S02E08: What’s next?

This week was massively abbreviated due to being on holiday for a week. My only day in the office was Friday, and that was mostly about emails.

https://media.giphy.com/media/13bUdxDy4jJUR2/giphy.gif

I also had to come clean to my colleagues and, here, to you. I handed in my notice. I will, quite soon, be leaving my job.

Preparing for your own succession is very strange, because it feels a bit like what I imagine planning your own funeral feels like. You know that everything else will go on without you, and the first reaction is a very selfish “Why?”. It’s only fleeting, but for a moment you feel irrationally annoyed that people will keep coming to work once you leave. Clients will keep calling. New business will roll in. Things will, for the most part, stay the same.

My first instinct is annoyance, because I am obviously the centre of the universe and if there isn’t forty days of mourning and mandated black clothing then really have I made any impact at all? If there’s no fuss, have I somehow failed?

Then you get the wonderful second thought that says: if everything falls apart the minute you leave, then you’ve done a terrible job. If people can’t cope; if the team can’t grow; if clients will abandon the company without you then you have made yourself invaluable. And that’s bad for you, because you’ll never be able to leave; and it’s bad for your team, because they’ll never grow without you.

I’m proud that when I leave in May, I’ll leave behind teams and people who are in a better, more positive, more powerful place.

In the meantime, there’ll be a job advert and interviews, all of which I’m really excited to take part in. The best part of leaving a job is that you can drop back in afterwards and see how it’s going. That’s a privilege that’s unfortunately not necessarily afforded to folks planning their funerals.⁰

I may need to omit these things from my weeknotes, because they’re naturally confidential and sensitive. Instead, I’ll be throwing in more from my MSc and from my side project.

Describing this service as niche probably gives it more credit than it deserves

My side project is something that’s been bubbling away under my brain for a while, and I’ve finally pulled my finger out and started to design it properly. I’ve written about it before, but it’s always really been an exercise to see if I could code the problem. Proofs of concept¹ do not a service make, so I’ve started developing a front end to interact with it.

It’s really hard, despite the fact that I’m mostly cheating on all design issues by using bootstrap. Working out what users need to be able to do is just as hard as working out how to write the code, and writing the code properly — rather than as an incomprehensible mess — is really darn hard.

So what about real work? Well, I’ve got three months before I leave for good, and enough squirrelled away that I can be careful about what I do next. I’m getting a better sense of what I like doing² and how I like working³. If you’re interested in hiring someone a bit like me, you might well be in luck. Drop me a line and let’s talk.

Like the person planning their funeral, I can’t say for certain what’s next. But — and I hope I’m still saying this when I do come to that long-awaited day — I’m really excited to find out.


⁰ This is of course a personal view. Depending on your spiritual outlook, you may be able to come back and affect things, come back and just watch over things, or come back as a totally different thing and affect other things entirely.

¹ I think that’s right. Proofs of concept? Proof of concepts? Proofs of concepts? English is a mess.

² Systems design, writing code, solving problems, coaching, mentoring

³ With autonomy, with responsibility for developing others, with freedom

S02E04: Windin’ down for Christmas

The end of the year is rapidly approaching, which has meant the slow wind down of most customer requests. This has, in turn, lent me more time to do some strategic thinking about my next few years and draw maps.

Monday was a nice quiet day. A client got in touch asking about delivery of their software. We’d actually already delivered it, so there’s a clear lesson from me in clarifying communications and making sure that the definition of done for new work includes letting the client know. It’s the first time it’s happened and I suspect it’s a function of everyone being much busier. It’s annoying, but thankfully not the end of the world. We’ve got some content to tweak and then they’ll be live.

Development has moved to committing to main branch via pull requests. It’s a good first step towards DevOps, but it’s causing a little bit of initial slowness as we identify areas we need to improve before we can go all the way. I’m glad we’re surfacing them, but it’s an unforeseen hurdle that’s slowing down delivery of new features. I’m happy with this tradeoff as it’ll make us faster in the long run — even if it means I’ve got fewer fun new features to show off.

