Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The year that was, 2019

It's the last day of 2019 and time to look back on what has been a trying year. This time last year I wrote "2019 needs to be a year where I focus on sorting out my personal life" and as I start writing this, I can honestly say by that metric 2019 has been a year of utter failure. Maybe as I write more I'll change my mind, but my overriding impression of this year has been work work work. This needs to change in 2020 and fortunately I've got a new creative outlet for this coming year which I find exciting. In the meantime, let's look at what I have achieved. Maybe next year it wont all be Star Trek Bridge Crew and Strange Brigade.

  • 16 posts on this blog (17 including this one) - fifth consecutive year of a post per month
  • weekly posts through November as part of NaBloPloMo2019
  • started running a weekly exercise class in the park in Bath
  • joined the hospitality team in church
  • ran a D&D game for a part of the year
  • another year of the Year in Pictures site, up to 27 photographers
  • 97 contributions to various projects on github (which is, on reflection, hardly an achievement)
  • loads of photos on my flickr stream

My writing has increased at the cost of ... more or less everything else. The list above is feeble, but I need to remember that it's not quite as bad as it looks. I am reading a lot more, and while I make the same joke every year about playing videogames they do help me relax and so playing more this year is actually a success in and of itself. Indeed, it was one of my resolutions. Speaking of which:

Resolution count: 4/10 - down on last year. Sad times.

Although I don't reflect on work here, I do need to remember that while exhausting this year has been a success - the high point being my becoming a Senior Civil Servant. I set myself two "work resolutions" and managed to score 1.5/2 which is much better and, unfortunately, demonstrates where too much of my focus has been. This year I need to work out how to manage to keep a life around work.

More importantly, next year needs to be about something other than work. As a priority, I need to sort out my health - both physical and mental - and I need to positively engage with a community. Fortunately I seem to have found one I like, so that is a good start. Ideally I'd like to re-engage with some positive social change outside of work - charity work or similar. But I need to sort out the foundations first, so we'll call that a stretch goal.

Brace for another decade.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Fixing supercharging on a Huawei P10 Plus

I've been using a Huawei P10 plus for nearly two years. A while back I started having trouble with the supercharging capability. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would just charge normally. A new cable sorted that, but would degrade. Eventually it reached the point where it would only charge normally and sometimes, not even then. The cable would drop out too. Very worrying.

I poked around online quite a bit early on and found various approaches for fixing this problem involving clearing caches and so on. They didn't work. However, finally I have a solution - using an arcane bit of tech and some mystic knowledge. However, before I share we need a DISCLAIMER. I am in no way responsible for loss of data, equipment, life, or sanity if you attempt this technique.

Ok, big reveal time. I took a sewing needle and dug around in the charging port.

Seriously. A frighting amount of pocket lint came out and now the cable fits snuggly, locks in place properly and charges perfectly - even supercharging is back.

Now, you are probably thinking "wow, I'm glad you shared your genius 'poke at it a bit' approach - that was totally worth a blog post". However, this forgets two important facts. Firstly - when I was looking into fixes last time, nobody else mentioned this. Genuinely, there might be someone out there who finds this useful. Secondly - I want to share my technical wins. Even when they are pathetic.

I'm convinced there is something of a design flaw here. I do not have dirty pockets and I've not had this problem with any other phone I've owned. I've had a friend tell me that he's had a lesser version of this happen to him and it's only happened since the switch to USB-C so maybe it's something to do with the shape of the socket. This sounds like a good reason to move to wireless charging to me.

Of course, now I don't have an excuse to buy a new phone that supports it...

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Reflecting on NaBloPoMo

Well, today is the last day of November and the last day of NaBloPoMo. That's five posts in five weeks (including this one). How did it go?

Firstly, it's worth acknowledging that this has been the worst month for this kind of thing. I've been on leave for one week, and away for a few weekends so my normal writing topics and opportunities have been thrown to the winds. Couple this with some extremely difficult weeks in the office giving me no desire whatsoever to write in the evenings and let's just say that it hasn't been easy.

