared in disbelief.

We stared in disbelief.

The first few days of the week were hectic both at work and in my school governor role. My wife and I usually meet up to watch something on TV at the end of the day but it wasn’t until Wednesday that we got together.

On Wednesday one of my boys spent some time in the hospital to get his back checked out after landing badly in football practice. Happily it was just bruised. It is amazing how quickly the ‘broken telephone’ works its magic, with people texting to ask us whether he was ok after breaking his back!

This was a week in which I:

  • With one of my colleagues, reviewed a slide deck that they have put together for an upcoming meeting. I realised in the moment that I love doing this kind of work.
  • Had an introductory meeting with a vendor that specialise in technologies and business tools that we are looking to expand our footprint in. Unfortunately it overran and I had to leave the meeting just as we were getting to the practical detail.
  • Met with the vendor we are working with to replace a door access system in one of our offices. It is so much better to get on the phone instead of emailing back and forth.
  • Refined my slide deck on compliance recording based on feedback from a colleague.
  • Discovered that two recently-purchased servers are missing components that we need to get them up and running. I am hoping that the parts are in stock with our vendor and it won’t introduce a significant delay to one of our key projects.
  • Put together some communications, one for our CEO and another for the whole office, ahead of a move to Teams telephony for one of our sites over this weekend. The team have been working very hard to make the switch a success. I’m looking forward to hearing feedback from staff once they get to use it.
  • Had a meeting to agree our licencing approach for one of our videoconferencing solutions as it comes up for renewal.
  • Dealt with some technical difficulties with one of our key meeting rooms as a five-hour executive workshop began. We managed to get the hybrid meeting going with the help of the new Owl cameras, laptops and a lot of chargers. We configured a pair of Owls together for the first time and the effect was pretty good. All of the attendees said that the new cameras had a positive impact on the event. We’re now thinking about how we can make them a permanent feature in the room, possibly even replacing the traditional videoconference camera that we have at one end of the space.
  • Used one of the Owls to run a very successful relaxed hybrid meeting in our office collaboration space. I think they are going to be very popular for any large meeting.
  • Wrote and published an introduction to the Owl cameras on our business unit-wide Teams channels. I love how Teams has introduced blogging to organisations via the back door.
  • Updated our detailed support, monitoring and maintenance spreadsheet to reflect where we are with our new infrastructure across all of our sites. The next step is to discuss the gaps we need to address and agree how we will close them.
  • With my peers, took part in a leadership workshop based around the CliftonStrengths exercise that we completed a few weeks ago.
  • Met for a ‘random coffee’ with a colleague in the Wealth Management team who joined the company during lockdown last year.
  • Had a wonderful impromptu office lunchtime discussion that ultimately ended up with us discussing psychological safety. It’s interesting how often our lunchtime chats end up getting very deep and meaningful or putting the world to rights, and it says something about us as a team that we feel comfortable to have these kind of discussions.
  • Prepared for and chaired our Finance, Premises and Personnel Committee meeting at school. A colleague has taken over from me as Chair, but they couldn’t make the meeting so I stepped back into my old role.
  • Met with our School Improvement Partner to hear feedback from her visit to the school. They school as so much to be proud of and it was great to hear that reflected in her update.
  • Completed our Headteacher’s annual review and set objectives for the coming year.
  • Heard someone say the phrase “the woke agenda” as if there is actually such a thing.
  • Enjoyed a couple of random rounds of mini golf at Jungle Rumble in Bristol.

  • Made it up and out on Sunday morning to run the line at my eldest’s football match only for it to be called off within five minutes of us arriving. The ground was rock solid and unplayable. The right decision but a shame that they didn’t get a game.
  • Finished watching Squid Game. Yes, it was gory, but it was also profoundly thoughtful and moving in places.
  • Worked my way through and episode and a bit of Get Back. It’s everything I would have wanted it to be. I was more than a little obsessed with The Beatles as a teenager and had read about, but never seen, their Let It Be film. With most musical documentaries I always want them to be longer and more indulgent, so eight hours of this seems about right for my tastes.
  • Started reading East of Eden, continuing my journey through the work of John Steinbeck. I haven’t read this one since I was a teenager. A forward-thinking uncle bought me a copy for Christmas one year and I remember it feeling epic and important even though I probably didn’t fully appreciate it.

