Weeknote 13/2021: Project progress and procrastination

This has been a short week (with only 3 days at work) but I’m pretty pleased with what I achieved in that time:

  • Publishing the Architecture Toolbox I’ve been working on for a few months. That sounds a bit grand for what’s really just a library of re-usable artefacts but, hey! I finally realised that I can’t do everything (perfection is the enemy of good) so it’s time to let it fly and let others contribute…
  • Starting to get under the covers of a new engagement with a local authority client where we’re carrying out some digital service design. It’s fascinating for me to learn from my colleague Richard Quayle (@RichardSQuayle) around concepts like the locus of control, the negatives of a command and control structure (cf. Edward Deming’s approach), failure demand – and much more as we jointly deliver this Business Consulting engagement.
  • A very insightful chat with a client where we’re looking to engage around an Architecture service. It was refreshing to hear that they find TOGAF too conceptual and want to take a more pragmatic approach around EA on a Page (which I referenced in my post on developing IT architecture skills).

I’ve struggled with procrastination/distraction this week too. The challenges of back to back online meetings are obvious but it seems meetings spaced out through the day can be equally problematic. The challenge is that they leave no time to really get into flow before the next meeting is due.

Anyway, both of these cartoons resonated with me…

(in the week that a the MV Ever Given got stuck and closed the Suez Canal, for 6 days.)

Back in the world of work, Alex (@LyleD4D)’s lateral thinking let me embed an msteams:// link in a SharePoint page, by changing the protocol section of the URI to https://.

Meanwhile, my colleague Richard Kleiser (@ThatRichK) introduced me to this diagram from Dave Clarke, which attempts to visualise the concept of Enterprise Architecture:

And that reminds me of something I meant to mention in last week’s weeknote – Rich Goidel (@RichGoidel)’s Strategy vs. Tactics cartoon, which featured in my Microsoft Catalyst pre-sales training:

I also started to see the direction that motoring is heading in. As electrification reduces revenues from servicing, software will become the next subscription opportunity.

Although it was probably intended as an April Fool, What Two Figures (WTF) pretty much sums up my feelings about What Three Words.

Outside work, the UK’s easing of “lockdown” restrictions saw the return to Caveman Conditioning – training outdoors again instead of over Zoom!

I also completed some online learning around First Aid Essentials in Sport. This is a requirement for my certification as a British Cycling coach but I’ve struggled to complete an approved course during “lockdown”.

A look ahead to the weekend

This weekend will see me:

  • Meeting up with another family for a country walk (something we’ve not been able to do for a while!).
  • Returning to Youth Training at my local cycle club (the first time we’ve been able to run a session since I became a coach).
  • Resuming Cyclist’s Dad/Directeur Sportif duties as my eldest son returns to racing.

It will probably also involve consumption of Easter Eggs (I did buy rather a lot of Creme Eggs this week).

Talking of Creme Eggs, Natalie Jackson (@NatalieDellar) alerted me to this post with “groovy things to do with Crème Eggs“.

And next week…

In addition to celebrating the 49th anniversary of my arrival on this planet, next week will be mostly spent at home including some time doing geeky hobby stuff in the Man Cave. There will also be the final assessment for my First Aid Essentials in Sport certification (which will be interesting over a Zoom call, to which I’ve been asked to bring a pillow and a bandage!).

This week in photos

Weeknote 12/2021: IT architecture, design thinking and hybrid work

I’ve tried writing weeknotes a few time over the years and they have been pretty sporadic. So, let’s give it another go… this should probably be weeknote 28 (or something like that) but it seems last year I named them after the week number in the year… so let’s try that again.

Because I haven’t done this for a while, let’s add some bonus notes for last week too…

Last week:

This week:

  • I published my long-form blog post on developing IT architecture skills, spun out from conversations with Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) but also part of the work I’m doing to develop my team at risual.
  • My technical training was interrupted to complete the Microsoft Catalyst pre-sales training. It started off as what I may have described as a “buzzword-filled gamified virtual learning experience”. Then, I started to learn some consulting skills as Rudy Dillenseger brought Design-Led Thinking (aka Design Thinking) to life.
  • It was interesting to see Microsoft recommending the use of Klaxoon with Teams when facilitating remote workshops, which made me speculate about the future of Microsoft Whiteboard.
  • Was a week of virtual calls – even in the evenings. I had Zoom calls with British Cycling and for some financial advice but also a really pleasurable couple of hours on Signal chatting with an old mate I haven’t seen or spoken to in a while, who now lives overseas. It was definitely one of those moments when I appreciated a good friendship and it made me think “we should do this more often”.
  • Just when I thought I’d handed off some project management duties to a real PM, they bounced back at me like a boomerang…
  • The UK Government’s comments on returning to work (ahem, we have been working, just not in the office) reminded me of a post I wrote at the start of the year. Hybrid working is the future folks – we ain’t going back to 2019

The last couple of weeks’ photos

Working out loud

For years, I’ve been active on social media. I’ve been blogging here even longer. Both of these are examples of working out loud, but they have their limits. I can’t talk specifics about clients – and it just wouldn’t be professional to say to my colleagues “read my blog” when they ask a question – but there really is a place for working out loud in business.