On the positive side, it has been nice to see my blog grow more quickly, I don't think the less thought out posts have been much worse, and I have enjoyed experiencing this with the small community that has attempted NaBloPoMo. I'm also pleased that I have managed to set myself a goal and achieve it (posting on each weekend) even if I did cheat a bit with one of the posts.

On other hand, the pressure to write when I haven't felt like writing has been a bit of a problem. This is the motivation I use throughout the year, however committing to a monthly post means I have weekends free in between so this cadence is less intrusive. I've definitely made decisions to write over doing something else (such as coding) over this period purely because of the challenge and even as I write this I know I'd rather be cooking and playing on a MUD - I'm putting off fun and relaxation in order to write this reflection. When I'm at low energy and low ebb (such as now) this can be dangerous so I'm glad it's only a few weeks - and even more so that I didn't even attempt a daily post. I think that would require a radically different approach to blogging from me.

So will I do it again? Probably. I'm not likely to push it too hard if I'm on my own, but if a group is keen to give it a go again next year I'll be on board. I guess what I'm saying is that the true spirit of NaBloPoMo is the friends made along the way.

And I still hate the name.

This post is the fifth of five written in NaBloPoMo - the National Blogpost Month which, yes, is a thing. My plan is to write one post a weekend for the month of November. Due to some amazing planning, that means I have to write five posts rather than the four you might immediately expect. These posts will be a bit shorter than normal most likely and all of the posts will be tagged with (sigh) NaBloPoMo2019.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Failing to relax

This is going to be a brain dump and may not have an actual point. You have been warned.

I've just had a week off work. Time to relax, recharge and reset. Only ... it hasn't worked. My normal pattern for time off is a few days doing very little, then I'm ready to re-engage with the world around me and I get a few days doing some kind of chunky project. This time, it took until Thursday before I managed to think about dragging myself back into the real world and I found myself wishing my week off was starting at the end of the week.

At the same time, the various activities I use to enthuse myself haven't worked either. I can't write, as the two main outputs for my writing are this blog and RPGs. This blog is increasingly (and deliberately) distilling my thinking and learning from the office which is very useful in general, but not something I want to be writing when I'm supposed to be disconnected from work.

My life in roleplaying games at the moment is largely dead, thanks to weird work / life patterns so there isn't much scope for writing there. Even when I do get into a game, I find myself wanting to hide at the back more than I used to. I don't fancy playing a character making significant decisions that can affect large groups of people when that is literally my day job these days.

I can turn to coding. Unfortunately, I'm between projects at the moment and starting a new one is much less fun than writing some code to fix specific problems. Anyway, writing code is hardly the best way to avoid thinking of work - last time I picked anything up, I spent my time looking at testing infrastructure and different ways of populating test data.

This leaves me in a difficult position. There is a hard question about what I actually do to relax. But more importantly, I think I need to ask some very pointed questions about why it is so hard in the first place. Why does it take a whole week away from work before I feel like I've actually left? Am I really saying that I should only take holiday in two week blocks? That doesn't seem healthy - if true, it feels like work is taking far too much out of me on an ongoing basis. So what do I do about that? What CAN I do about that? Wouldn't it be great if I had an answer to that question?

Still, I got a blog post out of it...

This post is the fourth of five written in NaBloPoMo - the National Blogpost Month which, yes, is a thing. My plan is to write one post a weekend for the month of November. Due to some amazing planning, that means I have to write five posts rather than the four you might immediately expect. These posts will be a bit shorter than normal most likely and all of the posts will be tagged with (sigh) NaBloPoMo2019.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Fun in the cold, dark mud

Over the summer, while staying at Lee Abbey, I went to a short daily exercise class which consisted of 15 minutes of flailing around to music. A short and stupid conversation with a friend from Bath later, and I found myself charged with setting up a similar session in Bath. Except weekly, and for longer.

This is going to be a "how to run an exercise class" post. Before we get going there needs to be a MASSIVE DISCLAIMER that I am not in any way trained, qualified or insured. If you do anything here, or indeed turn up to the session you do so at your own risk.

