Tag Archives: Computing

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. ↩︎

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.

Innovation department

When I see a company that has an “innovation team” or a “chief innovation officer” I immediately understand that it’s not the kind of company I want to work for.

Innovation isn’t found in a particular team, person or department. It’s your culture.

If you need a special team outside the normal management structure to innovate, what does that say?

iTunes Match — addendum

Since I wrote about iTunes Match nearly eighteen months ago I thought it was worth revisiting and seeing how things have changed in that time.

Oddly, the short answer is “not very much.”

The problems that I identified last year are still very much present. Indeed there are some new examples. This is my favourite: when listening to “Man Machine” by Kraftwerk, iTunes Match seems to have decided that track four, which should be “The Model,” is really “Wouldn’t it be nice” by the Beach Boys. I don’t even own a copy of “Wouldn’t it be nice.”

The biggest changes in those eighteen months have been on the client side. iTunes 11 (the lipstick on pig release), as far as I can tell, didn’t change very much. iOS 6 wasn’t nearly as fortunate. The point zero release removed the ability to delete individual tracks. Not exactly progress. (It’s back again in 6.1.)

Apple likes to talk about its magical products that Just Work. iTunes Match tries to be more magical than most but clearly missed a few visits from the faeries.

One bit of magic that I thought was supposed to happen was that when getting low on disk space, iTunes Match would delete less played tracks. In fact, what I think happens is that it removes older, cached tracks.

The distinction here is between cached and downloaded. If you press the download (cloud) icon it isn’t automatically removed; if you didn’t it is.

But how do you tell? Well, that’s the other major client flaw. There’s no easy way to see which tracks have been downloaded without opening each album, one by one. I have six hundred albums which makes this an exceedingly tedious task.

My guess is that you’re supposed to use it by just pressing the Play button and have iOS manage the space for you. But this would mean you live in a utopian universe where you have a data signal every time you want to play some music. That does not resemble my life.

What I want it to be able to download tracks that I think I’ll want to listen to and then allow playing from the cloud. When low on space it should remove tracks that have not been played recently regardless of how they got there.

So eighteen months on I find that many of the same problems remain and I’ve found some new ones, yet I still paid for another years subscription without much though. Why? Well, it’s still very useful. I like being able to play music using my Apple TV. I like being able to access any of my music when I have wifi or 3G. I just wish Apple would spend a little time and make it less like a 1.0 release1.

  1. You could argue that they added iTunes Radio, but that only comes with iOS 7 — nearly two years after iTunes Match came out — which isn’t out yet and even then that will only work in the US to start with. []

iOS 6

Like all the best upgrades, iOS 6 is almost entirely invisible. It works just like iOS 5 — which is to say, pretty well most of the time — but with some convenient new additions. Also, unlike version five, it’s been relatively stable throughout the beta process.

What’s new and what will you like? I’ve grown so accustomed to most of them that I had to look up the “What’s new” page on Apple’s website. Really, that’s a good thing. Invisibility is the fate of a feature that’s quickly integrated with how you use a device. (The thing that makes it tricky is that it’s also the fate of a completely useless feature that you never use.)

Roughly ordered by how much I like them:

  • Do not disturb. This is the one feature that the Blackberry had that I missed in iOS. I only had a Bold for a few months but being able to switch off “work” between certain hours was brilliant, and the same is true of Apple’s implementation. You set a range of hours and it automatically mutes. This feature alone is worth updating for
  • Shared Photo Stream. This will be even better when I can share directly with other people’s devices, but being able to create a web gallery of Photo Stream pictures has already proved to be useful
  • iCloud tabs. This feature sat idle until Mountain Lion and then… great. The only thing I would ask is for this to work on my iPad!
  • New options when receiving a phone call. The “decline but remind me later” is a great option

Stuff I’m ambivalent about:

  • Maps. Apple switched from using Google’s maps to their own. I miss Street View but otherwise all the functionality seems to be there. Searching for stuff seems a bit hit and miss, just like with Google Maps. Search results differ but I’ve not used it enough to determine whether one is better than the other
  • Siri. I have an iPhone 4 and an iPad 1, the former of which doesn’t support Siri, the latter of which doesn’t support iOS 6
  • Passbook. This might be great when there are apps to support it. Right now, a waste of a spot on my home screen
  • FaceTime over 3G. Not sure if it will be supported in the UK. Rarely had the need to call when there’s been no WiFi

The only “bad” I can think of is that it doesn’t run at all on my two year old first generation iPad. I understand technically why they made this decision, but at the same time it’s a little galling to have such a relatively recent device be declared obsolete.

In conclusion, this is one of Apple’s “refinement” releases. They seem to have a big update (iOS5, Lion) and then a release that fixes some of the rough edges (iOS6, Mountain Lion). 2012 has been a year of two spit and polish releases. I’m not complaining.

Mountain Lion — The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I’ve been using Mountain Lion, the new version of the Macintosh operating system, for less than a day so this isn’t intended to be detailed (see John Siracua’s review) or thorough. I have, however, kicked the proverbial tyres so here are a few, quick thoughts.

Good

  • Probably the most stable 10.x.0 release I’ve used
  • Little earth shattering but lots of really nice improvements, not all of which I’ve seen documented (for example, attachments in Mail now appear in the “All My Files” view in the Finder, multiple Time Machine disks)
  • Notification Center works well; AirPlay mirroring is going to be really useful
  • I’ve not found any software that worked in Lion that no longer works. That includes stuff like VMWare (scary because it’s low-level) and Photoshop Elements 6 which is not listed on Roaring Apps compatibility list

Bad

  • You’re not going to be able to make the best use of everything until iOS 6 comes out. This is a bit of a pain if you own a first generation iPad and know that this will never happen…
  • The installer got confused. After “less than a minute remaining” it went to “-1 minutes remaining.” It got to -7 before finally resetting to twenty minutes. It worked in the end so clearly this isn’t a “show stopper” but anything weird in a process that reconfigures your system is disconcerting
  • I launched Mail. It upgraded my database successfully and then, while I was making a cup of coffee, crashed. It’s been stable ever since, but first impressions and all that
  • Every time I click on Messages — the new iChat — it opens the instant message (“Messages”) window. Do Not Want

Ugly

  • The font in the new Notes app. What were they thinking?!
  • If you didn’t like the iOS-ification of Lion you’re not going to like Mountain Lion any better. But if that’s the case you’d probably start thinking about migrating to another platform!

But overall, at less than £15 it’s a no-brainer if you use your Mac a lot.