Next week: Another busy week, and dinner with old friends.

🎶 Just rediscovered this gem thirty years later. A perfect tune for Black Friday.

Here we go again
Here we go-go-go to the temple of consumption
Get your gear and start to spend
Here we go-go-go with a total dedication

Spotted in my town at lunchtime on Sunday. I feel as though this is asking to be a caption competition.

“Containers. Am I doing this right?”

Weeknotes #143 — Owls

There was a lot going on this week. I had too many late nights and early mornings, and must have had a lot on my mind as most mornings I kept waking up an hour before I needed to. By Friday evening I was frazzled, but I still managed to get my son and I up early on Saturday morning for the weekly cycling club ride.

At work my department has an agreement to go in together every Wednesday. This week I couldn’t make it as I had been asked to join a workshop starting at 7am and had to go to school for a meeting in the late afternoon. I topped and tailed the week with days in the office instead. It felt good to be there on Friday as I had a few physical things to get done in the office, taking delivery of some new equipment and getting it set up. It made a change from the days where I’ve felt I needed to be in the office just to reach a time quota.

Reading Ton Zijlstra’s weeknotes about COVID-19 entering his house in the Netherlands1 made me realise how different things are in different places. He has been prepping for a call from the track and trace team, a concept that I haven’t thought about for a while — is track and trace even still a thing in the UK given that close contacts of confirmed cases no longer need to isolate here? Mask wearing on public transport seemed to drop off a cliff this week; no more than half of the people I encountered on my commute were wearing them. In a coffee queue in London, someone used ‘air quotes’ when talking about COVID-19 as if it didn’t exist — it seems that while this is a marginal view, it is far less marginal than it used to be.

This was a week in which I:

  • Started the week with an unwelcome gift from the cats. Whoever told me that cats make great pets as they generally look after themselves must have been thinking of something else.
  • Had a number of very useful discussions in the team about how we go from being the IT infrastructure team to being able to add value ‘higher up the stack’. There is lots to be done. Reading A Seat at the Table was useful for thinking about this.
  • Picked up a new project relating to our organisation over the next few years that needs to be planned ‘from right to left’.
  • Participated in our quarterly IT architecture review forum and approved the proposal for some new software infrastructure at each of our sites.
  • Reviewed the current data for cost recovery to our part of the organisation for the big group programme.
  • Reviewed a draft standard for software and firmware updates.
  • Reviewed a subset of our team’s risk log relating to backups and restores.
  • Saw the team finish failover testing and complete their preparation for moving to Teams telephony at one of our sites, and prepare for some physical infrastructure work at another site. We still have a lot to get done in the closing weeks of this year.
  • Joined two town hall meetings on the same day, one with our Engineering/IT colleagues across the globe and another with everyone in our division of the company. The push to go back to the office is strong.
  • Abandoned the all-day workshop where I was a remote participant as it was too difficult to take part.
  • Took delivery of three Meeting Owl Pros and spent time setting them up. I used one for a meeting on Friday afternoon to good effect and plan to get colleagues outside of IT to use them next week. Our main goal is to try and make hybrid meetings less painful for remote staff, and from our limited experience they do seem to go some way to achieving it.
  • Retired my four-year-old iPad and got up and running with a new iPad Pro. The magic keyboard is a very cool piece of engineering, and I’m loving the new trackpad.
  • Watched a talk by one of my colleagues on the project to implement Aadhaar, a unique identity number in India which has vastly reduced costs for businesses that use it.
  • Had a superb one-on-one coaching session, the third of four. We covered a lot of ground. It is so useful to have someone independent to talk to about challenges at work and to reflect on things that I can do differently, and where I have already achieved some of my goals. I have the final session booked in for a couple of weeks from now.
  • Attended a Meetup on Use-Cases or User Stories… or Both?. The presence of Mike Cohn drew me in. Conclusion: both are useful in the right hands in the appropriate situations.
  • Joined a webinar to get an overview of Microsoft extended detection and response (XDR). It was a perfect length, with just enough information to get the gist of the toolset without all of the details.
  • Attended the school where I am a governor in order to hear from all of the subject leads to understand whether they have a knowledge and/or skills focus and why, what schemes are used and what the strengths and priorities are. It was an invaluable session. The distinction between knowledge and skills was particularly interesting — for science, for example, skills have been much harder to teach remotely and therefore there is more catching up to do. I wonder if this observation is equally applicable for adult remote working too?
  • Took part in a vision, mission and strategy session for the school with fellow governors. Every time I have been involved in this kind of work the definition of those terms has always been unclear; there seems to be a myriad of interpretations out there. Despite those challenges, we had a good conversation about how to reorganise the work done so far and how to take it forward.
  • Met with Joe McFadden and Olivia Partington of CarbonThirteen to discuss the Climate Emergency and how we are approaching it as a school.
  • Enjoyed a brilliant club ride with yet another wonderful group of people on Saturday morning.
  • Ran the line for two football matches in a row on Sunday. I love it when both of my son’s matches are local and the timings work out like that.
  • Watched the second and final part of Ed Balls’ documentary on social care. It’s a whole world that I didn’t know or think much about prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Spent time fixing broken YouTube embeds on this blog. Something changed in WordPress which meant that anything with a youtu.be URL didn’t render so these all needed updating to the equivalent youtube.com URLs.