Tuesday was a mammoth technical day. I spoke to the lead dev about our technical debt: as a startup, we generated loads for the same reason that running away from monstrous creatures builds up lactic acid in the muscles and carbon dioxide in the lungs. If the choice is between short-term pain and long-term death, we always choose short-term pain — but now that we’re successful, we’ve got to get rid of it in order to scale to the next order of magnitude. It’s better than over-engineering in the first place, because that guarantees you‘ll never get feedback from your audience, but it means we go from rapid delivery to a slightly more pedestrian pace as we, metaphorically speaking, lie down on the ground and grip our sides, saying “I’m fine, I’m fine, just-woo-agh-just give me a minute”.¹

You’re absolutely right, Bojack

The SMT was the usual fiery discussion. The three of us believe in being honest with each other, and discussion can get very frank. We overran by half an hour, and that’s really frustrating. For colleagues with childcare, 1730 is a hard stop and if we can’t ensure we run to time we risk losing those excellent colleagues. I’m going to spend some time over Christmas thinking about the best way to make this work: longer, less frequent meetings? Shorter, more frequent? Or just an aggressive approach to keeping to time? If you’ve got experience in this field please add your ideas in the comments below.

On Wednesday we had our retrospective. There was a lot of good to talk about, some issues that simply refuse to die, and one solid critique of my behaviour as a leader. There are times when I get too carried away with my experience and knowledge and dictate instructions to the team. There are a couple of things wrong with this:

  • From a leadership perspective: it takes away agency from my team, and makes them feel as if I don’t believe they would have come to this conclusion/technology/answer by themselves. That’s a shitty way to make people feel.
  • From a senior management perspective: my time is valuable. If I’m spending it telling people things they already know, I’m wasting my most valuable resource.
  • From a financial officer perspective: I’m responsible for the costs incurred from development time, and if they’re spending time listening to me tell them something they already know then I’m using company money inefficiently.

Management is really bloody difficult, and a skill I’m still learning. The fact my team are comfortable calling me out when I mess up is something I count as a massive positive.

I’m getting there. I think. I hope?

Thursday was my last lecture in FoC and my last mentoring session of the year. I feel slightly better armed for the year ahead, both in terms of my work and my degree. With the morning free I acquired secret Santa presents for all and sundry: Oxford Street at 10am on a Thursday meant most shops were still relatively quiet. I did my best to walk almost everywhere in preparation for the office party later on.


After the office party I headed over to see some former DDaT colleagues in the Fountain and Ink. It’s really nice to see them and talk about what’s going on in Government and on the scheme, as well as getting an understanding of what works and what doesn’t in their current roles so I can use that learning in my own recruitment campaigns.

Plus, any opportunity to catch up on gossip is an opportunity I can’t miss.

Friday started our next sprint. We’ve got some people off over the duration, but enough of the team are working that we’ve committed to getting some work out of the door. I spent some time with my colleague Felix, who’s gone from zero coding knowledge to building something exciting that fills a very niche user need. In order to exceed his objective he’s got to have it deployed by the end of the year, and it looks like he’s on track. I’m really pleased that he’s making such excellent progress — in part because it’s just great to see people shine, but also because it adds evidence to my belief that giving people space, resources, and a clear direction gets quality results.

There’s another bit of management that sucks — I would have absolutely loved to take the project myself, but I don’t have the time. Instead, I have to support someone who’ll take longer to get it done than I would — but, more importantly, they’ll learn valuable skills and I’ll be able to use the time more efficiently.

I’ve seen managers either claim an idea and then never progress it², frustrating everyone else, or reluctantly letting someone else take it before barging in and rewriting the whole thing. I’m doing my best not to do that.


¹ I went with Bojack Horseman, but this was my first pick.

First image when I Google “stitch”, and you’d better believe it’s staying

² A concept called “cookie licking”. No, really.

S02E03: Do you want to build a program?

Yup, now it’s in your head too

This week was also a pretty bad week pain-wise. My infection from last week retreated from my jaw and made its last stand in my sinuses, which left me absolutely crippled with agonising pain.

Everything about humans is badly designed.⁰

Monday was a fantastically busy day as I caught up with emails and colleagues. I chatted architecture with our new technical architect and outlined my vision for how our technology will scale to support half a million users in the next two years¹. It’s (relatively) small fry after government, but for our tiny startup it’s absolutely huge. It’s exciting, but as ever I’m far away from the actual fun of making stuff. As a consequence I set myself the challenge of building a proof of concept microservice out of some of our data over Christmas.

I spent the evening at university. Mondays are Principles of Programming. I’m self-taught and have built little web services here and there, both as proof-of-concept for managers while in the service and as hobby items for my own amusement. As a result I’ve struggled with rehashing hashes, listening to lists and or even getting into ints.