Collaboration in the enterprise

A decade ago, I would have been having conversations about enterprise social networks. The CIO would have been worried about people using Yammer (not owned by Microsoft at the time) in the way that we worry today about governance with groups using WhatsApp or Facebook. Meanwhile, those looking to drive innovation would be saying “hey, have you seen x – it looks like a great way to collaborate” (much like the conversations I’ve had recently around Altspace VR and Gather).

Back in the more mundane reality of the tools we have available to us, there are some pretty common factors:

  • Most organisations use email.
  • Quite a lot have some form of instant messaging.
  • Many have deployed chat-based collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. (Many more have accelerated their deployments of these tools over the last 12 months.)

As for enterprise social networks. Well, Yammer is still there, in the melee with SharePoint and Teams and other Microsoft 365 tools… maybe I’ll write about that one day too…

Wearing many hats

For the last couple of months, I’ve been juggling my normal role as Principal Architect with some Project Management. It’s tempting to say it’s only highlight reporting and resource booking (that’s how it was positioned to me) but there’s far more too it than that. I’m now handing over to a real Project Manager, because the project really deserves more than I can give to it.

I also have a team to manage. It’s not a big team. I like to think it’s small but perfectly formed. Most of the time, my direct reports (who are all experienced) don’t need a lot of input but, when they do, they can (and should) expect my full attention. Added to which, I am actively working to grow the team (from both the perspective of impact and headcount), so there’s a lot of planning going on. Planning that needs space to think.

And I deliver some consulting engagements myself. Typically that’s working with clients on strategies or forward plans but sometimes getting involved in the delivery.

I also work part-time. So all of the above has to fit into 4 days a week.

This is where working out loud helps.

You see, there is no way I can keep everything in my head. Tools like Microsoft To Do might help me with the daily/weekly/monthly task lists but there’s lots of surrounding minutiae too. Open loops need to be closed… I need a trusted filing system (see Getting Things Done).

When I’m not at work, or not available because I’m consulting, or because I’m working to support one of my team, things need to carry on happening. I don’t want things to stop because I haven’t responded. For those who have read The Phoenix Project, I don’t want to become Brent.

Working out loud is the answer.

Working out loud

At risual, when we start working with a client, we create a Microsoft Teams team. Inside that team, I create a channel for each project. Each channel will have a wiki (or similar) that describes what we’re doing for that client, what the expected outcomes are, and any key milestones. I also include standard text to use to describe the client or their project. And I include details of nearby hotels, car parks, public transport and anything else that might be helpful for our Consultants (or at least I did in The Before Times – when we used to travel).

When I manage a project, I post in the channel each week who’s working on what. I didn’t think it made much difference until, one week when I forgot, I was asked for the missing post!

I also encourage project team members to communicate with me in the open, on Teams. Sure, there are some conversations that happen on email because they involve the client but, in general, a message on Teams is better than one stuck in my Inbox. If I’m not available, someone else can help.

I do the same for my organisational team. Of course there will be some confidential messages that may happen over email (and I prefer to speak if there’s anything sensitive). But, in general, I don’t want things getting lost in my Inbox. Got an announcement? Teams. Need to bounce some ideas around? Teams. Let’s collaborate in the open. There’s no need to hide things.

Is that all?

This might not sound like much, but it’s a real mind shift for some people, who work in isolation and who rely on email for communication.

But I am not done. There’s always more to do. New tools come and go. My life doesn’t get any less busy. I am as stressed and anxious as always. And one of my sons told me that he doesn’t want to do my job because “it just involves getting annoyed with people”. Hmm… it seems I have more work to do…

“Perfection is the enemy of good” is a phrase often attributed to Voltaire, and my next step is to get more comfortable with sharing early drafts. I will generally share a document or a presentation for feedback when it’s nearly done, but I really must start sharing them when they’re barely started.

Do you have some ideas for working out loud? I’d love to hear more examples of how I can make this way of working more common. What do you see as the advantages? Or are there any disadvantages? Comments are open below.

Featured image by Harsh Vardhan Art from Pixabay.

