Thursday, 10 December 2009

Amazing stop motion video mashup - thanks to the BBC

The BBC has just done something revolutionary... they've released all the source footage for an as yet unscreened documentary about the way technology is changing our lives, and are inviting the public to compete and edit/mashup the footage into something unique. Above is an inspiring example of what's possible, by Barry Pilling. Here's another by Cassetteboy.
The idea of allowing your work to be edited and improved by others was first encouraged by the Creative Commons. If you don't already, make sure any photos you share on Flickr are released under Creative Commons, so others can do great things with them (without profiting or taking credit).
Another film in this vein that's well worth a look is RIP: A Remix Manifesto, the story of Girl Talk's rise to fame as a musician who plays no instrument but uses samples of others' music. It too is freely editable and mash-up-able. There's also a growing craze for "fake trailers", the most famous being Shining. It's so much easier these days now that people have a publishing house, editing studio and photo lab on their desktops. Exciting times!

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Friday, 13 November 2009

Google Maps is losing its marbles

I am not sure what is up with Google Maps this week. Usually its public transport directions are very accurate and incredibly useful. But both Mrs Alex and I have experienced some really weird directions from the site this week.

The first image is one Mrs Alex found, suggesting she walk a massive loop to almost back where she started, to catch a bus to a metro station she would have walked past, which is in the wrong direction anyway!

The second image is one I got when I asked for directions to a location near McGill University. Apparently I should hop on the metro to McGill, then walk all the way back home, and walk back to McGill again.

Crazy! I suspect heads will roll at Google when they notice this regression bug :-)

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Monday, 9 November 2009

My first swim in Canada

I'm a keen swimmer. But that doesn't mean the same thing in North America as it does in the UK, or even to everyone back home, so I better explain - I love to go to the swimming pool, cruise up and down at my own pace and let my mind wander. If I'm feeling particularly indulgant I might even relax in the jacuzzi (spa/hottub) or steam room afterwards. I'm not a competitive swimmer and have no interest in lap times or personal bests. For me, it's a pleasant thing to do that has the happy side effect of giving me some regular exercise.

Which is why it's really sad that I haven't been swimming in Montréal since I moved here 9 months ago. The thing is, in Canada, it's not so easy to just "go swimming". In the UK, the normal way to go swimming is to turn up at a public pool, at pretty much any time you like (save for a few swimming classes or women only sessions when it is not available), pay a few pounds admission, and go swimming.
"Public" pools that aren't publicly accessible

In Canada, it doesn't work like that. Almost every pool (including the numerous "public" pools provided by the city), require memberships fees - usually around $50 (£30) a month, plus a similar joining fee, after which you can have general access at most hours. If you want to keep yourself "unaligned" to any particular pool, then you can come during the pool's "public" hours.. Typically 1-3 hours each day are assigned as open to all (all Montréal residents that is). And during that time it's free to swim. The catch? These "free" hours are not particularly convenient. At the downtown YMCA where we went today, the free hours are 2.30pm-4pm and 8.30pm-10pm. ie no use at all if you want to swim (a) before work, (b) at lunchtime or (c) after work. Canada, your swimming system sucks!

But, unperturbed, Mrs Alex and I turned up for our swim at 8.30pm this evening at the Downtown YMCA (after an interesting lecture at the Goethe Institut commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall). I should add that in North America, YMCAs are not just youth hostels but also community centres and sports facilities, and you can even take adult education classes there.

Compulsory headgear
Our swim was a very different experience from swimming in the UK. First of all, you have to wear a swimcap. Which I've never worn before (well, except for the one I glued a wig to for my Rocky Horror costume a couple of weeks back!). Mrs Alex found us some cheap ones but they were very painful and kept pulling my hair. Not fun. And we had to buy padlocks, you can't just stick a coin in the locker. Which meant remember 7 different numbers - 3 numbers for the lock combination, 3 numbers for the entrance to the changing room, plus my locker number. Great. Just what I need when I'm trying to relax. On the bright side (for the other swimmers) French Canada hasn't adopted the French rule of "Speedo's only" (no swimming shorts).

A disappointing experience

I don't know if the YMCA pools are typical of Canadian public pools but I was definitely underwhelmed by the experience. The changing room had no benches or hooks for getting changed. When we got into the pool area it was rather clinical. The pool was surrounded by breezeblock walls painted in a spartan hospital white. Still, the water was the right temperature (cool but not cold), and was clear and clean. While we swam, three college-age lifeguards in red shirts were playing hoopla with some life-saving poles and rubber doughnuts. Not terribly professional, but harmless enough. After we'd done our lengths we tried the jacuzzi, which was nice enough but a little odd, being open on one side to a medium-sized warmish rectangular pool rather than being self-contained. Heading back out, I noticed more changing room deficiencies as well as the lack of hooks - there were only three showers - unsurprisingly all full due to the constrained opening hours. When I got into the shower the curtain and wooden bench were mouldy. I also noticed that the area by the lockers had carpet! Not useful when you have wet swimming shorts and nowhere to put them.

Overall, it was great to get back in the water. But I'm sad I can't easily establish a routine like I had in the UK where I went for a swim before or after work 2 or 3 times a week. I found it a great way to start the day and I do some of my best creative thinking while swimming. I don't want to pay to join a specific pool (or if I do, I want a significantly higher standard than this!). I had a look for other options on my local borough's site - but nothing quite seems to fit the bill.

My quest for a local, affordable, well-equipped pool continues. I hope it's not another 9 months before I find one.

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Sunday, 4 October 2009

Canada, land of empty spaces and vast distances

Canada is overwhelmingly big. The distances and emptiness are awesome in the truest sense of the word. I knew this on some level, but it wasn't until I tried to explore some of it with my family that it began to sink in. Subsequently I did some digging online that gave me an even stronger sense of just how empty it really is. I learnt about many remote places and how hard they are to visit. Eventually I even found an excellent graphic illustrating how most of Canada is uninhabited, which you can find at the bottom of this article.