Next week: A packed working week, more school governor meetings and a day off to meet the newest member of our family.


  1. Get well soon Ton! 

Enabling everyone in hybrid meetings

On Wednesday I attended a long workshop from home. A few of us were dialled in via BlueJeans, while the vast majority of attendees were physically present in the room. It struck me that being a remote participant must be a teeny tiny bit like having a disability; it was difficult to hear, difficult to see and I had to work extra hard to participate. We spent a significant amount of time staring at an empty lectern, hearing voices fade in and out but not seeing anyone on screen.

There’s a big push to ‘crack hybrid’. I know that the technology will inevitably improve to make these meetings better, reducing the friction between being in the room and out of it. But for now, if the meeting is a workshop, or just the kind where you want to democratise participation and involve everyone (as opposed to talking at them webinar or lecture style), then it makes sense to me to have everyone join in the same way.

Elizabeth Stokoe puts it better than me:

As we go back to our offices, the best meetings are going to be those where the organiser has put thought and energy into how they should be configured to meet their goals.

📚 A Seat at the Table

I picked up Mark Schwartz’s A Seat at the Table as I have recently been thinking about how we can move away from the perception of our IT team as the people who ‘turn up and fix the Wi-Fi’ to one where we are seen as true business partners. The book took me by surprise in being less of a self-help manual and more of a well-articulated argument as to why the old ways in which we did things no longer apply in the digital age. It is brilliant.

Schwartz has a way of encapsulating key concepts and arguments in short, smart prose. The book contains the best articulation of the case for Agile, Lean and DevOps that I have read. There is so much wisdom in a single sentence, for example:

What is the value of adhering to a plan that was made at the beginning of a project, when uncertainty was greatest?

One of the books referenced heavily in A Seat at the Table is Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly which I read some time ago. Lean Enterprise goes into more detail in terms of the concepts and mechanics used in modern software development such as continuous integration, automated testing etc. and brings them together into a coherent whole. Schwartz does not cover these topics in detail but gives just enough information to make his case as to why they are the sensible way forward for developing software.

A company may typically engage their IT department as if they are an external supplier. They haggle and negotiate, they fix scope and cost and they then the work starts. This approach does make some sense for working with a truly external vendor where they are taking on some of the financial risk of overrunning and you are able to specify exactly what you want in detail, for example where physical IT infrastructure is being delivered, installed and configured. It makes little sense when you are creating a new software system. It makes even less sense when the IT team are colleagues in the same organisation, trying to work out what investments will make the biggest impact on the company. We win and lose together.

First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The arms-length contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.

For readers who are familiar with why we use Agile software development methods, the arguments against the old ‘waterfall’ approach are well-known. What is more interesting is that Schwartz also points to issues that advocates of the Agile approach have exacerbated. Agile people can be suspicious of anyone that looks like a manager, and want them to get out of the way so that they can get on with the job. Schwartz argues that the role of managers and leadership is to remove impediments, many of which the Agile team cannot easily deal with on their own:

When the team cannot accomplish objectives, I am forced to conclude that they cannot do it within the given constraints. The team might need members with different skills. It might need permission to try an experiment. It might need the help of another part of the organization. It might need a policy to be waived. But if the task is possible and the team cannot achieve it, then there is a constraining factor. My job is to remove it.