What’s the future of the office?

2020 saw huge changes in the way that we work. The COVID-19 novel coronavirus forced home working for millions of people, and left office blocks empty for weeks or months at a time. As we enter 2021, will that change? And will we ever go back to our previous work patterns?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d have to answer that with a “yes” to the question of change and a “no” to the return to 2019 working patterns.

Unfortunately for commercial landlords (and so for large chunks of our pension funds), the genie is out of the bottle. Remote and flexible working is now normal. Physical distancing requirements mean that offices can’t operate at their previous capacity. We simply cannot go back to a world whether offices squeeze people into banks of hot desks based on a 6 desks for every 10 people model. And as for lifts – pah! You’d better get used to climbing the stairs.

Even my rather poor fortune-telling skills come to the conclusion that we have to find a new way to use office space. And conversation with others more intellectual than I has led me to the conclusion that, rather than offices being the place for people to meet and come together to do work, they will be the places of safety for those who cannot work at home.

Offices as a meeting space

In April 2020, I’d probably have said that we still need somewhere to go and meet. Humans need contact, and some of our best work is done together. I’m itching to go back into an office, grab some pens and write on the walls, as I get increasingly excited by a concept and thrash out the details with my colleagues.

As 2020 continued, we got used to doing everything on a small screen. Whilst I seem to hear nothing but universal hatred for Microsoft Whiteboard (personally, I can’t see the problem) and tools like Miro are lauded as the latest and greatest, we are getting used to working as remote teams.

The problem comes when we have a hybrid approach with groups of people “in the room” and groups outside, as Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) has noted on multiple occasions, including the Twitter thread below:

Offices as a place of security

Some work needs to be performed in a secure environment. Arguably that could still be remote (digitally secure) but if analogue paperwork is involved then that could be a challenge.

And not everyone has a place at home in which to work, securely. For some, a kitchen counter, shared with children for their homework, may not be the best place for work. Similarly those who live with parents or in a shared house with friends may only have a bedroom in which to work. If your work is harrowing (e.g. social work), do you really want to sleep in the same room?

We need to provide a place for people to work who don’t have the option of remote work. Offices will continue to function for that purpose and it’s entirely possible that making these spaces COVID-secure will see “hot desks” return to single-person occupation.

The rise of localism

Many people are concerned about the impact of reduced office working on local businesses. What about the cleaners (if anything, they have more to do)? What about the sandwich shops? What will this mean for the country’s future transport needs?

Whilst I have genuine sympathy for the independents that are no-doubt struggling with reduced footfall and enforced closures, or partial closures, that sympathy does not extend to the Pret a Mangers and Wetherspoons of our identikit town centres. I am concerned for the people that work in these businesses but not for the corporates that own them.

But, for every pound that’s not spent in big towns and cities, there’s another that’s spent in a local economy somewhere else. The small town where I live appears to be thriving – people who previously commuted and simply weren’t in the town during weekdays now use the Thursday market and the local shops. The local coffee shop has even opened new branches.

We’ve also seen banks, for example, starting to bring spaces above branches into use as local touchdown centres, rather than encouraging workers to commute to large offices in major towns and cities.

This rise of the local economy is good for society in general and good for finding a work-life balance.

Helping people to do their best work

Perhaps the real purpose of the office is to help people to do their best work. That may take a variety of forms but it’s also where technology can help. We need to provide the safe working environment. We need to provide the collaboration spaces, whilst remaining physically distanced. We need to keep people communicating.

  • The way we work has changed and we cannot rely on being co-located.
  • “Working out loud” has to be the operating model, supported by flexible technology and processes that encourage collaboration.
  • And services provided across the Internet are now at the heart of this transformation.

Some Business Transformation may be required, to make sure the processes can keep up with new ways of working – but, whatever the future of the office is, we can be sure of continued change over the coming months and years.

Acknowledgements

Large parts of this post are based on conversations with Matt Ballantine and others on the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group. Thanks to Matt and to Chris Weston for the inspiration and for providing this community where we often work out loud, in digital safety.

Featured image by MichaelGaida from Pixabay.

What does it mean to work flexibly?

2020 has brought many things – not all of them welcome – but for many office workers one of the more significant changes has been the acceptance of working from home.

Of course, there are many jobs that can’t be carried out remotely but, for a lot of people, the increased flexibility that comes with home working is a benefit. For others, it may be less welcome – for example those who do not have a regular place to work from, or who share a house with family who are also competing for the same resources. That means that offices continue to have a role but we’re not quite sure what that is yet. One thing does seem certain: it will continue to evolve over the coming months.

Outputs, not inputs

I’ve been fortunate to have worked from home for some of the time for many years. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 but even before then I tried to work from home when I could. What I’ve seen in 2020 is organisations where managers previously wouldn’t allow their teams to work from home being forced to accept change. Very quickly. A culture of “presenteeism” was often rife and sometimes still is. Some organisations have transferred poor office-based culture to a poor online culture but others have embraced the change.

Moving to remote work means providing flexibility. That certainly means flexibility in where work takes place, but it may also mean flexibility in when the work happens.

My own work is contractually 30 hours over a 4 day working week. In reality, it’s not based on hours, it’s based on outputs – and I put in what is needed in order to deliver what is expected of me. That will almost always take more hours – and sometimes there’s a fine balance. Sometimes, I have to say “enough”. I’ve learned that modern work is never “done”, just that priorities change over time. And, as a manager, I have to look for the signs in my own team’s workload and be ready to reassign work or adjust priorities if someone is overloaded whilst a colleague has gaps.

Crucially, I don’t need my team to be in front of me to manage them.

“Working hours”

Similarly, many of us no longer need to be tied to the “9 to 5”. Some roles may require staffing at particular times but, for many office workers, meetings can be scheduled within a set of core hours. For organisations that work across time zones, that challenge of following the sun has been there for a while. Avoiding the temptation to work extended days over multiple time zones can be difficult – but, conversely, working in bursts over an extended period may work for you.

I’m mostly UK-based and nominally work on UK time. For many years, I’ve had an unwritten rule that I don’t arrange meetings first- or last-thing in the day, or over lunch. If that means that all of my meetings are between 09:30 and 12:00 or between 14:00 and 16:30, that’s fine. A solid day meetings is not good. Especially when they are all online!

Before 09:30 people with chlldren may be on the school run. Those with other dependents may have other responsibilities. Everyone is entitled to a lunch break. At the end of the day there may be other commitments, or maybe another meeting is just not going to get the best out of people who have already been in back-to-back Microsoft Teams calls.

Often, I’ll return to work in the evening to catch up on things. That’s not to say I expect others to. I actually have a disclaimer on my email which says:

“My working hours may not be your working hours.  Please do not feel any pressure to reply outside of your normal work schedule. Also, please note that I do not normally work on Fridays. Another member of the risual team will be happy to assist in my absence.”

It’s about setting expectations. In a previous role, I wrote about my email SLA but people shouldn’t feel pressured to respond immediately to email. As a former manager once told me:

“Email is an asynchronous communication mechanism over an unreliable transport.”

[Mark Locke, Fujitsu, approx 2010]

When working across time zones, that’s particularly important but we should also be empowered to work when it works for us.

For me, I’m not great at getting up in the morning. I often get into flow in the late afternoon and work into the evening.

So, whilst I’m sure messages like this one in Microsoft Outlook from My Analytics are well-intentioned, I don’t find them helpful because they are based on the concept of “working hours”. Yes, I could delay send, but what if that person likes to start their day early?

My Anaytics prompt in Microsoft Outlook to consider delaying an email until working hours.

On the basis that email should not be time-sensitive (use a chat-based medium for that – maybe even a phone), it shouldn’t matter when it’s sent, or received. The workplace culture needs to evolve to prevent the “I sent you an email” response from being acceptable. “Ah, thank you. I haven’t seen that yet but I’ll make sure I watch out for it and respond at an appropriate moment.”.

Time to adjust our expectations?

So, in a world of increased flexibility, with colleagues working at a time and place that works for them, we all need to adjust our expectations. I suggest thinking not about when a message is sent but instead about whether email is actually the right medium. And, as for whether we need a meeting or not… that’s a whole blog post in itself…

Featured image by congerdesign from Pixabay.

Furlough is no holiday

Six months ago, most people in the UK would have no idea what “Furlough Leave” was. Since the UK Government introduced a Job Retention Scheme in response to the COVID19 novel coronavirus pandemic, being “on Furlough” has become a commonly-used term.

The idea is that, whilst businesses are experiencing reduced or even no revenue as a result of the restrictions put in place to manage the response to the pandemic, the Government will step in and pay a proportion of an employee’s wages/salary, within limits.

It’s up to the employer whether they will make up the difference between the Government allowances and normal income but the principle is simple:

Even a profitable and otherwise sustainable business can be destroyed by a reduction in cash flow. By making use of grants to subsidise wage/salary costs, businesses can keep cash in the business and avoid redundancy or even complete failure.

Placing staff on Furlough Leave doesn’t mean that redundancies won’t be required later, or that a business will not eventually fail, but the intention is to avoid otherwise healthy businesses from being wiped out whilst their trade is adversely affected by the pandemic response – for example through enforced closure or though non-payment of invoices by others who are forced to close.