A week "in Gaspé"
At the start of September, my parents came to visit for a couple of weeks. We decided this was a great opportunity to explore a bit of Canada together, so set aside a week for what would be our biggest trip yet since moving here - exploring the Gaspé peninsula. We got to Quebec City fairly quickly and had a pleasant overnight stay there. In the morning we stopped for a brief look at Montmorency Falls, then crossed back to the peninsula and headed upriver along the Route des Navigateurs.

View Gaspé Trip in a larger map

Our journey took us past plenty of beautiful little villages and farming communities along the way and enjoyed stopping for picnics and photographs. But after a long day's driving, we only got as far as Le Bic, just barely inside the Gaspé region. It dawned on us that with only seven days available, the only way to get around the peninsula would be to drive for long periods every single day - which wouldn't leave us much time for sightseeing. So we adjusted our plans to be less ambitious.

We camped the next night in the gorgeous Le Bic National Park (see left), where we hired bikes and had some lovely walks. The next day, rather than continuing along the north coast, we cut across the peninsula, and stayed the next two nights at the very strange castle-hostel Chateau Bahia. We used this as a base to explore the Restigouche region on the south of the peninsula. Alex and I spent a day kayaking down the crystal clear Matapédia river and we visited more seaside towns, such as Carleton-sur-mer. Then it was time to start heading back towards Montréal, which we did via a lunch stop on the US border at St Leonard in New Brunswick, and an overnight stop in Magog in the Eastern Townships (which were unfortunately rather wet). We arrived back in Montréal on the seventh day, having had a great holiday. We'd driven 1,781 kilometres, or 1,106 miles! For more details on the trip and some photos you can check out Mrs Alex's blog (ask me for the link) - plus I will be putting up photos on Flickr at some point.

Thinking about visiting the wilderness

The trip to Gaspé was a real eye-opener to me. I'm keen to explore Canada, and especially to see some of the more "wild" parts. What I'm beginning to realise is that in a country this big, that's just not so practical. The Gaspé peninsula is relatively "local" for us - yet it needs half a week just to get there and two to three weeks to enjoy it properly. I've spent several evenings browsing the map of Canada on Google Maps, clicking places that look interesting - and every time I look at the logistics of how to get to these places, I am amazed at just how inaccessible much of the Canadian wilderness is. I suppose that's why they call it wilderness!

For example, while doing a bit of Google earth exploring, I discovered Lake Manicougan, a perfect crater lake, apparently not too far from here. Maybe that could be worth a visit? I then read an account from a couple who went kayaking there and realised just how huge and far away it is. It's a mere 1,071 kilometres (666 miles) from Montréal. The last 85km of that is on unfinished roads, and when you get there, there are no facilities. So in theory that would be possible for us, if a little awkward - but like the Gaspé trip, it would take over a week to do it justice. When you have limited vacation days in a year, such epic quests would burn up your leave in no time!

Here's another example. My Lonely Planet 2009 calendar on the "Canada" page shows a picture of a beautiful mountain reflected in a lake. The caption reads "Mount Magog, reflected in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park" (see right). I couldn't even find this mountain on Google (most of the hits are for another with the same name in Utah). When I did find the page about Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park I read such encouraging words as "No roads penetrate this unspoiled wilderness, with trails providing the only land access" and "Visitors are reminded that the park is a wilderness area, without supplies or equipment of any kind". I don't think I'll be visiting there soon then!

Ever since I saw Canada in an atlas at school, I was impressed by the size of Hudson's Bay. So being in Canada now, I wondered about whether it might be possible to visit Hudson's Bay. I scrolled around the map and noticed the Polar Bear Provincial Park, a nice green area on the south of the bay. On further investigation I found that "it has no visitor facilities, is reachable only by air, and special permission is required before visiting it." Looking back at the map confirmed it - no roads! Hmm, maybe not then!

It occurred to me that the Hudson's Bay Company (which is still trading today and is older than Canada by the way!) was built on harvesting the resources of Hudson's Bay - surely there must be some access to the Bay. This led me to learn about York Factory, which used to be their headquarters, but is more or less abandoned now, and only accessible by water or air anyway.

Through further investigation I found out about the James Bay Road, built to access Hydro Electric facilities built near the Bay in the 1970s. The James Bay Road is pretty much the only road access to Hudson's Bay (James Bay is the southern-most inlet of Hudson's Bay). Surprisingly, it's quite a well built road, but it will take you 27 hours to get all the way along it (from Ottawa), and for 381km there are no services or settlements! Here are a few interesting accounts of people who've travelled the James Bay Road - one, two, three, four. The roadside photo to the right is from another account for which I have unfortunately lost the link.

As you can see, I'm beginning to understand just how vast and undeveloped much of Canada is. I've also learned more about the vast emptiness of Canada from TV series such as the recent Channel 4/National Geographic series Alone in the Wild, where Ed Wardle survives on his own for 50 days in the wilderness of the Yukon. The History Channel/Five series Ice Road Truckers taught me about the ice roads in Canada's northwest territory, which only exist during the winter months as vital supply lines to communities and mining outposts in the far North, that are completely isolated for most of the year.

I could go on, but I won't. I have now realised that the only way to visit some of these places is to invest serious chunks of time - weeks if not months - in other words, not when you have a regular job. And you need a shedload of cash too - not just for transport and accommodation, but for vital equipment for survival! Here is a map showing many of these inaccessible places I've learnt about (click a feature for more info):

View Inaccessible Places in a larger map

So, just how empty is Canada?

As you can see this is something I've been thinking about a lot. But my curious mind then started wondering.. how empty is Canada? I had lots of fun playing with the population density table on Wikipedia, which you can sort in different ways; it turns out Canada has on average 3 people per square kilometre, compared to 31 in the US or 246 in the UK. Of 238 countries in the world, it ranks 231st lowest for population density, beaten only by the likes of Australia, the Sahara and Mongolia.

