S02E19: Self development

Moving on up

This has been a week. I even took a whole day off, and yet things kept happening. Here are some things that happened

1I booked an appointment with my GP to talk about my mental health. It’s taken me more weeks than it should have and a friend asking me repeatedly if I’d done it. I think it’s because I’m quite scared about the response. There are a number of possibilities floating about; not least that I’m still in the heartbreak hotel and it’s just how I’m going to feel for a little while. Other possible futures are out there, but at this point I’d rather know what shape they’ll be. Right now I’m blundering into them blind and it’s not sustainable. I’m also talking about it because holy shit guys, do we need to be better at talking to each other about this.

2I went to Voice & Vote at the invitation of all-round good person Sam Villis. It’s small, and it looks smaller inside the enormous hall, but it’s still very very good. Reflecting on how we’ve got to where we are, and how many steps it took, and the familiar battle of pragmatists against idealists was fascinating. Do go and see it. Get yourself a suffragette rubber duck.⁰

Suffragette duck

3I was invited to an interview with an organisation in Manchester. I’m still not sure how I feel about this. I’m frustrated by London, by its endless expense, by the noise and the pollution and the Central line. Manchester is a long way away, to be sure, but it’s cheaper, smaller, friendlier. I might be projecting. I might be trying to run away from things (see 1). I’m still going to take the interview and see how it goes. If nothing else, I like to have a sense of how much I’m worth.

4 I also applied to the Future Leaders Scheme, a development scheme internal to the Civil Service for people looking to move into the senior civil service.¹ The ever-inspiring James Arthur Cattell has published his answers, so here are mine if you’re wondering what it looks like when I big myself up. I’m not sure it’ll amount to anything — better people than me have been rejected — but if you venture nothing you gain nothing.

British SAS logo: who dares wins

5 I started writing a book. There is a book called ‘The Phoenix Project’, and is probably one of the worst books ever written. The storyline is appalling. The characters are wooden. The prose is thicker than porridge and simpler than a two-by-two sudoku. Despite this, it’s an absolute best-seller and is praised by many for the accessible way it introduces key concepts like flow, work-in-progress limits, and kanban boards.

(A note on Kanban boards: kanban is a Japanese word that means signboard or billboard, which makes kanban board a tautology. People who follow me on twitter make the argument that although it’s a tautology, it’s okay, because it’s in a different language.)

In an attempt to get the ideas of Wardley mapping across to a wider audience, I’m writing something similar. The current working title is “The Magellan Project”, because I’m literally incapable of creative thought. Please encourage me to keep writing, because already I hate every character I’ve written.


Just one this week. What if we worked a four day week?

⁰ Oooh, get me one too

¹ You may also have spotted that another reason I’m applying for things is because my sense of self-worth is tied up (in a deeply unhealthy way) with how much people value me, and points 2 and 3 are intimately tied up with being able to appraise that in a concrete way.

S02E18: Mission is go

New mission. New team. New challenges.

My new team at GDS has a smaller focus. I’m excited by this as it means I can focus on learning just one thing, rather than a multitude. I’m sad to be leaving my old team — but Steve Messer, the associate product manager, has just started weeknoting. So I’ll hopefully still get a sense of what’s happening.⁰

This week I’ve been reflecting on:

All models are bad, but some of them are useful. The trigger for this was talking Dan Barrett, who continues to role model for me values of openness, honesty, and kindness. We met up this week and talked about strategy and models. For some people, the direction of an organisation is like this:

Planets orbiting the sun in two dimensions

We’re moving around a fixed centre, and in some number of years we’ll get back to where we started. The point is to maintain the right speed and trajectory so that we’re all aligned at the end.

This is a terrible model, because the reality is more like this:

Planets orbiting the sun in three dimensions

We’re literally never going to get back to where we started. Even the gif above isn’t the whole model; the path of our Sun is not a straight line but a curve as well. Everything, everything, is in motion. We have to aim for where we’re going to be, and we’ve got to accept the world as it is before we can do that.

Security is hard: if you’re interested in cybersecurity you could do much worse than signing up to Michael Brunton-Spall’s newsletter. But in the week that we gained much more detail about the Democratic Party hack, and Apple rolled out 1Password to employees — including enough licenses to secure their personal devices — I’m reminding you to set up 2FA everywhere you can. If you don’t know how but would like to, get in touch with me and I’ll be very happy to help you. And if you’re excited about radical, decentralised internet security then consider donating to the Open Privacy Group. There are stickers in it for you.

