The week’s culmination was a three-hour meeting on Friday with all Data Engineers in my profession. In August last year, we started experimenting with our ways of working, and it was time we had a retrospective. Over half a year, I have asked them to work in different ways, drawing a lot from software engineering practices, focusing on collaboration, and sharing the burden and knowledge remotely.
I won’t go into detail here just now. I think it deserves an article of its own, and perhaps to be published somewhere else. Let’s just say, that the results are better than I expected. Working in pairs (not necessarily pairing), dedicated coaching sessions on non-work related mini projects were a success. There are some things to improve, but the ideas are working, and we are improving our mostly remote collaboration.
The #12in23 challenge
I have been working on my own skills too. At the beginning of the week, I have learnt about the 12in23 challenge organised by exercism.org. It’s about learning a little bit about 12 programming languages in 2023. Obviously, I joined in. I started with COBOL, C, C++ and C#. I have done some C programming, and I’m reasonably proficient in C#, but I haven’t done anything in C++ for some 20 years, and I have never programmed in COBOL.
Why these four? It happens that these languages have been created more or less 15 years apart. Trying to do simple exercises in all four over the week gave me a new perspective on how technology and programming developed over the last 65 years.
I do recommend it. It’s good fun 🙂
Is 2023 the year of cloud repatriation?
There appears to be more and more talk online about cloud repatriation. Last week I read quite a few recent articles about it. It looks like many organisations rapidly moved to the cloud during the pandemic. Many must have used the “lift and shift” approach and stopped there. Now, they struggle with the raising costs. According to one of those articles, 93% of companies repatriating (moving back out of the public cloud) are quoting the cost as the main factor.
I think many of the moves were not thought through, or followed through, and this is just normal correction. I wonder what the year will bring in this regard.
This week I spent my time trying to dig myself out from under a virtual pile of emails. I was trying to make a good start to reach new levels of productivity, but with so many things in progress, that was never going to happen. Maybe next week?
And so, I didn’t get to do anything interesting with data this week. I didn’t build any digital services either. But not all was lost. I got to experience digital public services – a truly demoralising experience! I managed to do some coding with Woody Zuill and Kevin Meadows too.
That is probably true about many of them, but especially in healthcare. We talk a lot about accessibility and user-centric design. In healthcare, they talk about delivering patient-centric care. So how is it possible to create such a monstrosity at the connection of the two worlds?
Not only are the services not very accessible, but they are also used in strange ways. Do you want to register for a GP appointment? You can only do it online and only between 8:00 and 8:35am. You got to the place with an appointment, but you need to schedule another. No, it is not possible to do it at the reception. It has to be done online. But there is no mobile reception inside, so you must go outside in the rain to book an appointment. Who comes up with these schemes?
Eventually, I ended in a phlebotomy waiting room. There were some twenty chairs and just three of us patients. The receptionist
went on a rant about patients not turning up on time or even on the right day. It is not his fault, he says, the patients don’t read or cannot understand the emails. Fair enough. It might not be his fault. But who is responsible for failed communication which appears to be working only for one side of the dialogue?
Human-Computer Interactions with Acute Disability
The problem is even more serious. In services like that, relating to healthcare, standard accessibility just isn’t cutting it. We design and test with users who are long-term sufferers of various conditions. People like that are used to their conditions, have adapted, and know conventions we can use to help them use our services.
But people who need medical help often have a sudden onset of the ailment. They can be distressed, distracted, not at their best. I regularly see people in such situations and see how modern, accessible technology fails us. Last week I was put through the mill myself and nearly lost all my faith in both the digital and the healthcare simultaneously.
And I don’t think it is only me. I heard somebody make a very pertinent joke this week on the radio. The Government Communications Headquarters, the GCHQ, used to recruit code breakers by posting cryptic puzzles in the newspapers. Now they don’t have to. They simply offer jobs to people who manage to get a GP appointment.
It shouldn’t be like that. We must be able to do something!
