Friday, 31 December 2021

The year that was, 2021

Good grief. Astonishingly, 2021 was a year that happened. Even better, it ended. As I start writing this post, I am honestly struggling to think of anything I've done this year however long-term readers will know that that is exactly the point of this annual post. I also don't write about work (until I do) which is going to be a big deal this year. So, with that in mind, what HAVE I done this year that isn't all Deep Rock Galactic and Dark Souls 3?

  • 13 posts on this blog (14 including this one) - seventh consecutive year of a post per month
  • another year of the Year in Pictures site - this is the seventh year and we're up to 33 photographers
  • 264 contributions on Github - down on last year, but better than I expected
  • started writing a new D&D setting
  • got back into gaming (including finally understanding the appeal of and completing Dark Souls 3)
  • made a point to read a lot more than 2020 - important since I've lost my train journey reading time
  • did a lot more cooking - both learning and keeping it regular
  • attended a cooking class (and learned about sauces)
  • learned a bit more video editing - made a birthday video for Matt and a tour of my Valheim home
  • increased exercise and felt it actually start to do something
  • made a colour changing potion
  • learned how to use a multimeter
  • bought some lightsabers!
  • finally started building some LEGO
  • upgraded my home network with a UniFi Dream Machine
  • made a book
  • extensive Instagramming
  • loads of photos on my Flickr stream

Resolution count - 6.5/10. It's getting better, but I'm aware I made them easier this year as I was expecting a tough year...

Looking over these, I am once again pretty amazed I got anything done. However I notice most of these kicked in towards the end of the year, when Significant Events happened (more on that later). This could be classic memory bias, but I've spent some time thinking about it and this does seem to be a fair reflection of the year. I really did very little other than work for the first seven or eight months of the year.

So, speaking of work... Every year I say some variation of "this year has been too much about work but next year will change" and every year it gets worse. This year has been no exception - work has been all-consuming in a whole variety of different ways. However, this year I can genuinely say I've made a change. I left my job in the Civil Service. I've written about it before, and I'm sure I will do again so for now I'll note that it was a tremendously emotional decision and I have since realised quite how burnt out I really was. Since then, I've also set up a company (Third Way Digital) for all your digital leadership consulting and engineering needs and have taken my first steps working with a few different places.

And now for 2022. I'll say again (again) that next year will not be all about work. However, if I'm honest, I just don't know. Self-employed consultancy is a whole new game for me and maybe I'll be working really hard all year? Maybe I'll have nothing but time? I'm not sure which I'm hoping for, but a balance would be nice.

Other than work, I think it's time for some changes. We've all been stuck inside, looking inwards and not engaging with each other enough for nearly two years and for me that needs to change. I want to be looking outward this coming year. Whether it's in person, or via video call, I want to be more involved with other people in a healthy and constructive way. If you know me, expect a call.

I also want to be more creative. The last few months of 2021 saw me recovering and starting to indulge in creative projects. I want to keep that going and increase it significantly. I used to do a lot of making and I want to find that space again. I was set a challenge:
"I dreamt that you had built a mechanical light up version of the old school Channel 4 logo, which was on display somewhere, but as I was looking at it and going "omg Tom made this why didn't he tell us?!" a curator knocked it over and it smashed."
Good idea dream-me. However you're making me look bad, so you're going down.

My new year resolutions support these, however more than anything I want to find and restore my sense of wonder. I am naturally a pragmatic cynic, however until this year I've also retained a sense of wonder for the world. This year I think I lost it - or at least misplaced it. However what was lost can be found. That's 2022. From that restores an interest, and a general zest for life.

Let's do this.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

A Christmas PSA

If, like me, you sometimes brave the horrors of the local Waitrose supermarket then you may find yourself stuck behind increasingly long queues of people. While it is lovely being around grumpy people during a pandemic, there is a shortcut to getting out.

You'll need a Waitrose card. Head over to the completely ignored QuickCheck stand then scan out a handset. 20 seconds of scanning your stuff later, you can waltz up to the entirely unused QuickCheck checkouts, scan your handset, pay and head for the door.

If something doesn't scan, you can convert the terminal into a self checkout for that item. Or indeed most of your items if you're really feeling like trolling everyone around you.

Either way, it is much quicker than the queues and leaves you with time to bask in the naked hatred of all those you've just walked straight past. Glorious.

Other supermarkets are also available.

Sunday, 12 December 2021

Responsible Building

This has happened before, but it continues to amuse (and scare) me when a decent quote or blog post crosses my desk and when I look up the author it turns out to be me of the past.

