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!

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.

Opening up the “Virtual Boozer” #vPub

With social distancing in effect here in the UK and all pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants closed for the foreseeable future, we need to find new ways to socialise.

So, Friday night saw the opening of the “Virtual Boozer”, with me in my Man Cave and my mates James, Pete and Phil all on a video conferencing link. I have to admit it was a little odd, but it worked… and, as we couldn’t meet in person, it was a good way to hook up – even if most of the conversation was COVID19/Coronavirus-related.

I’ll admit the idea is not my own:

  • For a while now, Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) has been running a “Global Canteen” on an ad-hoc basis for some of us on the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group to meet virtually. Last week, the idea of a “Global Boozer” was suggested as a natural extension of this.
  • And Sharon O’Dea Tweeted about using Zoom to meet up with her friends:

So, how can you set up your own Virtual Boozer (a virtual pub for the lads – I should note that our more sophisticated female partners have asked for a virtual wine bar”)?

I thought quite hard about the platform to use:

In the end, I went with Microsoft Teams. Mostly because it’s a tool that’s familiar to me (I use it every day at work) and because it works cross-platform but partly because I have an Office 365 E1 subscription and it’s included. There is a free tier for Microsoft Teams too…

These are by no means all of the tools available though – there’s a huge list that’s been collated in the Remote Work Survival Kit.

I tried creating a Team for the Virtual Boozer and inviting external recipients. In the end, it was just too complicated – with six steps to ensure that external access was granted (and still failing to invite external people). So I fired up Outlook, created a meeting, used the Teams add-in to drop in some meeting details, and emailed my friends.

It worked, but as Matt Ballantine highlighted to me, using the same tools for work and home is perhaps not the best approach to take (he equated it to going for a drink with my mates in the office!). Next time I’ll be seriously considering using Google Hangouts, which seems to work as a mobile app or a browser add-in – and is perhaps a little more consumer-friendly than Microsoft Teams. Everyone has their own preferences – just go with what works for you!

Postscript

The Virtual Boozer opened again last night (27/3/2020); this time using Google Hangouts. It seemed to work well, in a browser or in-app but it does require that you have a Google Account. Much like Teams, scheduling involved creating a calendar appointment (which, for me, meant re-activating my dormant GMail/Google Calendar). Also, it jumps around to show you the person who is talking at the time – some of my friends would have prefered to have all faces on the screen together (which is one of the advantages of Zoom).

Another option, which my youngest son has been using with his mates is Houseparty.

A toolkit for cyclists: saving money on basic maintenance

Anyone who regularly reads my blog or follows me on Twitter will know that cycling (or being a “cyclist’s Dad”) is one of my major activities. I also commute by bike where practical – I have a Brompton folding bike, which has caused some amusement in the office (think BBC W1A) – though I mostly work from home and commuting by bike up two flights of stairs might be a bit tricky…

Image result for w1a brompton

With more bikes in the family than I care to admit (I have at least 5 at the moment and my eldest son’s n+1 count is increasing too), I’ve been trying to do more of the servicing myself (or with my son) to reduce costs. This has been spurred on by a few things including:

  • I needed to call on help from others to swap pedals at a race recently. I had the skills but not the tools. I then bought the right tools…
  • I discovered that drive chains are supposed to be shiny, not grimy and that they perform much better when you know how to remove and degrease the chain, cassette, chainrings, etc. A chain cleaner is great, but if the other components are still covered in gunk then the chain quickly turns black again.
  • I also had to remove the cranks and bottom bracket on a bike as part of another project so the bike-specific toolkit has been growing.
  • My son was able to use his new knowledge and my tools to swap components between frames.

Luckily, it needn’t be expensive. Much as I would like to have a wall of Park Tool tools, that’s a stretch too far for my wallet, so this is what’s in the toolkit so far:

BTW, almost every task I’ve needed to complete has had a short video available on YouTube to tell me how to do it. GCN is consistently good.

Note: Wiggle rejected me for their affiliate marketing scheme, so there is no financial incentive for me if you click the links above – they are purely for the convenience of readers!

