Weeknote 21/2020: work, study (repeat)

Another week in the socially-distanced economy. Not so much to write about this week as I spent most of it working or studying… and avoiding idiots who ignore the one-way system in the local supermarket…

Some more observations on remote working

It’s not often my tweets get as much engagement as this one did. So I’m putting it on the blog too (along with my wife’s response):

My “Build Box”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch the Microsoft Build virtual event this week. I’m sure I’ll catch up later but it was great to receive this gift from Microsoft – it seems I was one of the first few thousand to register for the event:

Annual review

This week was my fifth anniversary of joining risual. Over that time I’ve watched the company grow and adapt, whilst trying to retain the culture that made it so strong in the early days. I don’t know if it’s possible to retain a particular culture as a business grows beyond a certain size but I admire the attempts that are made and one of those core tenets is an annual review with at least one if not both of the founding Directors.

For some, that’s a nerve-wracking experience but I generally enjoy my chat with Rich (Proud) and Al (Rogers), looking back on some of the key achievements of the last year and plans for the future. Three years ago, we discussed “career peak”. Two years ago it was my request to move to part-time working. Last year, it was my promotion to Principal Architect. This year… well, that should probably remain confidential.

One thing I found particularly useful in my preparation was charting the highs and lows of my year. It was a good way to take stock – which left me feeling a lot better about what I’d achieved over the last 12 months. For obvious reasons, the image below has had the details removed, but it should give some idea of what I mean:

Another exam ticked off the expanding list

I wrapped up the work week with another exam pass (after last week’s disappointment) – AZ-301 is finally ticked off the list… taking me halfway to being formally recognised as an Azure Solutions Architect Expert.

I’ll be re-taking AZ-300 soon. And then it looks like two more “Microsoft fundamentals” exams have been released (currently in Beta):

  • Azure AI Fundamentals (AI-900).
  • Azure Data Fundamentals (DP-900).

Both of these fit nicely alongside some of the topics I’ve been covering in my current client engagement so I should be in a position to attempt them soon.

Weeknote 20/2020: back to work

Looking back on another week of tech exploits during the COVID-19 coronavirus chaos…

The end of my furlough

The week started off with exam study, working towards Microsoft exam AZ-300 (as mentioned last week). That was somewhat derailed when I was asked to return to work from Wednesday, ending my Furlough Leave at very short notice. With 2.5 days lost from my study plan, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I ended my working week with a late-night exam failure (though it was still a disappointment).

Returning to work is positive though – whilst being paid to stay at home may seem ideal to some, it didn’t work so well for me. I wanted to make sure I made good use of my time, catching up on personal development activities that I’d normally struggle to fit in. But I was also acutely aware that there were things I could be doing to support colleagues but which I wasn’t allowed to. And, ultimately, I’m really glad to be employed during this period of economic uncertainty.

Smart cities

It looks like one of my main activities for the next few weeks will be working on a Data Strategy for a combined authority, so I spent Tuesday afternoon trying to think about some of the challenges that an organisation with responsibility for transportation and economic growth across a region might face. That led me to some great resources on smart cities including these:

  • There are some inspirational initiatives featured in this video from The Economist:
  • Finally (and if you only have a few minutes to spare), this short video from Vinci Energies provides an overview of what smart cities are really about:

Remote workshop delivery

I also had my first experience of taking part in a series of workshops delivered using Microsoft Teams. Teams is a tool that I use extensively, but normally for internal meetings and ad-hoc calls with clients, not for delivering consulting engagements.

Whilst they would undoubtedly have been easier performed face-to-face, that’s just not possible in the current climate, so the adaptation was necessary.

The rules are the same, whatever the format – preparation is key. Understand what you’re looking to get out of the session and be ready with content to drive the conversation if it’s not quite headed where you need it to.

Editing/deleting posts in Microsoft Teams private channels

On the subject of Microsoft Teams, I was confused earlier this week when I couldn’t edit one of my own posts in a private channel. Thanks to some advice from Steve Goodman (@SteveGoodman), I found that the ability to delete and/or edit messages is set separately on a private channel (normal channels inherit from the team).

The Microsoft Office app

Thanks to Alun Rogers (@AlunRogers), I discovered the Microsoft office app this week. It’s a great companion to Office 365 (or , searching across all apps, similar to Delve but in an app rather than in-browser. The Microsoft Office app is available for download from the Microsoft Store.

Azure Network Watcher

And, whilst on the subject of nuggets of usefulness in the Microsoft stable…

A little piece of history

I found an old map book on my shelf this week: a Halford’s Pocket Touring Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland, priced at sixpence. I love poring over maps – they provide a fascinating insight into the development of the landscape and the built environment.