There's an oft-quoted statistic about how three-quarters of the population of Canada live within 90 miles of the US border. But I wanted to know more - which parts of Canada are uninhabited? Apparently this is quite a difficult question to answer, but eventually I came across a study by Statistics Canada that, in exploring different methods and representations, came up with a rather excellent depiction of "The Population Ecumene of Canada". Ecumene is a word of Greek origin referring to the "inhabited earth". Here is their map:

(click for a larger version or here to see the original in context)

In this map, the green parts are the main inhabited areas, the red spots are small pockets of civilization outside the main parts, and the white and grey parts are completely uninhabited.

I find this absolutely breathtaking. Huge extents of Canada are totally devoid of civilization. Most Canadian provinces have only a handful of settlements and the rest is totally undeveloped. What I find particularly interesting is that unlike Australia or the Sahara, there is still a lot of Canada that could be inhabited - just that it would cost a great deal to develop the necessary infrastructure to support it. A large part of Canada is made up of the Canadian Shield, which is covered by lakes, forests and is high in mineral deposits. Winters are tough but except for the far North, no worse than other inhabited parts of Canada. I think that perhaps the reason these places have not developed, is not anything about the land itself, just a lack of proximity to the existing civilized world, making supplies and trade difficult.

It's strange really. I guess that colonization of uninhabited land and creating new settlements isn't really viable in today's economic climate. I suppose this is what the rest of the world was like before we built our cities and transport networks. And I wonder if some time in the future, greater parts of Canada will become inhabited and enjoyed by ordinary folks, or whether it will always be mostly an unspoilt wilderness that only the intrepid can visit.


Monday, 28 September 2009

What if we didn't need factories any more?

That is the thought-provoking possibility suggested by the RepRap project. RepRap is a simple 3D printer that can make plastic objects to any design, on your desk, using an ordinary PC. It can even make a copy of itself. It's entirely open source and freely distributable.

Ryerson University, the University of Western Ontario, Rabble and The Tyee have also started a very interesting multimedia project to explore this technology and the effects it will have on society further, called Maker Culture. You can read a good introduction by Wayne MacPhail here.

I am intrigued to see where this might lead. Developments in computing capability and internet technology have given us recording studios, photo labs, broadcasting studios, video editing suites and printing presses from our desktop - and have completely changed those industries as a result.

What changes can we expect in the world's manufacturing industries if goods no longer needed to be manufactured and distributed, but instead you downloaded a design and printed it yourself at home (much like you download an MP3 or movie and burn a CD or DVD now)?

Certainly this is a technology in its infancy, but full of promise. I can't wait to see how this develops.

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Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Swine flu - From the horse's mouth

Dispelling the myths about H1N1

Swine flu has been all over the news for the last few months, especially in the UK; You could hardly miss it. But as with many things which are analyzed and deconstructed ad nauseum in the media over several months, the reality is somewhat different from the hype.

Having experienced swine flu first hand, and recovered, I feel compelled to set the record straight:

1) Swine flu is just another form of flu

New flu viruses appear every year, and despite its sinister sounding name, swine flu is just another variant. Most variants don’t get to have their own name outside of scientific circles - this one did for two reasons: Firstly, it originated in pigs not in humans; Secondly, it is extremely virulent. That does *not* mean that it is extremely serious - just that it is easily spread from human to human, more so than is normal for flu.

What seems to have happened is that a great deal of stigma has been attached to the name. “It’s not just flu, it’s SWINE flu, it must be AWFUL!”. The reality is that it’s actually quite a lot milder than many other forms of flu. Don’t get sucked into the hype.

2) The symptoms are actually quite mild

For me, the worst it got was one night when I broke out in a fever and was very restless, having multiple nightmares and being unable to sleep. My muscles were aching and I was physically exhausted. I was by no means in a lot of pain though. The remaining five or so days of illness (one day before that night and four days after) were much more like a bad cold - sore throat, sneezing, coughing, headaches and tiredness. At first I thought my tiredness was jet-lag from my flight to the UK, but it lasted too long. I was able to function normally and could quite easily have gone to work if I hadn’t been on holiday. I can’t stress enough how over-hyped swine flu is in terms of what it will be like. I have had far far worse infections - I remember one in particular a couple of years ago when my wife and I were bed bound for a week thanks to a particularly vicious flu. The only deaths that have happened from swine flu have happened to people who already had some other condition that made them more vulnerable - such as an existing illness or immune deficiency.

You may get even fewer symptoms to show than I did; my wife got a bit of a cold and a sniffle for a few days after me, it’s quite possible this is an even milder form of the same infection, that doesn’t seem to be developing into anything more than a light cold.

3) You can easily recover without medication

There has been much talk of anti-virals. But these are not needed in the vast majority of cases. In fact, most health services including NHS Direct in the UK and 811 Info-Santé in Canada, are advising that anyone with flu like symptoms should stay at home and rest, and recover by letting it run its course. Going to the doctors or pharmacy is not advisable because you risk passing the infection to some of the most vulnerable members of society. The medical advice I received said that it is no longer contagious after seven days. This seems about right, as I felt completely normal 8 days after the onset of the flu-like symptoms.

4) Infection can be avoided by taking simple precautions

Many people chose to avoid meeting up with me when they learned I had swine flu; I absolutely don’t have a problem with this because it’s true to say that the risk will be absolute zero if you stay away, but this can never be the case if you do meet up with someone who is ill.

Swine flu, like most viruses, can only be contracted by direct physical contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected. For example, if the infected person sneezes and does not cover their mouth, and some vapours contact your skin or lips. Or if they sneeze and then touch hard surfaces, the virus can survive on that surface for a day or more, and someone else could touch that surface and contract an infection.

So because the means of infection are limited, then provided the infected person catches their whole sneezes into clean tissues, which they throw away quickly, and then sanitize their hands, there is little to no risk of infection. You do not need to wear face masks around swine flu sufferers or avoid them like the plague - just take extra precautions before sharing utensils, phones, pens etc.

I suppose the interesting twist is that you are relying on the infected person to take precautions much more than you are in control of taking precautions yourself - this is why face masks are not recommended or effective.

