Sunday, 28 October 2018

A peaceful break

I find myself starting a week off work and for the first time in ages I'm not worried about all the things I haven't done, panicked by the future or generally feeling guilty about not being in the office. This feeling of peace makes for a nice change, so rather than ruin any benefits through analysis and naval-gazing, I'm going to embrace it and relax.

Hahaha of course not. So what's different this time?

I'm more in control of my time these days. I still have far too much to do, but I've been working to push further out of reactive work and into proactive work. Knowing I've got this time off, I've been focusing on setting things in motion which can run while I'm away. That means I haven't left much blocked, awaiting my input. This feels good.

I've reached the end of a few bits of ongoing work. Clearing out the backlog has really helped me feel like I've made concrete progress and some of that work has fixed things I've felt incredibly guilty being left undone. These fixes should run themselves now, which will reduce ongoing load. This also feels good.

So is it just that through luck (and some judgement) I've managed to time this holiday well? Possibly. I guess I'm also starting to feel effective at some of the things I've written about before. Bringing some things to a close, or at least a good breakpoint, feels like success which is a positive feedback look that has been missing from my professional life for a while. I'm also aware that despite this being a pretty lethal week, I've not sacrificed making time for people who have needed it so I've managed to deliver without compromising my core rule. This feels extra-good.

Overall, it's not just peace - I actually feel good about work for a change. It took some self-analysis to dig that out, but I guess it's been worth it.

It also doesn't hurt that I'm surrounded by some fantastic people who I can trust to put out fires while I'm away, either.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Time should wait for all men

Occasionally, I am asked what I consider the most important part of being a leader. There are lots of good answers for this - vision, transparency, pragmatism, empathy, competence, spreadsheets, blah, blah.

The answer I always give is "making time for people".

I've written before and at length about how as a leader the people around you are your most important resource, asset, capability, etc. Find good people, set a clear direction, give them space to be good at what they do, trust them and the results follow. But there is always more to do than can be done, so when you've been in the office for ten hours a day for a week or longer and just want to cut it all back what is the last thing to drop?

Over the years some of the most negative feedback I've received is from colleagues questioning why I spend so much time talking to people. Why spend the time face to face? You're wasting your and their time with something that could be sorted out via email.

This is very true - email refines communication down to the words only and that can be very short and to the point. However, much like boiling vegetables can remove most of the benefit of eating them, it removes most of what matters when talking to someone - the opportunity to create a connection. It might be noticing that someone has a problem that can be solved, asking about their new child, hearing something that frustrates them in the office and gives a better appreciation of the environment in which they are working or one of a million other cues. As a manager you can spot the signs of stress or anxiety and help alleviate them. If I were to think in purely mercenary terms, I can't think of many times I've invested time in a relationship and not seen an extremely favourable rate of return.

My director is very good at this - I know he is very busy, but on the occasions when I need to talk to him in urgency he always makes time for me. Our unspoken pact is that I don't bother him unless it's very important and he respects my judgement for when that is. This is built on the back of a strong relationship of (I believe) mutual respect which comes from - yes - making time to talk and drink coffee together.

Simply giving people time can improve their confidence and effectiveness. By making time for me, my director has learnt he can trust me on a long leash and as a result he's getting a significant return in his investment in terms of my effort. In turn, I feel confident that he respects my ability to make decisions - so I feel empowered to keep making them, which makes me more effective.

Moving away from the cold mathematics of relationship building, the welcoming and humanising effects of making time for people can't be underestimated. Everyone has a story to tell and most rarely get to tell it - especially to someone who is in a position of authority. It's extremely empowering to think that the person in charge knows who you are and cares that you're getting on. If that person is you, it's on you to share the love.

There is a danger, of course. A leader needs to be able to control their time so they can still deliver things and there is too much of a good thing. Far more significantly, if too much time is spent with others and the pressure of individual delivery is mounting it is all too easy to spend time talking while also answering email or doing other work. This is utter poison - if you're going to make time for someone, do it properly. If you're not going to be present then don't bother - it's more demeaning to watch someone write email and not listen than it is to just not meet at all.