That’s all for now

Those are just a few highlights (and a lowlight) from the week – there’s much more on my Twitter feed

Weeknote 19/2020: Azure exam study, remote working, and novelty video conference backgrounds

Another week in the furloughed fun house…

Studying

I still have a couple of exams I’d like to complete this month. I’ve been procrastinating about whether to take the Microsoft Azure Architect exams in their current form (AZ-300/301) or to wait for the replacements (AZ-303/304). As those replacements have been postponed from late April until the end of June (at least), I’ve booked AZ-300/301 and am cramming in lots of learning, based on free training from the Microsoft Learn website.

I’m sure it’s deeper (technically) than I need for an Architect exam, but it’s good knowledge… I just hope I can get through it all before the first exam appointment next Thursday evening…

Thoughts on remote working during the current crisis

I’ve seen this doing the rounds a couple of times on Twitter and I don’t know the original source, but it’s spot on. Words to live by in these times:

  1. You’re not “working from home”. You’re “At your home, during a crisis, trying to work” [whilst parenting, schooling, helping vulnerable people, etc.].
  2. Your personal physical, mental and emotional health is far more important than anything else right now.
  3. You should not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
  4. You will be kind to yourself and not judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
  5. You will be kind to others and not judge how they are coping based on how you are coping.
  6. Your success will not [should not] be measured in the same way it was when things were normal.

This animation may also help…

Also, forget the 9-5:

As for returning to the office?

Video conference backgrounds

Novelty backgrounds for video conferences are a big thing right now. Here are a couple of collections that came to my attention this week:

Upgrades to the Zwift bike

My old road bike has been “retired” for a year now, living out its life connected to an indoor trainer and used for Zwifting. It’s needed some upgrades recently though…

I also realised why I struggled to do 90km on the road today… that was my fifth ride this week, on top of another 100km which was mostly off-road!

When is agile not Agile? And why Waterfall is not always wrong!

In 2004 (when I started writing this blog), I was working for a company called conchango*. The developers talked a strange language – about Scrum and XP – and it was nothing to do with Rugby Union or Windows but it did have something to do with sprints…

That was my first encounter with Agile software development methodologies. Not being a coder, I haven’t done a huge amount of agile development, with the infrastructure projects I’ve been involved in generally being run using a traditional “waterfall” approach.

These days, things are different. There’s a huge push for Agile projects and the UK Government Digital Service’s Service Manual even says:

“You must use the agile approach to project management to build and run government digital services.

Agile methods encourage teams to build quickly, test what they’ve built and iterate their work based on regular feedback.”

Agile and government services: an introduction

There’s also a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Colleagues and clients alike are using the word “agile” in different ways. And there’s an undertone that agile is the one true way and waterfall is bad.

No!

Agile/agile/agility

Let’s start off by comparing uses of the word “agile” (in IT) and what they mean:

  1. Agile (big A) often relates to a methodology – for example APMG International’s AgilePM project management methodology or the AgileBA approach to business analysis – but really they have their roots in Agile software development, with the Agile Manifesto, written in 2001.
  2. When we talk about being agile (small a), it’s a mindset: the approach taken. Literally, being able to adapt to change and to move quickly. We might use Agile (big A) approaches to help increase our agility (small a).
  3. Agility is about reaction to change. Many business want to be agile. That doesn’t mean they only run projects with Agile approaches. It means they want the ability to flex and change in line with business requirements.
  4. And then there’s the UK public sector. Specifically Police, who for some reason refer to what the rest of us consider to be remote/mobile working as agile working (as shown in this Agile Working Policy from West Yorkshire Police). That’s just an anomaly.

So that’s Agile/agile/agility sorted then. There are Agile frameworks/methodologies/approaches to delivering outcomes in a more agile manner, to increase organisational agility.

Agile=good, waterfall=bad?

Now waterfall. If Agile, is the one true way, waterfall must be old hat and avoided at all costs, right?

Not at all.

Agile projects work well for quickly creating a minimum viable product (MVP) and iterating development – for example as a series of sprints. They are great when there is a known problem but the requirements are less clear. The solution can evolve in line with the definition of the requirements. The requirements may change as the solution develops: respond to market changes; adapt to new requirements; fail fast.

But some projects are less defined. In a 2018 blog post, Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) referred to unknown problems with unknown solutions as tinkering. That seems fair – if you don’t know what the issue is, then you can’t have a solution!

Similarly, unknown problems with a known solution. That’s nonsense. Or “WTF?” as Matt so succinctly puts it in his 2×2 diagram:

Matt Ballantine's 2x2 diagram of which path to take, including Agile and Waterfall approaches
Matt Ballantine’s 2×2 for which path to take, including Agile and Waterfall approaches (used with kind permission).