5) You may never get to find out if your flu is swine flu

One of the interesting side effects of the advice to avoid going to doctors or pharmacies except in extreme cases is that you cannot get an official diagnosis. Instead you have to diagnose yourself (in my case by listening to the very informative recorded information provided by NHS Direct on 0845 46 47). Having listened to a lengthy description of all the symptoms and nodding my head to each, I determined that it was very likely I did have swine flu. But I may never know for sure.

6) Swine flu is not something to panic about

So, in summary, swine flu is not something you should be overly concerned about, any more than you would about a spate of colds going around or a wave of illnesses at work. You can take some sensible precautions to avoid infection, and in most cases you will be fine. If you are unlucky enough to contract swine flu, it’s really not a big deal. You’ll take a few days off work, you’ll feel bad for a while, but you’ll get better.

And most of all, like me, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

And maybe every cloud has a silver lining too, maybe it's good to have been infected now and build an immunity when the virus is weak. As my good friend Ozzy joked: "When swine flu merges with avian flu creating a mega virus that wipes out 95% of the world's population, you'll be fine and ready to create the new world - you'll be able to choose any manor you like and be the king of tinned food supplies!" (à la "Survivors")

A few related links


TARDIS is alive! :-)

Back before we left the UK, Mrs Alex and I (ok she did most of the work) digitized all our CDs and DVDs not to mention paperwork, recipes and all sorts of other documents to reduce the amount we had to take with us to Canada. Given we've also been living here in Canada without a TV for the last six months, we have accumulated plenty more downloaded movies & TV shows. We brought about 8 hard drives with us to Canada and our FreeNAS install media, and after 2 case upgrades, 2 additional green 1 Terabyte hard drives, 2 new 4 port PCI SATA cards and a beefier PSU, not to mention much consolidation of data from smaller, older IDE drives, I am pleased to announce our behemoth of a fileserver is alive.. Just short of 6 Terabytes of storage for our viewing and data storage pleasure! Hurrah! Now to get my Popcorn Hour media player which Alex bought me for my birthday working.. and then it's HD projector time (which is handy as we have just painted the walls in the lounge of our new apartment white which is just the right colour for projecting onto)...

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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

An example of how society's values are all screwed up

The doorbell rang, a delivery man was there. "Sign here", he said, and handed me a cardboard box. "Thanks," I said, noticing how light it was. I knew I'd recently ordered two new hard drives and a SATA card (to connect them into our server). This was too light to be either.

You can see from the photos below what was inside - a box the size of two shoeboxes, stuffed with brown paper, containing 2 tiny red SATA cables (which could at a pinch fit in a normal paper envelope if you wanted to). I had ordered these from as part of the order for the SATA card. I was shocked that they would ship these individually and in such a wasteful way. A jiffy bag would have been more appropriate, and why on earth do the cables needed to be shipped separately.

This got me thinking, people talk about how we should have an economical model where we take into account the real environmental cost, not to mention the money cost. I can't think of a better illustration than this. Not only all that waste packaging, but the fact that the delivery man made a separate trip to deliver it.. Wasteful deliveries like this must equate to a lot of fuel, vehicle wear and tear, not to mention packing note printing, labour to package the thing, backroom admin by the supplier and the courier.

It's really sad that somebody decided it's "cheaper" to treat all items the same, send each part of an order in an identical size box, regardless of what it really needs or what is sensible.

I guess common sense doesn't scale.

Here's an image I found online which tells a similar story quite succinctly:

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Thursday, 4 June 2009

An example of good user-centric design

When were on the way to pick up our friend from Montréal airport on Sunday, we noticed a subtle but very useful design feature on the overhead signs. There are two different airports in the vicinity, and a number of different lane changes are required. Typically when you see signs to an airport (certainly this is true around Heathrow or Gatwick in the UK), it's always the same icon of an aircraft.

What they have done here is angle the aircraft differently on each sign, according to whether you need to stay in the same lane, need to move left or move right. In doing so it serves as a subtle direction arrow. And when I think about it, I can remember at least one occasion being caught out by aircraft signs in the UK where the plane pointed in the opposite direction to that in which I needed to go.

The authority that put up these signs has apparently done some research with drivers into how they actually understand the signs, and have discovered that because the shape of a plane is similar to an arrow, people subconsciously read it as such, so have chosen to make sure the aircraft signs are giving clear signals under both interpretations (as an arrow as well as an aircraft). This is a great example of how you can improve your product by doing additional research into how it actually gets used in the field.

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An example of bad usability

When I was in Las Vegas recently, staying in the Luxor, I experienced one of the worst designed pieces of technology that I've seen in a long time. Every day when I returned to the hotel, I had to get the lift back to my floor.

Each of the lifts had the same restriction in effect - you need to insert your room card, and wait for it to register (which sometimes doesn't work first time). Once it has been accepted, a green light will illuminate (if not, you get a red light or yellow light.) I have no idea why there are 3 possible states! Then you have about 4 seconds to press your floor button. If you press it in time, the floor button illuminates and locks in. If you miss your window (or someone else presses an illegal button) then you have to start the whole thing again.

OK, well it's a bit of a faff, but what's the big deal, you may ask. Well it's true that if you are riding the elevator on your own, it's awkward but doable - but as soon as you have more than a couple of people in the room the whole system resorts to chaos. Let's imagine there are 3 people, wanting to go to floors 3, 7 and 11. (It gets even more crazy when the lift has 6 or 7 people and not everyone can reach the buttons!). Anyway, in this example, Mr. 7 happens to be first, puts his card in, and presses the button. The lift starts moving towards floor 7. So now we have a lift that's in motion, but most of the people in the car haven't put their floor in yet. Mr. 3 puts his card in, and after a couple of tries gets it to accept. But we've already passed floor 3. So the button push is rejected. He has to wait until the lift is descending. Which means it's Mr 11's turn. He puts his card in just as we're arriving at floor 7. But before he can push the button, the lift (which now thinks its free) gets summoned to the ground floor. 3 and 11 are now right back to square one, on the ground floor. And so it goes on! It can take several minutes and unnecessary journeys to actually reach your floor, not to mention all sorts of unfamiliar social situations for which there is no established lift etiquette!