Today I was sent a statement about sustainable and responsible building, which I am mostly reproducing here for the sake of posterity:

For me, building responsibly means thinking about the future by making careful and sometimes difficult decisions in the present. What we build today should be simple and documented, because tomorrow we are going to need to understand it. What we build today should be designed well, because tomorrow we are going to need to add features. What we build today should be well tested, because tomorrow we are going to need to modify it with confidence. 

It also applies to our working practices. Are we pushing ourselves to the point of future burnout? Are we building too much, beyond what we can maintain? Are we showing respect for ourselves and those who come after us? Ultimately, are we proud to invite new people into our working environment?

The quote was originally on the Inside GOV.UK blog back in 2017 and comes with a picture of a (sadly much thinner) me looking sweet and naive, before being ground down by The World for four long years.

Would I change anything here? Not much to be honest. The points are foundational rather than hugely challenging. They talk about people, although I would invert the priority these days. The only thing I missed was the environmental impact of any built systems. So good job, past me.

There is also the topic of ethics in software engineering - something I've written lots about, but not posted because I'm struggling to get it down in a coherent way. The original context of the question did not really invite comment in that area, but a more general statement about responsible engineering should definitely discuss whether one should do something, as well as whether one can.

Anyway, this is a short post mostly to capture that quote here.

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

I am bad at resting

So it turns out I'm really bad at resting. It has been about a month and a half since I left the Civil Service and went out into the cold, unforgiving world with nary a plan to my name except to relax, calm down and find out who I am when I am not consumed by work. Except, of course, I did have a plan and a long list of contacts to talk with along the way.

My standard day is to get up (much earlier these days - a very positive sign!) and spend the morning on calls with friends in the industry and recruiters. Many of these are advice-and-discussion calls, which fulfil most criteria for being called Work, other than being paid. Then I make some lunch and spend the afternoon drinking coffee while reading something edifying (a book on depression here, a white paper on approaches to building a digital organisation there...) or writing some code before some cooking and the evening. It's actually very pleasant but is rather reminiscent of a gentle working day rather than a total break. While I am doing some LEGO and other minor crafts, I haven't dived into a totally new life or anything.

So to fix this, I did something different. I set up a company. To enable working. Sigh.

I often write posts for this blog by pondering my own behaviour from an external perspective and sometimes I end up wondering what on earth I am doing. On this occasion, and joking aside, I am finding this all raises an important question. What does "relaxed" actually mean for me? See, I can rationalise looking at work again so soon by writing about arising opportunity (and especially when they tie in neatly with my plans) but the fact is that I know my sense of self is overly defined by my work and I genuinely am not good at relaxing or unplugging. This is a bit of a problem since the answer to the question "who am I if I'm not working" appears to be "someone who is trying to work". Not healthy, and not a good idea.

I can, of course, make excuses. Some of the things I want to try are hard during COVID / while I live on the top floor / don't have a car / etc etc. While these may well be genuine excuses (it's hard to run a lathe in a 1 bed flat) they feel a bit tactical, which means I'm asking myself the wrong question - or rather dodging the right question. It's not about who am I without work - I always knew the answer to that would be a bit empty - it's about who do I WANT to be. 

The problem with questions like this (similarly "where do I want to be in five years, and if I do nothing will I be happy with how I've spent five years?") is that they are about making decisions then deploying effort to effect change. Coming into this period I had very little energy. I needed a rest, and that meant retreating to my comfort zone not trying to become some new enlightened being. However my comfort zone turns out to be rather like working and thus the problem cycle continues.

And I am still dodging the most important question - who do I want to be? And the answer is ... I don't know.

There are some components. When I close my eyes and imagine, I see someone who looks different. Someone who is secure in themselves. Someone will skills. Oddly, not the ones I already have - I don't know if this means I take myself for granted, or if (more likely I think) I don't really value my own skills. I do have a deep-rooted assumption that if I can do it, it can't be that hard (ideal attitude for consulting...) which may explain this picture.

So, this suggests a few courses of action. First, I need to recognise and respect my own abilities. When I close my eyes and see this person I want to be, I need to make sure I see the bits I've already done in that picture. I need to recognise that while I always want to learn new things and be a bit different, there is an awful lot I do not want to just discard. Next up, I need to look at the differences and decide where to act. As I wrote above, I do not have boundless energy at the moment so I need to be careful and precise about what I try and what I don't and along the way, I need to rediscover my love of learning and trying (there is another post in that, but that's another day).

So in the short term it's back to the gym for me. Then, I think what I really need is to rediscover a middle gear. A mode where I can be energetic and inquisitive, but without being full "on" so I can learn new things without it feeling like a chore, and practice new skills without a ongoing fear of failure. The "how" is something to ponder, but keeping flexible time has got to be a part of it.

