“What are you doing next?”

This is a good question. I’m only starting to look now, because my time at DIT comes to an end in December and then I’m taking January off (plus ideally a good chunk of February) to work on musical projects and spend some quality time with my family after quite an intense few years (see the CV for more context on that).

Where I’ll be in January.

I’m looking for a role as Chief Product Officer or Head of Product at an organisation using technology for some sort of public good or purpose. Public sector, sustainability, B corps, employee-owned, mutuals, education, NGOs and charities. Ideally I’d be using technology to create jobs, not reduce them, but transformation work that makes scarce money be more effective is still valid.

I want to be working for a senior leader that has some commitment to agile and user-centred ways of working; it’s OK if they don’t know it all, because I can help build their skills too. Their curiosity, and a want to learn together, is important.

I’m looking for a role where I can 

  • coach product managers to get better at their craft, and build a proper community that learns together
  • help stakeholders understand it’s ok to look at assumptions and test them before committing vast amounts
  • build the space for empowered teams
  • use my breadth of skills to build alliances between disciplines to build better multidisciplinary leadership – using my understanding of content, infrastructure and user research to get better outcomes
  • Help improve strategic thinking around hypotheses, the opportunities and metrics that matter
  • Use my creativity, but also show people how to filter promising ideas through the lens of proper user-centred practices
  • Get stuck into some complex problems with messy data and organisational flows – I’ve survived tariffs, after all.

At DIT I’ve been coaching a community of 17 product managers, with line management responsibility for 4, as well as providing support to colleagues in many other professions. It was a matrix environment, so I wasn’t directly responsible for outputs, but together we were looking after the work of well over 100 people. As a Product Lead at GDS I was directly responsible for 4 product managers with a combined team of around 70.

Teaching “Opportunity Solution Trees” to DIT product and delivery managers.

I’m a trainer for Mind the Product, which helps me keep my craft up to date and gives me new perspectives on the teams I work with in the day job. I’d want to be able to take unpaid leave for this. This would probably be a maximum of two days per month, and that’s only when I’m teaching the Product Leadership course.

I’d be open to roles that don’t require me five days a week – from 3d/week up to 9d/fortnight. I’d also be interested in short-term projects to help develop people and capability, or bootstrap product strategies. But I’m also prepared to get fully stuck in for the right opportunity.

It’s worth knowing that I’ve got aphantasia – my imagination is almost entirely verbal – and so I like working with designers and technologists who can fill those gaps.

I’m happy to go into offices 2-3 days a week, on average, and probably wouldn’t want to be fully remote. I’m based in East London (Zone 4), and my heavy commuting/staying away from home days are behind me. I don’t mind the occasional trip, but for everyday travel spending more than an hour each way door-to-door would be too much.

Given the above, I wouldn’t rule out working for agencies or consultancies, but I don’t want to be in a primarily business development role.

If talking about permanent roles, I’d like to know how you’d invest in my development. As a contractor, I’ve spent a lot of money on developing myself – with workshops from Marty Cagan, Jez Humble, Nicole Forsgren etc, as well as conferences such as SXSW. I wouldn’t want my curiosity to atrophy – but please know that I’ve always brought my knowledge back into the office.

Oh, and I’m not cheap, but I’m also not greedy.

Oh, and if scrolling all the way back to the top is too much hassle, here’s another link if you want to look at my CV.

The trap of ‘the 18 month roadmap’

Yes, I know what some of you product purists will be thinking. But this isn’t a snarky post about how stakeholders want Gantt charts really. It’s more about how easy it is to become accidentally stupid and switch into ‘feature team’ mode, even if you’ve been doing this for a really long time.

As mentioned two posts ago, I’ve largely handed over my Head of Product role to my Civil Servant successor. They’re doing a great job, and I need to give them the space to do it without feeling overlooked – and to do it the way they need to. I didn’t get everything right, because I was setting up a profession at scale for the first time, and in some places it’s a good opportunity to fix some lumpy corners. Meanwhile, I’m being kept on until the end of December doing what was referred to in the 90s as “special projects” – keeping me busy and around until the end of my contract in case something crops up that needs my memory.

The thing that’s keeping me busy is setting up a new multidisciplinary leadership team that sits across several of our products which were previously a bit siloed.

We’ve got a companies/contacts/interactions/events database platform thing; we’ve got a data analysis/visualisation platform; we’ve got some quite specific workflows around particular types of triage; we’ve got ticketing systems; we’ve got a public-facing platform (great.gov.uk) that does data capture; we’ve got bulk email tools; we’ve got a SaaS event management platform; there’s a suite of marketing tools etc etc. All of these things are part of what you might call “CRM”, but they’re not necessarily seamlessly integrated for our users – and we probably send staff around the houses between teams a bit more than we should when they’re asking us how to get something done. And so sometimes stakeholder say “perhaps we should just go and buy [insert any major CRM vendor here]”.

So we’re creating (for a while) a CRM Leadership function, that’s taking a holistic look at all these journeys – through the lenses of data, design, business, product, architecture etc. We’ve also got a CRM subject matter expert on the team, who’s worked with all the big off-the-shelf tools, to make sure we’re not doubling down on our in-house builds unnecessarily.

The team was formed about six weeks ago, and I spent the first while trying to define and refine and priorities our OKRs.

  • We’re having to define what CRM means at DIT.
  • We’re having to build a roadmap that sits across all those products
  • We need to help shape each team’s missions for Q4
  • We might get into defining what we most need to learn from trialling any COTS solution
  • We also hope we can do a bit of “showing what good looks like” when working on complicated cross-portfolio and cross-product work.

We need to do the roadmapping work in consultation with the individual teams of course. We want them to truly own their problems, and feel empowered to solve them in the best way possible. They’ve also got people on their teams who know what’s possible these days – whereas I still really only think in old-skool relational databases. So that means trying to follow the Netflix model of “leading by context”. Not defining the solution, but making sure teams know enough about what matters that they can’t do something completely leftfield.

The teams also truly know their users and working patterns, fragmented as they are across the UK and the globe, so are best placed to know whether any new process ideas are likely to land…as well as being able to quickly and cheaply test the ideas behind them.

And, of course, they already have their own roadmaps – for the next quarter or two. Some of which was based on really good user insight.

But the catch in the second of my key results was something quite specific. It wasn’t just “a roadmap”. It was “an eighteen month roadmap”. As I mentioned in the title of this post.

So why do they want that? Isn’t that just a Gantt chart?

Well, yes and no.

You see, there are some understandable worries about the way I’d normally be doing this – which is how I regularly advocate for people to do it when training. I love the “now, next, later” roadmap format. I love Roman Pichler’s goal-oriented roadmap. But I can also understand the concerns of people who’ve previously been burned by MoSCoW prioritisation when working with traditional IT suppliers – that you might as well assume anything that isn’t in your Must list just isn’t going to happen, so you put everything in Must. Similarly, I can see how a roadmap like this can be read as “now, probably next, never”. Particularly when priorities change and there are a lot of stakeholders you had to tell about it – some people might miss the memo and that erodes trust.

So the challenge is to create a roadmap that’s more of an 18-month-long worked example – given that things will undoubtedly change, and teams will be making decisions about this long after I’m gone. They’ll also be finding out some of my assumptions were wrong or based on sketchy inputs, long after I’m gone, and that has to be an integral part of the process. But that also needs to be part of the playback to our stakeholders as well – this is not a commitment, this is the first iteration of a joint process.

But a roadmap like this involves hard choices. There are some vocal user groups who have problems – but fixing those isn’t necessarily the most urgently valuable thing to be doing now. There are software changes we could make that *we* think would be hugely impactful, but there’s nobody in the wider organisation that can do the process change needed. There are also things we could do which would be hugely valuable (and which both our users and stakeholders ask for), but because a set of suppliers all did things differently before they were inhoused, and key decisions about a converged process haven’t been made yet, sow were are blocked. And of course, there are features we’ve built that sit underused/misunderstood, or where we find out during research that people are using the same word to mean different things – or represent completely different mental concepts.

So the roadmap we create today is a symptom of that context.

I’ve spent a lot of the last week looking at the things we could be working on, and documenting two things:

  • what I think the value/priority is, and the questions I think we need to be asking next to be more sure
  • writing down the underlying principles that led me to those decisions, so that we can update the roadmap if they change.

I’m due to present this roadmap to our SMT in a few days time, and the introduction is going to be quite a few slides of “the context as I see it, and therefore the underlying principles that emerge”. I’ll be talking about the readiness of various transformation programmes, the levels of business ownership around known pain points, capacity constraints around must-do technical tasks like migrations etc. This is also going to lead into some prioritisation principles like:

  • Build things for people who can make change happen
  • Developers are expensive, so if users are complaining about a missing feature that already exists, then comms about intended use should be tried first
  • Backoffice staff having to retype things *is* annoying and wasteful, but given development constraints and the bigger goal of economic prosperity we should concentrate on making sure our staff working face-to-face have everything they need to to focus their work…unless the backoffice processes are blocking that.

As I seek feedback, I’ll find out that some of the landscape is wrong and I’ll have to replan. As I talk through the principles I’ll realise that they need to change.

But late last night, as I was thinking about all these artefacts I’ve created to support my first draft of an eighteen month roadmap (slightly against my will), the penny dropped.

I’ve written a product strategy.

How long have I been doing this job? How did I not spot this?