There is a lot that can be written about the cold logic of this but it devalues the humanity to define relationship building by what one can get out of the deal. We spent a frightening amount of our waking adult life in work and in my opinion it does a huge disservice to everyone involved if that time is just about raw output - we're not just in work to work. For most of us, it's the source of most of our human contact and community throughout our adult life so it's worth putting in the effort.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Surviving the world of post-technical

Back in the olden times, when I used to do a real job, I spent my time writing code and making awesome things. Nowadays I am post-technical which means I mostly talk to people, sit in meetings and play with spreadsheets. Making the jump from operational work to a leadership position is not easy, so I thought I'd write about some of my experiences in the hope it'll help someone making a similar journey.

One of the hardest parts I found of moving to management is understanding what a good and productive day looks like. A reason people find programming so compelling is the process of breaking down problems into small, achievable chunks then completing them in a short period of time. At the end of the day you can look at your work and say "I had a good day - I made that". This is a tight emotional feedback loop which triggers positive emotions and makes us happy.

Moving into management breaks this loop as, initially at least, much of the work is variations on supporting the people making things. It's important, but not as immediately rewarding - especially since most of it is never really "done", it's forever maintaining things. It's very important to learn how to limit maintenance and support work or it can easily become all-consuming - especially since if you know what you're doing everyone will want your involvement. Taking on too much is particularly tempting early on as, if you're anything like me, you'll want to do something concrete and maintenance work looks like a short-term deliverable that will help justify your existence. This can easily fill your time and you'll be unable to do anything else - anyone who has suffered under a reactive, passive manager will know where this road leads. One of the most important questions I (accidentally) asked early on was "how do I stop being so reactive and start taking control of my work?" The answer was long and difficult in practice, but the theory was simple - be discerning about what ended up on my plate.

In the early days of management I was given things to change, handed down from On High. They appeared in the form of business needs, which needed translating and socialising before anything could be done. The basic but important questions to get through this were: Why is this change important? What (hopefully positive) effect will it have on the people I'm looking after? Why do the operational people want or need to care? It's very important be able  to champion whatever is going on and there were definitely times I found myself unable to express clearly the case for change so I spent long hours talking to people and going back through decisions to regain that context. "Why" is a very important question - you're going to be asked it a lot, so you really need an answer ready.

When it comes to communicating change, the key tips are to keep the message simple, keep saying it and listen to feedback at least twice as much as you talk. In fact, "listen a lot" is my strongest single piece of advice for making moving into management or indeed any leadership role. As a rule of thumb, the more authority you have, the less you should be talking.

These basic experiences about managing change have come up again and again, however the steps take a long time and frequently loop around while appearing to go nowhere. This brings us back to the original question on how to get some sense of accomplishment from management work. Fortunately, for me the answer was also the answer to the questions "how do I effectively deliver anything?" and "how do I show the organisation I'm doing something useful?" and comes in the form of work objectives. Everywhere I've worked has required objectives written in the SMART format. As a manager thinking about these in detail suddenly becomes very useful as they force a scoped deliverable in a known timebox and defines a "done" state, which lets me know when I can stop thinking about something for a time. This isn't particularly insightful, but it's easy to skip over when the pressure is on. I've made that mistake several times, but taking proper time to think and plan deliverables and end states has never been time wasted.

Much of the above is about scoping management work in completable chunks, and therefore bringing it back to the more familiar patterns of product delivery. At the same time, I did have to get used to the new cadence of work. Plans and changes can take a long time to seed and grow and I frequently have periods when it feels like everything is just a slow grind. Then every so often the work comes to fruition and several things bloom at once. The feeling is different from cracking a difficult technical challenge, but no less powerful. However it is far less frequent.

There are other fundamental changes to watch out for when making this switch in role. It's important to get used to making decisions. In a leadership or management role you can't hide at the back, or as a voice in the crowd. In order to be comfortable making decisions, I had to learn the detail of how I make a decision (how much information I need, etc) so I could justify it to others if the need arose. Learning how to make a decision is an art, and a very important one when taking up a role where making decisions is basically the job.

Part of that is understanding the limitations on the decisions you can make. What are the limits of your authority? When do you need to escalate and (just as important) when do you not need to? What does and doesn't the organisation let you do? This last is worth gently pushing and questioning as I've found the organisation will be used to giving you the same authority as your predecessor took and that is not necessarily the same as the answer to the first question about limits.

To frame it differently, I see learning what I can and can't do as learning the rules of the game. I don't have to use everything, but it's helpful to know where I can reach out and when I'm in danger of doing something wrong. It also helps me take ownership of the things I'm doing. A manager who doesn't do this and passes on messages from their superiors just looks weak and ineffective and that is awful for the morale of those who depend on them.

Final tip for now - it's important to find a team of people you can trust. Everyone needs support but you can't sit in a pub grouching in the same way you used to. Finding a leadership team is very important for getting things done, but you do need to be open to this team changing. There is a very real danger of building a clique and alienating people, denying development opportunities to new and growing people and causing problems via your own biases (both conscious and unconscious). At the same time, those kept close need to be able to grow and sometimes that means them moving on into their own space.

So, the summary. It's a mental shift going away from technical work and something not to everyone's taste. If it's happening to you, I hope something here has been of use.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Fixing Play Store downloads on a Huawei p10 plus

TL;DR - disable the "lock screen cleanup" feature

This took me ages on a Friday evening (yes, I know I live a crazy live) so I thought I'd make a note on what happened so I can do it again in highly unlikely event of technology disappointing me again. I know, right? No precedent for that.

This worked for me on a Huawei p10 plus. I suspect it'll work on other Huawei devices. Probably not on other Android devices as I think it plays with Huawei specific software.

The symptoms

When downloading something from the Play Store it gets stuck on "Downloading" forever with that maddening not-progress bar going round in circles, promising treats and excitement but delivering more scrolling bar. Maddening. Forever.

Standard Android fix

Apparently some people have had success juggling stopping the Play Store (Settings -> Apps -> Play Store -> Force Stop) and clearing the cache (above, then Storage -> Clear Things) then rebooting. You can also try removing the Play Store updates (same again then hit the menu icon in the top right and select "Uninstall updates"). Then reboot again.

None of this worked for me though.

Supermagic Huawei p10 plus fix

There is a Huawei feature which kills background process to save battery power. Hurrah! Apparently it also stops the store downloading anything. Less hurrah. Not that it'll be clear, of course. Maddening download progress bar. It must die.

Apparently it works if you just disable the Google and Huawei bits but finding this took hours and frankly I couldn't be bothered to narrow it down. So instead, I killed the whole thing.

Phone Manager -> Lock screen cleanup -> Close all to enable for everything, then Close all again to disable for everything.

Then reboot. Because it's technology. So you turn it off and on.

But then the Play Store will work! You can download apps which will break in other ways!

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Why I do this job

My life has changed quite a bit this year. I started out as a Lead Developer working on our new reliability engineering programme then our Head of Software Engineering moved on to pastures new and against all sense They saw fit to put me in charge of over a hundred technical people, including their hopes, dreams and careers.

The handover was a bit of a whirlwind, but I distinctly remember standing in our foyer as I was leaving on the handover day, thinking "shit, I'm Head of Software Engineering here".

Yeah, the imposter syndrome was very real.

So anyway, there are highs and lows in any job and when those lows come around it's important to remember why one does the role. In my case, I laid it out the other day in a brief presentation to the department about the software engineering community. Community is defined as a group which has the same attitudes or interests in common - by that definition, the software engineering community is a loose collection of people who happen to do the same job. For me, that misses a great deal - people don't spend their lives seeking out community because they want to share a label.

Community means connection, safety and support. It means being able to grow, safe in the knowledge that others around you acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, where you are on your journey and are willing to give of themselves to help you come along. It means being able to reach out to people around you when you're in need of help and be confident you'll find a supportive response. It means an environment you can be the best version of yourself that you want to be, whatever that might mean.

This doesn't happen by accident. It is all driven by connections between people and these take time to grow and need space in which to thrive. At work, this means many things but I think they can be boiled down to two axioms: enabling a safe environment for people to talk and creating the space for them to do so.

Community leadership has a responsibility to create the space for community to flourish. At GDS one thing we have is a monthly community hour which brings technologists from across the organisation together. We have various activities which are carefully considered to encourage participation by our very own liberating structures expert, David Heath. However, no matter how much work he puts in the gatherings are only successful because the community turns up and engages. Because everyone shows willing, barriers are broken down and slowly people get to know each other.

Tech community workshop

This is just one example. I've written before about Show & Tell, and I'm also looking at different ways of helping everyone have a voice. But I'm also challenging people with the response "so what are you going to do to help?" - a question which not only helps increase the possibilities of the community, but also gives important opportunities for growth to the individual. All of this needs to be carefully balanced against delivery of course, so putting in place sustainable events is very important as it's all too easy for any kind of community to vanish when the crunch comes and people turn inwards.

I'm deliberately not writing about diversity in this post, but clearly implementation of anything here needs to be considered from a variety of different angles and this brings me back to that presentation and the real reason I do this job. We can discuss groups of people and even do some good things to help them, but that lays down a wide path that goes from A to B when it's too easy to forget that that group is made up of individuals. Every single one a different person, with different hopes, dreams and needs. Each is coming from a different place, with a different collection of experiences and each is going to a different place. In short, they are different.

This isn't to say that broad-brush improvements aren't important - they are vital for raising the base level for everyone. But they should be viewed through the lens of "this will affect X individuals" rather than "this group behaves like this". It's essential to remember the individual, even though in a position of leadership it's often impossible to know everyone. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do what we can.

If I vanished tomorrow, those who remembered me wouldn't remember the hours of meetings I attended or the improvements to our governance structures I've implemented. They'd remember how I touched their individual lives - the battles I fought for them, the time I spent with them talking through their hopes and fears, and the ways I have helped them move forward in their lives and careers.

This is why I do what I do. Because day by day I like to think that my efforts are helping to improve the lives of the people around me who are doing such good work - not as a group, but as a collection of individuals.

It's inevitable we're going to end on the parable of the starfish:

A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water. The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, "I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen."

"But", said the man, "You can't possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference."

The boy smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied "Made a difference to that one".

There are various ways to read this - it's supposed to highlight the power we have as individuals to change lives, and doing something is better than nothing. It's not supposed to dismiss the need to ask wider strategic questions like "why are they on the beach in the first place?" or "can we stop this happening again?". However it does contain a warning against asking those questions, while forgetting that all the while there are thousands of individuals dying on the beach.

Double starfish

Also, starfish are weird.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Restoring microphone and sound after Windows 10 upgrade

Warning: this one will get ranty.

At home I run Windows 10 - an operating system I carefully selected and in no way appeared on my computer while I was reading a book. It actually works pretty well for my gaming needs (the only reason it's not Linux) but does have a habit of trying to sell me things or steal all my information.

It also has a habit of dropping massive named updates which do exciting new things like BREAK EVERYTHING.

Recently a huge update landed which I'm going to call the GDPR update. Mostly because I can't be bothered to look up its actual name. When I originally "opted" to install Windows 10 I went through and disabled the inbuilt advertising and random tips on the lock screen because I'm a bit old fashioned and inane nonsense written on screen when I'm logging in just doesn't do it for me. GDPR should only help my desire to avoid advertising - only a truly scummy company would use being forced to confirm my privacy choices as an excuse to turn everything back on and hope I don't notice.

I noticed. You lose.

Special mention for the "send information for diagnosis" option which now lets me choose between "yes, everything and don't forget my passwords" and "only some things". Apparently the older option of "don't send anything" is no longer viable in today's excitingly connected world.

So anyway, I have to choose to not have voice control turned on. No really, really really, please die Cortana. Then maybe my mic wont be on permanently listening to me. It appears it is indeed off. PERMANENTLY. Along with ALL MY SOUND.

Grr, rage, etc. This is revenge for disabling advertising, isn't it?

Anyway, the sound has died before and was a pain to fix both times, so I thought I'd document what I did for the next time this happens. The symptom: output seems silent. On closer inspection there does appear to be sound coming out of the card, however even with the output boosted high it's very tinny and quiet. Many people find problems in their Sound menus (volume being dropped to nothing, device being disabled) but I had a different issue.

My card is a Soundblaster SomethingOrOther, which has a separate config screen called the Creative Audio Control Panel (which I had to reinstall to get working, incidentally). On this panel there is a Headphone Detection tab, which has options to make the device change behaviour when headphones are connected. This seems to get locked on for me, causing the muting effect.

How to disable soundcard mute when headphones are plugged in

I disable the options and it all works perfectly again. I've done this before, however the Windows 10 upgrades sometimes reset these options. Thanks for that. I've experienced this same problem with a Realtek card and the fix was the same - Realtek has a similar control panel.

Now for the microphone which is a new and exciting problem. It seems that because I've asked Windows not to let Cortana listen to me all the time, it has interpreted that as "for the sake of my privacy DO NOT ALLOW ANY APPLICATION TO USE MY MICROPHONE". Which is ... extreme.

Anyway, this new option has gone a bit mad and disabled access from everything and sanity needs restoring. The new button is hidden in the Privacy menu, selecting Microphone from the left menu.