Of course, with Christmas coming I've got something else to help me continue hiding from all this...

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Leaving GDS

This month I left the Civil Service. I have been a Civil Servant for nearly five years and honestly was keen to do at least another five, however this was not meant to be. There is a lot to unpack, and no doubt reflecting and processing will keep me supplied with topics for blog posts for a long while but I couldn't not write something here.

I have learned a huge amount over the last five years. I've learned a ton about digital transformation and how senior leadership in a large organisation works. I've learned about how decisions are made in these large, bureaucratic organisations and how important it is to create alignment between business functions in order to get things done. I've seen how important it is to get the foundational practices and processes right and sustainable. I've seen many instances where people have been held back by their inability to take ownership of something - frequently through no real fault of their own. More importantly, I've learned a lot about managing and leading a large group of technical staff and, if the frankly astonishing comments in my leaving card are to be believed, I have been successful in at least this last one. In short, I have seen over and over again how it always comes back to the people and I have worked with some folk who are absolutely fantastic, and I hope lifelong friends.

So why did I leave? The reasons are long and complex but fundamentally it felt like I wasn't really making anything better any more. In leadership, there is work to be done to improve the world as you see it. There is also work to be done managing wider organisational change, which can be beneficial or detrimental to one's own people. There needs to be a balance here and for me the pendulum had swung so far to the latter, it felt like my entire job was playing backstop. Ultimately, I found myself working against the wider direction of the organisation and this was neither sustainable nor healthy.

The organisation had changed, and I had to ask myself some searching questions. Am I still learning and growing? Is what I'm now doing a good thing for my career? Do I want to be part of this new direction? While doing this I realised quite how exhausted I am feeling, and decided it was time to leave.

I obviously reflected on this decision extensively during my notice period, but the point where it properly sank in as definitely the right choice was when I visited the office for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I walked in, ran in to a lot of very lovely people and felt very sad. But I also realised that I was looking at an illusion - I was very sad for the world I remembered 18 months prior, but time had moved on (as it tends to do) and the world on that day was very different. In essence, I had a huge injection of nostalgia but I couldn't go back to that world no matter what choices I made. In the new world leaving was the correct thing to do.

Looking back hurts, and detailed stories are for the pub. Time to look forward instead. What do I actually want to do with my time? Right now, I'm feeling incredibly weary and burned out so I'm enjoying some time unemployed. I've also discovered that I like the sense of possibility stretching out in front, and so I'm avoiding lining something up for a month or so away. I've often found when on a normal stretch of leave that I beat myself up if I don't do anything with a day, because I am aware there are only so many before I go back. With no number ticking down, I am finding it much easier to rest properly in a day and I think I need this at the moment.

In the short term, my mental and physical health are priorities. Both have taken a severe battering over the years - especially the last 12 months - and need pulling back to a better place. I have already started hitting the gym again, and eating better and this combined with more sleep and less stress is doing wonders for my energy levels. I also recognise what a wonderful opportunity I have here - with few outgoings, no dependants, and 18 months of enforced saving thanks to lockdown, I can afford to take my time.

Longer term, unfortunately I will have to work again. I've given everything to my job over the last five years so part of me is keen to try something less all-consuming. However, that isn't really me so I'll likely jump into another maelstrom of "interesting problems". In the last few years I have discovered an interest in organisational design and how that ties into enabling sustainable delivery and technical leadership, so I'm looking to see whether I can find some work operating in this area. Non-engineering firms (ie not Google, Facebook or Amazon types) often seem to neglect technical leadership, instead treating engineers as fungible resources. There is a whole career talking about why this is wrong, short-sighted and a waste of their people - so I'm going to see if that career can be mine.

Importantly, I'm trying to make sure I can hit my main motivator. I moved from coding to management roles because I believe the technical industry (a famously hostile place at times) can be better for the people working in it. I'm keen to do what I can to enable this future. Sooner or later, I suspect that will mean taking responsibility for people again so it's a case of finding the right match - somewhere I am excited by the problems and I can do some good.

I guess there is a pitch here - if anyone reading this wants a chat about any of the above topics, and maybe progress that into a few days consulting here or there please do get in touch. In particular if you're about to go through some organisational transformation and maybe starting to hire engineers. I'm easily contactable through Twitter or LinkedIn, amongst others.

But that is another day. For the moment, I'm enjoying the very generous send-off from my friends in GDS and the Cabinet Office and trying to understand what this rest thing is.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Moving your Valheim world form a server to your PC and recording videos

I've been playing a lot of Valheim with my gaming group. We've been taking it slow, focusing on building and careful exploration rather than boss murder and so we built up a pleasant homestead. It doesn't touch some of the crazy things that people have been building and posting online, but it was far more than functional and, after spending many hours in and around it, it was home.