That out of the way, this is how I run a high intensity training session.

Time and place

The hardest part is the location. I'm lucky enough to live within easy walk of Victoria Park in Bath, which is an expanse of grass big enough to play some music without bothering anyone other than the ducks and a few dogs. As the weather gets worse it's going to be interesting. We're already coming back covered in mud so I'm polling all the attendees to see who has access to places with a roof. We meet at 8.30 on a Saturday morning, because who wants to be in bed when you can be cold and wet in the dark?

Community and communications

Most of the fun comes from convincing folk to join the group. We stay in contact via a WhatsApp group for instance messaging, and faster excuses. The groups has about 10 people in it, and I reckon about half have ever turned up.

Exercise routines

I've chosen to run the sessions in a tabata format. That is, for each exercise we do 8 runs of 20 seconds with a 10 second rest in between. In theory, the first is supposed to be hit hard to a target for the next 7 but that is something that varies from person to person. We do 8 exercises, plus a warm-up and warm-down and the whole thing last about 45 mins.

This isn't true tabata - it goes on for far too long, for one. But nobody wants to go out to the park in the dark and wet for 5 mins.

If you've been to an exercise class in the past you'll know the basic exercises. We don't do anything clever, and certainly nothing that needs any skill to teach. I trawled the internet, looking for sites with some interesting exercises on them that do not require any equipment and came up with a list. I remix the set slightly each week, to get a blend of hard cardio and more strength based routines and they go on my exercise spreadsheet, because my life is spreadsheets. That sheet has a few workable sessions, if you'd like something to get started as well as links to the sessions on Interval Timer (see below).

Running the session

To run the session, I use a couple of apps on my phone and a bluetooth speaker. My speaker of choice is the Anker Soundcore because it's waterproof and apparently runs on magic dust as it never, ever needs charging.

I use Google Play for the music (see below) and Seconds Pro as the timer (also available on iOS). This does cost the princely sum of £4.50, but for the cost of a beer it's great.

The secret weapon of all this is the site Interval Timer. This allows me to create the classes on a desktop PC before uploading them to my phone (by emailing myself the link). All I need to do on the phone is remember to turn on the audio alerts in the setup for the individual routine.

Bring the noise

Finally, the music. Some people think you can exercise to anything. They are wrong. There is a perfect balance of beats per minute, high energy, and emphasis on the treble so it cuts through as everything goes dark. Most important is that it infuriatingly tugs at your memory because you KNOW this song but you can't remember WHERE FROM or WHAT IT IS but while you're thinking about that you're not thinking about the fact you're lying in cold mud in the dark at 8.30 on a Saturday morning.

Basically, you want 90s dance music. If you're not thinking about Saturday Night or remembering that Rhythm is a Dancer, you're doing it wrong.

And happiness!

And that is it! Walk to the park, connect the speaker, start the music, start the timer and off you go!

With success, you too could create something wonderful like this:

Bath HIIT results

This post is the third of five written in NaBloPoMo - the National Blogpost Month which, yes, is a thing. My plan is to write one post a weekend for the month of November. Due to some amazing planning, that means I have to write five posts rather than the four you might immediately expect. These posts will be a bit shorter than normal most likely and all of the posts will be tagged with (sigh) NaBloPoMo2019.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Governance or trust?

Since this series seems to be "Tom has a half-formed thought" let's look at governance vs trust. I regularly find myself having to find a comfortable place between the two and it's an interesting balancing act.

At one end of this spectrum, people rightly want to be trusted (and feel trusted, but that's a different post). When I ask "is X in a good place?" and the answer is "yes" that should be enough for me. My leadership team is highly skilled and I do trust them to do the right things.

However, at the other end of this spectrum, good governance tells me that I should have extensive metrics in place for the definition of "good" and that data flows straight to me so I don't have to ask this question, I can just look. I've already asked "give me these metrics and that will show me what you're doing".