What if someone on the team is really just not performing? Perhaps not putting in his or her share of effort, or being careless, or uncooperative? Well, then, dealing with the problem is simply another example of removing an impediment for the team.

The critical role of middle management, it would seem, is to give delivery teams the tools they need to do their jobs, to participate in problem-solving where the problems to be solved cross the boundaries of delivery teams, to support the delivery teams by making critical tactical decisions that the team is not empowered to make, and to help remove impediments on a day-to-day basis. The critical insight here, I think, is that middle management is a creative role, not a span-of-control role. Middle managers add value by contributing their creativity, skills, and authority to the community effort of delivering IT value.

He makes a clear case for getting rid of ‘project thinking’ completely. If you want a software delivery initiative to stay on budget, the only way to do that is through an agile project. The team will cost the organisation their run rate which is almost always known in advance. Work can be stopped at any time, preserving the developments and insights that have been created up to that point.

As a former PMO head, and with my current responsibilities of running a portfolio of change initiatives, it was interesting to see the approach to ‘business cases’ recommended in the book. Instead of signing off on a set of requirements for a particular cost by a certain date, you should be looking to assess the team on what they want to achieve and whether they have the skills, processes and discipline to give you confidence that they will:

  • be effective,
  • manage a robust process for determining the work they will do,
  • make good decisions,
  • seek feedback,
  • continually improve.

Schwartz gives a brilliant example of how difficult it is to articulate the value of something in the IT world, which gave me flashbacks to the hours I have spent wrestling with colleagues over their project business cases:

How much value does a new firewall have? Well … let’s see … the cost of a typical hacker event is X dollars, and it is Y% less likely if we have the firewall. Really? How do we know that it will be the firewall that will block the next intrusion rather than one of our other security controls? How do we know how likely it is that the hackers will be targeting us? For how long will the firewall protect us? Will the value of our assets—that is, the cost of the potential hack—remain steady over time? Or will we have more valuable assets later?

The word ‘requirements’ should go away, but so should the word ’needs’; if the organisation ‘requires’ or ‘needs’ something, what are the implications for right now when the organisation doesn’t have it? Instead of using these terms, we should be formulating hypotheses about things we can change which will help bring value to the organisation. Things that we can test and get fast feedback on.

Schwartz also argues against product as a metaphor, which was a surprise to me given how prevalent product management is within the industry today:

But the product metaphor, like many others in this book, has outlived its usefulness. We maintain a car to make it continue to function as if it were new. A piece of software, on the other hand, does not require lubrication—it continues to operate the way it always has even if we don’t “maintain” it. What we call maintenance is really making changes to keep up with changes in the business need or technology standards.

Senior IT leaders are ’stewards’ of three critical ‘assets’ in the organisation:

  1. The Enterprise Architecture asset  — the collection of capabilities that allows the organisation to function, polished and groomed by the IT team.
  2. The IT people asset — ensuring that the organisation has the right skills.
  3. The Data asset — the information contained in the company’s databases, and the company’s ability to use that information.

Much of the book comes back to these three assets to emphasise and elaborate on their meaning, and the work required to “polish and groom” them.

The author makes the case that CIOs should take their seat at the table with the rest of the CxOs through being confident, bold, and simply taking the seat in the same way that the others do. To talk of IT being ‘aligned’ to the business is to imply that IT can be ‘misaligned’, doing its own thing without giving any thought to the rest of the organisation. The CFO, CMO or any other CxO does not need to continually justify their existence and prove their worth to the business, and neither should the CIO. The CIO needs to have deep technology knowledge — deeper than the rest of the people around the table — and bring this knowledge to bear to deliver value for the organisation, owning the outcomes instead of just ‘delivering products’.

It follows that the CIO is the member of the senior leadership team—the team that oversees the entire enterprise—who contributes deep expertise in information technology. I do mean to say deep expertise. Increasingly, everyone in the enterprise knows a lot about technology; the CIO, then, is the person who knows more than everyone else. The CIO should be more technical, not less—that is how he or she contributes to enterprise value creation; otherwise, the role would not be needed.