However, this session was so much better as it got into the theory of Object-Oriented-Programming, or OOP.

Tangential reference or not, if you ever think I’m not going to reference Pitch Perfect you’re wrong.

It was really interesting to see all the ways Python both is, and is pretending really hard to be, an OOP language. It was a great way to wind up the penultimate session of the term.

Tuesday I got feedback on our Posting Template. Our current Fast Streamer is brilliant, and I’m incredibly eager to get some more of them seconded out to us. It’s a great program and huge props to the whole team for keeping it going. They’re also using Google Docs, so I got comments back in a useful format and could edit the same document, ensuring we only had one version and didn’t have to fill up inboxes with “Version 3.1-final-final-corrections-final”.

From the incredible presentation “Git for Humans” by Alice Bartlett

Bam. Whole thing finished and submitted in half a day. #winning

At home I felt surprisingly tired and sore around the head, but figured it was the last remnants of the infection. It sort of was.

On Wednesday I woke up in debilitating agony. It was a sharp, focused pain around the right side of my face, from cheek to temple but focused particularly around my eye.

It was the least fun I think I’ve ever had.

It pretty much ruined my day, to be honest.

However, the rest of my team was getting on with brilliant work. One of our devs delivered a really exciting new product — an automated onboarding tool for new clients. Considering that this process usually takes about a week of staff time, this is a giant leap forward and something I’m so excited to see. We’re trialling it internally on our existing queue of customers (in case it explodes in our faces) but we’re eventually going to roll it out as a service to let new clients totally self-on board and further reduce costs.

Saving taxpayers’ money remains my eternal goal

Thursday was my usual day off, and when I woke up all trace of the infection and illness had disappeared. There isn’t a single better feeling, nor any sentiment more alienating, than getting over an illness. You suddenly enjoy tiny pleasures. You breathe deeply. You look around yourself and marvel at the world. You dance through raindrops, relishing the cold sting that’s wiped away by the warmth of your moving, working body.

That last bit’s more literal. I usually walk from Cannon Street to university, because I’m basically a sedentary creature and I like food so a walk is the best way to keep myself at least vaguely in shape. Usually the prospect of a 45 minute walk in a downpour would dishearten me, but today I danced. I splashed in puddles.

I upturned my face and drank in the glory of sensation.

Then I got to St Pauls and my feet were squishing when I walked so I caught the tube the rest of the way.

My Information systems class was the last one of the term. Next week is revision, but since the term’s lectures have been focused on Agile and Scrum I’m reasonably confident I know the content. In Fundamentals of Computing we examined problems that computers can’t solve and watched this video, which if I’m honest I’m still utterly, utterly perplexed by.

Answers on a postcard please.

I also got to see Louise Cato and Sam Villis in the evening. These two women are brilliant, smart, insightful people and the opportunity to talk to them is so valuable that it made the perfect end to the day. There was a lot to reflect on during the journey home, and yet more ideas for my final project. I’ve started keeping a note of ideas, and they currently run the gamut of fun open-source things to money-making pie-in-the-sky ideas.²

Finally, on Friday, I was back in the office. We did some backlog grooming and trimmed out some more of the ancient dead wood. This regular cleaning forces us to reconsider whether the idea we had is the right one, and whether or not it’s the right time for it. If it’s the right idea at the wrong time, it goes into our roadmap. If it’s the wrong idea, then it goes in the bin and we ask ourselves how it ended up in our backlog in the first place.

Whenever the answer is “because we didn’t have a roadmap” I do a happy dance.

I also prepped the agenda for our SMT next Tuesday and got a debrief from the CEO about a potential new product. A client we pitched to a little while ago has come back and told us they’ve got funding, so we need to talk about how we’ll approach it and what we’ll need. It’s a really exciting opportunity, and if the funding is at the right level it means I’ll be able to look at bringing in another team member very soon to own it.

Exciting times.

Unrelated to that — for now — I also spoke to a friend who’s unsatisfied in their job and looking to move. The dissatisfaction is caused by a lack of control over their career, learning, and development. It’s a stupid way for organisations to lose brilliant people, but a great lesson for someone just starting out in business.

By the by — if you’re reading this and thinking that the employee might be one of yours, please take this as a sign from the universe to start trying to fix your culture.³

#programming(self, others)

I’ve got early sight of Miguel Grinberg’s new Python Mega Tutorial, which takes novice Python developers through their first web app. I think it’s brilliant: well written, clear, and perfect for someone who’d like to do web development but doesn’t know where to start.

