Hands Passing Baton at Sporting Event

Smooth Transitions

As of Monday I am once again in charge of a team.

Exactly the same day that I had my 3-Month review in the afternoon. I felt fairly confident my review was going to be okay. I’ve definitely set myself a high bar to beat for the 6-Month review.

Today, my second day, was the day for one-on-ones with everyone. Also, interviewing a Product Manager. Also, a one-on-one with the CEO. Only lunch wasn’t technically a meeting, even though it kinda is.

It was great to talk with everybody and for them to be so positive and enthusiastic about the changing of the guard. It didn’t seem to take anyone by surprise, which is kinda surprising in its own right. If this goes pear-shaped it won’t be for lack of support from my team. I’m sure my previous two years of juggling/cat-herding/crisis-management will serve me well.

And then ending the day catching up with the CEO (a standard with all new employees, I believe)… Congratulations on getting the team lead so soon in my tenure. Emphasising how important the team’s work is to the success of the organisation (no pressure… really). And an opportunity to ask some questions.

And yet again… all ’round, so much support and enthusiasm from everyone in the company.

So…
What’s Next?

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We All Should Learn a Thing or Two

I have been learning like a meth-crazed hamster.

It started about a month ago when I got a Pluralsight subscription at work; I had previously only been exposed to http://www.pluralsight.com in my capacity as manager with team-members that would like a subscription. It is the cheapest yet most valuable training budget you could ever spend on yourself or any subordinates.

Sure, there are bad courses as well. But overall my impression of the 30 I have done so far is that there’s more good than bad. And for the occasional slow speaker, there is an awesome speed control under the gear-wheel of their video player so you can go up to double-speed with anti-squirrel-compensation technology.

I like learning new tech topics by getting shown through an introduction. It’s not that I don’t like reading tech manuals and API documentation, but I have found that far too often when techies start writing it sprawls too broadly and leaves me completely clueless as to what is essential and what are the optional extras of a new technology. I think the written word especially is prone to a feeling that we must be comprehensive at all cost, when most of the time a new entrant just wants a gentle and limited introduction.

As a result I have found the “??? Fundamentals” courses on Pluralsight immensely helpful to broaden my horizons. But I would even go so far as to suggest that managers, whether technical or not, could probably benefit from these fundamentals courses. For the non-technical manager you may have to gloss over some of the techier bits, but courses like Jira Fundamentals or Agile Fundamentals are a great way to follow along with what your developers are talking about.

And another set of courses I have found especially helpful are the “??? Best Practices” ones. Even in technologies I am moderately familiar with a video on best-practices can be a great way to level-up to where the industry is already at. Javascript, Python and Angular, here I come!

So, I strongly suggest you go out there now, get a free 10-day trial, and give it a shot.

You might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Time-frames and Velocity

Next Monday I have a meeting with my team lead at 2:30pm. It’ll be the 3-month review mark in my new job, which still feels insane to me.

I blame the velocity of the release cycle at Campaign Monitor. I came from an organisation where releases are carefully planned and executed around a 6-month release cycle to coördinate deployments with numerous external parties each with their own IT department. I came from an organisation that rightfully was cautious about the idea of Agile and where it might apply. And I’ve jumped straight into the middle of an Agile maelström.

We have a release window every fortnight (or more… sometimes weekly). Sometimes that’s just an internal deployment. Sometimes that’s a production deployment with functionality still turned off by default. But it is a deployment. An opportunity for code to be exercised, reviewed in the wild, and feedback to come back. It leads to a much more experimental approach, and a preparedness to be wrong because at worst it will get fixed in another fortnight.

Which makes this morning all the more dazzling in its sudden slow-ness.

There is an issue in some of the development environments. And I’m sure it’ll be fixed by lunch, but in the face of the otherwise blistering speed, half a day without access suddenly feels like the Biggest Tragedy in the History of the Universe.

So in my helplessness I am studying on Pluralsight.

