All posts by Stephen Darlington

Come Again

I learned about this book on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP!). One of my favourite nineties comedy performers interviewing one of my favourite two-thousands comedy performers. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not entirely impartial; I was predisposed to like “Come Again.”

Webb’s first book was a kind of a memoir. This is a novel. I’m pretty much the perfect demographic. The lead character went to an English university in the early nineties to study Computer Science. Even though it was a different university, so much was familiar.

Is it well written and researched or just lazy nostalgia?

I think that’s the question for the book as a whole. It’s a quick, unchallenging read. The writing is functional and it’s structured to included a few nice twists and the odd end-of-chapter cliff hanger.

The three sections are quite different in tone. The first and second work well but the third, while entertaining, doesn’t quite seem to fit.

So clearly I’m not going to describe this as “must read.” It’s a fun read and maybe that’s all it needs to be.

Sex Power Money

This book isn’t what I was expecting. I know Sara Pascoe’s standup and thought this might be some fun, light reading.

To be fair, the writing does have fun bits but the subject matter? Not so much. Relationships, power dynamics, tesosterone, prostitution. Heavy stuff! She’s clearly done reseach and quotes interviews1 she’s conducted. This is no “memoir” as many comedians have done. But nor is it an academic treatise. There are still personal bits, as she discusses the struggles she had grappling with some of the more challenging concepts or how her opinions had changed over time. It’s a refreshing approach as most authors push the solution rather that the journey to it. Sometimes the route is more interesting than the destination.

Overall it’s thought-provoking stuff and worth a read for that reason alone. You may not agree with all of it but you might have the odd snigger reaching that conclusion.


  1. She has a podcast series with some of them. ↩︎

The Value of Everything

Economics is one of those subjects that I’ve only ever seen from the sidelines. When I was at school, I remember seeing friends drawing simple demand curve graphs. It looked pretty straightforward, though, of course, anything you don’t understand very well often does.

Over the years, “life” touches on the concepts fairly often. Whether it’s what’s going on at work or things the government is doing (or not doing), you can’t get far without hearing the word.

Probably what I need is an “introduction to economics” book. Instead, I read Mariana Mazzucato’s “The Value of Everything,” which talks about the concept of “value” which isn’t quite the same thing but was fascinating nevertheless.

For example, reading about forecasts and GDP1, you often see hints, or explicit mention, that government is “unproductive.” Certainly, the idea that private enterprise is more efficient than the government is thoroughly entrenched. What I hadn’t really considered was how “value” and GDP is defined. And, it turns out, that what the government does is by definition unproductive.

This is a narrow definition of “productive” that then makes its way out into society by people who don’t know that it’s an economics term. Much as the word “theory” is used to discredit “the theory of evolution” by people who think “theory” just means a hunch or guess.

Having defined value, Mazzucato moves on to discuss the implications, from the contribution to GDP that banking, pharmaceutical and technology companies make to the effectiveness of government spending and austerity.

It’s not the most exciting of subjects, I grant you, and it’s written fairly flat and academically, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. A few times I found myself disagreeing, or thinking a statement was overly generalised, only to find that she covered that in a subsequent section. This was a little frustrating on one hand but on the other kept me reading to the end.

Overall, it’s easy to recommend if you’re conflicted on the role of government and big business. As ever, there are no easy answers but it clarified a few things and made me think and about others.


  1. Yeah, maybe I should get out more. ↩︎

The backlash

The backlash has begun. Four months ago, everywhere was proclaiming that working from home was both the New Hotness and Here to Stay. In the last few weeks, those same venues have switched gears, documenting how people can’t wait to go back to the office. What changed?

Nothing. Simply the novelty wore off.

I get it. The last time I had a work-from-home job I didn’t really enjoy it. It was a decade ago and the technology wasn’t quite there. No Slack, an emphasis on phone calls rather than video-chats and much weaker collaboration tools like wikis. I was also one of only a few people working remotely. But, perhaps most significantly, I was at a different stage of my life.

If the pandemic and subsequent lockdown had hit back then, how would I have coped? It’s impossible to say for sure, of course, but less well I think.

And if you go back much before that and I wouldn’t have been able to work at all. I remember a teacher friend grumbling that she took work home but I didn’t. Couldn’t would have been more accurate: I didn’t have a £250,000 computer at home! A lot of business don’t even have machines like that any more.

Ultimately, people are learning that working remotely is a skill. If you just plonk people in disparate places and hope for the best, you’re probably going to fail over the medium term. Those unplanned meetings in corridors really won’t happen. As suspected, people won’t schedule a thirty-minute meeting to discuss… well, who knows what… the whole point is the serendipity. If these things are important — and I think they are — then you can’t just say “That doesn’t work remotely,” give up and insist everyone return to the office. That’s a total abdication of leadership!

