Weeknote 2024/04: Coffees, and staying curious

Another week, and lots of positive feedback from colleagues on these weeknotes, so they keep going. This time I’ve written it over the course of the week, rather than in one huge writing session at the weekend. I’m not sure it really helped… it’s still way too long. Anyway, here it is.

(I’m also slightly concerned that some people think I have too much time on my hands. I really don’t. I just stay up too late and don’t get enough sleep!)

This week at work

I struggle to write about work at the moment. I’m doing lots of cool stuff, but I don’t really want to tell competitors what Node4 is developing. Even so, it’s no secret that we’re driving forwards with our Digital delivery (that’s why Node4 bought TNP, risual, Tisski, and ThreeTwoFour) – and public cloud is a big part of that, particularly in the Microsoft space.

My presentation to the Node4 Go To Market community on our public cloud transformation capabilities seemed to go well. And it would be remiss of me not to say that, if you want to know more about how we can potentially help your organisation on its Microsoft Azure journey then I, or my colleagues, would be pleased to have a conversation. Feel free to get in touch on email, or book some time with me.

Beyond that, I joined an interesting call with IDC, looking at the European cloud market in 2024. And I’m just getting involved in a project with some cool tech to help address the ransomware challenge.

Most exciting though is that I’ve submitted a request to join Node4’s Innovate Leadership Development Pathway for 2024. This looks to be a great programme, run over several months, that results in an ILM qualification. The reason I’m excited is that, for the first time in a while, I feel that I’m in a role where I can exploit my leadership potential. I had a career diversion into management, because I thought I needed that experience. Then I got out of it, only to fall back into it (and was very unhappy for quite a long time). Management and leadership are very different things, and over the years I’ve learned that I want to be a leader, not a manager.

Coffees (virtual and IRL)

Much is made of “watercooler moments” as a reason to return to the office (RTO). Well, is there any reason that such moments can’t happen outside the office too?

In 2023, Matt Ballantine ran a “100 coffees” experiment to chat without any particular agenda. It was a big success so it’s rolled on into 2024, currently at around 138. (I was number 49.) Incidentally, you don’t have to drink coffee. It’s about taking the time to chat with people and other beverages are equally acceptable. Or, as Matt describes it in a post he wrote for his employer, Equal Experts, about the process and its benefits:

“Coffee here is a metaphor. A metaphor for being intentional about making space in our working days to create serendipity, build relationships, reflect, have new ideas, share old ideas and a wealth of other benefits that come from conversations without agenda.”

Matt Ballantine: “How to have coffee”

Earlier in the month I had some “coffees” with some colleagues I no longer work with on an daily basis. It was brilliant just to check in and see what they are up to, to keep myself in touch with what’s going on in a different part of the organisation. This week, in addition to some “quick chats” with a couple of my peers, I met several people outside the company for “coffee”. Their roles included: a Chief Evangelist; a Managing Director; and a Digital Transformation Consultant.

One I hadn’t seen since we worked together over a decade ago. Another is part of a “coffee club” that Matt set up to encourage us have a monthly conversation with someone we don’t normally talk to. And one has become a friend over the years that we’ve been catching up for coffee and occasional lunches. My own lack of confidence makes me think “what do I have to add to this conversation”, but invariably I learn things. And I assume that the value of meeting up with no agenda to “just have a chat” goes both ways.

Some of the things we talked about

Our conversation topics were wide and varied. From family life to:

  • Recognising when to buy services vs. learning to do something yourself.
  • “Thought leadership” and qualitative vs. quantitative metrics – looking at the “who” not the size of the reach.
  • Next-generation content management systems.
  • How localisation is more than just translation – sometimes you might rearrange the contents on the page to suit the local culture.
  • How UK town centres seem to encourage chains to flourish over independent retailers.
  • The frustrations of being an end user in a world of corporate IT security (managed devices, classifying information, etc.)
  • Being proud of your kids.
  • What travel was like when we were young, when our location wasn’t being tracked, and when our parents must have been super-worried about where we were. (Is the world more dangerous, or just more reported?)
  • Finding your tribe by showing things in the background on virtual meetings.
  • Bad service and food vs. great coffee but no space. And on what makes a good English breakfast.
  • Parenting young adults and supporting their life decisions.
  • Publishing newsletters, weeknotes, blogs. Owning your own content, and why RSS is still wonderful.
  • Fountain pens, a place for everything (and everything in its place) – and why I’d like to be more like that… but have to accept I’m just not.
  • Four day weeks, balancing work, health and exercise (or lack of).

