WFH

Since the whole world is now working from home (terms and conditions may apply), everybody else is writing their working from home tips. I didn’t want to feel left out.

The way I see it, there are two related aspects: first, how you deal with it; two, how your office culture deals with it.

If you’re asked to work from home, you need to make the most of it. But right out the gate, it’s important to note that it doesn’t suit everyone. It sounds good, but some people just find it hard to be productive when there are distractions, from housework to a Nintendo, and they find it hard to manage without the face-to-face social interactions. There are many reasons and there’s no shame in admitting it’s not for you.

Of course, right now it’s not much of a choice for most of us. The common tips are stick to a routine, actually get dressed, and have a specific, physical work place. All these are good. I’m not going to argue with those, but it’s not the whole story.

Is it all about maximising productivity? Not everything I do is about increasing the amount of work I do, not directly at least. By not commuting I gain somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours a day. Honestly, I probably do spend some of that working, but I also exercise and have dinner with my family. I try to get some reading in. Occasionally do household chores. Getting the balance between taking advantage of the situation and Getting Stuff Done is the challenge and the hardest bit is that it’s you that has to set those limits.

What I’m saying is, don’t be afraid to mix things up a little to keep your sanity.

And, finally, one of the best things is that I can control my environment the whole day. In practice, that means that I play music most of the time without having to wear headphones! Game changer.

The other side is how your employer and your colleagues manage. This is the hard bit.

These days the technology is pretty good. When I first worked from home a decade ago, I found it difficult. Now we have fast broadband, collaboration software like Slack and reliable web conferencing software.

But, as William Gibson said, the future is here it’s just not evenly distributed. Just because the software exists, doesn’t mean your employer allows you to use it. And just because you have it, doesn’t mean that your team will use it well1.

One of the problems I had a decade ago was that there was a big development centre where most employees worked and there were a handful of people, like me, working remotely. Because most people were in the office, we remote workers often got forgotten.

The current situation means that we’re all remote, which, as odd as it sounds, actually helps.

Participating in remote meetings, using Zoom or Skype or whatever, is a skill that everyone needs to learn. Mute if you’re not talking. Agree whether you are or are not going to use video — being aware that video uses more bandwidth which might be a challenge if multiple people are working from home!

Using Slack or Microsoft Teams is also a learned skill. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to new users, it’s err on the side of having discussions in public. It’s often tempting to directly message an individual or make channels private, but often the team can benefit from the answer or maybe the person you’re asking isn’t there currently.

Also, make sure you set aside a channel for chit-chat. You don’t only talk about work in the office so why would you expect that to be any different online?

What I’m saying is that working from home, counterintuitively, is a skill that everyone will need to learn. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you don’t know the etiquette of a web conference or a Slack conference. And managers who are used to being able to physically look over their staff will have to get used to trusting them to do their jobs.

As bad as this this situation is, if we all learn that our jobs can be completed without commuting and our managers learn not to micromanage, maybe we’ll come out of this with a stronger working culture.


  1. I’m leaving aside issues such as companies having VPN software but not enough licences. There’s no magic in solving this problem. ↩︎

Unix: A History and a Memoir

This is probably the geekiest book I’ve read in a long time. It’s basically one step up from reading the source code for your favourite operating system. Or perhaps having a favourite operating system.

What I would say is that Unix has been pretty much the only constant throughout my career. I started with Solaris and HP-UX at university. I installed an early version of Linux on my personal machine to avoid the thirty-minute walk from home to the university labs. I’ve done consulting, I’ve developed both vertical and horizontal applications1, C and C++, Swift and Java, banking and telecoms. Pretty much the only thing they’ve all had in common was some sort of Unix underpinning.

And that’s bizarre. So much of computing changes in five years, yet Unix wasn’t even new when I started at university!

This book is the story, the memoir, of one of the people who built it. And it’s fascinating but probably only for a relatively small audience. I loved the first chapter, where he name-dropped some of the people who Kernighan worked with. Plaugher. Aho. Ullman. Honestly, if you’ve not heard of them, you’re probably not the target market for this book.

Also, if you’re Richard Stallman, you’re probably not the target for this book either: in the last chapter, he says that GNU software is “open source.”

On the other hand, if you’re not Stallman and you know about some or all of the people involved, then you are the target for this book. Read it. You’ll love it.


  1. Is that common terminology? A “vertical” application is one that’s applicable only to one industry, such as a trading application. A “horizontal” application is usable by many, like a database or operating system. ↩︎

Never split the difference

If I took this book to heart, I should try to convince you to read it.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like this book, and I mainly took it out of the library so I could make the joke in the first paragraph (and others like it). I mean, negotiation isn’t my job. I’m not, like the author, a hostage negotiator. I’m not even in sales. The key, of course, is that we all have to negotiate from time to time. While I may not often have to negotiate money in my day job, I do have to agree on the scope of work. This is a form of negotiation. We all have to buy stuff or hire someone to deal with jobs around the house.

What I’m saying is this book won me around. Something that deals with “human factors” can never be a full instruction guide, but in ten chapters, from “mirroring” to trying to figure out those “unknown unknowns” Voss walks you through the whole process. The examples are varied, from sales to hostage negotiation, some more relatable than others, but they all serve their purpose.

Some areas you’ll have seen before. I’ve come across the suggestion to “mirror” previously But even in those cases, there are new suggestions or contexts to consider.

I guess the ultimate test is whether I’ll actually use the suggestions. Some will undoubtedly take some nerve, but I suspect most people will get something out it. I’m not sure I’m going full FBI the next time the need arises, but I absolutely intend to use some of the ideas around how best to ask questions and guiding people towards the correct — your — answer.