This is a great example of how designers can easily fail to consider their users when adding new features. The reading of the room card was clearly added for security - but they completely failed to consider the dynamics of how it would work in practice in a crowded lift.

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Thursday, 28 May 2009

Las Vegas, city of excess

Business pleasure or pleasure?

Las Vegas is a strange place, I think it's the nearest you can get to what you might imagine a parallel universe to be. An hedonistic alternate reality where society is dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, and nothing else matters. Big corporations own big hotels & casinos, theatres and night entertainment venues, all designed to separate you from your hard-earned cash in exchange for giving you some great experiences.

I found myself somewhat in conflict at first in Las Vegas; I loathe the incessant commercialism of corporate America, avoiding McDonalds or Disney as much as I can. I hate tourist tat and tourist gimmicks. So by all reasonable logic I should have hated Las Vegas - as the epitomy of everything I think is wrong with the world. But somehow I didn't. I actually really liked it. And it took me a long time to figure out why.

I think it comes down to the way that tourism operates in Las Vegas. Elsewhere, say a theme park, you'd see a lot of cheapy plasticky attractions, and ill-conceived marketing slogans that constantly remind you that while you may be enjoying yourself, your money is being extracted from you at every opportunity.

In Vegas, on the other hand, it's as if money is no object. The hotel casinos are palatial. There are stately homes and castles with less marble flooring, with less ornate chandeliers, with much smaller floral displays and less beautiful hanging artwork. Everything is built to impress, to make you feel special. And it's not just the artwork too. We went to a burger bar one day, and were treated to a choice of four different types of beef, 4 different types of bun and a selection of twelve fillings. I was asked how I liked my burger cooked. It was a burger bar run by a gourmet professional chef. Nothing you experience in Vegas is ordinary. And yet at the same time, you rarely feel heavily sold to. It's almost as if money is a taboo in Las Vegas. Just have fun, just enjoy yourself, we don't need to worry about that crude money stuff. I know there's been research carried out that shows that people behave less wisely about money when the activities they are making decisions about are more removed from cold hard cash. I think Vegas is living proof of this. It's all about credit cards, poker chips, lines of credit, and bills that you are encouraged to just sign without thinking about.

One of the most distinctive features of Las Vegas is the way that famous buildings and architectural styles of the world have been re-created. I stayed in the Luxor, a replica of an Egyptian Pyramid with a giant Sphinx in front. Throughout the hotel are giant pillars and statues and a cavernous interior. I've been to the real Pyramids of Giza. There is no question that it is a breathtaking sight and an impressive feat of engineering and at the same time, the Las Vegas version is impressive in its own way. It's almost as if it gives more of a sense of what it might have been like to be around in the time of the Pharoahs - not in a historical sense but in the sense that the place is alive and bustling and something more than just a building. It's a sense you get a lot in Las Vegas. You kind of feel like royalty, or at the very least, it makes you feel special and important.

The Venetian on Flickr
Down the road from the Luxor are the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe (at the Paris Hotel), the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline (at New York New York), and most impressive of all, are the very convincing replicas of Venice at the Venetian hotel. I couldn't quite believe it when I walked around the corner and found myself apparently on the Grand Canal. The quality of the replicas of the buildings is incredible. And the artificial canal with real singing gondoliers under a fake blue sky, indoors on the second floor of a shopping centre, has to be seen to be believed. Elsewhere in Vegas, in the Wynn hotel, there is a giant artificial waterfall, and a pair of curved escalators - if these are not impressive feats of engineering I don't know what are!

I've heard Las Vegas described as "Disneyland for grown-ups".. That's really not too far off. Instead of funfair rides and cartoon characters, Vegas has top quality shows, great restaurants, and huge bars and clubs. It's a place you can come and be a kid - spending time on just having fun - but just doing slightly more adult things.

Well, I haven't said a great deal about what I actually was doing in Vegas - helping to run the Enterprise Cloud Summit conference and liveblogging it on Bitcurrent. Nor have I talked much about the various social things we got up to - extravagant steak dinners, limo rides, dancing and drinking the nights away, and generally enjoying everything Vegas has to offer. Why? Well those things were what made the trip so enjoyable, I loved the Las Vegas party atmosphere - albeit I spent a lot more than I wanted to - but really, they're not going to be that interesting to read about. I really just wanted to share my thoughts about the weirdness and uniqueness and special qualities of the place. I did pretty much what everyone does who goes to Vegas - drank, gambled, ate well, stayed out too late and had a damn good time. If you want to see some photos you can take a look at my set on Flickr. But I don't need to go through those here. All I really want to say is, no matter what your tastes, don't write off Vegas. You just might be surprised.

I'll leave you with a quote from Norman Mailer:

"The night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten storeys high."

By the way, you may also be interested to know that I have started a new, shorter blog at as an experiment in ways to get me blogging and writing more regularly. You can also access this by clicking "Blogettes" at the top of this blog.


Thursday, 30 April 2009

One week in startup-land

The last month or so has been a period of change for me - in that time I started one job, left it after two weeks, had a week off, and started another one! As a result of which I haven't really established any kind of routine and haven't been very good at blogging (although I have been "tweeting" or micro-blogging - you can follow me on Twitter as @alexbfree).

The first job was a web development job I found via PHP Québec, and it was the first tech job that came along really. It was perfectly ok, and helped me brush up my PHP and MySQL skills, but as you will have realised from my recent posts, my heart's not really in it to "just" be a programmer any more. I want to work with real teams and businesses, develop ideas and do stuff that matters.

A Serendipitous Moment

I felt it was a most fortuituous occurrence when I discovered this job ad back at the start of April. I knew I had to apply; it described an ideal candidate with insatiable curiosity, an analytical mind, a passion for all things Internet, an awareness of GTD for organisation and most of all a desire to change the world a little at a time. It was like reading a description of myself. I knew I had to apply.