That’s the whole point. No agenda. See where the conversation leads. Get to know each other better. Learn new things. Build relationships.

And all three “coffees” ran out of time!

This week in tech

  • Here’s something I wrote a blog post about. I had intended there to be more posts, but I overestimated the amount of time I have for these things:
  • A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I’d been looking at Calendly. It turned out to be a trial (I missed that) and I need to subscribe for some of the features that I set up. So, I guess that experiment didn’t work out…
  • I don’t understand why Google opening a new data centre in the UK this is news. All of the hyperscalers already have data centres in the UK. This is just another one. I’m not sure that they contribute much to the economy though, except maybe in construction and through services consumed (electricity, water, etc.). As for the PM’s statement that “Google’s $1 billion investment is testament to the fact that the UK is a centre of excellence in technology and has huge potential for growth”. Poppycock. It shows there is a demand for cloud computing services in the UK. It’s got nothing to do with excellence.
  • I found a new setting in Microsoft Teams that makes my video feed look like I’m using a decent camera! It’s so much better than the old background blur.

Some posts I liked elsewhere

  • On digital inclusion…
  • Of course, not everyone finds online easy. And we have to recognise that sometimes, for any age group, there’s a need for a human connection…

Life

Some readers may know that I have been using the Zoe personalised nutrition programme to see what insights I can get into my diet. I’ve tweeted a bit, and it deserves a longer blog post, but I found this article in the Times very interesting. Jay Rayner has a slightly less reverent view in The Guardian. (Kate Bevan shared both of these articles.)

And I have a holiday to look forward to… or at least a mini-break. Mrs W and I have just booked a long weekend in Tallinn for a few weeks’ time…

This week’s watching

After finishing our recent dramas, it was time to start something new. Several people had recommended Lessons in Chemistry (on Apple TV) and we’re really enjoying it. As an aside, we still have a long way to go on diversity, inclusion and equality but, oh my, we’ve come a long way since the 1950s.

This week’s listening

I listen to a lot of podcasts when I’m walking the dog, or when I’m driving alone. The Archers is the first on my list but please don’t judge me.

I also like to listen to The Bottom Line, though sometimes find Evan Davis’ views on modern work to be a little “traditional”. This week’s episode on e-commerce returns was fascinating, though I do wonder why no major UK retailers (e.g. Next, John Lewis) or online-only retailers like Amazon or even Wiggle wanted to take part…

I used to listen to The Rest Is Politics – it’s a great podcast but there is just too much of it – I found the volume of content overwhelming. But I did listen the Rest Is Politics Leading interview with Bill Gates. I was looking for a link to the podcast episode to share, but I found it’s available on YouTube too, so you can watch or listen:

Some of the things I took away from the interview were:

  • It’s well-known that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, but it’s clear he was a very smart kid… he quietly mentions finishing his classes a year early.
  • I was interested in his responses to tough questions – like asking if his approach at Microsoft was “flattening competition not creating excellence”. And on monopolistic views of the world and how they needed to lower prices to gain market share. Remember the mission was to get a computer onto every desk and into every home.
  • On his position as a rich and powerful person, and why he follows the philanthropic path that he does of trying to kill malaria rather than direct giving to those in poverty.
  • On family, the impact he can have on his granddaughter’s future world, and the advantages/disadvantages of growing up with wealthy/famous parents
  • On the future of AI.
  • On politicians he admires (and giving very guarded responses!)
  • His rather odd (IMHO) views on climate change.
  • On learning from Warren Buffet, and on a lifetime of staying curious.

Maybe that’s what I should call this blog… “staying curious”.

This week in the press

On the PR front, I had a brief quote in Digitalisation World’s Tech Transformations for 2024 article.

…and not in the press

After initially being flattered to be contacted by a major UK newspaper for comment on the importance of public sector work to Fujitsu, I declined to comment. Not sure if it was my media training or common sense, but it feels right. I had already written a brief post on LinkedIn, but a lot will have changed in the time since I left and anything I can remember would already been in the public domain.

