don't worry, it's probably fine

This is how I work ... give or take

22 Nov 2018

how i work

This is my response to Steve challenging me to fill this out - I enjoy a bit of self-reflection, so let’s go!

Location: London, UK.

Current gig: Shared Infrastructure Team Lead, at Unruly

Current mobile device: Samsung S6

Current computer: MacBook Air 13”

One word that best describes how you work: Inconsistent. (yeah, that’s probably cheating)

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today

Oh boy, here we go. I’m an only child, had a voracious appetite for books and academia as a child (which I’m starting to rediscover) - I ‘won’ the stereotype lottery, in that I went through a growth spurt and was suddenly the archetypal red-headed, braces-wearing, tall-and-gangly nerd.

I applied (and got an interview) to study Maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, but I fluffed up my STEP exam - in addition to not doing quite as well as I’d liked in my general exams. After results day, I had a call out of the blue from the University of Warwick, offering me a place on a new course that year - Discrete Mathematics. The course would focus on software design, data structures, but where the Maths/CS students would be doing things like analysis and statistics, we would be digging heavily into algorithms.

This was the first big choice in my life: Do I study the subject (Maths) I wanted at my second-choice university, or do I take a chance on an unknown course at the university that I fell in love with on an open day?

I opted for the latter, and I like to think it was the right choice! At the end of my first year, celebrating my end-of-year results with my parents, I went out to a pub and accidentally stood up into a low beam which gave me a mild concussion for about a week and I was pretty convinced that I was going to die.

This event has had arguably more effect on my life than any other event - since that accident I’ve had a severe form of health-based anxiety (slipping into hypochondria), and I’ve had two courses of therapy to try and deal with it and all the ramifications that came with it. The brain is a weird thing.

In my third and fourth years I was the Academic President at UWCS (I’m still in the minutes!) our computing/gaming society, and had an absolute blast. I’d probably attribute my comfort with leadership as taking root here - myself and the society’s secretary at the time took a train down to London to pitch for funding from Bloomberg, which netted us a cool £2000 to run events.

It was here that I learned to love the unofficially named Paris Meeting Notes style, named after one of our friends - the objective is to capture the true intent of the meeting whilst being as humourous and/or quoting as many people out of context as possible, to make the minutes actually interesting to read.

For example:

NOTE: These minutes were taken by MrWilson and as such may be partially or entirely wrong.

Communication in the Society:

  • Better communication, agree on stuff at exec meeting.
  • No-one cares about Guitar Hero 6.

Bloomberg Competition:

  • 9am is an optimistic start.
  • Maybe 10am.
  • No, wait, 10:30am

I had a brief internship as a software developer at another ad-tech company during the summer between my undergraduate degree and my masters. I opted to do a Research Masters in Computer Science rather than a ‘taught’ Masters to see if I’m cut out for a PhD (since an MRes is like a 1-year PhD)

I am not cut out for a PhD - my MRes was incredibly stressful and having a single piece of work that’s your entire result is awful.

Thanks to my connections through UWCS, I put an application in as a software developer at Unruly (yes, it’s been my only “real” job!) and they foolishly agreed to hire me. And the rest, as they say, is history…

Take us through a recent workday

Standup starts at 9.30am - we’ve recently moved to using Walk the Board as our standup method. Once we’ve established our constraints and decided who is working on what we’ll work through until lunch (1pm).

My day personally is normally filled with lots of informal chats and catchups - my relationships with the other Tech Leads, our Product Manager, and the CTO get the most attention although it’s not unknown for me to drop into another team who have infrastructure questions.

I have a lot of retained knowledge and history of our infrastructure still locked in my head, so I take special effort to go and pair with people on other teams to decentralise this knowledge.

Every wednesday at 8.30 I meet up with Steve for coffee and chats, and then every other Wednesday we have the 1h30m XP Meeting between the tech leads to discuss operational issues across Product Development - this is arguably the most important meeting in my calendar because it gives us opportunities to raise and discuss issues that have a wider focus than individual teams.

Since Shift’s role is fundamentally ‘cross-team’ being able to spot patterns across the core development teams is super-valuable.

What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?

I am absolutely cast adrift without having a set of headphones and some sort of music or podcast to listen to - I’ve been noticeably ‘grumpy’ when I misplace my headphones or leave them at home, because it helps me think.

I use the Headspace app for meditation when I can, but I’m not great at committing to it - I need to dedicate a bit of time to it!

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

I wrote a bit about this earlier in the year about how I do decision-making - having a framework for this really helps me evaluate options more critically than I would normally.

I also learned a lot about Reflective Listening recently - a simple act such as repeating someone’s viewpoint back to them in such a way that they answer “Yes, that’s right” both engenders understanding and compels you to understand their viewpoint.

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work

We do continuous integration but without using continuous integration ‘servers’ - we’ve previously evaluated whether the upkeep cost of a CI server would be worth the benefit and the answer has always been ‘not really’.

We deploy straight from workstations to production, with no staging/UAT/pre-prod, and new features hidden behind feature toggles in the UI or using branch-by-abstraction on the server-side.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

That’s a bit of a problem for me, I don’t.

I trust my memory, and that’s fine most of the time. - I’m slowly being encouraged from all corners of my life to start ‘syncing my mind to disk’ rather than carry around everything in ‘RAM’.

I used to joke that Benji (when he still worked at Unruly) had a copy of one of our apps running in his head, and I sometimes feel the same thing about our infrastructure codebase.

What’s your favourite side project?

I have two at the moment.

adr-viewer is a tool for generating an easy-to-read web-page containing Architecture Decision Records. In particular, it’s given me an avenue into exploring what accessibility means for web pages. I’ve started using pa11y to ‘lint’ the HTML it generates to conform to at least the low-hanging fruit of accessibility.

four-tens is a webpage I quickly put together to let me quickly answer questions about Strictly Come Dancing results, of which I’m a huge fan. The page uses List.js and the underlying HTML is “just” a python-generated template.

I also spend a bit of my time working on Democracy Club’s polling station widget which was my first foray into “proper” client-side development, so when an election rolls around I tend to prune outstanding issues and think about where it should go next.

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend to read?

I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore as a bit of escapism. Some of my favourite books are:

  • Red Plenty, a semi-fictionalised account of the planned economy in the Soviet Union
  • Sabriel, quite possibly my favourite book ever
  • The Night Circus, for its captivating imagery
  • The Lord of the Rings, because … well it’s just epic in the original sense of the word.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

I’d like to see everyone on my team answer these! Also Benji, Gel, and Steve.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

‘Stop being so hard on yourself’ - literally any person who has known me for a non-trivial amount of time.