Then PatchNarock came.

Valheim is still early in development so major patches drop from time to time and when they do the developers recommend a full server reset to avoid problems upgrading. Sigh - it's annoying, but the price of playing Early Access games.

Anyway, our home was going to be nuked along with the rest of the world and I decided to make a video before it went up. Great idea! List the problems!

  1. How do I use the freecam?
  2. How do I transfer my world to a local server, since I can't use the freecam on a multiplayer server?
  3. How do I control the freecam effectively/?
  4. What do I actually want to record?
  5. How do I record game footage?
  6. How do I edit the video?
  7. What music can I use?
  8. How do I upload this to YouTube?

Well, it makes for a blog post. So here it is - the absolute basics on how to record and edit Valheim videos. If you're just interested in the video, skip to the end.

Moving the world to your local machine

Firstly - the freecam is considered a cheat, so it will only work on a local server. We play on a hosted server, so this means transferring The World from the server to local machine. The reverse is a common enough problem with many online guides, but I didn't see any guides from server to local so here it is:

  1. Get an FTP client (I use FileZilla on Win10)
  2. Connect to your server via FTP - this will be different for each hosting company
  3. For me, world files are held in .config/unity3d/IronGate/Valheim/worlds - you may need to show hidden files
  4. FTP to your local machine and put them in C:\Users\PCname\AppData\LocalLow\IronGate\Valheim - again, AppData may be hidden

Now when Valheim starts your backed up world should be in the available local options. You may need to adjust the world seed to match whatever is on your server.

Note that this backs up the world, so if you're so inclined you could use this to duplicate items (since you can jump characters between worlds). Of course, you can also just use the console to spawn items then jump to multiplayer servers. I don't advocate this when you're on a public server.

The Freecam

Now we can access the Freecam. To do this, we need some console commands so first enable it by adding -console to the Steam startup options. Now F5 will display the console where you can do all kinds of cheating.

Key commands:

  • devcommands - to enable the developer commands, which includes the freecam
  • freefly - to turn on / off the floating camera
  • ffsmooth 1 - to enable smooth camera movement (1+ for more smoothing, 0 to disable)
  • tod .5 - fix the time to morning
  • env clear - fix the weather to clear

Now you can move the camera around with WASD, change speed with the mousewheel, fix to a point (for a pan) with left click and ascend / descend with CTRL / space. You can also use a controller, which allows for more analogue control if your thumbs are appropriately trained. Mine are not.

This is an overview - more detailed instructions (and full credit) on these reddit posts:

The camera is surprisingly fully featured.

This is the time to pick what you actually want to record. Pick your route, practice your pans, etc etc. Place your character somewhere dramatic-looking and remember you can disable / enable the game HUD with CTRL+F3. This is where you get to be creative - good luck.

Making the video

With planning in place, the visuals need recording. I used the free version of XSplit Gamecaster. It's pretty easy to set up, but worth noting that recording over 720p embeds an obnoxious watermark. Set the recording to 720p and it can be removed - obviously there is no preset to do this.

I did my editing with Adobe Premiere. I am nowhere near competent enough to offer advice using it, but there are many YouTube tutorials readily available. If you're coming at it cold (like I was) then I did:

  1. Remove audio
  2. Chop off the excess at the start and end
  3. Visual fade in and out
  4. Add music track
  5. Edit audio to loop and fit with visuals

The music I used was released under a Creative Commons license and came from Serpent Sounds Studios.

Bringing it all together

After quite a bit of fiddling with the video, I saved it out, uploaded to YouTube, and voila:

It's basic, but I'm actually quite proud of how this turned out. I'm also pleased I've got this record - this land no longer exists and while it is digital, I've spent a lot of time here. I genuinely miss this place - the new one doesn't feel like home just yet.

I find Valheim interesting in a way I haven't engaged with a game in a while. There are loads of great games out there, but the way this one is paced and realised is something a bit different. Maybe I'll write something about that.

In the meantime, here are some holiday photos as we explore these lost lands.


Monday, 30 August 2021

What should I read?

I've been asked many times for book recommendations, especially by technologists who are moving into more senior management positions. It has come up a lot recently and since I usually trot out the same five core titles as starters, I thought it worth posting my thoughts including the reasons.

Opening disclaimer - I am not sponsored by or affiliated with any of the authors or publishers, or with Amazon - other book vendors are available. However if you'd like me to read your book for money, then do get in touch...