Voila. Again.
Windows 10 microphone privacy settings

So things are back to normal. I wonder what will break next? And I wonder if my next ranty post about operating systems will be about how annoying Windows is, or how much I hate OSX? If anyone is placing a bet, I've just had to reinstall Homebrew...

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Show & Tell and why it helped people be awesome

In a previous life, I worked in the Digital team at the University of Bath. For many years we ran a fortnightly Show & Tell event. It was awesome, people got a lot out of it and since I've gone through this a dozen times in the last couple of months I thought I'd write it all down.

The format was a little more formal than other S&T sessions I've seen - more like conference lightening talks. Each week there would be five speakers, each talking for around five minutes with some time for questions. The speakers usually spoke over slides, although they didn't have to do so, and it was supposed to be unpolished so preparation didn't take too long.

The crowd waits in anticipation for the start of Show & Tell

The meeting itself ran every fortnight and was open to anyone who had an interest in the work of the Digital team. Most speakers were from the Digital team, but we had guest speakers from across the university. This was a great thing for the Digital team - aside from showcasing the work we were doing to colleagues from around campus, it also put faces and humanity to the faceless mass of "the team". It helped us start build personal relationships with those whose lives our work was affecting. They could see the challenges we faced and hear the reasoning behind the decisions we made.

The attendees benefited for these same reasons. They found out about developments in a personal way and could ask questions, raise concerns and influence the direction of progress in a safe environment. Aside from this, I'm confident everyone who attended (and listened) learned something. We had such a range of topics - from typography to web application security - it would have been impossible to not.

@iris Showing and Telling on regular expressions
So far, pretty obvious. Treat people like humans and you foster community. Talk about stuff and people learn things. This misses the main benefit though - for the speakers.

There is an art to public speaking. It is an important skill for anyone who wants to be in a position of leadership and one that is quite difficult to practice. Firstly there is having the confidence to stand in front of a group and speak. People, understandably, find this very uncomfortable and avoid it which is very easy to do until suddenly not only you can't, but it's important you're good at it. By that point it's too late. Events like our Show & Tell give a safe environment to practice - an environment where it really doesn't matter if it all goes horribly wrong and others are around to bail you out if it does.

There is more to speaking than just having the confidence to stand in front of a group of people. Being an engaging speaker means having some vocal control to project well into the room, relaxing your body to give an air of confidence to your words and embracing the odd gimmick to keep things interesting.

Sean's first Show & Tell

Then there is the way your message is put across. That means structuring the story in an engaging way, thinking about what the audience wants to hear and in what order to clearly convey a point, and how to support that narrative with slides where necessary. These skills are about constructing an argument in a logical way and bringing your audience with you, especially when that audience may not share the same background and skills as you - such as explaining cross site scripting to a non-technical audience. They are very similar to the skills I mentioned when I wrote about blogging last month.

That's three benefits in without any mention of the subject of a talk. As I said in a previous post, being forced to speak regularly means constantly finding new topics and this makes you ask questions about ongoing work. What is happening? Why? Why is this interesting? These are good questions to be asking anyway for keeping the projects honest. Everything has a purpose - if not, why are you doing it? If the work is boring, what is the context? Someone cares about the thing you're doing and it is a very useful skill to be able to understand that perspective and be able to convey it to other people. Talking about your work also helps highlight the positives to you, which will help you be happier day to day.

Talking about any topic requires a certain amount of analysis of the subject. Although we kept our talks informal, there was still research to be done. Usually that was the depth of research required to deliver whatever underlying work was the subject of the talk and then the preparation became an opportunity for reflecting on the process. On a few occasions we gained a great deal of insight on something we were doing through preparing talks - in fact our content modelling process was formalised through an attempt to visualise it to others. Backwards at times, but effective.

I ran Show & Tell at the University of Bath for three years and in that time delivered more than fifty talks, on top of the intro and exit speeches each time. I had to learn how to pull a talk from nowhere, and I had to learn how to write that talk very quickly and how to prepare slides at speed (pro tip - if you draw on a white board it's different and interesting, and you don't need to prepare slides in advance). I learned how to face a room full of people without fear, and I learned how to fill space while others were setting up their presentation (aka stall in a semi-entertaining way) I'm not going to claim I'm an expert at any of the above, but I'm certainly better than I would have been without this practice. For a final benefit, I spoke about this at length at my last job interview - and yes, I did get it.

Nice work, Kelv