Over the next week and a half, I spent many hours completing a number of "assignments" which formed my application for the job - including researching social network monitoring to write a blog post on the subject, producing a taxonomy of Twitter analysis tools, describing how I would overhaul the company's information management, and preparing a presentation on cloud computing. The great thing about doing these assignments is that they built on my existing skills but also taught me about new areas such as using social media (e.g. Twitter) for marketing - something I'd not considered - and also Cloud Computing - which I had heard a little about but didn't really "get" until now. (For the unitiated, cloud computing is the next big thing after Web 2.0, and it's about outsourcing your hardware, software, processing and data storage to web-based services provided by companies like Amazon and Google - allowing businesses to adapt and scale much more quickly and cheaply).

I must have done something right, because Alistair (my soon-to-be boss) was very impressed and invited me for interview a couple of days later, whereupon he offered me the job! I gave in my notice for my first job the next day, and as I was still in a trial period I was able to leave without having to work any notice. Nonetheless, I took a week off in between jobs to catch up on a few bits and pieces (and not least because I could!)

We're not in Kansas corporate-land any more!

I started my job as Program Manager of Rednod last Thursday, so I've now spent a week in what you might call "startup land". I hadn't appreciated the extent to which Montréal is like a mini Silicon Valley - I really am very lucky that Alex ended up getting a role here and not somewhere random like Oregon or Texas as it turned out to be the ideal place for me to take my career to the next level.

This first week has been total culture shock - but in a good way. I had had some exposure to startup culture when working in IBM for an acquired startup company (Trigo, which became WebSphere Product Center) but this is much smaller and at an earlier stage. One of the biggest differences is the complete lack of any pattern to work hours. I can more or less come and go as I please, provided I get the job done and make an effort to check in to the office regularly when my boss is in town. This is made much easier by my shiny new MacBook (one of many perks of the job) - and given this is a city with lots of free wi-fi about, I really can work from anywhere. This is in stark contrast to the previous role where we had fixed hours, fixed lunch break and even recommended times for a 15 minute break in the morning and afternoon. I really do think that in this day and age the smart employers are the ones who let their employees have a life, give them clear tasks and responsibilities and hold them accountable on that basis rather than arbitrary things like being in the office for set hours. This way employees are happier and people can work when they are most productive.

And it's not just the lack of normal work hours that make it different... the lines between work and play are much more blurred.. On my first day my boss took me for lunch, and some of the conversation was social, some work related, and the latter part of the day was spent in the beer garden of a nearby pub, partly on work discussion and partly just chatting.

I've learnt that while I've always been quite strict on work/life balance (believing in "work to live" not "live to work") this can be somewhat turned on its head when the work you are doing is so close to what you might do for fun anyway - and when you get to hang out and talk tech and bounce ideas around with like-minded people as you might choose to do anyway even if you weren't getting paid! It's early days of course, and I'm sure there will be busy times too - but one thing's for sure, it's unlike any job I've done before.

Room with a view

The work environment is amazing - a downtown 24th floor office (with a spectacular view) divided into a number of small offices, each holding one or two small startup companies. It's a real hotbed of innovation and interesting things are happening all around me.. In one office some smart people are reinventing the book publishing industry; in another, a small team is plotting the next innovations to one of the web's biggest budget travel sites. And we have a really great common "living room" area too, complete with a bean bag chair, which I worked from the other afternoon - just 'cause I could.

Clouds, Customers and Creating Conversations

Let me tell you a bit more about the job itself. There are two aspects to my work. Rednod is a "startup accelerator", that is, a company providing business and technical consulting to startups, and much of my work involves supporting that work through research, report-writing or working with customers to improve their processes. As part of my job I am also an Analyst for technology blog Bitcurrent which involves researching and writing articles, and helping to organise technical conferences. To give you a flavour of the sort of things I'm doing, here's some of the things I've been doing this week and that I've got coming up

  • I've created a wiki to help manage our internal information.
  • I've done some research and preparation for our GigaOM post about the way e-mail is changing - which has generated some great debate - and am interviewing "Inbox 2.0" vendors to collect more in preparation for a follow up post on Bitcurrent
  • I'm making preparations for a demo I'll be supporting at the Enterprise Cloud Summit, which Bitcurrent runs as part of the Interop 2009 conference in Las Vegas.
  • I'm working with a programmer in St. Petersburg to port an Amazon cloud application to Google App Engine (which involves learning some Python, Django, and Google App Engine).
  • I'll be doing some process improvement work and custom tooling with one of our customers to optimize their community management
  • I'll be helping to organise more conferences such as the 2009 return of Bitnorth.
  • And I'll be developing ideas about the next big thing in tech, blogging, researching and all manner of other things besides.
In case you haven't noticed, I think I may have found something very close to my ideal job!

I'll wrap up with some insights on startups vs corporates in the IT industry, from this first week and my past experiences. Three things startups do that big business could do more 1. Customer focus I know that big corporations answer to their shareholders - and this means profit and growth become top priorities. But really, shouldn't it be about customers first and foremost? Solve their real problems and they will pay and think highly of you - employees will be happier too because they will feel that their work matters. 2. Employee freedom As I mentioned above - more companies should focus on holding their employees responsible for tasks - not time at the desk. This is what pays the bills, ultimately - and results in higher productivity and less stress in the workplace. 3. Employee perks New startups seem to give employees more - whether it's free tea and coffee (or even beer!) or the occasional free lunch - or just nicer office kit.. It can make a real difference to employee happiness and hence productivity. I remember having to pay 13p for a cup of hot water at IBM. Last Friday, my boss came in my office at 2.45pm and presented me with a beer - the first of several. That contrast says a lot about how differently two companies can value employee happiness! Three things big business does that startups could do more 1. Structured planning Because the focus of a new company is satisfying a need, it's easy to create unrealistic goals or take on many new projects at once. Big businesses have learned that the key to meeting your goals is making sure they are sized and scheduled realistically. 2. Clarity of roles and processes In small companies people are naturally multi-skilled - they have to be - this can result in ambiguity about who should do what. Sometimes person A has the skill but person B has the time or the contacts/resources. I think multi-skilled teams are the way forward.. but without set teams or roles, you have to be really careful that everyone is on the same page about who's doing what. 3. Instant messaging This is perhaps a personal one, but one thing I've really missed from IBM is "Sametime" (the internal instant messaging application). I hadn't realised how much I relied on it. Knowing that everyone is almost always logged on and that you can quickly reach them without having to rely on voicemail or email is a huge benefit. Of course one of the problems is that with no IM standard, and no IM "directory", it is much harder to build a network especially when your network of contacts spans several companies.

