Tuesday, 21 April 2020

After four weeks

Four weeks down. Another three (or more?) to go.

The last few weeks I’ve been writing about work. That has been interesting, but if I’m facing the better part of two months (or more?) without any direct human contact I need to think more about my own mental health and look at my own reactions.

I have been working long hours and weekends since the outbreak began, and in a way I’m grateful for this. It has kept me focused and given me purpose, which has meant time has passed rather than dragged, or worse. However, I came into this period exhausted and there is only so much a change is as good as a rest. Unfortunately the nature of my current work makes taking time off extremely difficult, so now I’m feeling pretty trapped.

Fortunately, this very problem (and a few large mugs of coffee) has been a catalyst for some significant changes in our approach. Why can’t I take time off? Because we’re nowhere near a business as usual position. This is a problem for many reasons beyond my own need to take some time off so solving it should be very valuable for all kinds of reasons. So how do I solve this wider problem?

Thus begins the journey to re-craft the project into something that looks like a more conventional programme. Once I'd opened that box, it's amazing how many other related things started falling out - governance, technical decision making, staffing questions, etc etc. Lots of the leadership team are grappling with some tricky situations and I have a hope that pushing through these questions will put us on track to finally resolve some core issues and give us a framework for discussing the rest. Then maybe I can take a break.

The details here are something for another time. For now I'm returning to something I wrote about years ago - asking (and answering) the simple question can lead to some very interesting results. I really wish I could remember my own advice more clearly sometimes.

Oh, I was supposed to be writing about myself rather than work. Well, I guess I'm fine. How are you?

This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

After three weeks

Three weeks of lockdown complete. Last week we were trying to bring some sense of order out of the maelstrom. This week, it has been pleasing to see some success. We definitely have clearer lines of communication, and we have far fewer conflicting priorities and while this week has still been rough, it has lost the frantic and desperate edge. I’m taking that as a success.

The work this week has been about reaching out and having a clearer voice in the narrative. I’ve written before about the problems with prioritisation. After analysis, it seems our key problem is that of our four workstreams (feature development, technical debt, bugfixes, onboarding) only one is being discussed upstream. Predictably, this is feature development. Then it reaches the operational team and the other three streams are brought in and prioritised with insufficient visibility and it looks like we are delivering slowly, which is totally unfair.

This week I had enough clear air to write out exactly where this work is coming from and the impact of it being prioritised (or not). It’s a first step, but we are slowly working towards a world where the impact and consequences of prioritisation decisions are being felt by the people who are making them, not by the poor folk downstream who have to implement them. Still work in progress, but I feel hopeful.

I’d like to push this a lot further. Rather than constant demands, I’d like us to be making clear statements of intent for our delivery (ie a roadmap) and then we can very clearly articulate the problems caused by changes in priority. It is, of course, fine for other areas to have different priorities and to roll things out their schedule but often, if these groups are upstream in the project it means their priorities are de-facto our priorities as we have to react. By having a voice in the narrative we can make clear the impact of their decisions on the delivery of the whole service.

The next step for this is for there to be a clear project roadmap, which will start to map dependencies on any given change, make it less likely we’ll get ambushed by a connected group doing something unexpected, and enable us to plan rather than just react.

I’m using the word "clear" a lot. It’s almost like "how do I bring clarity?" is the key underlying question here.

Anyway, work isn’t going away and more on this next week no doubt. How am I doing? It’s Easter weekend - a four day bank holiday - and I’ve had a really hard time relaxing. I know there are people working over the weekend while I’m having a rest, and I know everyone is doing a different job so it’s not comparable. I’m also aware that I’ve been feeling physical symptoms of stress and anxiety (shortness of breath, tightness in the chest making eating difficult - it’s a barrel of laughs) which has been an interesting and new experience. I know I’ve more than done my part, including working through other weekends and a ridiculous number of hours in-week. Despite all this I feel very guilty at having been resting this weekend when others have been working.

This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

After two weeks

Well, I have survived the second week of lockdown. It seems my life is now work and sleep, and I'm starting to come to terms with that. Time for a few reflections of life alone in a flat.

The last week of work was manic, but looking back I think we did a lot of things right. The current project is of critical importance, which means it's getting a lot of attention from right at the top and that means lots of conflicting requirements coming in from lots of directions. For the first week, the work was very reactionary - trying to triage incoming requests to the engineering team in as sensible a way as possible, with the project leads constantly on calls working out priorities and detailed requirements and trying to find more humans. Last week we made a conscious decision to shift from this maelstrom to something that looks like an actual project structure and through significant effort we are starting to see positive results.

We've focused on closing down communications channels to stop priorities coming from every direction. One of the biggest problems we've found with successful triage is simply not knowing which “top priority” is actually the one we have to do first and not having a forum where people who aren't us can fight over that question. Now we're getting feature priorities from one place, which saves everyone time and sanity. It also gives us a place to push back with technical (non-functional) requirements which will help the service and also enable faster development in the future if only we can get them sorted. Go slower now to go faster in the future.

We've had to look very closely at our onboarding strategy. Bringing in people takes time, which we don't have, and some of the technical debt and security restrictions we have in the system make directly scaling the team very difficult. This brings us back to the point above - we need to address this technical work quickly, however defending the time to address technical debt is next to impossible at the moment, so the next step is to have another look at how we're articulating the consequences of any decision to de-prioritise this work.

Taking a step back, this work is actually very interesting. We're doing rapid scaling in an environment in no way suited to doing that and I'm learning some very interesting things. More importantly, this work is essential to protect the engineers from constantly shifting priorities and being under heavy pressure to work unreasonable hours which makes it very worthwhile to me.

Outside of work, I suppose I need to think carefully about my sanity. My weekend was mostly spent curled up mostly asleep watching things on Netflix. Clearly a reaction to being exhausted mentally and emotionally, but it's not exactly a good sign. This week I'm aiming to put things in my diary for some of the evenings to make sure I'm signed off at a sensible time and I have a four day weekend over Easter, unless I have to work. My aim is to be awake for some of it.

It's not all bad. I'm currently wearing a hoodie that I got at university. It kinda fits for the first time in years.

This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.