You’ll see though, that there is a place for waterfall project management. Waterfall works when there is a known problem and a known solution. Instead of constantly iterating towards an end, work out the steps to go straight there. It will almost certainly be more efficient. Waterfall projects are based on the golden triangle of time/cost/quality (which together define scope). A known deliverable (scope) bounded by how fast/cheap/good you want it to be – and there’s always a trade-off.

So there we have it. Agile is not a silver bullet and there is still a place for waterfall projects.

What to use, when?

In my line of work, Cloud Transformation might appear to use a combination of Agile and Waterfall approaches. We might create a virtual datacentre in Azure or AWS and take an iterative approach to migrating workloads but that’s still really just Waterfall with incremental delivery – even if a Kanban approach is used to inject some urgency! Similarly migrating batches of mailboxes to the cloud is just iteration, as is a programme that’s adopting Office 365 workloads one by one. An Agile approach comes into its own when we think about Business Transformation, or Digital Transformation, where we can define an MVP and then use sprints to iterate development of a set of new business processes or the digital tools to deliver those processes in a new way.

Further reading

For a clear definition of Cloud, Business and Digital Transformation, see my blog post from last year: “Digital Transformation – it’s not about the Technology“.

* The small c is not a typo – that was the branding!

Weeknote 15/2020: a cancelled holiday, some new certifications and video conferencing fatigue

Continuing the series of weekly blog posts, providing a brief summary of notable things from my week.

Cancelled holiday #1

I should have been in Snowdonia this week – taking a break with my family. Obviously that didn’t happen, with the UK’s social distancing in full effect but at least we were able to defer our accommodation booking.

It has been interesting though, being forced to be at home has helped me to learn to relax a little… there’s still a never-ending list of things that need to be done, but they can wait a while.

Learning and development

Last week, I mentioned studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Exam and this week saw me completing that training before attempting the exam.

It was my first online-proctored exam and I had some concerns about finding a suitable space. Even in a relatively large home (by UK standards), with a family of four (plus a dog) all at home, it’s can be difficult to find a room with a guarantee not to be disturbed. I’ve heard of people using the bathroom (and I thought about using my car). In the end, and thanks to some advice from colleagues – principally Steve Rush (@MrSteveRush) and Natalie Dellar (@NatalieDellar) – as well as some help from Twitter, I managed to cover the TV and some boxes in my loft room, banish the family, and successfully pass the test.

With exam 1 under my belt (I’m now an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner), I decided to squeeze another in before the Easter break and successfully studied for, and passed, the Microsoft Power Platform Fundamentals exam, despite losing half a day to some internal sales training.

In both cases, I used the official study materials from Amazon/Microsoft and, although they were not everything that was needed to pass the exams, the combination of these and my experience from elsewhere helped (for example having already passed the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals exam meant that many of the concepts in the AWS exam were already familiar).

Thoughts on the current remote working situation

These should probably have been in last week’s weeknote (whilst it wasn’t the school holidays so we were trying to educate our children too) but recently it’s become particularly apparent to me that we are not living in times of “working from home” – this is “at home, during a crisis, trying to work”, which is very different:

Some other key points I’ve picked up include that:

  • Personal, physical and mental health is more important than anything else right now. (I was disappointed to find that even the local Police are referring to mythical time limits on allowed exercise here in the UK – and I’m really lucky to be able to get out to cycle/walk in open countryside from my home, unlike so many.)
  • We should not be trying to make up for lost productivity by working more hours. (This is particularly important for those who are not used to remote working.)
  • And, if you’re furloughed, use the time wisely. (See above re: learning and development!)

Video conference fatigue

Inspired by Matt Ballantine’s virally-successful flowchart of a few years ago, I tried sketching something. It didn’t catch on in quite the same way, but it does seem to resonate with people.

In spite of my feelings on social video conferencing, I still took part in two virtual pub quizzes this week (James May’s was awful whilst Nick’s Pub Quiz continues to be fun) together with trans-Atlantic family Zooming over the Easter weekend…

Podcast backlog

Not driving and not going out for lunchtime solo dog walks has had a big impact on my podcast-listening…

I now need to schedule some time for catching up on The Archers and the rest of my podcasts!

Remote Work Survival Kit

In what spare time I’ve had, I’ve also been continuing to edit the Remote Work Survival Kit. It’s become a mammoth task, but there are relatively few updates arriving in the doc now. Some of the team have plans to move things forward, but I have a feeling it’s something that will never be “done”, will always be “good enough” and which I may step away from soon.

Possibly the best action film in the world…

My week finished with a family viewing of the 1988 film, “Die Hard”. I must admit it was “a bit more sweary” than I remembered (although nothing that my teenagers won’t already hear at school) but whilst researching the film classification it was interesting to read how it was changed from an 18 to a 15 with the passage of time

Remote working: spare a thought for the managers…

With the current COVID-19/CoronaVirus health crisis, there’s a huge focus on working from home – for those who are able to.