If you'd like to read more about what Alex and I have been up to the last month, take a look at Mrs Alex's blog. I'll be uploading some more photos to Flickr soon as well. As always, thanks for reading!


Sunday, 29 March 2009

Team Productivity: Tools of the Trade

Seven Strategies for Success

I wrote in my last post about my desire to work with teams to help them to be more productive. I've been thinking about what my "tools of the trade" will be and how I can add value to the teams I work with. Fortunately I have a wide variety of experiences I can draw on, from my various roles at IBM as well as my work with voluntary organisations and prior employers. What follows is a list of strategies that can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of a team.

1. Use wikis and collaboration tools

E-mail attachments are inefficient and create versioning headaches; internal websites and repositories controlled by one individual or with limited access controls prevent people with key knowledge from sharing it and create information bottlenecks. Something I've successfully done in two different teams at IBM and am starting to do again in my current job, is to introduce and encourage the use of a wiki, a website that is editable by everyone, for everything from collaborating on documents or designs to reviewing documents and creating new starter guides. The impact on a team can be significant, not only does everyone have a single point of reference and a "place to put things", but every team member is empowered to share his insights and correct things himself when he finds mistakes. Wikis such as MediaWiki and MoinMoin can be installed freely and easily. Enterprise wikis such as Confluence can be very powerful for larger organisations. And it's not just wikis, introducing tools for social bookmarking, internal blogging and instant messaging such as Lotus Connections can empower a team by giving them easier access to the people and information they need to do they job. There are many free tools that can allow people to collaborate more effectively, such as EtherPad, a multi-user Notepad replacement, MindMeister, a collaborative mind-mapping tool, or even just making use of Google Docs and Spreadsheets when collaborating on documents. Task tracking tools such as BaseCamp or ActiveCollab are well worth a look as well.

2. Use agile work methods & tools

Agile development is not just for software engineering. Any team can benefit from applying some of the concepts of agile development. Having short work cycles, iterations, allows the team to quickly adapt to changes in requirements, market conditions or resource availability. Daily scrums, very short face-to-face meetings of everyone involved in a project, eliminate misunderstandings and discourage buck-passing, and ensure that any blockages or problems are addressed quickly. In my last role in the IBM Voice team I helped the team make the most of agile development, by serving as scrum master and also when leading an exercise to clarify, document and communicate the process for the team to work by. I learnt how important it is for team members and management to share a common understanding of what the process is, and what they are trying to achieve.

I also developed a custom agile work-tracking tool for the team which allowed the work to be tracked easily. A system like this can be used by individuals and management to get a view of the work at the level that is most appropriate for them. By mounting a monitor on the wall and holding the daily scrum gathering around the screen it also provides a way to quickly update status and percentage complete on all work items. Making agile development work effectively is a fine balance between tracking work by setting precise and realistic targets and avoiding micro-management or over-documentation of work.

3. Understand your users

In September 2008, I went to HCI2008 in Liverpool, the BCS's annual Human-Computer Interaction conference, where I learnt even more about ways of building computer systems that are closer to the needs of the humans using them. Since I first studied HCI as part of my Masters degree I have been fascinated in the human side of computing and I am sure I am not the only one to think "Why didn't they design that better?" when faced with an awkward web form or inefficient banking process. At the conference I attended an excellent workshop by Pete Bagnall of SurfaceEffect about user interviewing as a primary input to a more user-centric approach to development. One of the outputs of this is the creation of User Personas, which are fictional characters that represent the different classes of users you want to serve. 

A key aspect of the user interviewing process is that it is performed by the very people who will later design the software, instilling in them a huge amount of empathy for their users, and a greater awareness of their goals, motivations and mental models. In the months after the conference I applied these techniques with my team at IBM, and initiated a round of user interviews with more than a dozen customers, gaining some great insights into their use of the product and their needs. We were then able to use the output of these interviews to generate a report and a primary and secondary persona for use in future design discussions.  The user persona serves as a tangible reminder of that understanding which is much easier to remember and conjecture about than a dry requirements document and can then be used for scenario-based development (creating stories about the users and how they use your product in order to design product features). 

You may not immediately see the link to team productivity, so let me explain. Going through an exercise like this, to improve the team's understanding of the users or stakeholders of the product or service (every project has these!) and their needs, not only avoids wasted efforts and misdirected designs but also gives the team members the feeling that their work matters to someone, that it will make a difference. This is likely to make more enthusiastic and dedicated team members, who will receive a huge motivation boost when they can their work making users happy... I believe everyone wants to do something that matters to somebody.

It was a helpful side effect of this work that I also learned how to effectively interview people about their needs, mental models and priorities - which will doubtless be of use as a team productivity consultant!

4. Favour Face to Face Communication

I've worked in some very different software development environments over the last 10 years, from a team of six people in a company of 30 people, to a 400 person department with personnel in 4 countries within IBM which has around 300,000 employees worldwide. I've worked remotely with people in other countries on a regular basis and day to day with a small team all in the same open plan office. I've seen what works and I've seen what doesn't, and one of the main things I learnt is that effective communication is key, and e-mail is the least effective means of communication ever invented.