But someone asked me for an 18 month roadmap, and I blindly got on with it, and didn’t spot that actually we needed a product strategy, with a candidate roadmap to come out of it.

Be careful about the words your stakeholders use. They can lead you into all sorts of traps, and approaching problems from completely the wrong end.

(Of course it may be that I’d still have had to do all this work anyway, and I would have been Totally Making Up my product principles if I hadn’t been staring at those really specific prioritisation tradeoffs, but anyway.)

Update:

I realised that some of the choices the teams and I were trying to make were hard because we weren’t aligned around the overall context. I could see the value in solving the problems they saw their users dealing with. There was a lot of junior people doing quite a lot of retyping. But, given some of the big strategy documents I’d been reading, that didn’t feel urgent. That fixing this user problem, but delaying a bigger goal, might not be seen as the right tradeoff.

To fix this, I created a set of ‘even over’ statements to discuss with the team. Things like:

  • We will support our workforce to make the most of their face-to-face contact with companies because that is what will have the most economic impact, even over reducing the back-office admin that we know feels unnecessary for a few more months.

The team might tell me I’m wrong about some of these. The wider stakeholders might say “no, actually, efficiency savings are key”. But at least we’ll get clarity.

I’m also trying to make sure we live by Janna Bastow’s maxim that “your roadmap is a prototype of your product strategy”. We’ll find out how right the strategy is by looking at the roadmap, and vice versa. And we’ll user test the product strategy with everyone from end users to senior stakeholders. Whenever something doesn’t look right, either in a goal or feature people were/weren’t expecting, or in one of our principles – we’ll then work out as a team which thing we need to go back and change. It’s a great way to make the thinking explicit – and fallible.

An Approach to People and Succession Planning

Vacancies are weird things. They sit their on your org chart, and you keep trying to find the right people to go into them, but recruitment remains hard and so you tend to prioritise the (thankfully few) leavers you’ve got and the key initiatives that really need a dedicated person.

Of course, your profession is not alone in this. If you were to hire a product person, you know there probably wouldn’t be enough developers for them to have a meaningful team. Maybe there aren’t quite enough designers or user researchers either. And so, over time, your aspirations for the work you’re trying to do kind of shrink to fit what’s in front of you right now and who you’ve got. You organically manage to start new things, but it’s a bit of a squeeze, and sometimes feels like you’re artificially splitting an existing team in order to enable the new initative.

Where I work we’ve got a lot of people in ‘Senior Product Manager’ roles. They’re all on their own career journeys of course, and developing in different areas – and working on a wide variety of projects. But it’s always felt a little fragile that we only had senior staff – and weren’t developing a pipeline of new, more junior, product managers. However, this does mean you have to have problems that are right for more junior staff to work on – the right sorts of stakeholders, the right level of risk, the right balance of strategic and tactical user research needed. And for a long time I didn’t think we had those ‘to hand’. Which meant the problem slightly persisted: our senior folks were busy on big problems, in a fast moving environment, and scoping out something nicely doable by a more junior PM felt kept slipping down the to-do list.

It takes something of a crisis to make you rethink a situation like this. To say “we need to take a bigger look”. And in my case, the crisis was that – over the course of about a week – I realised I was looking at the arrival of potentially four new Senior Product Managers within the next few months, who’d all need something meaningful to do. Especially as they were proper civil servants, not contractors.

That was going to take some pretty radical thinking. I couldn’t just reorganise a few contractors. After all, some of them had very specific domain knowledge , or the products they were working on would be out of active development by time the civil servant got up to speed.

So I created two tools to help with this:

  • A map
  • A gameboard

Sadly, showing you any of this is going to be really tricky, but hopefully I can walk you through what I did.

The Map

I started by thinking about all the things people had ever asked us to work on. Initially I mapped them out as tiny yellow postits on my desk. And then I tried to connect them to what the problem was that we were trying to solve. I also started adding in any looming crises, migrations, technology issues, or known pain points. This enabled me to start forming some interesting clusters: for example “how do we better triage clients” and “how do we determine eligibility” and “we need to replace our ticketing platform” all felt like very related problems – probably one person’s job.

But now I’d said that this was probably one person’s job, I had to decide what sort of person.

I realised my map needed a vertical axis – how senior the person needed to be in order to solve the problem.

Fixing the way we take inbound queries, deciding if they get digital or personal support, and routing that to the right person – that’s definitely something for one of our most senior Senior Product Managers. A proper gnarly problem, technical and policy issues, stakeholders in different directorates etc. Job done, yes? Sadly not.

The only catch was that they couldn’t start on it yet. Some of that work is blocked by a higher-up problem: getting standardisation on the business processes in this area. And the initial mustering of stakeholders and leading them to agreement around the need for change is something only a Lead PM really has the skills to organise.