I should post about Pluralsight, because it is more awesome than I ever suspected. In the past month I have completed 30 courses on a variety of topics. It’s the quickest way to get into a new unfamiliar technology for me, and I feel so much smarter already. Just wait until I finish the full catalogue… only 3970 more to go!

Back to Angular.js for me now.

And then lunch with some ex-colleagues. Yes, I am abandoning the chefs. “Chicken and sweetcorn soup” the internal menu proclaims. I’ll be back in time for cookies though.

Etappe Spay bis Koblenz; betrachtet und fotografiert vom Aussichtspunkt (Schutzhütte) des Rheinsteig Wanderweg zwischen Osterspai und Braubach. 

"Rhein in Flammen" (Rhine in Flames) is the name of five different firework displays along the river Rhine in Germany. The displays take place annually, at various locations along the river. (Source: Wikipedia). 
Here you can see the firework displays between the locations Spay and Koblenz (the biggest one).

Ships Through the Night

Last week I participated in a Ship-It event at work.

The concept: the engineering staff form teams around concepts and ideas. Innovations that have been on peoples’ minds. Things that they think might be useful. Wow an audience.

Then at 2pm on Thursday, coding starts, and at 2pm on Friday, pencils down.

The aim is to put together a presentation or demo to an audience of everyone in the company. After all the presentations we vote. After the vote, one team wins the esteem of having won, their names on a trophy to be put somewhere in the office, and a custom-designed-one-run-only t-shirt.

Most of us are in it for the t-shirt… we have some kick-ass designers in our company.

The team I was part of started the event with a great idea for an improvement to some internal tooling. It was never going to win because it doesn’t cater to a broad enough audience, but it will make our own lives easier.

First lesson: 24 hours is not a lot of time.

We took some time designing a solution prior to the event. We had a fairly good idea of all the moving parts. Some databases, a message queue, some background processes and a Web UI. As I type that list up, I’m already wondering what kind of crack we were smoking to think it’d fit. But it’s good to be ambitious. I love hard problems.

By 6pm though it was time for dinner. Some of the chefs had stayed behind to make us something they called “chips”, but which so far surpassed the food item I have come to associate with that label we might as well pretend it was called “caviar” instead.

It didn’t feel like we had made anywhere near enough progress, and the day was getting late.

By 9pm, the team was starting to itch to go home and get some sleep. I foolishly stayed till about 10:30pm thinking I might make some more progress through the night, but my environment was exhibiting issues I couldn’t solve with a tired brain by myself.

Second lesson: stay or stay-not.

I probably should have headed home earlier than I did. A good nights’ sleep is a great way to restore productivity and get a fresh perspective on all the problems from the previous night. I guess this is why working weeks have nights at home scattered throughout them as well.

At 10:30pm I briefly considered sleeping in the office somewhere. I had prepared for staying and showering at work the next day. But I also had a kink in my neck and as comfy as the lounges are, I wouldn’t have been able to sit-up straight in the morning. Maybe I could have won a sympathy vote or two with a Hunchback routine, but it didn’t seem worth it.

I got home at about midnight, slept 5 hours, and headed back into the office early to get a head-start on the day. I was back at my desk by 7am feeling much fresher, albeit a little worn out.

If all this sounds exhausting. It is.
But it is also so much fun that it just doesn’t matter.

Third lesson: redefine the problem.

We came to the conclusion early on Friday that although only about half the available time had been spent yet we weren’t going to have a complete working system by 2pm.

So we did the smart thing.
We pivoted.

Rather than trying to produce a full working solution, we started to work on proving the feasibility of as many of the parts of the full solution as possible. We proved a migration path. We proved throughput. We proved the result we were aiming for.

And then we presented our findings with a demo of a Web UI over some batch-processed data rather than the live feed we would have liked to have had.

Fourth lesson: 24 hours is more time than you can imagine.

And then I presented for my team. Did an accidental mike-drop at the end (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

And we didn’t win of course. 8 out of 11.

But, what struck me is the amazing things that the teams came up within a mere 24 hours. Some teams stayed far later than I did; perhaps because they didn’t have to travel far to find their own beds. Next time I hope to find the strength to go around the clock myself.

There is something magical about dropping all process and standards, and just racing for the best you can do in a small time with a limited amount of time. It is refreshing. And at the same time it gives a good appreciation why some level of process is necessary.

I shudder to think of the code I wrote over 16 hours actually being the final version. It is atrocious by production standards. But it also worked brilliantly to address a tangible problem.

And then we rest

From what I understand we’ll be doing these every 6 months with fresh ideas to pursue.

It is a brilliant way to blow off steam. To try stupid things in stupid ways. And to work with staff outside of my own direct team. Mix-and-match.

I just need to prepare a palatable place to sleep in the office.
Just a few hours will do.
And I already have an idea.

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Exclusive Membership

I still have to catch up with a few posts rattling in my brain; had a fun 24-hour challenge at work last week that I need to write about, and this week has left me with some thoughts to put to paper* as well.

But for now… I just have to share the awesome team I am a member of.

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We are Team Blackbeard!
(named for our fearless(?) team captain)

*Please print out this post before reading, for the sake of accuracy.

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Ship-It… Ship-It-Good

The day that I shall call Thriday is going to be an interesting one.

Tomorrow at noon, pretty much all the Engineering staff at Campaign Monitor will be challenging each other to build the best product they can from-scratch in a 24 hour time period.

Why?

Because, Why Not!
Also, it is presumably fun. And it sounds like there is a prize for the winner. Who knows.

There is a minimal amount of prep that gets done in the lead-up to the day; trying to woo other staff to join your project, brainstorming, some designing and planning. But all the heavy lifting gets done in just one day.

It’s an interesting exercise in discipline. It’s very easy to design something that is just too complicated to fit within the allotted time with a small team. Everything has to be agile. Everything has to be shippable in minimal increments, because there are no extensions to the deadline. And then it has to be as impressive to all our colleagues as it can possibly be, because we are also all judges.

I think the team I’m on has got an interesting problem ahead of us.

There’s a bit of intense data processing involved, a bit of web UI, a legacy system we need to suck data from, and then on Friday a presentation to do.

It really is going to be a little microcosm of IT; planning, managing, designing, developing, testing, selling.

I’m looking forward to finding out who will still be in the office by midnight.

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Campaign Monitor – 8 Weeks In

I can’t quite decide whether to say “I cannot believe it’s only been 8 weeks” or “I cannot believe it’s been 8 weeks already”. Both interpretations have merit.

The change was unbelievably effortless. One week in I felt at home, two weeks in I felt like I could do something to add value, and three weeks in I was throwing all my crazy first ideas into the ring without regard for what people might think. It is liberating in the most wonderful way.

Despite diving in the deep end of the Web Technology pool, learning all the required AngularJS, ASP.NET, and how-to-order-my-coffee-online has felt somewhat effortless as well. I should have gone head-first into Web 2.0 long ago; the first four weeks at CM got me further along than two years of miscellaneous dabbling in my own time.

And the first four weeks flew by; I was holding off for the longest time fearful of the draining commute to Sutherland, but I think I probably should have made the call sooner. Alas, that is the nature of Unknown Quantities; even things that look great on paper are a little scary when they require getting out of one’s comfort zone. Had I known how much I was going to enjoy the work itself (to the point of dabbling and studying quite significantly in my own time as well), I would have given it a second thought.

And then, we moved to the CBD and things got better still.

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Cozy offices turned into a spectacular office. It is easy to get a bit blase about the view 38 floors above Sydney. The first week I’d take a few minutes to admire the view before starting work, but now that tends to come later in the day. At some point my mind will briefly not be stuck with a problem and I’ll catch the view, and then it catches me.

The view over Hyde Park and the Harbour are strangely disorienting. The perspective does strange things to my sense of distance. I could swear Darlinghurst is but a brief stroll away from Hyde Park by the look of it from up here. And everything looks like a game of The Sims. It feels like I somehow should be able to control the weather. Maybe there’s a switch I haven’t found yet. I should ask the OPS team.