Brexit

As the Downing Street clock reaches zero, as Whitehall is lit in red, white and blue, as the Union Jacks blanket Parliament Square, I wanted to commemorate Brexit actually happening.

In fact, I’ve wanted to say something about Brexit since before the referendum, but what is there to say that’s new? But original or not, I needed to write something.

Far from a celebration, 11pm on 31st January 2020 marks the culmination of years of misdirected anger and politicians harnessing that for their own personal gain.

The reasons for the anger are real. Inequality. Stagnating, if not declining, living standards. But the causes are austerity and neglect, not immigration.

That was merely misdirection. There were also the lies. You know it’s gone too far when Johnson, in a room full of journalists and cameras, says that there is no press there. And he still won the election.

And that’s what makes me angry. The lies. The demonisation of anyone trying to scrutinise the changes or hold the government to account. Even if you want Brexit, you should surely want it done right. It’s gutter politics; you should be able to win without smearing your opponents and outright lying1 And I’m angry that “the public” have let them get away with it2.

I’d like to think that Gina Miller, Lady Hale, John Bercow3 and backbench MPs like Dominic Greave will come out of this well when we look back in a few years. The current batch of MPs waving through the Withdrawal Agreement in three days, not so much. Did those MPs forget, or not care about, the predicted consequences of Brexit?

There’s a lot more that I could say, of course, but this whole charade has been well documented elsewhere.

What I would say is that I genuinely worry for the future of the country. When I first wrote that sentence I stopped and wondered if I was being overly dramatic. But I’m keeping it.

The government has a large majority, unconstrained by details like truth or an effective opposition party or a press willing to hold them to account. The issues that brought about Brexit — austerity, income inequality — are still present and will likely be exacerbated by our separation from Europe. Yet the same government has little interest in the kinds of people that will be most affected by their own policies.

The main positive is that Johnson owns Brexit now. It’s his signature on the bill, it’s his party in power, it’s his team negotiating. He can’t blame parliament. The consequences are his.

If that sounds like I want Johnson to fail, you’d be right. But not at the expense of the country as a whole. If we have to leave, I want Brexit to be a success. I just have a hard time seeing how that could happen.


  1. I’m not naive, I’m not saying that Westminster has always been filled with selfless, upstanding campaigners but the ratio of good-to-bad these days seems badly skewed. ↩︎
  2. Of course most of the public are not the Union Jack wearing, Nazi saluting caricatures we see on the news or Twitter. Still, enough people thought that lies were preferable to Corbyn’s ineffectual leadership. ↩︎
  3. While you can’t ignore the bullying accusations, I think it’s fair to say that he fought for the sovereignty of parliament. This is the right thing to do whether leaver or remainer. ↩︎

Mismatched

Here’s something I’ve seen a few times recently: a startup issues a patch for a critical issue seen by one of their large customers. The “enterprise,” however, takes a week to install and test it. Clearly, the startup concludes, if it takes a week to try a patch it can’t be that urgent or the staff are dumb, or, quite likely, both.

Separately, we all know that a big difference between a startup and an enterprise is process. So why do people suddenly get angry and start to lack empathy when that difference is exposed?

What we saw in the first paragraph is normal in big companies where you can’t just promote changes into UAT, much less production. It doesn’t matter how loudly you shout at their operations team, it’s not going to make any difference. Maybe the process requires writing test logs and rollback plans. Perhaps it has to be deployed and run in the pre-production environment first. It likely needs sign-off by the QA and security teams. With the best will in the world, this just can’t be done in a few hours, no matter how critical the issue is. Who is to say that the patch isn’t worse than the problem it’s trying to fix?

The difference is frustrating, but don’t mistake tedious process with a lack of urgency or incompetence. Circumventing process can take longer than following it and your client probably knows that. If nothing else, these people might lose their jobs by not following the right process!

Work with it, understand their constraints. This isn’t the time to lose that empathy. It would help if you also had humility and understanding. You know your product but they understand their systems, including how your software interfaces with the other applications they have running in their data centre.

And yes, working with their process is more complex and time-consuming. This is why we charge enterprises more for, ostensibly, the same features.

Bounce

Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” is a pop-science book that I borrowed from the library on a whim. It’s about the the “science of success” and starts with the idea that experts have at least 10 000 hours worth of experience in their field.

It’s… fine. I think I believed the thesis before I started but, while it was easy to read, I’m not sure how much it added.

The third chapter — about deliberate practice — almost had me for a minute, until I realised I’d seen it many times before. You see people at work who claim n years of experience but it doesn’t take long to understand that they just have the same year repeated over and over again; they didn’t grow or learn.

This is also the chapter where I agree with one statement in principle but not in practice. He says that while most of his examples show sportsmen improving their performance, the benefit could also be applied to society as a whole (agree) and that the economic advantage would be shared by everyone (disagree). We’ve seen productivity across countries improve for the last thirty years yet a disproportionate amount of the proceeds have gone to the rich. I’m not sure how we fix that.

He did lose me towards the end. Not that I disagree with where he was going in the last chapters about the reasons behind the success of black athletes1, but I’m not entirely clear that it needed to be in this book. Did he have to hit a word-count? Did he just want to include something he was interested in even though it was only tangentially related to the rest of the book? (Kind of like I did in the last paragraph about inequality.)

Anyway, it was an easy read. I think it reinforced what I already believe but didn’t significantly challenge or ultimately dramatically increase my understanding. Perhaps the 10 000 hours theory has so thoroughly permeated society that this book has been rendered surplus to requirements.


  1. Spoiler alert: it has little to do with their skin colour. ↩︎

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington