Category Archives: Blog

General thoughts on life, the universe and everything. Stuff that doesn’t fit in the other categories!

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.

How to be right

Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a liberal caricature. James O’Brien is one too, and he knows it.

In his book “How to be right… in a world gone wrong” he goes through a bunch of topics, from Islam to Political Correctness, and debunks the common arguments, often using transcripts from his radio show. The chapter on The Age Gap is, perhaps, the one that made me think the most.

If you live in the same bubble that I do, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential reading. Which is not to say that it’s badly written or poorly argued or difficult to read. It isn’t. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. There’s just not a lot that’s new.

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. ↩︎