All posts by Stephen Darlington

Fragile Development

The problem with “agile development” is that it is both a methodology and a buzzword. What this means in practice is that people who do not understand it implement parts of it without appreciating the whole. This usually results in more overhead but without the benefits.

I’ve come across this multiple times in my career. The usual refrain is “we’re agile so we don’t need documentation.” The “agile” aspect is more often than not, merely the assertion that the project is agile. Or someone says that the code is the documentation.

Another common one is “we need to improve communication so we’ll have have a daily stand-up.” This often ends up being an opportunity for senior managers to give ten minute monologues about what they might get up to if they didn’t have so many meetings to attend. (Cue unheeded calls for sympathy.) Updates from people at the coal face often get cut due to time pressures. After a few weeks people stop attending…

Agile as it was originally designed was clever because it went up against the common wisdom of the day by jettisoning certain elements of bureaucracy but balancing them with other carefully considered, and hopefully less onerous, procedures. Less documentation might work if you increase the amount of teamwork; less formal requirements gathering is counteracted by including a user in the team; regular cadence of releases means you can get away with less rigid planning.

The common trait in the examples I gave is that they lack that balance. Not writing documentation is a mistake if there is no other method of retaining knowledge inside an organisation. Poor communication is not solved by managers broadcasting how out of touch they are.

As with any problem, you can’t fix it if you don’t understand it.

TED Talks: The Official TED guide to public speaking

Over the years my job has required me to do varying amounts of public speaking. A few years ago I was doing it weekly to audiences ranging from a handful of people to dozens. I’ve done less recently but it’s something I wanted to get back into, hence this book. TED talks are slickly produced and the speakers almost always appear to be, at the very least, competent, and usually much better than that. That made “TED Talks” a good place to start.

While reading the book I ended up speaking at a conference and I was able to put some of the lessons into practice. Of course I’d only read half of it so I did make some avoidable mistakes. However, it also showed some practical limitations of the book: naturally it’s about the kind of talks given at TED, but most people rarely do that.

My talks are often given at fairly short notice, frequently with a “standard” slide deck that you’re not supposed to edit significantly. The last talk I gave was written entirely by someone else and I only had the time to adjust the slides to work with my delivery style better.

Other than the logistics, the subject matter also differs. If you gave a presentation about your companies product roadmap in the style of a TED talk you’d get laughed out of the room! (That doesn’t stop so many companies trying to ape Steve Jobs, but those are usually also seen as inauthentic.)

And, perhaps unlike at TED, at most places you don’t get to choose how the stage looks. I like to walk around a little. This, I feel, makes the presentation look more dynamic but also means that I can’t look at my notes all the time and I have to engage with that audience; double win! But you can’t always do that. Maybe the stage is too small; perhaps they’re recording and they don’t like you moving out of shot continually; maybe the microphone is attached to the lectern.

What I’m saying is, while the advice is probably great for when you give your TED Talk, you’re going to have to allow for a much greater degree of outside control for most presentations you have to give.

But overall, the advice is good. It covers everything from how to structure the talk, to preparation (including your slides, and whether you should even use any), stage presence, voice and how to work best with your strengths and weaknesses.

Where it lost me, though, are the last few chapters (“Reflection”). After talking about how to give a great talk only at the end does it discuss why it’s important and why you should do it. The little bit of TED history is quite interesting but the book probably could have done without it — presumably if you’re reading the book you’re already convinced — or maybe put it at the beginning as a form of motivation for reading the rest.

Ironically, people who don’t want to ever give a talk are the very people that the last section is really aimed at, unfortunately they’re never going to read it.

Of course, that’s mostly a quibble in an otherwise decent guide. Not everyone is going to want to give talk, but if you do it’s worth a look.

Productivity

I just can’t figure how to follow all those “improve your productivity” guides. I’m sure you know the ones I mean: they suggest exercising at 6am; or switching off your email and Slack during the day to avoid distractions; or to schedule all your meetings in the mornings; or…

Can anyone make those things work?

The problem I have is that I work and live with other people. So, sure, I can try to schedule my meetings in the morning but I don’t think my American colleagues will appreciate having to get up at 4am to make my 9am daily standup; if I don’t have Slack running I’ll miss the notification that the database server is going down; without email I won’t learn that the client meeting I’m preparing for has been cancelled; and going to the gym at 6am would be great except who is going to look after the kids while I’m out?

All these productivity guides fail to recognise that we all have external commitments, that we work in places with existing infrastructure and conventions. The best you can do is cherry-pick the bits from the guides that work for you and try to figure out your own process for everything else.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, is what we were already doing.

Reading 2018

It’s been an interesting year. Half way through 2018 I started working from home basically full time. While that may not sound like it’s relevant, my time on the Tube was my “reading time.”

What I’m saying is: I didn’t reach my twelve book target this year.

I need to do better, allow myself to carve out some dedicated time as I did for exercise. Looking back over my list, I also want to read more fiction. I enjoy novels too much to only read one in a year!

You can read my full thoughts on my reading material by looking through the “Reading2018” tag, but if you want a theme drawing them together it might be “disappointment.” While pretty diverse — covering politics, persuasion and management — many of them didn’t quite live up to expectations.

