Remembering Dad

Today is Fathers’ Day. It’s a day when I get a little spoiled by my sons; when my wife can spend some time with her Dad (thankfully fit and well in his 80s); and when I can remember mine, who left us 11 years ago.

This blog post would probably not meet with my Dad’s approval. Firstly, he didn’t really think much of Fathers’ Day – he would have seen it as a modern invention, pure commercialism – and Mothers’ Day (or Mothering Sunday, as my Mum prefers) is much more important. Secondly, my Dad didn’t want us to be sad about his passing. He knew he was ill and kept just how ill he was from us until nearly the end, in order to avoid any fuss. And finally, my Dad would probably have been confused by my public (possibly slightly narcissistic) presence on social media – why would one possibly blog about their feelings? (The truth is, that I find the writing cathartic – and if it helps anyone else, then it might as well be here to see.)

Growing up, the biggest thing I remember about my Dad was his love of railways. That interest persisted through his entire life (and beyond – some of Dad’s ashes were placed in the firebox of a steam locomotive – “Battle of Britain” class, 34070 Manston – as it blasted away from Norden towards Corfe Castle on the Swanage Railway). Whilst my Mum might not have been enthralled at the visits to steam railways and track-side car parks when I was growing up, it was an interest he was later able to share with his second wife and he had a role within the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society (RCTS), who ran an obituary for him in their July 2009 magazine, the Railway Observer. Railways were something my Dad and I shared (just like cycling is for me and my eldest son) and, whilst I may have hidden my interest in order find my place socially, it’s still something I can use to remember the sorts of things I would have done with Dad.

Another thing about Dad – he didn’t do anything by halves. If it was worth doing, then it was worth doing right. And that shone through after he got involved in Scouting – initially because the Cub Scout Pack that I had just joined was short of leaders (I now know that all Scout Groups are always short of leaders, not just the 29th Northampton Sunnyside) – but Dad’s involvement with Scouting continued for many years after my brother and I had progressed through the movement.

Before Scouting, my Dad had served in the Territorial Army (TA) – initially with 52 Transit Co. RAOC, later transferring to 118 Recovery Co. REME – after having been an Army Cadet in his teens. As a small boy, I recall him marching for Remembrance Sunday, as well as occasional visits to “The Drill Hall” in Northampton. I also remember Dad going away to attend two-week training camps each year (the only time he ever left the British Isles was to Germany “on camp”). Regretfully, I later learned that I was the reason Dad left the TA – after a particularly fraught period for my Mum when a 7- or 8-year-old me had obviously caused trouble at home. I don’t have it any more but I do remember a postcard from my Dad, featuring a steam locomotive on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, saying something like “I hope you’re behaving better for your Mum now”. Aah.

For a while, after Dad’s passing, I thought of him every day. Over the years, it’s been less frequent – but there are still moments when I wish I could seek his opinion on something (though we would certainly have disagreed on Brexit).

There are moments of serendipity too – like when I was on my way to a job interview for a role in the Office of the CITO at Fujitsu, and I noticed a nearby street name – Kenrick Place in Marylebone (my Dad’s name was Kenrick). After that, everything seemed to click into place: I got the job; and it is still one of the most enjoyable roles in my career so far, one which I only left after a succession of management changes.

More recently, I discovered that, after school, my Dad had started a student apprenticeship with English Electric, whilst studying for a Diploma in Technology, Electrical Engineering at Staffordshire College of Technology, on Beaconside in Stafford. These days I work for a company called risual, whose offices are on a Technology Park at… yes, Beaconside in Stafford. This seems to me to be an amazing coincidence, considering that my Dad grew up in Shrewsbury and I live near Milton Keynes – neither of us has any real link to Stafford that I know of, apart from this!

These days, I think less often about Dad – but I do often find myself examining my eldest son’s personality traits, which are very similar to mine, which is similarly close to my Dad’s. Until redundancy came in his 50s, Dad was an Internal Auditor for Nationwide Building Society (which was previously the Anglia Building Society, and before that the Northampton Town and County Building Society). Auditing fitted with my Dad’s desire for order and structure – some may even say pedantry. The same attention to detail is something that my colleagues suffer from in my documentation reviews. It’s also helped me over the years in working through technical problems, though it took me time to learn how to deal with ambiguity and a lack of precision (for example when writing bid responses).

As for my own Fathering abilities, I’ve grown into the role over the years. As much as I said I didn’t want to miss my children growing up, I don’t remember a lot about the early days – it was all a bit of a blur. I do know that my boys getting older was a big factor in my decision to work part-time though. It’s great to be able to disappear to the woods on a Friday afternoon to do some mountain-biking. It also gives me a bit more time free over the weekend to take part in the boys’ activities; or even just to watch a film together – my 13-year-old is enjoying working through all the James Bond films with me (though I do cringe at some of the “social” elements, which have not stood up well to the passing of time).

My boys are growing into two fantastic young men – of whom I’m extremely proud. I love the bottom-left picture in this tweet – taken on Fathers’ Day 2019 – with the customary cake that they bake for me each year:

And this was taken earlier today, as I was part-way through writing this post:

Hopefully, they will have good memories of me when they grow up and I’m gone. Though I intend to be around for a while longer yet – Dad’s passing was one of the drivers for me to increase my own fitness with my “Fit at 40” challenge – I’m still very active and I’m pleased to be getting rid of the last few years’ excess weight and pushing to reduce it down even further as I approach 50. Only this morning I managed to put on a “one day I’ll fit into this” t-shirt that I bought 2-3 years ago, which is a great mental boost.

So, wherever you are Dad – and I know you weren’t religious but you thought there must be some higher being responsible for this world – I hope you are looking down on me and smiling. I’m pretty sure you’d approve of the life I’ve carved out. A good job, a nice house, a wife, two sons and a dog. Well, maybe not the dog… but I think you’d have warmed to her too…

Kenrick Wilson: 12/9/1945-9/5/2009. Riding on a heritage railway somewhere, in his RCTS Polo Shirt.
Kenrick Wilson: 12/9/1945-9/5/2009.
Riding on a heritage railway somewhere, in his RCTS Polo Shirt.

Weeknote 22/2020: holidaying on the Costa del Great Ouse (plus password resets, cycling performance, video-conferencing equipment and status lights)

In the last few hours of 2019, my family planned our holiday. We thought we had it all sorted – fly to Barcelona, spend the weekend sight-seeing (including taking my football-mad son to Camp Nou) and then head up the coast for a few more days in the Costa Brava. Flights were booked, accomodation was sorted, trips were starting to get booked up.

We hadn’t counted on a global pandemic.

To be clear, I’m thankful that myself, my family and friends, and those around us are (so far) safe and well. By April, I didn’t much like the prospect of getting into a metal tube with 160+ strangers and flying for 3 hours in each direction. We’re also incredibly lucky to be able to access open countryside within a couple of hundred metres of our house, so daily exercise is still possible and enjoyable, with very few people around, most of the time.

I still took the week off work though. After cancelling my Easter break, it’s been a while since I took annual leave and even my Furlough period was not exactly relaxing, so I could do with a rest.

The weather has been glorious in the UK this week too, making me extra-glad we re-landscaped the garden last year and I’ve spent more than a few hours just chilling on our deck.

Unfortunately, we also got a taste of what it must be like to live in a tourist hotspot, as hundreds of visitors descended on our local river each day this weekend. It seems the Great Ouse at Olney has featured in a list of top places to swim in Britain, which was recently featured in The Times. It may sound NIMBYish, but please can they stay away until this crisis is over?

As for the holiday, hopefully, we’ll get the money refunded for the cancelled flights (if the airlines don’t fold first – I’m sure that if they refunded everyone they would be insolvent, which is my theory for why they are not increasing staff levels to process refunds more quickly); FC Barcelona contacted me weeks ago to extend my ticket and offer a refund if we can’t use it; and AirBnB had the money back in our account within days of us being forced to pull out due to cancelled flights.

(I did spend a few weeks effectively “playing chicken” with easyJet to see if they would cancel first, or if it would be us. An airline-cancelled flight can be refunded, but a consumer-cancelled flight would be lost, unless we managed to claim on travel insurance).