I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 and remote working has been the norm for a good chunk of my career. That means I kind of take it for granted and didn’t really appreciate some of the things that others struggle with – like how to focus, finding space to work, and social isolation. (I’m also an introvert, so social isolation is probably not a huge concern to me!)

Somewhat disappointingly, there also seems to be a surge of articles on “how to work from home” – mostly written by people who seem to have very little real-world experience of it. But there are some notable exceptions:

  • Last year, Matt Haughey (@mathowie) published his tips from 16 years of working from home. Whilst some of the advice about his chosen tech (wide angle lens, special lighting, Apple AirPods and Slack) might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a lot of good advice in Matt’s post.
  • And, earlier this week, my colleague Thom McKiernan (@ThomMcK) wrote an excellent blog post on what he calls the six rituals of working from home. I hadn’t really twigged that working from home is a fairly new experience for Thom (since he came to work at risual) and Thom’s post also flagged some of the bad habits I’ve slipped into over the years: the 08:55 starts; the procrastination; not taking regular breaks; and going back to work in the evening). It’s definitely worth a read.

But equipping people with the tools and mindset to work remotely is only part of the problem. Whilst I believe (hope) that the current crisis will help organisations to discover the benefits of remote and flexible working, some of the major challenges are cultural – things like:

  • Trust: comments like “Oh, ‘working from home’ are you?” don’t help anyone. Sure, some people will slack off (it’s human nature) but they will soon be found out.
  • Presenteeism: linked to trust, this often comes down to a management style that is reliant on seeing people at a desk, between certain hours. It’s nothing to do with how productive they are – just that they are there!
  • Output: so many people are hung up on hours worked. Whilst we owe it to ourselves not to over-do things, or for employers to take advantage of employees, much of today’s work should be output-driven. How effective were you? Did you manage to achieve x and y, that contribute towards your personal goals (which ideally contribute towards the company’s goals)? It’s not about the 9-5 (8-6, or 6-8), it’s about delivery!

For managers, it can be difficult when you have a remote team. I struggle sometimes but in some ways, I’m fortunate that I have a relatively senior group of Architects working with me, who are (or at least should be) self-starters. If they don’t deliver, I will hear soon enough, but then I’ll have another problem in that I’ll have a dissatisfied client. So, ideally, I need to make sure that the team understands what’s expected of them.

My approach is this:

  • Trust: everyone I work with is trusted to “get on with it”. That’s not to say I don’t check in on them but there is a huge reliance on people doing what they have been asked to.
  • Empowerment: I don’t micro-manage. I’ll make sure that we have regular 1:1s, and cross-team communications (see below) but everyone in the team is empowered to make decisions. I’ll be there to support them if they want guidance but I need people to make their own choices too… which means I need to be ready to support them if those choices don’t work out the way they, or I, might have liked.
  • Clear guidance: of course, I have a manager too. And he reports to our Directors. Things get passed down. I may not like everything that “passes my desk” but sometimes you just need to get on with it. Communication to my team about what’s required/expected, why it’s needed and when it needs to be done by is vitally important.
  • Communication: related to the above but making sure there are regular team calls. Even once a fortnight for 45 minutes (because we always over-ran 30 minute meetings and an hour is too long) is an opportunity to disseminate key messages and for everyone to share recent experiences. Every few months we’ll meet face to face for a day and work on something that gets added value from being together – but that’s not really remote working (or advisable in the current climate).
  • Understanding my limits: I’m a practicing Consultant as well as a people manager, so I’m not always there (I also work part-time). This goes hand in hand with the empowerment I mentioned above.
  • Tools: everything I’ve written in this post up to now has been about the people but technology can play its part too. I use Microsoft Teams extensively (you may have another choice – email, Slack, SharePoint, Yammer, or something else):
    • I work in the open – on Teams. Email in an Inbox is hidden whereas a post on Teams is visible to all who may have an interest.
    • When I’m not at work, my out of office reply directs people to post on Teams, where another member of the team might be able to help them.
    • Voice and video calls – Teams. Even my mobile phone is directed to a phone number that ends up in Teams.
    • When I set up a project, I use a Wiki in Teams to set out what is required of people – useful information about the client; what they expect from us; what the project is delivering (and how).
    • When I want to get a message out to a team (either hierarchical or virtual/project), I use Teams to communicate (hopefully clearly).

I’m not sure how successful I am – maybe my team can tell me – but it’s an approach that seems to work reasonably well so far. Hopefully it’s of some use to other people.

If you’re a manager, struggling with managing a remote team – or if you have some advice/guidance to share – please leave a comment below.

Further reading

(The up-to-date version of the Remote Work Survival Kit can always be found in Google Docs, with most of the content on the website). A PDF extract is created periodically.