Good, digital services matter
Digital services and products can be a matter of life and death. Why is it that software with a distinctly 1990s feel is used in emergency services? If a healthcare professional used 1990s medicine, they would probably lose their professional registration. But if they use 1990s IT systems to deliver patient care, that’s OK.
It used to be known as Mob Programming. A practice where a group of people develop software using a single computer. I tried it before. I really like pair programming. So when an opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t say no. On Friday, I joined Woody Zuill and Kevin Meadows and two others for a 90-minute session of Software Teaming. If you haven’t heard those names before, check out their book Software Teaming: A Mob Programming, Whole-Team Approach.
Besides Woody, Kevin and me, there were two more people on the call. One person who never programmed before and somebody who has done a little bit, but not in the language we have chosen. Nevertheless, by the end of the session, we were programming effectively together. Everybody had a go at coding. Everybody has learnt something.
I have learnt a few things myself. First of all, there is cyber-dojo.org. Don’t know it? Check it out! Second, I have never done pair programming right – not in the strict sense promoted by Woody and Kevin. They say for this to make sense, the idea has to cross from one head to another before it enters the machine. And so the driver does only what they are told by the navigator. Watching somebody code with an occasional comment or suggestion is not enough. The navigator designs the solution, and the driver is executing. They compare it to being a passenger and a driver in a cab. It really works. I want to do it more.
The fourth weeknote. The new year’s first reflection covers the previous year’s last week. What did I do? I took some days off and didn’t do any work last week. Let’s reflect on that!
It is great to work in a place where I can take some time off without worrying about what I will find coming back. With some strategic reset I was able not to think about the regular work projects. I don’t have to worry about what I will find when I return, and I don’t have any FoMO symptoms either (Fear of Missing Out).
And it’s not that I don’t have anything interesting or important to do there. Quite the opposite. I’m already looking forward to Tuesday when I will re-engage with it all. It’s just that the place is full of great people who will carry on doing great things whether I’m there or not. I’ll try to help a little when I’m back, but I can rest and recharge for now. (Mind you, I’m typing these words after almost two weeks of not checking my office emails, teams or slack messages!)
And recharging I needed. After a few things I have done earlier in the week – I’ll write about them in a moment – we took a four-hour drive Lan i’r Gogs. We stayed in a nice little place with no mobile reception for two nights. The first night I went to bed early and slept for 15 hours straight! 2.5x my norm. The need for that nap sums up the year 2022 for me.
But it wasn’t all sleep last week. I have done some reading, some thinking, and some writing:
I have spent a lot of time thinking about continuous professional development and how what we do (or don’t do) in the digital space differs from what I do in my volunteering roles. There is so much that should be said, I think, in this subject. And yet I cannot find the right words. I started (for the third time) writing about it this week, but it didn’t go anywhere.
And the weeknotes? I will continue the experiment for a little while, and we’ll see what happens.
For me, relaxing is the most stressful thing. Time passes, and nothing gets done. With an attitude like that, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m interested in personal productivity. Well… I have some data inclinations too, and some charts to show you.
The above is my first full year (January to December) as a civil servant. I started in the bottom left corner on week one and some tasks in my backlog and progressed steadily through the year to the top right corner in week 51. Of course, there are some variations from week to week, but the thicker lines show that things are surprisingly constant on (six week) average.
It also shows me there is a limit of things I can do per week. In weeks 1-13 and 19-26, I managed ten tasks a week. In April, week 14, I tried harder, got up to seventeen, but that fizzled out by mid-May, week 19.
Looking at this graph before my first job anniversary in July, I realised the blue and green lines were pretty straight and divergent. It meant I was always putting more on my backlog than I could accomplish, so that was not sustainable. So I decided to try harder. Once more, I reached deep into my bag of personal productivity hacks to up my performance.
You can see that from July, I managed sixteen tasks per day, 160% of my earlier norm, but still, it wasn’t enough to match the demand, and so in mid-August, I started being more selective in the commitments I took on. Finally, the blue and green gap started to narrow down and things were going well until December!
