Saturday, 19 January 2019

Tagging documents in Google Drive

I use the Google suite for various types of writing, including D&D. Google Drive will let me organise files by folder, which is very early 1990s. What I'd like is some kind of tagging system, so I can find the docs I have scattered all over the place. While it seems like something Google should probably support, while we are waiting for a miracle I can roll my own system using Google Scripts which is apparently mostly ES3, with some enhancement from ES5. So that's ... late 1990s. I guess that's an improvement?

Anyway, language hell is ahead of me and I'm sure at some point I'll convert it to use a proper API in a proper language. Right now, I need a simple way to do tags. Since I don't use the description metadata field (or indeed really acknowledge its existence until I started this) I think I'll use that. Adding something like #npc #story to the field is the level of work I'm willing to do - what I want is something that will pull these tags and list my files using them.

First things first - how on earth do I start writing Google Scripts? Obviously as a lovingly maintained part of the Google suite it'll be tightly integrated so all I have to do is ... add what it claims is a plugin to Drive and I can start creating script files which open in an in-browser editor (I hate in-browser editors, but here we are). Then I need an index file and something to call it. It seems that when loading, the doGet method in the file is called and that needs to hit the HTML file. This all needs accessing via a URL to the dev or published version. Ok:

Carefully not thinking about what will happen if a user isn't using Javascript, let us push forwards. Templating seems pretty simple so an HTML file can be put together. I can also drag in a CSS file from somewhere else so I can reuse my awesome styling.

All I'm looking to do here is create some lists, so I just need to get the filenames and links and put them on the screen. Specifically, I'm getting a list of tags then creating a list of files per tag.

Google Scripts provides a load of objects to poke and since it's taking care of the authentication (the main reason I'm doing it this way rather than using the api) this should be pretty straightforward. I mean the only way this could go wrong is if the scripting is using Javascript from before the dawn of time and I have to do absolutely everything myself?

To be fair it's not too bad once I've got my head out of Ruby and back into Javascript and then removed all the ES6 goodness I've come to expect in the years since it became commonplace. I can actually craft exactly what I'm looking for:

Under the hood ... eugh. It's pretty ugly - and not just because I've used two different forms of a forEach loop in a single short script. To generate this page, I'm looking at each file to get a list of unique tags then reversing the process - looking at each file to figure out if it has the tag I'm interested in. This is not Efficient CodeTM. On the other hand, it is Working CodeTM so it'll do as a proof of concept. I'll make it less awful when it gets too slow or I translate it all over to the API.

In the meantime, I have a document tagging system, and I can still use my favourite online text editor, even if I had to write the code in my less than favourite online code editor. And here is the code all in one place. One day I'll get tagging and Markdown support from Google itself...

Monday, 31 December 2018

The year that was, 2018

2018 is more or less over and it's time to look back and decide if it was worth the bother. Work has been tough this year, with a new role and responsibilities but despite that I've managed to improve my physical and mental health (especially the former). But it's not good enough, and I think 2019 needs to be a year where I focus on sorting out my personal life. I'm still not creating enough, and that is in part because of the limited time I spend doing useful things outside of work. Still, this is post is about the things I have done so let's look at the positives. It's not all Elite Dangerous and YouTube.

  • 13 posts on this blog (14 including this one)
  • 2 posts on my gaming blog
  • another year of the Year in Pictures site, up to 21 photographers
  • created the Year in Pictures helper and only completely broke it once
  • over 239 contributions to various projects on github (down from last year)
  • started a new D&D game (Elsewhere) resulting in much writing, drawing of maps and running of sessions
  • went on another photography course to learn how the rest of the buttons on my camera work
  • 100+ pictures on my instagram account
  • loads of photos on my flickr stream
  • became a Reader at the British Library (and failed to find the thing I was looking for)
  • helped out at Codebar
  • lost a load of weight
  • started back at the gym properly
  • updated my website and Gareth's website
  • made a set of coasters with pictures of my nephew at different points over his first year

It's not a lot, but this has been a very work-centric year. That is definitely something to change in 2019. On top of this, I've also learned to pick a lock, introduced some friends to the joys of the escape room, done a load more sound desk stuff, and failed to see the friends I mentioned last year.

Resolution count: 6/10 - definitely improving over previous years.