My favoured books tend away from direct "this is how you do…" books and towards those which give new viewpoints and (different?) frameworks for thinking. With that in mind, five books I recommend coming up.

Two good starters

The first two are great foundation books. They cover some core management and strategy concepts, while being very readable.

Leadership: Plain and Simple

Amazon link

This is a short book, describing the simple but easy to overlook steps involved in successfully making change happen in an organisation - have a vision, then get people on board, then look to deliver it. It is framed around "Future, Engage, Deliver" and describes  load of examples and pitfalls. I actually read the first edition of this (I think this is the second?) but I assume it still covers the same ground.

The underlying points are great foundational thinking, and the detail is so easily forgotten when things get difficult, deadlines hit or we get lost in the weeds. It's a short read and well worth cementing in one's memory.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters

Amazon link

A much longer book about what makes good strategy, what makes bad strategy, and why "bad" is distinctly different from just "no strategy". The author, Richard Rumelt, is a huge name in the academic strategy world and can name-drop in a frankly ridiculous way. Again, this is very easy and enjoyable to read. For me, it solidified a lot of vague notions in my mind and it was highly liberating to see some of the things that seemed wrong by my own observation pilloried by someone with the expertise, experience and vocabulary to describe them properly.

The killer line for me was describing a particular form of poorly thought out bad strategy as like a team captain starting a game by telling the team "our strategy is to win".

I do warn people that reading this book will start to turn you into a strategy snob, similar to people who get snooty about coffee or audio when they start to learn about it properly, but personally I take that as a sign of a good book rather than a bad thing. It opens eyes and the number of "oh of course" moments are measured per page, not per chapter. In particular it has made me much more careful about using the word "strategy" in its more colloquial form (i.e. meaning "anything coming up").

My favourite book

The Five Laws to Foresee the Future. 12 Paradigm Shifts That Will Happen in the Future of Human Society

Amazon link

This is probably my favourite "management" book, but be warned it is REALLY tiring to read. To my inexpert eye, it reads like poetry written in a foreign language, translated to English more or less directly without any of the rewording to embrace language idioms you might expect. The author is a Japanese businessman and philosopher so I might not be too far from correct.

However. It is a brilliant, eye-opening view of using dialectic thinking to understand patterns in business, market and societal change. Taking it to the next step, the thinking can be used to consider what might be coming next which makes it invaluable if one is in a role where one needs to anticipate future trends and directions. I am a mathematician, so I like to analyse patterns in the world around us and this provides an excellent framework for doing that. More than anything, it helped me think differently about what I was seeing and that is always worth the price of admission.

This is the book I return to more than any other in this field, and the one that keeps granting new insights as I read it differently. Definitely a book to read in small chunks, with lots of reflection time in between.

Understanding people

Three management / leadership books are enough to be getting on with. The other two are about understanding people and yourself - a too-often overlooked aspect of leadership.

Depressive Illness: The Curse Of The Strong

Amazon link

If you are responsible for people, just as you're going to come across someone with a physical ailment (whether it's a common cold or something much worse), you are going to come across someone with some kind mental health issue. It is essential as a manager that you have some idea what this means, and what you can do about it. It is also important to understand how your actions can create an environment which negatively impacts your colleagues and reports.

This book focuses on clinical depression, which is depression as a physical ailment. It is written by a leading consultant psychiatrist, and highly recommended by folk in the mental health professions (not just me). There is a lot here which helps better understand depression and is well worth reflecting on both for the self, and for what it means for our behaviour to those for whom we have responsibility. If it helps a manager spot one person who is heading in a bad direction and take action, it's worth it.

The Enchiridion

Amazon link

Finally, we have The Enchiridion. Where the previous book was mostly about understanding others, this is more about self-reflection. It is a classical Greek text written about Stoicism and is a great read to understand different ways of thinking - especially when it comes to how people can draw satisfaction out of the world around them. This is very important for technologists stepping away from tech into leadership as we all go through the same slump where we wonder what on earth we're doing and whether we'll ever be happy at work again. "Where do I get my energy from?" is a very difficult question to answer and one I've written about many times over the years. This book gives one way of finding an answer.

It is not the easiest read, but potentially a different way of thinking and definitely easier than the third book.

Bonus article

Picking the Right Transition Strategy

HBR link

As a bonus, there is this (free) Harvard Business Review article which is about assessing a business environment and choosing the right leadership strategy. It is another model for focusing thinking, and is worth having in the back of one's mind both for moving to a new role and for assessing the state of the current working environment.

And that is it. Now I have a blog post next time someone is looking for a recommended reading list. Hopefully there is something useful here.