For a business, taking advantage of Furlough payments is not so different to an employee taking a payment holiday on a mortgage. If you think that you may fall on hard times later, why would you not take advantage of financial support? It may cost more in interest payments but, if that 3 months’ mortgage payment is in the bank, that’s an opportunity to keep paying the bills if you do find you need to look for another job. Similarly, if the Job Retention Scheme means that a business sustains its cash flow, then it’s served its purpose.

The trouble with this system is that there will be some fundamentally unsound businesses that are propped up for a few weeks or months before failing anyway. Similarly, there will be business owners who will take advantage of the situation and simply rely on the government to pay their staff costs for as long as they can (one observation I made in the town where I live was that major brands stayed closed for longer than independents, who found different ways to offer their services during “lockdown”). Unfortunately, the system is not perfect and these are some of the side-effects. They are also the reason that a number of changes were made from July 2020, to try and wean companies off the scheme and back onto a solid footing, in preparation for the eventual closure of the Job Retention Scheme.

The impact of Furlough on staff (including managers)

Furlough impacts staff in different ways:

  • Some may feel aggrieved that they were not “chosen” for Furlough Leave.
  • Some may see those “on Furlough” as getting “a free paid holiday” whilst they have extra work to do.
  • Some may feel anxious that, by being placed on Furlough Leave, their job is at risk.
  • Some may experience challenges as a result of not being “at work” – and the impact this has on them as they deal with the hole left in their day.
  • I’ve even heard (anecdotally) of people experiencing financial difficulties as their credit risk is affected by the presence of Furlough payments on their payslips.

It’s no secret that my employer used the Job Retention Scheme. In a company blog post about putting people first, Charlotte May referred to “a number of individuals on furlough and the entire organisation pulling together to enable us to get to [the] other side of this safely”. That means that I have some experience of Furlough, both as a manager and as an employee.

Without compromising confidentiality, I can say that we had criteria for determining who would/would not be placed on Furlough and those criteria were applied without favouritism. That’s part of the reason I was Furloughed for a few weeks – the criteria used were just as applicable to me as a part-time manager, part-time Architect as they were to any other Consultant. I had to put myself on the list.

I can also tell you that Furlough is no holiday. Staff are allowed to take part in training and development activities whilst on Furlough Leave. I was only too aware that this represented an opportunity – there was no point wasting it and then asking for time to study for exams or to attend an event later in the year – so I made the most of my enforced time away from my normal work. Publicly, it was a fantastic development opportunity. Privately, I still struggled.

You see, whilst on Furlough, staff are also allowed to be in contact with their line manager. But they can’t do anything that provides a service to the company. That meant that whilst I was on Furlough Leave, I couldn’t manage my team (colleagues did that for me) or do any other internal work. There were times when I knew something was happening that I could help to influence/resolve but I was simply not allowed to. And there were times when I was asked to do something and I had to say “no”.

I was also uncertain about my future. I knew that the use of Furlough was a prudent measure for all the reasons I mentioned above but no-one can take anything for granted as the UK enters recession, maybe even depression.

Apparently, I wasn’t much fun to live with either. My family were glad to see me go back to work. It seems that I don’t do “not working” very well. Actually, I do, when I’m on a proper day off – but I struggled with the “not being allowed to work when there are things to be done” (as mentioned above).

When I returned to work, I was desperate to bring back team members who had been out of the workplace for several weeks/months. They have skills that we need, they can contribute as part of a team but I need to be sure I can keep them busy too. Thankfully, the introduction of part-time Furlough Leave helped there.

What does this mean?

The UK’s Job Retention Scheme cannot continue indefinitely. As a country, the costs are huge and I’m increasingly of the view that we should be looking towards some form of Universal Basic Income to support individuals, rather than propping up businesses (but that’s a whole topic of its own).

So, the next time you hear that “all those people on Furlough are just having a free holiday”, maybe think a bit more about the effect it’s having on their lives, the lives of those around them, and their future employment prospects.

COVID19 will have lasting effects – not just on people’s health – but on the way that we work, shop and play and what that means for our future economy and society at large.

Those most affected may not be knowledge workers like me but the many retail staff displaced as businesses that had been limping along as they failed to transform finally fold. Then, as offices become undesirable (and some may say unnecessary) there’s a whole section of the economy that relies on office workers spending money in town and city centres every day. I’d like to think that those empty offices can be converted to apartments, helping to address the housing crisis. That will bring people back into cities and new businesses will grow and thrive. But that will take time. Years, maybe.

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…