On the other hand, What if… might be the best pop-science book I’ve read in a while and, in these turbulent times, Factfulness really is an important book. (I generally don’t like that term, so the fact I’m not using it ironically does mean something!)

Even without the library and new acquisitions, I already have a dozen unread books lined up for 2019. Let’s do this!

C25K Diary Part 4

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d leave the house early on a Saturday to run in a park when it’s barely above freezing, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet that’s what happened this last weekend.

A year ago I’d just started my Couch to 5km adventure and it feels like a lot has happened in that time. Since my last entry in March, I’ve managed to both increase my speed, become more consistent and actually run a full five kilometres. With hindsight, I can see that I did much right but a few things wrong. As before, I think it’s worth writing about both as a help for people starting in the same place as me and as a reminder for myself. Knowing that I had difficulty keeps me going on days where I feel I’m doing badly!

I left my last post having completed the C25K programme but not having actually run the full 5K. (The programme helps you run 5K or for thirty minutes. That’s small print for you.)

My initial plan was to gradually increase my speed until I could run the full 5km in thirty minutes. That’s what I did for a while until I realised that it was going to take me a long time! So for one week I changed tack and concentrated on distance rather than speed. By that point it was actually quite easy but I’m glad I did it, if only to tick a virtual check box.

In trying to improve my consistency, the main thing I think I’ve learned is that I’ve been a terrible judge of how tired I actually am. There’s a difference between “not feeling it” and not being capable of running the full duration. With the benefit of hindsight, I could almost certainly have pressed on with some of the later stages of the C25K programme and finished sooner. Which is not to say that I think I erred; being cautious meant that I avoided getting injured. Doing exercise was (is) a bigger goal than completing a 5km run.

Around the same time, I’d started hearing about something called Parkrun. The arrival of spring and the desire for a change from running on a treadmill in the gym made me open to a change, even if it meant turning up to a local park early on a Saturday.

While I liked the idea, I didn’t want to find that I couldn’t finish or that people would sneer at me for finishing last. Turns out I misjudged the atmosphere and how competitive it would be. But I didn’t know, and I spent a couple of weeks trying to run outside before I even attempted it.

After all that time in the gym, I found running outside to be quite challenging. I had to pace myself rather than have the treadmill “force” me to continue at a known speed. Harder still, I had to plot my route in advance!

Having spent the rest of the year mostly running outside, oddly I now find running on a treadmill to be a challenge.

Back to Parkrun. After a couple of weeks practicing outside I went to my local in Tooting. I think I was expecting a handful of sporty people wearing Lycra sprinting around. What I actually found was over five hundred people of all abilities. There were the athletes but there were also people with baby buggies, teenagers and pensioners. Not only was I not out of place, but I didn’t even come in last place. And not even that but it was a supportive crowd meaning that my fears of finishing last were utterly misplaced. It’s not a race, it’s only as competitive as you want it to be. Oh, and it’s incredibly well organised, mostly run by volunteers.

This wasn’t supposed to be an advert for Parkrun. (Still, you should consider doing it.)

Since early summer I’ve stuck to doing two or three runs a week outside. When I started the running, my not-running days I typically went swimming. Recently I’ve started alternating that with some resistance training. But the running is still the “backbone” of my exercise regime.

What next? Well, winter is on the way so I’m interested to see how motivated I am to keep running outside! I still have no grand goal, no major objective to run a marathon or reach any particular race time. This is partly because exercise is the real goal but mostly because I want to be realistic. I’ve taken nearly ten minutes off my time for running 5km over the summer but, without some serious effort that I’m not likely to ever put in, constant improvement from here is going to be a lot harder.

But I’m going to keep trying!

Factfulness

I didn’t mean to immediately buy Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness“. I saw it in a “recommended reads” list (both Bill Gates and Barak Obama suggested it, if I remember correctly), thought it sounded interesting and went to Amazon to add it to my wish list. Fat fingers meant that I tapped the “buy” button instead.

Anyway. As an antidote to all the bad news around at the moment, I decided to read it right away. The narrative that the world is getting worse by many measures, this book argues, is false. I want to believe that we’re progressing but the pictures on TV of Trump and Brexit, famine and war make it hard to accept.

It starts with a questionnaire and, without wishing to steal the book’s thunder, most people will do incredibly badly at it. Worse, in fact, than merely picking answers at random, or “the chimps” as the book calls it.

I’d like to think that I’m better informed than many, if not than the general public than some chimps, but I still did badly!

The book continues with a list of errors that we all make, examples of them and how to spot and avoid them in the future. It sounds dry but it isn’t. Hans Rosling is humble, keen to draw attention both to where he made mistakes and where he made a difference. If anything, his modesty often sounds misplaced. I think it’s fair to say that he had more achievements than failures.

“I don’t tell you not to worry. I tell you to worry about the right things.”

The curse of this book, if there is one, is that we all think we’re well informed and that we don’t need to read it. The numbers show that we’re wrong. I hope that doesn’t make it the least read, most important book I’ve picked this year!