This coming year needs to do more with what I started this year. More serious exercise, with an endgame I'm actually happy with. Code more. Draw more. Create some things that aren't the blog / game cycle. It's going to be another busy one at work, which means I need to be careful to avoid just getting sucked into it. After a scientific analysis of work and play I'm going to be doing at least one thing every month. And I will definitely see those people this year.

Brace yourself, everyone. 2019 incoming...

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Mental health and maths

There are a million connections between social media and mental health and most I know about show a strong (albeit anecdotal) negative connection between the two. People are constantly saying they've taken a break from Twitter and feel much better for it, and I know that for me avoiding "debating" (or more accurately "screaming impotently into the void") on social media is definitely a good thing.

But what happens if we look at this backwards? Engaging with the world, as opposed to withdrawing and shutting down is supposed to be positive, right? In theory, social media is about reaching out and connecting (haha I know, but stay with me). I know that when I'm feeling happy and on top of the world I look at it with interest and very often take photographs of the things I see. Some of those photographs end up on Instagram. When I'm exhausted and my mental health is poor I shut down to preserve energy and I feel like I'm doing a lot less, such as taking fewer photographs.

So in theory I should be able to see a correlation between taking lots of photos and posting them to Instagram and times of good mental health. Good - I've needed an excuse to write some code. Cue the music.

A bit of hacking later and I've got a bit of Ruby which looks at my Dropbox Camera Uploads directory and counts the photos I've taken this year, grouping by month. And I've got another bit of code which looks at my Instagram feed and does the same, but using a deprecated API because I'm not a business and apparently that means I'm out of luck in their new world.

And lo:
The very obvious peak in October is at a time when I had a week off, had just had some very good news and actually Did Things outside of work (walked the Two Tunnels walk in Bath and went to a display of Japanese art in Bristol). Coincidentally I also wrote a post about having a peaceful time off. So it was a good month - or at least a good week in a month.

At the other end of fun, the two obvious troughs are in July and November. This matches my memory of the year - times when I had to drag myself out of a major slump. This was especially true in November, when I had far too much to do both in and out of work. In work a long series of things went wrong and I was on the back foot the entire time - which resulted in me writing a post about reactive vs proactive work. Outside of work I basically stopped doing anything as I worked late and spent the evenings recovering. I felt my engagement with the world around me suffered and this is born out in the numbers.

Otherwise it's pretty stable through the year other than an upwards tick in August (another holiday), so what happens if we add a trend line?
An increase in photos taken over the course of the year, but interestingly a decrease in photos posted to Instagram. So I'm snapping more, but gradually getting less interested in the world around me? That's quite possible. I mean, have you seen the world?

Last year I had an interesting time and I started this year writing about recovering from an actual crash. So what happens if we overlay 2017 Instagram engagement with 2018 engagement?

*hack hack*

This happens:
I was at my lowest in November and early December 2017, which correlates nicely with ... the highest engagement of the year. Hmm - that messes with my theory. December I can easily explain - I was away from work for most of that month, actively recovering, and spent Christmas with my parents walking miles and taking photos of their village. November is a mystery. Looking back, it seems in November I went for a few long walks around London and posted multiple pictures from each which brought the count up. Confusing. Moving on to trends.
Rate of posting to Instagram increased over 2017, which is mostly expected with the exceptions above. The decline in 2018 still worries me, as does the change in style of my pictures over the last 24 months. I used to put more thought into use of abstract space and filters, giving more texture to the posts. More recent photos are pictures with limited work on them - pictures of things rather than more artistic expressions, if you'll forgive the phrasing. It's not all bad - the technical quality of my pictures has definitely improved - however it plays to the narrative of less engagement from me in the output.

So what have I learned? This kinda works. It's certainly not good enough to create an early-warning system to tell me to Take Steps if my frequency of posting drops below a certain level. But there are some interesting patterns and going through this has got me thinking about changes I can make in life which will hopefully make a positive impact. I have strong, positive memories of the various Things I've done, and those Things tend to generate photographs. So if, loosely, I can do more Things I should improve my general outlook on life. I hope? I spend a lot of time in London, so finding something interesting and photo-worthy to do once a month shouldn't be the hardest thing in the world. Now I need an arbitrary point in the year at which to make fresh-start promises to myself. Some kind of Resolution for a New Year, perhaps?

If you're interested in details, the code is all on Github and  I used Google Sheets for the spreadsheet to generate the graphs. I am not a doctor and I'm well aware this is not Science.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Reactive vs Proactive

What feels like years ago I asked a friend an important question: "How do I be less reactive and find the time to think and plan?"

Why is this important? Reactive work treats symptoms, not underlying causes. The problems and work is never really done, never really goes away so the job remains static. Well; static plus all the extra stuff people find for you to do all the time. If this happens for long enough, eventually someone more senior may notice you're overloaded and hire another person to take some of the load. Unfortunately this approach relies on another person noticing and taking action - and this is a person who has hired you to make their life easier, not to give them more work. It might happen, but I suggest your mileage may vary. Personally I'm not inclined to passively wait for someone else to save the day - I need to be doing something to make the world change, which brings us back to the opening question.

So - how? Local context changes, but I believe the basic theory is more or less consistent - eliminate the bits that don't need doing and delegate the rest. Keep only the work that you need (or want) as key parts of your role.

Elimination is pretty obvious. Do I really need to maintain that data? How about attending that working group? Do I have to be part of that initiative (also a delegation option)? If you, like me, have been in a place for a while you'll likely have also accumulated a load of legacy responsibilities which are linked to a previous role, but no longer relevant. Purge them all - ruthlessly. A rolling stone gathers no moss, etc etc.

A good trick I've discovered for this is to talk through my calendar with someone else. If I can't justify the time I'm spending on things, it needs to go. Inevitably, this will be the fun stuff. Depending on the depths of my own self-loathing at the time, I usually give myself a few hours a week to indulge in some enjoyable but slightly lower priority activities - the rest must be sacrificed in the pursuit of a clear diary. The rewards are the ability to spend time thinking.

Next up is delegation. In the Olden Days, delegation meant handing work to someone you trust. This has a whole world of its own problems. We'll come back to it as in the New Days there is a better choice available to us in tech - write an app, script or some other bit of magic to make the computer do all the work for us. Not only does the problem go away, but it makes us look like wizards.

More seriously, to properly solve a problem with code you need to thoroughly understand it. In my experience that means refining underlying processes which ends up solving a much wider range of problems than was originally intended. For example, in an effort to answer some basic questions and stop maintaining some data, I got involved in how the master copy of that data is maintained by another team. Working with them has helped drive change in that area and cross-team understanding of their processes and challenges.

Once the computer is doing all it can, you're left with delegating to people. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, this is enabled through community and leadership. Build a good team of empowered people, give people clear goals and a clear space in which to do them, then trust them to deliver. This last is difficult. I need to write about trust at some point, but for the moment an important reminder - trust needs to go both ways. If you trust someone, they need to trust you - to give them space to learn, to know they have your support, to fail, whatever. If you want people around you to be reliable and give their best you need to behave in a worthy way.

I'm on a journey towards being properly proactive - a winding journey which seems to loop back on itself with annoying regularity. I'm never going to get there fully - I'll always have short-term things to deliver for other people, business cases to write, and other exciting bits of admin to do, but I am certainly getting better at forcing the dial further in the direction I want.

But at what cost?

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know my primary motivation for doing more management style work is to make life better for other people. Better is, of course, a subjective thing but there is a strong emotional component to it and being valued as an individual is part of it. But work to help the individual is often more reactive and, in the long term, provides less value. That said, it doesn't stop me feeling awful about some prioritisation decisions I have to make. I may have put in place some very valuable governance which will make transparent the foundations for certain decisions, but if it's been done at the expense of a pay case for someone who is not being paid properly I've failed the individual. I can put off the proactive strategic work, of course, but then it never gets done - there is always another piece of essential reactive work.

Keeping the balance is really hard and sometimes involved making tough and unpleasant decisions. It's too tempting to slip back into only reacting to immediate needs and never think through or develop the future. It's also very possible to just abandon the needs of others in the pursuit of building a "better" organisation. I have no great insight here - I'm just writing about the place I find myself in at the moment and how I feel about it. I do know that I can't spend my whole life treating symptoms. I also know that if I just ignore many of those symptoms, I turn my back on the very reason I do this work. However there is only so much of me I can give to work before I run out of me - and I have a habit of stretching the me available to make it all fit in. I'm going to keep looking for a better solution.

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.