I don't like either approach. I am not doing my job correctly if I don't have a clear understanding of what my technical leadership is doing and the decisions they are making. I also can't represent them effectively to the wider organisation without more detailed information. Ultimately, this hands-off approach leaves everyone at risk - while one can't really do the wrong thing when there are no parameters, with no specific questions being asked or answered, it's impossible to say someone did the right thing either. This is a serious problem when something goes wrong - and something always goes wrong eventually.

And I certainly don't want a deluge of data. I want to know that data is going to the right person and being acted upon. The right person isn't me - I have enough to do without interpreting unending raw data. This is why we have distributed leadership, and an empowered hierarchy. More importantly, the interpretation of the hard data is different in each area. I need to get to the story, and know the data is there if I need to dig into it.

Generally, I find that empowered autonomy is an excellent way to do things, however for the sake of everyone involved there has to be defined edges to that autonomy. That allows individuals to focus on their area, and gives me a structure for trust in the context of governance without it becoming intrusive. In practice, this means that I'm setting wide definitions and mostly looking at a traffic light rating system for ongoing reporting - giving very coarse-grained answers to my questions. This keeps a good balance between trust and governance. The raw data and interpretation of it is kept distributed where it belongs, but the specifics of each area means that questions are being asked and answered. The answers are trusted, but because the specifics are defined (can this be built? is the code linted? etc) there is enough of a shared understanding of what we mean by "yes" or "green". It also gives me a route to ask for the working, if there is need. It gives me what I need - a highlight of the areas that need discussion, and (hopefully) a sea of green for all the things that are fine.

Governance AND trust. I think.

This post is the second of five written in NaBloPoMo - the National Blogpost Month which, yes, is a thing. My plan is to write one post a weekend for the month of November. Due to some amazing planning, that means I have to write five posts rather than the four you might immediately expect. These posts will be a bit shorter than normal most likely and all of the posts will be tagged with (sigh) NaBloPoMo2019.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Growing is intimidating

What would you do if you weren't afraid?

Not exactly the most original question in the world, but I've found it a very important one in my career. Moving to GDS and London were very big, very frightening steps for me. Later, my manager and mentor left the organisation and I had to step into his shoes - another huge and terrifying step which plunged me into a very different working environment. Then later again, my role was reassessed and deemed a Senior Civil Servant role - and the game changed again.

This came to mind recently when I was talking about next steps with a friend. We were discussing a job that, on first look, was huge and terrifying. As we talked, we broke the problem down and it became a lot less frightening and started to look distinctly manageable. The scary part remaining was the change in scope and perspective.

On reflection, this is also true of many of the earlier changes I faced in my professional life. It wasn't so much the change in circumstances that scared me, it was the required shift in the scope and therefore the potential risks from failure. Moving to GDS, suddenly I had to think about the wide development needs of all of GOV.UK - the website which provides information from the government to the nation. Then, becoming Head of Software Engineering, I expanded that to other corners of GDS as well as accepting responsibility for the careers and development of every technologist working there. Now that is all still true, but I'm also involved in the future shape and function of the whole Cabinet Office and my role has influence much wider than that.

Each time, considering the problem has been much more frightening than actually dealing with it. Each problem has turned out to be a collection of smaller, and distinctly more manageable problems but with a shift in breadth which has made them look far more difficult.

It's not been easy, for sure. I've had to learn new skills and new approaches (especially around dealing with ambiguity), but that is hard work and not in itself something I find overly scary. I've had to learn to allow myself the space for the mental reset to deal with the new context - definitely something I have messed up more than once, with unhelpful side effects.

There is a world of difference between "terrifying" and "hard work" though. The latter is something to get through. The former can be a hard block to something new and interesting. Certainly, forcing myself (or being forced...) to work through it has utterly changed my life and "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" now sits alongside "ask and answer the obvious question" and "what would make you happy from your next five years?" as trite, but very important questions at the heart of how I think about working life.

This post is the first of five written in NaBloPoMo - the National Blogpost Month which, yes, is a thing. My plan is to write one post a weekend for the month of November. Due to some amazing planning, that means I have to write five posts rather than the four you might immediately expect. These posts will be a bit shorter than normal most likely and all of the posts will be tagged with (sigh) NaBloPoMo2019.