Why is it so hard?
Ultimately, my commitment to commit to less work made a real difference to the length of my backlog. It was obvious, and yet it was the last thing I tried. Why?
I find it difficult to say no to opportunities to help others or to collaborate. Believe it or not (and I know with my occasionally blunt demeanour, it might take a leap of faith), I get out of bed to make a difference. And the only way to do it at scale is by collaborating and helping each other. And so I say, “yes, I will help” you more often than I should.
But despite that, the second list of the most stressful things people say to me, just after “relax”, is starting conversations with “I know you are very busy, but…”. How many opportunities to collaborate have I lost, because people think I’m too busy to talk? Too busy, or worse, too important, to see if their problem is something I can help with or not? Every communication that starts with “I know you are very busy” reminds me of all forever-lost opportunities to collaborate. And so I respond, as calmly as I can, that I will always find the time for a chat, even if I cannot help.
I’ll have to do something about it next year, but first, let’s go back to the data to see what else we can learn. My ambition for 2023 is to bend that green line up a bit more and find a way to do even more.
The view above – weekly snapshots – shows more clearly that last summer’s effort to reduce the number of new commitments was working well until the beginning of December. What happened there? We had our internal conference. I had three days of in-person meetings that inspired me to take on ridiculous amounts of new things.
What the two views we looked at so far don’t show well is what really matters: how many things I can do a week, and how many things I start but cannot complete – the Waiting category. Those are the things I start, but hit a wall. I have to meet with somebody, get somebody’s opinion, get approval and so on. Every item like that means context switching and so lost effort and time.
Now, after excluding the things that are in the backlog, the picture is more compelling. We can clearly see the two weeks when I decided to do more. In April, week 14, it lasted a few weeks.
During Weeks 22-23, I was off and then, after coming back, had a lot of requests to do things which I tried to start as quickly as possible. This resulted in a lot of tasks in progress and a lot of waiting, but not much was done. That is what led to frustration and yet another attempt to increase productivity in June – weeks 27 and 28.
I worked hard on reducing the work in progress and the tasks in waiting. Still, I managed the reasonably constant level of tasks completed. But then, in the fourth quarter, I tried to do even more, but the only thing I achieved was the waiting queue going past sixty.
Sixty tasks I have started but cannot complete. I’m waiting for somebody else, but still, they are my responsibility. They still take my time, even if just to check if I can progress them or not!
It’s an unbelievable waste of time.
My plan for 2023? To change it and do even more with less effort. Achieve more with less strain.
But first a couple of days in the mountains to… relax! Scary! Although, I’m sure I’ll find something to do, not to relax properly. That would be too stressful. I’ll do some reading, some thinking, and hopefully something to find the much-needed new energy for civil servicing in 2023 at never before seen levels of productivity.
I am a civil servant. I work with data and technology in digital services. But what got me there, after many years in the private sector, was the time spent volunteering in various first aid organisations.
I enjoy doing first aid at events and responding to 999 calls either as an ambulance crew or community first responder. But sometimes, I think I could help more volunteering with my professional expertise (software, not pre-hospital medicine) rather than just my time.
Our National Health Services use many digital services and systems. That kind of services are what really matters. This is where we should see the latest in software engineering and user-centric design thinking, but from my experience… we are far from it. I want to do something about it.
The last three years have shown that there is a lot of will and determination in people to make things work and to help each other. And so here I am trying to find out if there are people who would like to volunteer some time and their digital skills to save lives (not directly, but still).
It won’t be easy, I imagine. The systems running our health services are not open and not publicly accessible. The data they process is sensitive. But if a group of us is willing to help, we will find a way. I’m sure.
Interested? Get in touch! Let’s talk about it. Do you have a better idea? Then definitely, let’s talk. I want to know about it!
Or have a look at the idea or code on GitHub, something relatively simple to start with, with less red tape to get through. A project to help with first-aid volunteering. Have a look. Let me know what you think.