I’m quite keen to get more Civil Servants coding because I think a basic understanding of building tech and how easy/not-at-all-easy it is is a valuable thing. I know my audience is mostly digital Civil Servants, so: if I offered a course that covered basic Python, then building a rudimentary web service, then (if you’re interested) more complex services — would you be interested? Would your colleagues be interested? Does such a thing already exist?

Let me know here or on Twitter.

#listening

I’m going to see Hamilton: An American Musical in January which is NEXT FREAKING MONTH, PEOPLE so that soundtrack’s been on for every day this week and will continue. I’m halfway to working out whether I can make it our hold music.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1kCHru7uhxBUdzkm4gzRQc


⁰ Except for that example beloved by morons everywhere, which is the proximity of anus and genitalia. If someone ever makes this joke to you, ask them where else they would put the part of the body that excretes. Hands? Belly button? Feet?

¹ Eek.

² That’s my pastry products delivered by drone idea, by the way

³ It could be you. If it isn’t now it will be. Fix it!

Weeknotes S01 E06

The one with Russian

My brain has absolutely melted out of my ears.

Monday was day one of my immersive Russian course. I’m taking it through the Russian Language Centre at Pushkin House, and I have to say it’s incredibly good. There’s no better way to learn anything that to immerse yourself in it, and starting with other absolute beginners permits you to let go of the fear of looking stupid. We all look stupid. Let’s do it together. Looking at my notes I’m genuinely stunned how far I’ve come since this point; on Monday we covered the printed alphabet[1] and by Friday we had conversations that included adjectives, the genitive and locative cases, and numbers. More on that as we get to it.

So that’s A, B, wait B again, half a T, don’t know, E maybe, E again, okay I give up

Tuesday we covered gender, of which there are three. I am curious about how long the concept of gender will last in language — it is problematic and forces a culture where non-binary people don’t exist, because there isn’t language to describe them. You could just call feminine “Type 1” nouns, masculine “Type 2”, neuter “Type 3” and avoid the problem — but considering that these linguistic institutions have been around for a long time, I’m not hopeful.

Today I mastered the ы sound, which Wikipedia reckons is like the i in hit. If so, I recant my previous statement, because mine sounds nothing like that.

I also got to speak to Morgan B, who’s a former Fast Streamer-turned-Product Owner. She’s completely brilliant and gave me a great reading recommendation — Radical Candor by Kim Scott. We’ve set up fortnightly chats where I’m hoping we can support each other — she’s learning to code (also Ruby) and has some cracking insights about leadership. More than anything else it’s valuable to have someone to bounce ideas around with who’s not immediately in your context.

Radical candor is a new concept to me, and I’ve already got some hard truths. Highly recommend.

Wednesday and we’re halfway through the week and a quarter of the way through the course. We talked about what we have and don’t have, which introduced the genitive case: the case you use where (generally) you’d use ‘of’ in English. It’s absolutely brain melty, but two of my classmates — undergrads reading classics — are absolutely in their element. One of them has mentioned that they can’t wait for the locative case.

[This gif may have been stolen from another weeknoter]

On Thursday I found out I got the job that has been the main story arc for this season. With another four episodes to go before I start, there’ll be an “emotional review of the season” episode in the pipeline if I know the writers. Now comes the difficult bit: actually doing the job. There are going to be some huge challenges ahead, and I’m so excited to get started.

I dropped into the office to look at paperwork and negotiate my salary, which I hope will be the last time anyone has to do so in the company. I’ve been inspired by Basecamp and the Fast Stream to offer the same salary to everyone doing the same job. It’ll probably drive away high performers who are totally driven by money, but maybe it’ll open the door to people who don’t like the aggressive approach required in negotiating and are worried they’d be underselling themselves. It’ll be a significant shift. Tune in next season to see how it works out!

Friday and my brain, now entirely fluid, got one last stir before serving. Despite being on leave we had a minor crisis at work, and so I had to take calls before and after class. It’s not ideal, but we’re still so very small that this will happen from time to time. My absolute goal is that it won’t keep happening, and it won’t happen to anyone working for me

That was my week.


[1] Russian handwritten alphabet looks, by turns, exactly the same and then wildly different.

Reading/learning/listening

  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Russian (obviously)
  • The West Wing Weekly podcast — watching along with someone else, even if they’re in your ear, is lovely. Like a bookclub, but for your eyes.