Meanwhile, if we want to divert some of those users to more online support – keeping face-to-face contact focused on the most valuable businesses – then someone needs to be creating the content journeys for that. Which is definitely something a normal PM could be doing – assuming a different Senior PM had engaged with their stakeholders and set out what that content was. And that might in turn unblock some opportunities for an Associate PM to look at optimising content or discovery features. So I could also look at all the other things we might meaningfully get junior people to learn from – if only someone was empowered to shape that work.

And all this is full of moving targets. There are platforms we suspect we’ll have to migrate from in about a year’s time, including changing our hosting provider away from GOV.UK PaaS. Some of those might mean thinking about ‘how we design and measure campaigns to make them more effective at driving online traffic to a wider variety of our services’ – which would allow a more junior person to look at ‘executing a specific campaign well’, but also depends on ‘defining our offer and candidate journey for each user groups’.

I realised three things at this point:

  1. I was building a vast network of problems and problem clusters, with a vertical axis based on seniority – covering things we were doing, might have to do, and couldn’t do yet.
  2. How I chose to cluster the problems was a pretty key decision, with implications on a lot of other team topologies
  3. I was going to need something more than postits on a sheet of A3 if I was going to keep track of all this

So I started building this network in Invision, using the connection tools to keep track of links between my postits as I moved around the clusters, and decided how senior those clusters were.

I can’t show you the detailed diagram (although I plan to ask) but you can see the overall shape of it here:

Yeah, sorry, it’s super fuzzy.

The grey boxes are “nouns” or tasks. We do have some ‘just do it’ things, or where we’re pretty sure that we know the most likely approach, and that’s part of the setup. But we can give them context by tying them back to the overall problem a product person can ask – the white boxes.

You can also see the dependencies mapped between them in the arrows. Sometimes I even found circular loops that I had to break.

And you can see the vertical hierarchy of where I thought we might have work for PMs or APMs…if we had the time to unblock it.

There are also annotations around whether things are product problems or service owner problems, opportunities to empower junior staff, where things are critical, or where we might have skills gaps/other blockers.

I showed this to someone the other day and they described it as “the org chart”. But it’s not. It’s a map of all the org charts we could potentially ever have – if we had all the people we could ever need. But we don’t have all those people – so we have to be strategic about where we focus. We need to make sure that our leads know where seniors will depend on them to create clarity once they arrive, and seniors need to know the questions that matter if we’re imminently going to be bringing in PMs to work on smaller product problems. So having created this map of all the possible options, we need step 2.

The ‘game board’

I don’t mean that this is a game. It’s deadly serious. But having worked in interactive entertainment, I know that shaping the way you explore the problem is critical. You need a toolkit that shows you the moves you’re able to make, and which ones you can’t. You need to simplify the map to make tangible and meaningful choices. So thinking about these things like you were designing a boardgame is a useful approach.

Going back to my original problem: I potentially have four new senior product managers starting, and I need to work out what they’re going to do.

Based on my bigger map, I can now pick a subset of ‘senior PM’ problems that are either in progress, ready, or (with the correct Lead PM focus) could become ready within the next two months. I can lay those out in powerpoint slide as a similar but simplified map – and save it as a template. (I’m paranoid, I’m even going to duplicate it and turn on “hide slide” to stop me breaking it by accident)

I can then look at all the people I’ve got available – their strengths and interests – and put them on the side of that map against their grade. I can now try out all sorts of combinations, just cloning the slide each time. The title of the slide says what factors I’m considering.

I can look at future options – where do we need person x to be developing, and what problems could we have ready for them in a year? Again, it’s just a cloned slide and some comments to say what I’m thinking. Possible long-term flight risks if we’re not able to keep challenging them? The same.

I can then sift the most useful options for how the ‘game board’ plays out to work for our people and the problems – and start talking to others about it. Could the Leads get these things ready in time? What happens if that contract gets extended? Would that allow us to focus key staff on something more valuable?

Net result

By mapping out all your problem spaces, seeing how they cluster together, what blocks them, what they unblock, and what level of seniority each problem cluster needs, you’re in a position to start looking at possible futures for your product function and team topologies. You can choose the areas of focus from within this set of options, and match them to the work you think would be most valuable for your people to be doing next.

The editorial temptation to add “quickly” into that previous paragraph was quite strong. It’s not quick. This is quite hard work, you’ll need to block out time for it, and come back to it repeatedly – both to validate it when you make your first plans, and when you come back to check how the landscape has moved.

But I found this such a useful approach that I thought these initial steps – and particlarly hat it’s a two-stage process brought on by a crisis I hope none of you face – might help kickstart your own ways of thinking about it.

Do please let me know what you think in the comments!

What happened to that countdown then?

Ah, yes.

So I got a new job. It was quite a busy one. And so my priorities had to change a bit. I started to write a few songs – and I even finished one – that fit the brief. But there wasn’t the time to dedicate to it in the way I’d have liked.

I still managed to play some amazing music at my 50th birthday party. A roundup of some songs that meant loads to me, with my friends Des on bass, Steve on drums and Pete on guitar. We were supplemented by a whole host of singers and guest musicians to play the following:

  • Scissor Sisters – I don’t feel like dancin’
  • Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
  • Smokey Robinson – Tears of a Clown (with real bassoon)
  • Groove Armada – Song 4 Mutya
  • Talk Talk – Life’s what you make it
  • Abba – Dancing Queen
  • Kylie Minogue – I should be so lucky/Can’t get you out of my head (a medley we joined together in the most horrendous way with Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer’s Star Cycle, and a bit of Blue Monday)
  • Madness – It Must be Love
  • Dubious Brothers – Yes Man
  • Buggles – Video Killed the Radio Star
  • Phil Oakey/Giorgio Moroder – Together in Electric Dreams
  • Divine Comedy – National Express
  • Paul Williams/Bugsy Malone – Good Guys/You Give A Little Love. (You know, the bit at the end when they’re all covered in splurge gun stuff and custard pies)

It looked like this. The Red Lion in Leytonstone was an amazing venue.

So I was a bit musicked out after that. Although I really loved the suit.

And then we went on a massive holiday around America. Which the kids didn’t always fully appreciate.

And then the pandemic hit. And I was working on Brexit things from the bottom of my garden. So I couldn’t talk about tons of stuff.

The money I saved on coffees went into modular synthesisers. Which are wonderful and exciting and delightful, and a total distraction from the day-to-day of staring at a computer screen. But not great for actual songwriting.

Eventually some normality resumed, by which time I had a new job to get used to – with a new boss – as Head of Product. We’d just moved to a matrix structure, and I spent a lot of time being the first person to hit the challenges and changes this would bring about. I also had to work out what the job was, with said new boss who was also working out what her job was at the same time. This period was just a wonderful collaboration, but soooo much going on – ergo still no new music.

I did manage to get to SXSW in the spring though. Seeing the likes of Self Esteem from about four feet away was just incredible.

And finally, as is the way with these things, I was able to replace myself with a civil servant who’s now doing great things while I’m on “special projects” for a few months of handover.

And at the end of December I start the next chapter. Which means it’s time to restart this blog all over again as I think through who and what I am.

223 – so what do you actually *do*?

I’ve been pretty lucky for the last five years, in that I’ve not had to apply for jobs.

I mean, I did apply for jobs, it’s just that other people were a better fit. But they were always levelling up on what I was doing. The day-to-day carried on, and slightly more interesting projects appeared for me to do. (Some of them I will describe differently when drunk, but that’s another story) But I always carried a certain amount of history with me, some Tom folklore and reputation.

One of the things I’ve learned in the last day is how easy it is to forget to discuss the absolute basics. I spend a lot of my time thinking about culture and strategy and people and alignment and value – and how to adapt myself to the gaps in the organisation around me. I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about what product management is and should be.

I’m also quite good at what I do, so it’s quite weird to get to the end of a conversation with someone new and have an odd feeling at the end, like they didn’t get quite what they wanted.

And then I remember, oh you wanted me to talk about backlog grooming and user stories and roadmaps…and I didn’t actually say any of those words. Because it’s obvious to me, and one part of a big toolkit of getting the right thing done. However I need to remember to make the implicit knowledge explicit.

This is also much in my mind after a very odd article in The Register today. Unsurprisingly, the thrust was that GDS had run its course and you needed to get grownups in the room who understand backend technology where agile isn’t much use, and here’s a man from IBM who can talk about the mindset of e-commerce not being relevant to government transactions.

The comments were also a joy to behold.

But what it made me realise is how misunderstood Agile and the digital mindset actually is. Because we don’t talk about the implicit knowledge. We don’t talk about technology being a function you delegate a project to, it’s core to the way of doing business – and core to policy. We know that policy is flawed and messy and prone to groupthink, cultural disconnect, a lack of frontline operational awareness and more. We know that our automated testing practices make it easier for a team to support our services and make releases more quickly. We know our user-centred approach around an alpha or MVP will tell us a lot more about a policy intent’s chance of success in the real world than a pilot of the finished system. And that building it with our users mindset from the start will mean they’re far more likely to find and complete a task on their own, without needing an army of in-house people to fix the bad data where the user simply didn’t understand what we wanted for our internal processes.

And because we don’t talk about this, folks think it’s just about wearing jeans and writing user stories and thinking about frontends – not running a Proper Technology Project. When actually we’re thinking about the whole system and making it work for everyone.

As ever, it’s also worth pointing out, how lucky we are to have some air cover to work this way. The folks writing those comments aren’t more stupid than us, they’ve just never had the chance to that this was what good could look like. We should remember to be kind.

Metrics update:
SLIs: all fine, although I could have phoned a recruiter back who sent me her number on LinkedIn.
Health metrics: spent way more than four hours under a laptop, and didn’t get to write any music. Having a deliberately lazier morning tomorrow.

225 – the first day of the rest of (the next bit of) your life

Today I didn’t go into GDS towers. Because I no longer work there.

There was originally a plan that I’d be working somewhere else today, but that fell through last Monday, with four days to go. Which – in summary – was a tad annoying. But I’m choosing to look on the bright side, given that I’d wanted a bit of time off really and it’s a chance to look around and think – yet again – about what I might want to be when I grow up.

I’ve been in this stage before though, after the BBC and ITV, and this time I’m determined to do it a little differently. If you’re like me, basically a massive introvert who’s quite good at faking it in a crisis, there are a few possible routes to go down:

  1. sitting under a laptop pressing refresh on your inbox and social media feed for hours at a time in the hope someone’s come back to you, but being terrified when the phone rings as you’ve not spoken to a real human in five weeks
  2. internalising what happened and buying a ton of books to make up for some gap or other
  3. filling the day with household chores so you don’t have to look the bank balance in the eye
  4. going to the pub for the whole afternoon and thinking solitary thoughts
  5. going to the pub for the whole afternoon with colleagues in a similar boat and drowning your sorrows together
  6. picking up some exciting new/old hobby which is more fun than actually working and throwing yourself into that, while your other half notices that you’ve increasingly neither a) done the washing up, b) got a job

In this case, 2 doesn’t apply – because it was just that my contract at GDS had to end. I’d been their for long enough, and it’s completely appropriate some folks thought it was time for me to move on. Also, at what point do I become an overpaid dysfunctional employee?

5 doesn’t apply either, because I’m the only one who’s had this happen.

So how do I avoid the solitary confinement, domestic displacement activity, pubsitting, or drowning myself in fun?

In short, I’ve written myself some SLOs and SLIs (not SLAs) and some health metrics. The SLOs are based on what I think “normal” should look like from the outside world. Not hitting them isn’t bad per se, but they’re probably an indicator that something else is up and I need to check in on myself. As ever, an SLI should be a reason to have a discussion.

They include things like:

  • An in-hours SMS should get a response within 2h
  • Between 70 and 90% of phonecalls should be answered, even if you think they’re spam

Meanwhile the health metrics include:

  • Spend an hour outside a day
  • Look for work, but don’t do it for more than four hours per day

Based on the list at the top, I’ve also added the health metric

  • close email and only open it at particular times

which led to me revising an SLO

  • email in-hours should be answered in less than four working hours, but more than 30 minutes

That gives me permission to actually do other stuff – including having space for some of the hobbies, domestic chores and recuperation I desperately wanted before starting the gig-that-was-not-to-be.

But once you’ve written these things down you start to notice the cheats. Your workarounds. Your twitches. Ways to deal with the dopamine. Ways to get the phone back into your hand or a browser reopened. So I’ve added one other health metric.

  • LinkedIn alerts and Twitter DMs are to be treated the same way as email.

Put the bloody phone down, Tom. Run outside and play. Run outside and play the ukulele.

238 – breathing out

So I’m (kind of) moving on from GDS at the end of next week. There’s a fair amount of stuff to do between now and then – including a day and a half out of the office at Mind The Product events. But it’s definitely a finite amount of time left here, and a finite number of things I can do.

The first watershed of my departure happened about two weeks ago. I tried to arrange a meeting with another busy person like myself. There was no time within working hours we were both free at the same time between now and when I left. A whole month, but it wasn’t enough time to get an hour together. (NARRATOR: they are going to the pub instead)

At the time I noticed this wryly, but I was too busy with our quarterly planning process and preparing for a talk at our end-of-quarter away day to really take in that this was The Beginning Of The End.

But this morning I looked at the enormous to-do list I started in September of “things I need to do before I go” and realised there weren’t actually very many left. Mainly people-stuff tasks. The civil service loves those.

The other thing I’m getting used to is that I’m now – just at the point where I’m on my way out – only doing my own job, not juggling bits of some other people’s because they aren’t yet part of the team. That’s an odd feeling, only being a Lead Product Manager. It’s very nice, and I would say “I could get used to this”. But I won’t get the chance to.

I’m going to be sad to leave lots of these people, but it has been a very hard journey bringing this thing into being. I learned a lot, but it’s time to move on, and it’s also time to let someone who didn’t go through all that pick it up and make it their own.

526 – gently removing the dopamine IV

So today I made a bit of a bold move. I logged out of Twitter on every device but one, and deleted the apps from all phones and tablets.