Strava Art

It’s no secret that I enjoy cycling – and I’m also a bit of a geek. My cycling and my tech come together in various places but Strava is one of the most obvious… I have been known to say “If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen” (of course, that’s in jest – but I do get annoyed if my GPS traces get messed up).

There’s something quite wonderful about maps too. Maybe this is another side of my geekiness but I love looking at a good map. So, what if you could have a map of a ride you’re particularly proud of turned into a piece of art to display on your wall?

As it happens – you can do exactly that. Cyced produce high quality Strava Art for runners and cyclists. So, when Angus from Cyced asked me if I’d like to review their service, I was interested to give it a try.

I settled on the ride I did with my son last year to raise money for his trip to the Kandersteg International Scout Centre and I provided a Strava link (a GPX file would have been another option). Soon afterwards, Angus sent me a PDF proof to review and, a couple of days after I confirmed the edits, the final print arrived.

I was impressed by how well it was wrapped – indeed, I’ve never had an “unboxing experience” quite like this for a piece of artwork: wrapped in tissue paper; sandwiched between sheets of heavy-duty card; all inside a sturdy card envelope. It would be pretty difficult for my postie to accidentally bend this package!

The print itself is really high quality and the simple (Strava-inspired) colours look amazing – greys, whites and orange highlights. The print that Angus created for me is A4 but there are A3 and A2 options too. I’m now considering buying a second print for the “Man Cave” when I have a suitably big ride to be proud of (or maybe with last year’s London Revolution route).

If you’re looking for something a little different for your wall – a piece of art to celebrate a ride, a run, or maybe a present for a runner/cyclist friend or family member, I’d recommending checking out the Strava Art from Cyced. As the website says it’s “worth more than just a kudos”!

Full disclosure: Cyced provided me with an A4 print in exchange for this blog post but that doesn’t influence my review. Everything I’ve written is my true opinion – but it’s nice to have the artwork for my son to keep as a memento of our 70 miles MTBing along the Grand Union Canal towpath last summer!

Working Flexibly…

I’m not saying I’ve reached what one of my Directors once referred to as “career peak” but, as middle age firmly sets in, I can say that work is just one of many priorities I have in my life right now. I’ve probably got at least another 20 years at work, but I needed to strike a better balance between paid work, my roles as a Father and husband, and my health.

For the last few months, I’ve been working flexibly. Specifically, in my case, I’ve been working part-time, 4 days a week. Contractually 30 hours but, given that I’m output-driven, it’s probably more like 40-45. It works well for me.

A few months ago I picked up a new podcast that was being auditioned on the WB-40 podcast feed. I listened to Pauline Yau (@PaulineYau) talking about flexible working and her new venture “The Flexible Movement” and found myself thinking “Yes! Yes, I’ve seen that! And I do that!”.

Shortly afterwards, Pauline and I had a chat and the result is Episode 3 of the Flexible Movement podcast:

In the podcast, Pauline and I chat about many things but I mention how I worked with my current employer to achieve a positive outcome. I also talk about a less favourable experience elsewhere – the key difference being that I didn’t know (or follow) the right process.

Flexible working is not just for parents. My generation increasingly finds ourselves squeezed between raising a family and caring for elderly relatives but there are many reasons why people might want to break away from the “nine to five”. In the UK, employees with at least 26 weeks’ service have the right to request flexible working* once a year but employees don’t have to agree to the request. There are specific grounds though and I’m sure every company with an HR department will have a process.

The video below is produced by ACAS, and looks at some of the benefts for employers as well as some practical implications of the right to request flexible working:

And I found the following links really useful when I was requesting the change in my working practices:

“Employees that feel more in control of their work-life balance are better motivated and focused in the workplace”

Working Families, 2016

Hopefully, one day, flexible working will become “normal”. For now, it relies on a supportive culture (something this BBC article touches on). It may take a generation but I really believe one day we’ll look back office workers attending a fixed place of work for set hours on weekdays the way we look back at working for one employer our whole lives today.

*Flexible working is not “working from home on a Friday”, as some might like to think.