The age of IT organizations hiding behind requirements—“just tell me what you need”— is gone. IT leaders must instead take ownership, responsibility, and accountability for accomplishing the business’s objectives. The IT leader must have the courage to own outcomes.

IT investments are so central to corporate initiatives that it is hard to make any other investment decisions without first making IT decisions. This last point is interesting, right? Perhaps it suggests that IT governance decisions should be made together with or in advance of other business governance decisions. Instead, in our traditional model, we think first about “business” decisions, and then try to “align” the IT decisions with them. But in our digital world—if we are truly committed to the idea that that’s the world we live in—IT should not follow business decisions but drive them.

CIOs and their staff have an excellent “end-to-end understanding of the business, a discipline and mindset of accomplishing goals, and an inclination toward innovation and change.” They bring a lot to the table.

Schwartz makes a case for the rest of the organisation becoming digitally literate and sophisticated in their use of technology. This may extend to people from all parts of the organisation being able to contribute to the codebase (or “Enterprise Architecture asset”) that is managed by IT. This should be no different to developers on an open source project making changes and submitting a ‘pull request’ to have those changes incorporated into the official codebase. We should embrace it, fostering and harnessing the enthusiasm of our colleagues. We should care less about who is doing the work and more about whether the company’s needs are met.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there were points where I disagreed. Schwartz argues strongly against purchasing off-the-shelf software — ever, it seems — and advocates building things in-house. He makes the point that software developed for the marketplace may not be a good fit for our business and may come with a lot of baggage. My view is that this completely depends on where the software sits in the stack and how commoditised it is. It makes no sense to implement our own TCP/IP stack, for example, nor does it make any sense to develop our own email client. (Nobody ever gained a new customer based on how good their email system was. Probably.) But I do agree that for software that is going to give us a competitive edge, we want to be developing this in-house. I think that something along the lines of a Wardley Map could be useful for thinking about this, where the further along the evolution curve a component is, the less Agile in-house development would be the preferred choice:

Overall this book is a fantastic read and will be one I come back to. It’s given me lots to think about as we start to make a case for new ways of working that go beyond the IT department.

Weeknotes #142 — Referee!

A really busy week where I felt I was juggling lots of things, but never to the point where it felt out of control. I spent Monday and Wednesday in the office and had one or two chance meetings which wouldn’t have otherwise happened, but there were very few people in on either day. The trains are getting busier with each passing week, but are still quite a way from being as full as they were pre-pandemic. People are getting on with things, which make notices about COVID-19 from my children’s school to say that they are re-introducing more safety protocols quite jarring to read.

I had to spend a few evenings catching up with small pieces of work that I had promised to complete by the next day, including prepping for more school governor meetings. My working week finished with two consecutive 7am meetings with teams in South Africa, the first of which that frustratingly got cancelled at 6:59am. Starting that early meant that I couldn’t go on my bike first thing, but I made up for it with a rare evening session on the turbo trainer.

Our Virgin Media Internet service has been very flaky in our street this week. Going to the office on Wednesday meant that I avoided a lot of the issues. Despite the frustration of dealing with their customer service processes, I was still reflecting on the fact that our IT is more resilient when we are dispersed. In our company, this outage impacted only one person, whereas an ISP failure to one of our offices may impact everyone working there.

This was a week in which I:

  • Ran a short review of our department’s delivery roadmap and checked how we are progressing with items scheduled for this quarter. We’ve made big strides this year with our ‘ways of working’ and I’m developing some views as to how we can improve it further as we head into 2022.
  • Ran two more meetings on our Teams recording proposal. We’re now at the point where we’ve agreed what we want to do and it is with me to write it up and circulate the draft.
  • Completed the business case for implementing Teams telephony in two of our locations. It will pay off in the long term even before we factor in the better user experience and decreased complexity of our environment.
  • Joined a meeting to discuss a data protection law in one of our locations.
  • Had a number of meetings relating to firewalls and routing on our network and agreed next steps both from a technical and a process perspective.
  • Was pleased to hear that the pitch we gave at the end of last week for our big group programme has been taken up by one of the senior leaders on the team. If we can get something up and running it could have a big benefit to all of our clients and internal teams.
  • Met with colleagues to discuss how we can add capacity to a delivery team that would be dedicated to us, without necessarily funding a whole person.
  • Continued reading A Seat At The Table by Mark Schwartz. Reading the book comes at a perfect time for me as I am looking at how we try to refocus the role of IT at our organisation and bring everyone else along on the journey.
  • Had an impromptu discussion with a colleague about a project we ran in London last year, and the gaps that remain in our other locations. The gaps present a good opportunity to leverage the ideas that IT is not a ‘contractor’ or ’order taker’, but can work collaboratively with people in other teams.
  • Was given a demo of a digital signage solution. We are looking at replacing what we have in our main office with a view to rolling out the solution to all of our offices globally. There seems to be a whole range of functionality and prices out there. We are in the process of purchasing a couple of Raspberry Pis with PoE HATs to experiment with.
  • Watched an interesting talk given by our CTO on The Importance of Core Infrastructure.
  • Had my work laptop migrated to Windows 11 in order to test it along with a number of other people in the team. It’s less of a jump than it seems from the screenshots in the media; at first glance it looks like Windows 10 with the task bar icons centred. The improvements are subtle, but seem good so far.
  • Joined a PlanView webinar on Agile Planning Across Disparate Teams and Tools. PlanView seem to lean in heavily on using TaskTop as an integration tool, which seems to do an excellent job.
  • Had a ‘random coffee’ with the newest member of our support team. It was good to spend some time with him.
  • Had a catch-up with the Headteacher and Chair of Governors at the school where I am a governor. I am always in awe of the work the school staff do and how undervalued their roles are. They are incredible.
  • Joined the rest of the school Governing Board for a meeting on prepping for Ofsted, collectively answering a number of questions that had been gathered together from various sources by our Chair.
  • Took part in a meeting to discuss the draft results of a Hertfordshire County Council Commissioned School Visit. This was a deep-dive into our management of our Pupil Premium allocation. It was a positive meeting; it was very useful to get outside scrutiny and feedback.
  • Completed the Modern Governor training module on the Pupil Premium.
  • Reviewed the draft terms of reference document for our planned school Curriculum Committee.
  • Reviewed the Governors Programme of Business for the year with the Chair.
  • Scheduled a school Pay Committee meeting.
  • Met with an online friend that I know from the WB-40 podcast Signal group and one of his colleagues to discuss environmental sustainability in schools.
  • Solved a problem with my Ubiquiti Unifi Protect cameras where they didn’t seem to be capturing events consistently. It looks as though they need to be set to ‘always record’ after a recent software update.
  • Took delivery of a new sofa that we ordered in July after we found that the previous one wouldn’t fit in the house. We weren’t expecting it until Christmas, so it’s a great result that it’s already here.
  • Spent some hours in the garden gathering up the mass of leaves that were already scattered across our back lawn. I’ll have to repeat the process in a couple of weeks once the rest are down.
  • Refereed a football match for the first time in years. There seems to be a shortage of qualified refs and we struggled to find one for Sunday’s Under 15 game. I put my hand up because I thought it would be better than one of the managers doing it. I was nervous, and spent an hour on Sunday morning watching YouTube videos to remind myself of some of the details. The match went really well and I ended up enjoying it.

  • Enjoyed a Saturday morning club ride. It was damp, and I ended up with my first puncture in many months on my way up one of the climbs. Despite needing to change the inner tube, we still made it back to the cafe for coffee and cake at the same time as everyone else.

  • Enjoyed Album Club #129. Not an album that I would ever pick up and listen to on my own, which made it a perfect choice.
  • Watched a few superb music programmes on iPlayer. I first finished off Soul America which I had started watching last year. When Nirvana Came To Britain was superb; it is shocking to see how small their window of fame was. The first two episodes of The 80s – Music’s Greatest Decade? with Dylan Jones have been enjoyably fresh, with lots of footage beyond the usual clips that get brought back for this kind of show. Trevor Horn at the BBC is an excellent tour through so many of the songs that he was involved in (although not all of them are my cup of tea and I did end up skipping a few.)
  • My wife and I have also been making good use of our Now TV subscription with Dexter: New Blood, Succession and Curb Your Enthusiasm all appearing on our screen throughout the week. It’s a novelty to have to wait for new episodes to be released each week again.

Next week: Another typically busy week, with more school governor meetings and a couple of days in the office.