More thoughts on the Post Office Scandal

I was going to write about this last week, but I was still reeling from some of the comments I’d received on social media, so thought on for a bit more.

Understandably, this is a very emotive subject. Lives were ruined. Some who were affected took their own lives. It’s nothing short of a tragedy.

Even so, it was upsetting to be told last week on Twitter/X that anyone who has Fujitsu on their CV should never work again (or words to that effect). I was at ICL or Fujitsu for around 16 years over one internship and two periods of employment. In common with most people there, I had nothing to do with (or knowledge of) Horizon, other than knowing of its existence, in a separate business unit. And, in common with most people who saw the recent ITV Drama, I was shocked and appalled.

I can’t defend Fujitsu – but I am going to use someone else’s words, because they sum up the situation about their future in the UK public sector market perfectly for me:

“A lot of innocent people [may] lose work at Fujitsu. All of us who have worked for outsourcing partners will know the nature of contracts means many will know nothing of other ongoing projects. Today many workers at Fujitsu [may] be ‘at risk’ for something they had no control over.”

From a technical perspective, I found this video from Dave Farley to be an excellent explanation of the types of technical issues in the Horizon system that led to accounting errors. Then add in believing the computer over the humans, together with an unhealthy dose of corporate mismanagement (as is being uncovered by the ongoing inquiry), and you get the full horror of the Post Office Scandal.

This week in photos

Looks like I didn’t take many, but I did wrap up the week with a nice dog walk in the winter sunshine.

Featured image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay.

Timeless technology

In recent days, I’ve been thinking about tech that has become ubiquitous. Like the IBM Personal Computer – which is now well over 40 years old and I still use a derivative of it every day. But then I started to think about tech that’s no longer in daily use but yet which still seems modern and futuristic…

…like Concorde

Concorde may not have become as world-dominant was originally intended but, for a while, the concept of supersonic flying was the height (pun absolutely intended) of luxury air travel. Sadly, changing market demands, soaring costs, environmental impacts, and the Paris crash of AF4590 in 2000 sealed its fate. The plane’s operators (British Airways and Air France) agreed to end commercial flights of the jet from 2003.

The elegant lines and delta wings still look as great today as they would have in 1969. And supersonic commercial flights may even be returning to the skies by the end of the decade.

…the British Rail Advanced Passenger Train

British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train (Experimental) – or APT-E – of 1972 is like a silver dart. Just as you don’t have to be a plane-spotter to appreciate Concorde, the APT-E’ is ‘s sleek lines scream “fast” and in 1975 it set a new British speed record of just over 150 miles an hour.

BR APT-E in 1972

The APT project was troublesome but the technology it developed lived on in other forms. The idea of a High Speed Train (HST) developed into the famous Inter-City 125. That was introduced in 1976 and is only now being withdrawn from service. Meanwhile, tilting train technology is used for high speed trains on traditional lines – most notably the Pendolinos on the UK’s West Coast Main Line.

…and Oxygène

Last night, I was relaxing by idly flicking through YouTube recommendations and it showed me this:

It’s an amazing view of the early-mid 1970s electronic instruments that Jean-Michel Jarre used to create his breakthrough album: Oxygène. And, as I found earlier this evening, it’s still a great soundtrack to go for a run. Listening on my earphones made me feel like I was in a science fiction film!

Modern electronic artists may use different synthesizers and keyboards but the technology Jean-Michel Jarre used smashed down doors. Oxygène was initially rejected by record companies and, in this Guardian Article, Jarre says:

“Oxygène was initially rejected by record company after record company. They all said: ‘You have no singles, no drummer, no singer, the tracks last 10 minutes and it’s French!’ Even my mother said: ‘Why did you name your album after a gas and put a skull on the cover?'”

Jean-Michel Jarre

Nowadays, electronic music – often instrumental – is huge. After playing the whole Oxygène album on my run, Spotify followed up with yet more great tracks. Visage (Fade to Grey), Moby (Go), OMD (Joan of Arc)… let’s see where it goes next!

What other timeless tech is out there?

I’ve written about three technologies that are around 50 years old now. Each one has lived on in a new form whilst remaining a timeless classic. What else have I missed? And what technology from today will we look back on so favourably in the future?