The days go by in a pleasant productive rush. After some experimenting, I’m finding an early commute in and out most comfortable. I get up at 6:50am, have a quick shower, get dressed, 7:05am when I feed the cats, 7:15am I am stepping onto a train to work at the station.

That may sound like a rush, but I genuinely have little to do before heading out. Breakfast and lunch are both catered, so I have really nothing to prepare for.

I walk into the office at about 8:15am, boot up the laptop and have a quick look around the HipChat rooms for anything interesting, and go through any overnight emails. By about 8:20am the internal coffee ordering system comes on, and I punch in my large cappuccino.

Breakfast is 8:30am, featuring bacon and eggs, and whatever else our amazing chefs throw into the mix. This week I have been unable to resist the pancakes with poached plums. Between 8:40am – 9:10am I get back to whatever problem I left behind the previous evening.

Why 9:10? … well… that’s when we have our daily 10 minute stand-up with the team. A quick run around of what we did the previous day and what we will work on today. A chance to keep the team in the loop and to ask for help or clarifications where needed with broad input.

Then 9:20 through 12:30 rushes by faster than I can believe. A mix of learning and programming, leaning more and more towards the latter.

It is easy to tell when 12:30 comes around because by 12:35 the floor is almost empty. Many rush to try and beat the lunch queue.

Catered lunch is amazing. More amazing than I could have realised. It obviously saves some money (more or less depending on a propensity to buy lunches otherwise). But more than that, my lunch has never before been this varied. I’m probably eating healthier even if it is a tad more than I perhaps should… more gym for me.

And that is not uncommon either; there are various groups of employees that go running together or see a trainer before lunch, etc. On the flip-side, there is a page on the Wiki that chronicles the weight-gain that people experienced upon first starting at Campaign Monitor. The chefs are hard to resist.

Then, after lunch, more programming till about 16:45 which is my cut-off to make it on the last not-completely-packed train back home. Soon I will start experimenting with taking a gym class in the city before going home so that hopefully I can catch a train after the peak eases off again on those days. Luckily there is a lot of flexibility in the hours, as long as I make the 8-a-day excluding lunch, and I am available for all the important meetings.

Somewhere around 14:00 there is another round of coffee orders, and most days there is some kind of pastry or dessert on offer as well. Today was an apple crumble that did full honour to its name; I forgot my cutlery and it resisted my attempts to eat it most valiantly.

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Four more weeks and I’ll hit my 3-month review point.
But I am sure the 6-month mark will arrive in just another blink or two as well.

Everything about what the job demands and gives back just fits together perfectly to keep me energized and motivated, and feeling on top of the world in all the senses possible.

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The Dutch and Chocolate

Today a parcel arrived from the Netherlands. Which means it must be Christmas, in a way. My parents send out a shipment of Dutch goodies once a year, and sometimes it gets here in December, but usually it is easier to aim for another less-postally-congested month.

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Chocolate features heavily in the parcel.
There are some reasons for this.
Not good reasons, but… good enough for me.

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I have no idea where historically/culturally our predilection for starting the day with “beschuit met hagel” (crispbakes with chocolate sprinkles) comes from. But I dare you to find a household in the Netherlands that doesn’t have at least one pack of hagelslag somewhere in a cupboard.

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It used to be very difficult to get hagel in Australia. It is getting a little easier, even if the cost if extravagant compared to back “home”. And it always takes people aback when I explain it is a breakfast topping. My parents have been sending annual care packages with hagel for forever, but since it has started becoming available here too, I tend to get sent the more luxury flavours, like Mocha and Extra Dark.

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But the chocolate most directly tied to Sinterklaas (the Dutch equivalent of Christmas) is the chocolate letter. The Chocolate-Initial-Complex is a force unto itself in the Netherlands.

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And those that know me well, know exactly what happens when chocolate letters arrive. I really have no trouble leaving chocolate be, as my former experiments with The Chocolate Drawer have shown at my previous job.

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But when it comes to initials, the only way to consume them is all in one go.
That’s my story.
And I’m sticking with it.