Author Archives: Tom

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.

958 – theory of constraints

Tonight was music night! A night to sit down in front of the piano and computer and get some real work done.

Unfortunately, tonight was also sort out the laundry and do the ironing night – so that we all have paired socks and flat shirts to wear.

Sadly the extreme volume of the latter meant the former didn’t happen.

Consoled myself with ten minutes of improvising lightly-widdly minimoog solos over one of a friend’s prog-rock tracks, before admitting defeat and heading to bed.

Tomorrow, we try again.

959 – nostalgia fights back

There’s a reverence for analogue gear in the music industry that I can understand but also find slightly self-deceiving.

Firstly, it’s not just the cachet of price. If you want to buy yourself a proper digital legend – the PPG Wave I mentioned yesterday, for example, eBay can currently do you one for just over four and a half grand. It’s beautiful and sounds amazing, but bloody hell.

Even my hybrid synths are starting to get expensive again – the JX10 now goes for more than I paid for it second-hand in 1992, and I might even make a profit on my Poly800 from 1985 soon.

But, after a really lovely evening playing with ProTools – which like so much other software is layer upon layer of glue, tape and string – I think it’s worth noting that the ‘variability’ of analogue is no longer exclusive. Plugins going missing, distortion effects spontaneously coming from nowhere, countless routing options within a soft synth that don’t quite do what the manual says they should.

These days, software is so large, it can give analogue a pretty good run for its money on the serendipity stakes. And I find that quite exciting really.

 

960 – stubbly yaks

There are days when you need to remember to show up. And days when you need to show up to do the right thing.

After some fine advice by a friend, I’ve installed a nice bit of software on the Mac to fix one of my quandaries from about ten days ago. Blue Cat Audio’s Patchwork allows me to get a whole load of old-skool music plugins working within my rather more modern Pro Tools setup. For less than a hundred quid, my PT setup was reunited with ImpOSCaR, Oddity and the Korg Legacy Collection. The first two of these are particular favourites as they are a bit weird and so you get taken in a different direction from Native Instruments’ Kontakt or Arturia’s Jupiter-8V, which loads of people already have.

But then I got thinking.

What about my Waldorf Collection DVD up in the loft? The one with the PPG Wave virtual instrument? Wouldn’t it be great to get that up and running – having the amazing sounds of Propaganda and Frankie (and yes I’m looking at you too Roisin Murphy!) back under my fingertips.

[fade to black, the bits about 32-bit compatibility and java updates and licensing rabbit holes never made the final cut. I was there and they were boring for me, even with the dopamine rush.]

Suffice to say, I pulled away from this challenge after less than an hour – without having spent any more money or installed any new operating systems. I went to play with Milo instead.

I nearly fell down the rabbit-hole again this evening, but somehow managed to pull back after about twenty minutes.

Instead of yet more displacement activity, there was some tentative progress. A new sound led to some poking around with a new effect, that led to a little exercise in how to play around that sound’s challenges, which sort of led to some interesting chords…

There are always more yaks to shave. And sometimes that’s fine – you can only be nearby the things you’re supposed to be doing, because you’re really not ready to actually start. But it’s also good to know that – just occasionally – you can Do The Work as well.

961 – small steps and green-faced wobbles

Today started with aches and pains. I fought off a slight hangover and headed out to Parkrun, down at Wanstead flats.

Normally I do parkrun with Milo. When we started this was a fairly leisurely activity – physically at least. But, as he’s slowly come down from 39 minutes towards 32, it’s got progressively more challenging – even if some of the early emotional trauma has gone for us both.

Today, however, I was on my own. I didn’t have an alibi. I had to run Like A Grownup Would. Liberating in some ways, but bloody horrible in others. Mainly all the ones after the first kilometre.

The last time I did this I slightly surprised myself and went quite quickly. There was someone I’d managed to follow quite closely back then, so I decided to latch onto them again. This proved to be a very very bad idea. They were younger, fitter, and had clearly been spending all the intervening time, well,  running Like A Grownup Would. (They eventually finished three minutes ahead of me).

But somehow, despite massively peaking way too soon and dealing with the aftermath of said hangover, I got round faster than before. Odd what bodies can do, isn’t it?

Musically, there’s been a few little bits today. I think I finally understand the Prophet VS synth in a way I hadn’t really before. Ooooh, it can sound proper nasty – but it’s very very different from a traditional wave table synth like the PPG Wave2.3 or Native Instruments’ Massive. And I’ve started to tackle my very rusty singing as well – ‘finding my voice’ in more ways than one. Bit of work to do tomorrow but I’m hoping for some proper practice at some point soon.

But the delight of the day has been some family time with the Playstation VR. Particularly the game “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”. It’s been around for over a year as a Steam game/PDF pair, but it turns out to be absolutely perfect for VR.

In my VR goggles, I get to see this:

img_0011

The rest of the family get to read manifold pages of this:

img_0010

…and it’s only by talking to eachother like mad that we can stop the bomb going off before five minutes are up. I had a go, Daisy had a go, Vicky had a go. Milo was an expert manual-navigator throughout. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

In other PSVR news: Tumble VR remains good fun, if a bit heavy on the non-skippable tutorials. Bought it though – and it does get a lot harder quite quickly. And I tried Eve: Valkyrie but got really bad motion sickness from it. I think it’s the inverted controls for the spaceship that just push me over the edge.