Featured images: British Airways Concorde G-BOAC by Eduard Marmet CC BY-SA 3.0 and The British Rail APT-E in the RTC sidings between tests in 1972 by Dave Coxon Public Domain.

J’ai un mal à la gorge. En Angleterre, nous avons le “TCP”

This content is 2 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

My family’s recent bout with non-specific cold-like illnesses included a sore throat for one of my teenage sons. He must have been feeling bad, because it was enough to convince him not to race his bike for a week. (In fairness, reminding him that previous attempts to compete whilst ill didn’t work out well was also a factor.)

“You need to take some TCP!”, said his Uncle.

“Already on it!”, said I.

For those who are not familiar with TCP (not the networking protocol), it is a particularly foul antiseptic substance that can be diluted and gargled to attack the bacteria that cause sore throats. It’s not nice. But it is effective.

Trying to buy TCP whilst on holiday…

TCP seems to be a very British thing though. I know ex-pats in the ‘States who bring it over from the UK and this incident reminded me of trying to get some in France. We were skiing, in Tignes, and I had a sore throat. Not wanting to miss any time on the slopes, I was willing to take some strong stuff to try and get better.

So, off to “la pharmacie”, I tramped… and in my best schoolboy French (GCSE grade B, Kingsthorpe Upper School, 1988) I said to the assistant:

“J’ai un mal à la gorge. En Angleterre, nous avons le ‘TCP’. En avez-vous?”

I also pointed at my throat and attempted to gargle, for effect.

The perplexed shop assistant looked at the mad Englishman on the other side of the counter, shrugged, and pulled out a bottle of cough syrup. Basically it was a sugar mix (certainly not TCP), but that was as far as I was going to get with my limited grasp of the language. Ironically, as I was writing this post I found that TCP is produced in France, for sale in the UK.

I don’t recall whether I missed any skiing time. I certainly didn’t let a sore throat ruin my holiday, but I’m equally sure I wasn’t able to buy any antiseptic for my throat. These days, a small bottle of TCP is a permanent item in my travel bag.

NOT A SPONSORED POST!

Image credit: author’s own.

Epic rides: England’s coast to coast (Way of the Roses)

This content is 4 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Over the last few years, I’ve taken part in quite a few rides that have stretched my cycling endurance. Some made it onto this blog (like my first attempt at the Ride London-Surrey 100); others didn’t – because I never got around to writing about them – including rides like:

  • Tour de Fujitsu (Wakefield-Manchester), 2014
  • London-Paris (via Newhaven, Dieppe and Avenue Vert), 2014.
  • Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Fondo, 2015.
  • Ride London-Surrey 100 (the full distance this time!), 2016.
  • Ride Staffs 68, 2016.
  • Tour ride Northamptonshire, 2017.
  • Velo Birmingham (another 100-miler), 2017.
  • Delux London Revolution (2 days, 186 miles), 2018.

One ride that I’ve wanted to do for a while is to traverse England, coast to coast, and 2019 was the year that I finally got to do it, with my friend and neighbour, Karl.

Preparation

It turns out that there are several recognised coast-to-coast routes but Karl and I elected to take the “Way of the Roses” for the 170 miles from Morecambe to Bridlington. Karl had ridden this previously but the difference this time would be that we were self-supported – carrying everything we would need for the three days on our bikes (except cooking and sleeping equipment as we stayed in B&Bs).

In terms of carrying my gear, I’d looked at several options but, with a frame that was lacking many mounts and with through axles further limiting my mounting options, I elected for frame-hung luggage from Topeak:

I did also purchase a FrontLoader but that’s on it’s way back now (unused) as I was able to fit all my kit in the luggage above (except my trainers – which went in Karl’s panniers…)

Day 0: getting to Morecambe

Lancashire is a long way from where I live, so in order to get a good start on Saturday, Karl and I travelled up on Friday evening and stayed overnight at a B&B (The Berkeley Guest House). My room there was small (but inexpensive), the landlady was friendly, there was secure bike storage for the night, and free parking right outside (where I left my car for the next few days). As for eating – I can highly recommend Atkinson’s Fish and Chips on Albert Road.

Day 1: Morecambe to Pateley Bridge

98.77km with 2001m ascent

From the start point close to The Midland Hotel, the Way of the Roses has a gentle first few miles along old railway lines to Lancaster and tracking the River Lune until it takes a sharp left and climbs up above the valley over Halton Hill. After dropping down to Hornby it’s an undulating ride across the Forest of Bowland before reaching Settle. After topping up on food at the local Co-op, we started the climb out of the town, which is advertised as 20% on road signs but my Garmin gave various numbers including 13.8% and a less believable 49%. Regardless, it’s steep, and part way up I stopped. This is where the trouble began. Try as I might, I couldn’t get going again and clip in before the next pedal stroke. In the end, I walked the rest of the hill, which is not to great in road cycling cleats…

The next 20 kilometres were mostly downhill but around Appletreewick we started to climb again and, I’m afraid to say that the climb over Whithill was another one that featured some walking. I got back on again and ground it out as we picked up the road over Greenhow Hill and down a steep (and fast – thank goodness for disc brakes) drop into Pateley Bridge.

Talbot House was our booked accommodation for the night and it was a comfortable, friendly B&B with secure bike storage. After a little rest (and a meal in a nearby pub – The Royal Oak), I settled down for a well-earned sleep, knowing that a good distance and the majority of the climbing was behind me.

Day 2: Pateley Bridge to Pocklington

110.63km with 580m ascent

After Saturday’s sunshine, Sunday started soggy. Still, I knew that I only had about 10km to ride up out of Pateley Bridge before a relatively easy downhill/flat ride into and across the Vale of York. That 10km got a bit longer when I missed a turn after Glasshouses and had to double back but that will teach me to get all excited about downhills!

The bigger problem I had was my cleats. They were completely worn out and I was constantly slipping out of my pedals. I needed to find a bike shop but, on a Sunday, they are all closed and out riding…

After 30km, including a scenic ride past Fountains Abbey and through Studley Royal, we reached Ripon, where the town was decorated for the upcoming UCI Cycling World Championships. We were making good progress so we took a break at Oliver’s Pantry – a lovely cafe stop before we set off again for Boroughbridge and York. Here, I finally found some cleats in a Giant/Liv store. They were expensive (I never pay RRP!) but they would have to do. After grabbing food in a Greggs on the outskirts of the city centre, Karl and I continued our quest and set out on the final leg towards the East Yorkshire town of Pocklington, passing through the old station at Stamford Bridge on the way and spotting our first roadsigns for our final destination.

Our accommodation for the night was the Yorkway Motel, where we got a decent meal and another good night’s sleep, with cycling gear washed in the shower and hanging on the towel rail!

Day 3: Pocklington-Bridlington

72.17km with 532m ascent

Our last day was not only the shortest, but the flattest. Even so, the Yorkshire Wolds proved to be quite lumpy in comparison to the previous day’s riding, climbing over 170m in the first 13.6km. Driffield gave us a chance to grab food (in another Greggs, no less). The weather had started grey but as we approached “Brid”, the sun broke through and we enjoyed an ice cream overlooking the sea!

170 miles down, we had crossed the country in 3 days, coast to coast. Now we just needed to find our way home…

The return trip

The biggest problem with this route is getting back to the start – England’s railways radiate from London and it’s pretty slow getting across the country. Indeed, to take the train from Bridlington back to Morecambe would have involved several trains, from two operators: Trans-Pennine Express, who will only carry bikes if pre-booked; and Northern, who offer no guarantees about the ability to get on a train with a bike. In the end, Karl’s wife met us and dropped me in York before returning home with the bikes, whilst I took the train to Morecambe (via Leeds) to get my car; however, I’ve since learned that, if you take the wheels off your bike it’s no longer counted as a bike but as “luggage”, so maybe that’s the way to do it!

In summary

The Way of the Roses is a well-signed route, suitable for road bikes, and mostly using quiet roads and cycle paths. There is one short gravel section (to avoid a main road) and another section near Stamford Bridge that was more suited to an off-road bike but my Specialized Roubaix made it without issue. The one change I would make to my bike would have been to use mountain bike pedals (SPDs) instead of road cleats (SPD-SLs), which would a) have been better for walking in and b) avoided Karl transporting my trainers in his panniers for evening wear!