The meeting won’t happen in exactly the same way, but you can encourage public conversations in Slack or Teams. You can have “happy hours” when the team can dial in for chit-chat.

I’m sure you have your own ideas. The point is that collaboration can and does happen remotely. Sure, there are cases where it can’t happen, or at least can’t happen easily. If you’re designing or making hardware it’s difficult.

Hopefully, as the threat of COVID-19 lifts, we’ll remember the lessons we’ve learned. We shouldn’t go back exactly to how things were before. The people who like working from home should still be able to do so, at least some of the time. I want to believe that the idea that people can’t be productive at home is no longer wide-spread. On the other hand, it’s not a panacea. We shouldn’t be closing all the office space in cities and we shouldn’t force people to work from home if they prefer being in an office.

In the end, treating staff like adults and trusting them to Get The Job Done is rarely a bad policy.

Facebook: The inside story

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. And the odd thing is that it feels like Steven Levy isn’t either.

I’ve read most of Levy’s previous books and, while he’s never been uncritical, there has always been a mostly positive spin. From Apple, to Google, to the “hacker culture” (including Stallman) I don’t recall any of his previous works quite being so down on their subjects.

It’s to the credit of Zuckerberg and his crew, then, that they were so involved in its creation. All the big names were interviewed on the record and, frankly, few come off well. Zuckerberg himself comes across as petty, jealous, arrogant and not terribly likeable. Even Steve Jobs had a fun, mischievous side.

That’s not to say the Levy doesn’t give credit where it’s due. The coverage comes across as fair, so maybe it’s more fair to say that reality is skewed against Facebook than this book!

It covers everything from Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook projects, through to its founding, move to California, early growth and the last decade of being practically ubiquitous.

Most of the early phases have been well documented elsewhere (including in the Social Network movie), which made the discussion of some of Facebooks biggest missteps, and the threads that connect them, the highlight. The focus on growth at all costs, the organisational split between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and the belief that connecting people is an unalloyed good seem to be the key to most failings and, disturbingly, they don’t seem to have learned that lesson.

Overall, it’s a fascinating, well written book about a troubling company. If we can’t avoid the company, we should at least try to understand it.

Meetings

After university, when I first started working, I jealously noticed people leaving their desks and attending meetings. I was left sitting at my desk, bashing out code. What was going on? What exciting things were being discussed without me? Sometimes they’d come back from the meeting and ask a random question. It was all very mysterious.

A while later I started getting invited to these meetings. I found what was being discussed. I discovered the mystery.

I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to avoid them.

Of course, meetings are not inherently bad. Sharing information, collaborating, making decisions are all vital functions of a company and you need meetings to do that. So why are they often so bad? And why do I spend so much time trying to avoid them?

Meetings are a cultural artefact. Good and bad etiquette isn’t evenly distributed. The companies with the worst meetings are also, ironically, the ones with the most.

What makes a good meeting? There are lots of articles on the web about this, so I don’t want to belabour the point, but, actually, I think it’s quite simple:

  • A defined function
  • The right people
  • The right duration

Missing any one of those means that the meeting is going to be a waste for at least some of those attending.

By “a defined function,” yes, I mean an agenda. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full and formal written agenda, but all attendees should know the point of the meeting. If they don’t, maybe you do need to write it down. I encourage people to decline meetings with an unclear objective1.

The “right people” to invite to a meeting is often driven by the org chart, but this is completely the wrong metric. You need the fewest people that can meet the objective of the meeting. Don’t include someone just because they’re “important.” Don’t exclude someone because they’re too junior. Include everyone needed to share information or make a decision, or whatever the goal. But no more than that.

One thing that infuriates me is where people in a meeting have no “function.”2 Everyone should have a clearly defined role. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there.

What about duration? I see two sides to it. First, work expands to fill the time available. Don’t do that. If you set aside an hour for a meeting but it actually only takes ten minutes, quit while you’re ahead. In fact, for people that tend to take a while to get to the point, I’ll deliberately book short meetings.

Conversely, if you’ve spent an hour going around in circles without making a real decision, maybe it’s time to call it a day. Your conclusion should be the information you need to actually make a decision, the people who are going to obtain it and, hopefully, when the next meeting will be.

Talking of “an hour,” that’s my benchmark for maximum meeting length. Anything significantly longer than that suggests to me that there isn’t sufficient focus or a tight enough agenda. And, perhaps more importantly, people are just not going to focus that whole time. They’re going to drift off into a dream world or check their phone. Why have them in the room physically if they’re not present mentally?

It all sounds so simple when you put it like that and yet we’re all guilty of Doing It Wrong. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that meetings should be deliberate, just like any other corporate artefact.


  1. There are exceptions. For example, I wouldn’t decline a meeting with a client but I would seek clarification. ↩︎
  2. When Dilbert was good, there was a character called the Meeting Moth. I think we’ve all worked with people like that. ↩︎