Even though I’ve had a week off, I’ve still been playing with tech. Some of my “projects” should soon have their own blog post (an Intel NUC for a new Zwift PC; migrating my wife’s personal email out of my Office 365 subscription to save me a licence; and taking a look at Veeam Backup for Office 365), whilst others get a brief mention below…

Please stop resetting user passwords every x days!

Regularly resetting passwords (unless a compromise is suspected) is an old way of thinking. Unfortunately, many organisations still make users change their password every few weeks. Mine came up for renewal this week and I struggled to come up with an acceptable, yet memorable passphrase. So, guess what? I wrote it down!

I use a password manager for most of my credentials but that doesn’t help with my Windows logon (before I’ve got to my browser). Biometric security like Windows Hello helps too (meaning I rarely use the password, but am even less likely to remember it when needed).

Here’s the National Cyber Security Centre (@NCSC)’s password guidance infographic (used with permission) and the associated password guidance:

This list of 100,000 commonly used passwords that will get blocked by some systems may also be useful – from Troy Hunt (@TroyHunt) but provided to me by my colleague Gavin Ashton (@gvnshtn).

Performance analysis for cyclists, by cyclists

I’ve been watching with interest as my occasional cycling buddy (and now Azure MVP) James Randall (@AzureTrenches) has been teasing development on his new cycling performance platform side project. This week he opened it up for early access and I’ve started to road test it… it looks really promising and I’m super impressed that James created this. Check it out at For Cyclists By Cyclists.

Podcasting/video conferencing upgrades in my home office

With video conferencing switching from something-I-use-for-internal-calls to something-I-use-to-deliver-consulting-engagements, I decided to upgrade the microphone and lighting in my home office. After seeking some advice from those who know about such things (thanks Matt Ballantine/@ballantine70 and the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group), I purchased a Marantz MPM-1000U microphone, boom arm, shock mount, and a cheap rechargeable LED photography light with tripod.

It’s early days yet but initial testing suggests that the microphone is excellent (although the supplied USB A-B cable is too short for practical use). I had also considered the Blue Yeti/Raspberry but it seems to have been discontinued.

As for the photo lighting, it should be just enough to illuminate my face as the north-facing window to my left often leaves me silhouetted on calls.

Smart lighting to match my Microsoft Teams presence

I haven’t watched the Microsoft Build conference presentations yet, but I heard that Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) featured Isaac Levin (@isaacrlevin)’s PresenceLight app to change the lighting according to his Windows Theme. The app can also be used to change Hue or LIFX lighting along with Teams presence status, so that’s in place now outside my home office.

It’s not the first time I’ve tried something like this:

One particularly useful feature is that I can be logged in to one tenant with the PresenceLight app and another in Microsoft Teams on the same PC – that means that I can control my status with my personal persona so I may be available to family but not to colleagues (or vice versa).

One more thing…

It may not be tech-related, but I also learned the differences between wheat and barley this week. After posting this image on Instagram, Twitter was quick to correct me:

As we’re at the end of May, that’s almost certainly not wheat…

Weeknote 17/2020: Geeking out and taking advantage of the sunshine

Another week of socially-distanced, furloughed fun: here are some of the highlights…

“Playing” with tech: Azure Sphere

I took a break from exam study this week, partly because I had some internal meetings that made a big hole in the calendar and diverted my attention. Instead, I finally got my Azure Sphere Starter Kit IoT device working, with both Microsoft samples and with some more practical advice from Brian Willess at Element 14.

I’m blogging my progress (slightly behind the actual learning) but over the course of a few days, supported by Brian’s blog posts, I managed to get the sensor readings from my device working locally, with Azure IoT Hub and Time Series Insights, and then finally in Azure IoT Central.

The next stop is to try and write some code of my own rather than using other people’s – it’s been a while since I wrote any C/C++!

Blogging

I also wrote some blog posts:

Other geek stuff

I finished watching “Devs“. No spoilers here, but the ending did leave me a little flat…

I didn’t spot any SpaceX Starlink satellites, despite a few attempts and some very clear evenings. This website seemed particularly helpful, although the developer (@modeless) had to remove the Google Street View content when the site got popular.

Being “too British”

Thursday meant my usual trip to the local market, followed by the supermarket, buying provisions for my family and others. Because product availability is a bit “hit and miss”, in the supermarket (and because I prioritise supporting local businesses over the big retailers, where I can), I bought some peppers (capsicums) from the market greengrocer. There was no price displayed but, as he bagged them, he said they were expensive… and he was not wrong: £3/lb, I think! But I was too embarrassed to say “no thanks at that price” so bought them anyway. Lesson learned…

To add insult to injury, when I got to Sainsbury’s they had plenty, at a much more reasonable price…

“On holiday”, in the garden

The week wrapped up with sunshine, low wind and reasonably high temperatures (19°C is not bad for April in England!). After a decent bike ride with my son (permissible under the current social distancing advice), I made the time to just relax a bit…

What a great way to end the week!

Weeknote 16/2020: new certifications, electronic bicycle gears, and a new geek TV series

Another week, another post with some of the things I encountered this week that might be useful/of interest to others…

Fundamentally certified

Last week, I mentioned I had passed the Microsoft Power Platform Fundamentals exam (and I passed the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals and Microsoft 365 Fundamentals exams several months ago). This week, I added Dynamics 365 Fundamentals to that list, giving me the complete set of Microsoft Fundamentals certifications.

That’s 3 exams in 7 “working” days since I was furloughed, so I think next week I’ll give the exams a bit of a rest, knock out some blog posts around the things I’ve learned and maybe play with some tech too…

Website move

Easter Monday also saw this website move to a new server. The move was a bit rushed (I missed some communications from my hosting provider) and had some DNS challenges, but we took the opportunity to force HTTPS and it seems a little more responsive to me too (though I haven’t run any tests). For a long time, I’ve been considering moving to Azure App Service – if only for reasons of geek curiosity – but the support I receive from my current provider means I’m pretty sure it will be staying put for the time being.

The intersection of cycling and technology

Those who follow me on Twitter are probably aware that for large parts of the year, I’m “Cyclist’s Dad”. At weekends in the autumn, I can usually be found in a muddy field somewhere (or driving to/from one), acting as pit crew, principal sponsor and Directeur Sportif for my eldest son – who loves to race his bike, with cyclo-cross as his favourite discipline.

This weekend, we should have been at Battle on the Beach (not technically cyclo-cross but still an off-road race) but that’s been postponed until the Autumn, for obvious reasons.

Instead, we’ve been having fun as my son upgraded his CX bike to electronic gears, using a Shimano Ultegra/GRX Di2 mix.

It’s all been his work – except a little help from Olney Bikes to swap over the bottom bracket (as I lack the tools for changing press-fit BBs) – and the end result is pretty spectacular (thanks also to Corley Cycles/@CorleyCycles with their help sourcing some brake hose inserts at short notice). I’ve never had the good fortune (or budget) for electronic shifting on my bikes but having ridden his yesterday (long story involving a mid-ride puncture on my bike) I was blown away by the difference that all the components he’s swapped to save weight have made and the smooth shifting. Oh yes, and it’s finished with a gold chain. I mean, who doesn’t need a gold chain on their bike?

Electronic shifting has its critics but first impressions, based on a couple of off-road rides this weekend, are very positive. Maybe I need to get a couple of newspaper delivery rounds to start saving for upgrades on my bikes…

TV

Right, it’s getting late now and Sunday night is a “school night” (especially true since my Furlough Leave is being spent focusing on learning and development). I’m off to watch an episode of the BBC’s new drama, “Devs”, before bed. I’m 4 episodes in now and it’s a bit weird but it’s got me hooked…

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

Weeknote 14/2020: Podcasting, furlough and a socially-distanced birthday

We’re living in strange times at the moment, so it seems as good as ever an opportunity to bring back my attempts to blog at least weekly with a brief precis of my week.

In the beginning

The week started as normal. Well, sort of. The new normal. Like everyone else in the UK, I’m living in times of enforced social distancing, with limited reasons to leave the house. Thankfully, I can still exercise once a day – which for me is either a dog walk, a run or a bike ride.

On the work front, I had a couple of conversations around potential client work, but was also grappling with recording Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) skills for my team. Those who’ve known me since my Fujitsu days may know that I’m no fan of SFIA and it was part of the reason I chose to leave that company… but it seems I can’t escape it.

Podcasting

On Monday evening, I stood in for Chris Weston (@ChrisWeston) as a spare “W” on the WB-40 Podcast. Matt Ballantine (@Ballantine70) and I had a chat about the impact of mass remote working, and Matt quizzed me about retro computing. I was terrible in the quiz but I think I managed to sound reasonably coherent in the interview – which was a lot of fun!

Furlough

A few weeks ago, most people in the UK would never have heard of “Furlough Leave”. For many, it’s become common parlance now, as the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme becomes reality for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of employees. It’s a positive thing – it means that businesses can claim some cash from the Government to keep them afloat whilst staff who are unable to work due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus crisis restrictions are sent home. In theory, with businesses still liquid, we will all have jobs to go back to, once we’re allowed to return to some semblance of normality.

On Tuesday, I was part of a management team drawing up a list of potentially affected staff (including myself), based on strict criteria around individuals’ current workloads. On Wednesday it was confirmed that I would no longer be required to attend work for the next three weeks from that evening. I can’t provide any services for my employer – though I should stay in touch and personal development is encouraged.

Social distancing whilst shopping for immediate and extended family

So, Thursday morning, time to shop for provisions: stock is returning to the supermarket shelves after a relatively small shift in shopping habits completely disrupted the UK’s “just in time” supply chain. It’s hardly surprising as a nation prepared to stay in for a few weeks, with no more eating at school/work, no pubs/cafés/restaurants, and the media fuelling chaos with reports of “panic buying”.

Right now, after our excellent independent traders (like Olney Butchers), the weekly town market is the best place to go with plenty of produce, people keeping their distance, and fresh air. Unfortunately, with a family of four to feed (and elderly relatives to shop for too), it wasn’t enough – which meant trawling through two more supermarkets and a convenience store to find everything – and a whole morning gone. I’m not sure how many people I interacted with but it was probably too many, despite my best efforts.

Learning and development

With some provisions in the house, I spent a chunk of time researching Amazon Web Services certifications, before starting studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Exam. It should be a six hour course but I can’t speed up/slow down the video, so I keep on stopping and taking notes (depending on the presenter) which makes it slow going…

I did do some Googling though, and found that a combination of Soundflower and Google Docs could be used to transcribe the audio!

I also dropped into a Microsoft virtual launch event for the latest Microsoft Business Applications (Dynamics 365 and Power Platform) updates. There’s lots of good stuff happening there – hopefully I’ll turn it into a blog post soon…

#NicksPubQuiz

Saturday night was a repeat of the previous week, taking part in “Nick’s Pub Quiz”. For those who haven’t heard of it – Nick Heath (@NickHeathSport) is a sports commentator who, understandably, is a bit light on the work front right now so he’s started running Internet Pub Quizzes, streaming on YouTube, for a suggested £1/person donation. Saturday night was his sixth (and my family’s second) – with over 1500 attendees on the live stream. Just like last week, my friend James and his family also took part (in their house) with us comparing scores on WhatsApp for a bit of competition!

Another year older

Ending the week on a high, Sunday saw my birthday arrive (48). We may not be able to go far, but I did manage a cycle ride with my eldest son, then back home for birthday cake (home-made Battenberg cake), and a family BBQ. And the sun shone. So, all in all, not a bad end to the week.

Why landscaping my garden was just like an IT project

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been redeveloping the garden at home and the whole experience has made me reflect on the way that IT projects are often delivered…

Who’s been developing the garden?

Well, when I say “I’ve”, that may be pushing it slightly… I paid other people to do significant chunks of it but that’s the first similarity. I started work and quickly realised that it would a) take me a long time and b) involve the use of tools and machinery that I don’t have so I needed to engage specialist assistance.

This is just like my customers who have something in mind that aligns with their strategic goals and objectives but they lack the resources or experience and so look externally for assistance.

Getting some quotes

Having decided that I needed help, the next step was to get some idea of what it might cost. After speaking to a selection of potential contractors, I knew that my budget was hopelessly optimistic and I’d either need to scale the plans back or dig deeper into my pockets.

Again, just as in my professional world, everyone has their idea of what something might cost but sometimes that’s just not realistic.

How quickly can we start?

Having agreed on a price and a scope, the next question was how soon? Actually, for me this was pretty good: 2 weeks to start and it should take about 2 weeks. Great. Let’s do this.

In my professional life, I come across procurement periods that can run for months but then the project must happen right now. It’s not realistic to expect a professional services company to have people waiting around for your order (if they do, then maybe ask why). Expect to take a few weeks to engage.

The flurry of activity

The big day came. My drive was filled up with a skip and several tons of aggregate, sand and cement. Materials came and went. People were on site. Earth was moved. Things happened.

It always feels good when something becomes real. Progress on any project is good, especially after waiting a while to get going. But don’t expect a smooth ride the whole way…

The first sprint delivered

Whilst my family took a break, work continued at home. Drainage was installed, wooden sleepers were built up into steps and walls and a stone patio was laid.

That sounds like a successful first sprint. Step one completed, demonstrable progress and a milestone payment due.

Slippage

But hang on, we’re already 9 days into a 2-week project and there are still many items on the backlog. The weather had either been too wet or too hot. And there were delays from the skip hire company that led to inefficiencies in removing materials from the site. We were making progress but the timeline (and so the budget) was starting to slip

Many projects will have unforeseen issues. That’s life. Managing them is what makes the difference. And the key to that is communication between client and supplier.

Scope creep

What about the electrics? I had already spotted that they were missing from the quote but there was armoured cabling to be buried before the garden was completed. And that meant bringing in another contractor. Thankfully, he had worked with the landscaping team before, so he could fit around them without delay (at least for the first fix).

More contractors mean dependencies. Even when teams have worked together previously, there will be some complications to work out. Again, good project management helps.

When will this end? And what about the budget?

Sprint 2 was more of a jog. There was still earth to move, a pergola to be built, a concrete base for my “man cave” to be poured and turf to be laid. Time was ticking – the gap I’d left between the landscaping and the project work packages I was due to deliver myself (log cabin construction, garden furniture arrival) was shrinking – and with work taking place on a time and materials basis the budget was stretched.

Time for a meeting. Let’s agree what’s still left to do and how long it will take, lock down the budget and push towards completion.

I have to admit this was frustrating. But I’ve seen it in my world of IT too. Want a fixed price? Be prepared to pay more as the risk taken on by the organisation delivering the work needs to be factored in. Time and materials can work both ways (finish early, pay less – or to project over-runs) and after a while, patience will wear thin. Again, communication is key. Establish what’s left to do in the agreed scope, nail down the timescales and push for completion.

And as for the other work packages, very few projects exist in isolation. There’s nearly always an entire programme of works to deliver to meet the stated goals/objectives. Some realism is required about how dependencies will align because if you expect the various work packages to run on from each other, you should be prepared for the occasional disappointment.

Phase 1 complete

Three and a bit weeks after work started, phase 1 was complete. And it looked great. All the pain was worthwhile. Just in time to start construction of the log cabin on that base.

phase 1 of the garden completed

60% over time, 7% over budget. Not wonderful stats but also not atypical.

Postscript: Phase 2 delayed

The log cabin arrived on time but was damaged on delivery. And it would take 2 weeks for a replacement roof apex to be manufactured and shipped. With most of the materials on-site though, it needed to be built as far as it could be and then wrapped up to protect it from the elements.

Sometimes, even the best planning can come undone. Supplier contracts might help with speedy resolution of issues but sometimes there’s nothing to be done except to sit and wait…

WB-40 appearances

Several years ago, I met Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70), when he was working at Microsoft. Over the years, we’ve had many conversations in person, online and over social media and I’ve been listening to his WB-40 podcast with Chris Weston (@chrisweston) since they started it in 2016.

WB-40 Podcast logo

In recent months, I’ve been fortunate to feature a few times on the podcast:

Appearing on WB-40 (and on The Flexible Movement) has made me think a little about maybe starting a podcast of my own. James Bannan (@JamesBannan) and I had a podcast called Coalface Tech for a while a few years ago but we found working on opposite sides of the planet and recording decent audio challenging at the time. At the moment I struggle to write blog posts so, let’s see if that ever gets off the drawing board.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the intersection of IT and business then I recommend checking out WB-40, which will also transition from its online form to the physical world next week, with a live event in London.

Mark and Matt’s big bike ride for Kandersteg


Many readers of this blog will be aware that my family is a big part of my life – I have two sons who are growing up far too quickly! Cycling is another big part of my life – it’s one of the ways that I keep fit and it’s also one of my eldest son (Matthew)’s passions, which means I spend quite a bit of time supporting him in various cycling-related endeavours.

Another big part of our family’s activities relates to Scouting. I was a Cub Scout, a Scout, a Venture Scout (for a short while) and a Cub Scout Instructor in my youth – and I got a tremendous amount out of that experience. My sons are both Scouts too… which leads to this blog post…

Back in November, Matthew was lucky enough to be one of just 16 Scouts and Explorer Scouts across Milton Keynes District to be selected for one of two international trips in 2019 – to the International Scout Centre in Kandersteg, Switzerland and the World Scout Jamboree in the United States. Matthew was selected to go to Kandersteg and needs to raise quite a chunk of money to fund this amazing international trip.

As well as various group-related activities, Matthew was looking for an individual challenge that he could carry out in the hope that friends, family and other people who would like to support the cause could sponsor him.

Cycle route from Milton Keynes to Paddington Basin via the Grand Union CanalMatthew and I decided that a sponsored bike ride would be a good idea. But it had to be demanding. Not a few laps of the country park but something that would be a significant challenge for a 13 year-old – so we settled on a bike ride from Milton Keynes to London (in a day).

Because of the risks involved with road riding, we decided to use the Grand Union Canal, which actually makes it longer and a bit harder because not all of the surface is tarmac.

You can see our route on the image in this post – starting at Milton Keynes Central station, and ending at Paddington Basin (just along from the Microsoft offices at Paddington Central…).

I may have done a few 100 mile rides on the road for “fun” but ~70 miles (111km) on canal towpaths will be a stretch even for me… let alone for Matthew, whose furthest ride before we started training was 26 miles (40km). We’ve been training (up to around 75km) and this Saturday we’re hoping to do the ride for real.

Matthew on his bike, in Scout uniformSo, that’s what we’re doing – my ask of you is this:

If you’ve ever found my blog useful, or you have other reasons to support my son in his fundraising (it’s amazing how many people have themselves been on similar trips that have made a huge difference to their lives), please consider donating at Matthew’s crowd-funding page.

I’m sure I’ll be tweeting progress on Saturday… in the meantime – thank you in anticipation of your support.

If you’d like to know more about what we’re doing, there’s info on Matthew’s crowdfunding page and you can find details about the Kandersteg International Scout Centre on their website.

Kandersteg International Scout Centre logo

Thank you for your support.

[Update 11/6/18: Matthew and I completed the ride on Saturday and he was awesome. I’m incredibly proud of him. He got a bit tired around the 50-mile point but kept on powering through and nailed it. And then an over-zealous security guard at Paddington Basin’s Pocket Park (Merchant Square) told us we had to move our bikes…

Thanks to everyone who supported us on this endeavour – we smashed Matt’s fundraising target for the ride (raising nearly all the money we need for the trip from just this one effort!).

Huge credit is due to the family and friends who joined us at key points on the route as well to my wife Nikki and my youngest son Ben, who followed us along the route and provided food, drink and support.]

Weeknote 11a: A more relaxed pace of life (Week 8, 2018)


Last week, for the first time in ages, I got my weeknote out on time. Indeed, I wrote it on Thursday night, published on Friday afternoon, and then ran away to The Cotswolds.
Restored Massey Ferguson Red Tractor at Vegetable MattersMy wife and I spent the weekend in and around Chipping Campden with great weather, wonderful views, fantastic food and a lovely hotel. And on more than one occasion I felt like I was living in an episode of The Archers (not just because of the restored tractor at the local farm shop).
It was just a more relaxed pace of life in a rural idyll. A place where people are friendly and they talk to one another. And a trip into Moreton-on-the-Marsh showed that many businesses remain closed on Sundays – which is no bad thing either.
On Sunday afternoon, we drove back over the beautiful Cotswolds and the Northamptonshire uplands – then we got to Northampton and boom! Into the chaos of Sunday afternoon the M1, massive distribution centres, traffic, modern life…
It made me think that not all progress is good!