I know a lot of people have said that 2017 was their last year on Twitter. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, not least because it’s actually a key part of the various day-jobs I’ve had. But it’s definitely become too much of a time-sink, and also too much of an intention sink. The never-ending stream of lightly-interesting things, occasional outrage, and sometimes horror wasn’t a good companion for my frazzled state at the end of the year. It’s been easier to react than do. Easier to hit refresh ‘just one more time’ than to do any of the more meaningful things I’m trying to get on with. The things that only I can do.

There’s a vast pile of unread New Scientist, Wired, Screen International and Sound on Sound magazines next to my bed. I actually want to read them. I’ve got games I want to play and films I want to watch. I have kids to read to. I have instruments to practice and music to write. I want to do these things. I really really don’t want to get cross about Toby Young all over again – particularly not at 11pm.

So goodbye Twitter and Facebook. I’ll still check occasionally, but there’s email and text messages and all that stuff if you know me well enough.

Like all clearouts though, it’s addictive. ‘Dots’ has now gone from the phone. I’m thinking I could probably lose all of the games now, given that the kids have their own phones.

Actually…

They’re now gone. Goodbye Rayman Run, Angry Birds, Trism, Peggle, Tiny Wings. Goodbye Threes, even Drop 7. All I’ve now got is Mastertronic’s Chess (which I’m rubbish at) and – because I can’t get it back again – Flappy Bird.

I suppose I’d better go and get some stuff done, hadn’t I?

527 – So 2017 was quite a year

Hello. A happy new year to you and yours!

It’s been quiet here, hasn’t it?

Sorry about that. It’s been a year of major events and unexpected delays, meaning that a load of things haven’t really happened the way I’d imagined.

The year started with the expectation that a load of things would have happened by the summer and I’d be writing music and blogposts in my summerhouse at the bottom of the garden, looking back on how well the identity project I was working on was ticking along.

We ended last year finding out that Daisy was going to need to have a pretty major operation for her scoliosis. We’d never heard of this two years ago. You probably haven’t either, but if you’ve got a daughter starting her teenage growth spurt it’s worth keeping an eye out for. They might have to wear a back brace for a bit to see if it contains the curves. If not, basically this is what happens to fix it:

Scoliosis surgery – not Daisy tho.

Deep breath time, particularly as there’s a small risk of paralysis, but we couldn’t not do it. And hey, she’d have a new bedroom to be in by the time it was done, because of our ten week loft conversion project. As long as nothing else changed…

But then I got moved onto something else at work and all my “creative time” in the evenings was spent desperately trying to get ahead of that.

By April it was clear that things weren’t going to plan on the loft. Our 8-10 week project had hit woodworm snags, and we’d found we would have to get the roof retiled and some large cracks in the side wall fixed. But hey, it would be done in time for Daisy’s operation.

…which then got postponed.

Twice.

I had a pang of guilt about the blog mid-June, as I hit 48 and managed to get a post together talking a bit about this. But I wasn’t really in a position to go into the detail on Daisy.

Thankfully Daisy’s operation went amazingly well, and I’d got far ahead enough on the work stuff to take a large chunk of time off during the operation and while she was at home recovering. Albeit still in her little room. But we got to watch a load of great films on the sofa together. Ferris Bueller was just the start of the millions of things we watched…

Work stayed frantic and complex. And then I was asked to takeover something else even more technical – but it would be great if I could keep my other project going alongside until ‘the new me’ was in place in the new year. Cue more frantic reading on change management, reliability engineering, systems security.

And the delays on the building work still grew. We got through three roofing companies before that was finished. The chap tiling the bathroom quietly walked off the site, leaving it unfinished, and nobody had noticed until he was gone. The plumber got really ill.

Meanwhile Milo started at secondary school and we went from the chaos of six children+childminder in our house slowly down to, well, just the four of us.

So we end the year still not in our new bedroom. The carpet is down, but the walls aren’t painted, the tiling isn’t grouted and the bathroom’s not plumbed in. There are now trenches for the foundations of the studio down at the bottom of the garden.

But I end the year with a bunch of things I didn’t have before:

  • an amazing daughter who is well and truly mended and indistinguishable from any other thirteen-year-old
  • a brilliant son who just quietly got on with starting secondary school and seems to be thriving with all these new subjects
  • the CV of an online creative and commissioner who can now drill all the way down to what’s going on with the individual servers
  • some kind of workspace of my own from mid-February, but also
  • the wisdom to know that sometimes you have to make time for the things that matter, because waiting until things are ‘just right’ can take a hell of a lot longer than you think

And also, because I am now a product manager and this is what we do when faced with any crisis

  • an excel spreadsheet to work out the days-until-I’m-fifty for each post. So I no longer have the tyranny of posting every day, nor the excuse that doing the sums is too complicated.

Happy 2018 everyone. Make it a good one.

Tom and Vicky in the (nearly finished) loft.