What being a good ally looks like: In the week that a group of gross, trans-exclusionary, self-described feminists¹ ambushed Pride, you should watch Nanette. Nanette is Hannah Gadsby’s special on Netflix. It’s visceral and brilliant and has a lot to say about the state of the world. I’ve also been fighting with how to explain it to people without sounding “woke white guy”. It is funny and really important, and drives home a lot of truth about tension and comedy. Here’s a quote, but just — just go and watch it.

Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who exists, and always has done, in the margins? It isn’t humility. It’s humiliation. . . . I make fun of myself in order to make other people feel more comfortable with my difference. And I decided I don’t want to do that anymore. Not to myself or anybody who may identify with me.

Emotional damage is like waking up to find your world has been seeded with mines: except you have no idea where they are. They just explode in your stomach when you unknowingly step on them. And nobody else can see them. It’s a lot like grieving again, and the only thing you can do with this grief-thing, with its claws in your brain and your heart and a weight that drags you, is just to lumber around with it. It just has to be until one day it falls off. You can numb yourself with alcohol or sex or alcohol-fuelled sex², or you can pour it out and get some brief catharsis from sharing that pain, but you can’t kill it off. More and more I’m finding you can’t kill it off. It’s like a mixed metaphor that started well but really got away from its author.

How do we know when to make a piece of code a commodity? There’s extra work in making a function a separate library. It can be used by other people, but at the same time it’s more complex to upkeep. Overengineering the solution to a problem is definitely a fault of mine — my early code is Rube Goldberg-esque³ in its unnecessary complexity — but saving a few minutes here for the sake of future me’s annoyance seems a good deal.

I’m consuming:

This is a masterclass in telling stories, and why the initial story — the first story — is the one we should avoid telling. Centring systems instead of people as the reason for failures enables us to run blameless retrospectives and frees everyone to be open and honest about what went wrong. This is valuable for everyone, not just devs.

Learning about Simon Wardley’s process of mapping was an epiphany. Conversation with Dan Barrett and Morgan Frodsham have reignited my interest, and I’m busy mapping anything I can lay my hands to. This talk is a great start if you’re interested in writing a strategy that might actually survive the real world.

⁰ They’re also only about 10 metres away, so if I get really desperate I’ll just walk over and ask.

¹ Excluding trans people is not, has never been, radical

² Hello mum, I definitely do not do these things

³ Yes, this is really just an excuse to post this video:

S02E17: Firebreak

Oh yeah, we’re going heavy on metaphor here

A firebreak is a path cut through a forest. It’s wide enough that, if there were a fire, it shouldn’t be able to jump across. It’s a deliberate act of destruction to guard against future calamity.

My organisation has regular firebreaks, for people to blow off steam and do side projects that improve the organisation in one way or another. For me, it was an opportunity to get back to where I started and do some work to improve the Fast Stream. I worked up a clickable prototype of a service that people could use to submit roles they’d like trainees to fill. I showed the thing every day, made content changes and tweaked what I was going to do. It got great feedback, so now I’ve got to figure out how to make a case for a proper team to turn it into a real service.

I ran out of time to put it on infrastructure, but if you’d like to play around with it you can download the code and run it yourself.


I learned how to use Redis and how to drop a user into a variable-length workflow and then ping them back out. I used Docker, I coded in the open, and I managed not to publish any credentials.

As a sidenote, I’m so grateful that I’ve found a job where I get money to do something I love and can lose hours on. It’s wonderful.

This was my fun thing.

Despite this; despite having been doing this for only a month, I’m already looking ahead. There are good career paths in my area, and I’m planning mine out already. It involves a secondment to a cold, North American country at some point — preferably before my French gets too rusty. I don’t know if this is running away from emotional distress or trying to make the best of the situation: I am now freer of things that keep me here.⁰

And so I’m excited about next week: I’m seeing a couple of people to talk about how they got to the senior places they did in the hopes that I can emulate them. I’ve got breakfasts (including a potential return to #OneTeamBreakfast) and I might even make it to chess club.

A scene from Harry Potter. Queen takes knight.

This week I’ve been grateful for all the people meeting up with me. Company is immensely valuable, particularly at the moment, so thank you to the kind souls who let me word vomit all over them in various cultural landmarks.

Particular thanks to the individual who broke my “I’m an emotional mess, I’m not drinking” run with eight gins. I feel like a new person this morning, by which I mean my tongue feels unfamiliar and my skin is both too hot and too cold.

Finally: next week I’m going to experiment with intermittent fasting — only eating in an 8 hour window between 1200 and 2000. Join me on a journey of grumpy, hangry emails before devouring lunch at 1202.

⁰ I am choosing to call this “ambition” rather than “running away from your problems”. I’ve wanted to visit Canada for a while, and having fewer roots open up new routes to career success. No word on romantic success; indeed, if there is any nation in the world where being bilingual in French and English is unlikely to help you attract a partner it must surely be Canada.