730 – Days Since Nineteen Hundred

OK, so I’m (lightly) back.

There have been a few reasons for going quiet on all this.

The first was that I really had started to feel that the blog was a bit of compulsory displacement activity. The “write something every day” idea I started with had all the promise of the classic “pottery class” fable, and everyone who talks about the practice of writing says that it’s about “just showing up”.

The reality, of course, is a bit more nuanced.

I found that I was putting all my efforts into coming up with witty reasons for why I’d not managed to be any more interesting that particular day. Why I hadn’t made progress against the Big Idea. I was putting the energies I should put into work into ever more complex excuses. Which didn’t really feel healthy or ultimately useful.

Alongside this, it’s fair to say that Real Life suddenly became a lot moe complicated.

I’m writing this on a sun lounger in the garden, which is nice. However, as a soundtrack, I’ve got the loud rustling of tarpaulins from our still-in-progress loft conversion contrasting nicely with birdsong and the burbling of the pond. The loft was supposed to take six-to-eight weeks. We’re now in week sixteen. There are a lot of very good reasons for this, and I really wouldn’t want to cast any aspersions on our builder whatsoever, but it’s not where we expected to be.

So this means

  1.  I’m still not sleeping upstairs in our airy new loft room and enjoying that big reset
  2. We still haven’t started the “garden room” that was going to be the ultimate haven for my pondering and outpourings
  3. I’ve not managed to move my musical and lyrical projects into the little boxroom as an interim, because Daisy is still soldiering on with it as her interim bedroom.

Building aside, there’s also quite a lot of other stuff going on in our lives:

I’ve taken on a whopping great new project at work. My previous one got a bit mired up with lack of resources, and so I was asked to see what I could do with another product and team. Commodity webosting and the management cloud infrastructure was never going to be top of my list of dream projects, but the boss asked nicely and – well – I’m a contractor and I do what I’m told. Turned out to also have some big scary asks and deadlines associated, and some horribly complex questions to start answering. I’m slowly making a dent in that, but I’ve had to get my head round a ton of things where I previously would have said “that’s technical architect stuff”. So that’s used up a lot of spare brain space.

Meanwhile, there are also some looming medical things with one of the kids. We’ll hopefully be able to talk about that having gone successfully within a week or two, but the management of that – what with the inevitable uncertainty, beauracracy and multiple postponements of operations that happen when dealing with major surgery – has left me a long way from wanting to put my heart on my sleeve. In this case, it’s not a heart, but even if it was it wouldn’t really be mine to put on my sleeve anyway.

So it’s all got just a bit busy. I wonder whether we’re being surreptitiously filmed for “Grand Designs” at some points. Just when we think it’s all under control, something chucks in a bit more jeopardy, as though we were heading towards an ad break and needed to be sure people would stay tuned in.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some really nice afternoons in pubs sitting and typing musings into Evernote. There’s even been the start of some Actual Lyrics.

The more complex barrier eventually became, um….

“How many days am I on now, exactly”.

I couldn’t post, because I didn’t know which number to put at the stop, and it would be a bit anticlimactic to do a big run-in to my 50th birthday, only to end on day minus-one.

Way back when I was starting out in technology, and trying (occasionally successfully) to pretend to be A Normal IT Professional, there was an issue we had around sorting data. We were running Unix, but our applications were written in BASIC (that then got translated to C and compiled, but let’s skip over that). The company had been around for a very long time (it had a royal warrant and everything) and so all this meant that just using the Unix of epoch of 1/1/1970 to measure dates from wasn’t really an option.

Instead, we relied on a BASIC routine that got copied across all our programs called DSN. This worked out the “days since nineteen hundred”. This was normally stored as a 6-character string, or more commonly 999999-DSN to allow the optimal alpha-sort with most recent stuff at the top.(Yes, yes, I’m sure you could do it better these days, but memory was expensive, indexes really slowed things down, and there was all that translation/compilation shit to deal with).

The only catch was that I worked out the DSN function was wrong. It had missed out the non-leap-yearness of 1900 and assumed it had a 29th Feb. So all DSN dates were already a day out, and had been forever.

Changing it would have meant rewriting all the programs, migrating all the databases, figuring out how we’d explain it to the VAT people etc etc. This was clearly never going to happen. The illusion just had to be maintained.

And so I was the same here. I just couldn’t face restarting the blog, only to realise I’d missed th boat, and would have to redo all of the posts for two years. Or pretend my 50th was on a different day to the one it really was, out of sheer embarrassment.

But today is the two year mark. Today I know where I am, albeit with the curse of “48” now hanging over me, and can do the sums. These posts might end on zero or they might end up on one, but I’m definitely not going to end on 2 or -1.

And so we are off again.

But probably not quite as regularly. At least not within the next week or so, fingers crossed.