E-mail has some advantages: It's nice for the writer to be able to express their thoughts clearly and instantly, and it's a good way of sending documents quickly, but that is where the advantages end. E-mails are ripe for misinterpretation, and encourage batting away responsibility, arse-covering via cc, and can easily facilitate positional or adversarial thinking. Worst of all, e-mail can fill up people's days with the illusion of work, answering emails and dealing with them by forwarding or replying, creating yet more work for someone else instead of getting something done.

Face-to-face communication at the other end of the scale, has no such disadvantages, and allows matters to be resolved cooperatively and quickly. It's hard to reject or divert a face-to-face enquiry or comment in the same way you might an e-mail. In environments where face-to-face is not an option (remote working for example), video conferences can provide an excellent alternative and can be done easily and cheaply with basic webcams, microphones and software such as Oovoo. There is often a strange reluctance to use webcams in corporate environments, but the greater effectiveness over a standard telephone conference call is undeniable. Conference calls too, can now be done cheaply with SIP/VOIP clients or other telephony products such as Google Talk or Skype. In my experience, telephone conversations are almost always more effective than written communication. The next best option is instant messaging, much intonation and non-verbal cues are lost, but timing and the ability to quickly clarify means that it can be a lot more effective than an e-mail. This isn't just my opinion, studies have confirmed the productivity drain caused by e-mail.

5. Encourage creative innovation

innovation on Flickr
Every team will at some point face problems that seem insurmountable. The most successful teams are those that don't just discuss the problem and go with the "least worst" option, but instead encourage out-of-the-box thinking and brainstorming to find a creative solution to the problem. A team that is able to operate in an environment where everyone's ideas are listened to and where no approach is "too wacky" will be likely to create much more innovative solutions to their problems. One of the most powerful ways to gain new insight is to seek inspiration from completely different fields of endeavour. Simple analogy exercises and brainstorming sessions using tools such as Roger van Oech's Creative Whack Pack can generate amazing new solutions from out of nowhere. I know this from my experiences with the innovation group (iSIG) within IBM where we used such techniques (as well as new ones we developed ourselves) to tangibly help teams solve problems they were facing. One example of how to make brainstorming sessions more effective is never to cut people's ideas down straight away. Take the time to explore it for a few moments. Sometimes even if the initial idea is not valuable, it may stimulate a great idea from someone else, or exploring why it "won't work" may provide a new solution to the problem.

6. Tweak the environment to encourage "flow"

Royal Blue Flow on Flickr
There are other ways to give team members "space" to be more effective, not just in the context of innovating. There is a concept of Flow which is very relevant to making teams (and the individuals within them) more productive - maximise the potential for this and your team will flourish. If you've ever got engrossed in a task, lost track of time or found that the task progresses naturally without you having to think, then you have experienced flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described it as the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." 

To make flow more likely, you need to make sure the conditions are right: Goals and expectations should be clear, team members should be suitably skilled. Distractions (such as IM, phonecalls, meetings and admin) should be minimised. The team should be able to work in large blocks of time without having to watch the clock for the next meeting. The team should be able to work without feeling self-conscious, without feeling micro-managed and without too many people getting involved.

The task itself should be rewarding, and should be understood well enough that it is not too difficult, but equally it should not be boring. And perhaps most importantly there must be some mechanism of easily obtained feedback along the way, so that the team can quickly make adjustments without having to wait for approvals or feedback and losing focus.

It will not always be possible to satisfy all these things, but an understanding of these influencing factors in the psychology of work can help a team to be more productive. I've been part of teams in flow, and it's a fantastic win for everyone involved - the job gets done more quickly and everyone involved enjoys the experience.

Another technique or tweak that can be used to optimise a team is to ensure that people are well-matched to the sorts of task they are being asked to perform. How often have you been employed for a role on the strength of your past CV, only to have that past experience completely ignored when it comes to deciding what work to assign to you? It is important for team leaders and managers to take into account individuals' fortés when placing them. One way to do this is to have everyone take a short test and work out their Belbin Team Role such as Plant, Completer-Finisher or Shaper. Considering the person's natural strengths in comparison to possible roles in the team, and matching them carefully so that everyone can harness their strongest abilities in their tasks will doubtless improve team effectiveness.

7. Value the people

Scene from The Prisoner:
"I am not a number, I am a free man!"
In my experience the people who work most effectively together in teams are those who have had the opportunity to meet and interact in some other context than that of the core work. When I was working from the UK with a USA-based team within IBM, my effectiveness at working with them vastly improved when I went to work on site with them in the California office for a few weeks. There were no longer "that voice on those boring conference calls" but had families, ideas, motivations and dreams. Talking to them face to face enabled me to better anticipate their behaviour and understand how to interpret it, and vice versa, reducing the possibility of further conflicts (which had been common before).

The same is true on a local scale, team members will find it much harder to conflict with each other if they understand each other better. At IBM I was part of the steering group of Hursley Technical Community, a cross-department focus group aiming to foster a better community spirit among the technical teams. We supported the growth and creation of "SIGs" (Special Interest Groups) where like-minded people from different teams could share ideas - for example this might be a Testing SIG, Linux SIG, a Web 2.0 SIG. We also ran many events, workshops, "lunch and learns" and other events, and created a framework so that anyone could run a talk for anyone who was interested, on any subject of interest. I observed that people discovered common interests and made connections they would not otherwise have done. This benefitted everyone involved because ideas and approaches from different departments could be shared, and people increased their networks, being able to draw on those new contacts again when they needed help. This is something that works really well in an organisation with departments that are "silo"-like, and do not mix much.

Similarly, this approach can also work very well within a small team. By encouraging people to present something to the team that they are interested in, from their latest digital photography project at home to a new code testing tool they had designed to make their job easier at work, you increase the possibility of new collaborations forming, and most of all you make sure that your team members "get" each other. They may disagree in future, but a background understanding of what makes the other team member tick will make any conflict far less serious. I think this sort of activity, coupled with the creation of things like "for sale" forums or "advice" mailing lists and newsgroups can really stimulate a sense of community in a team. Above all, managers should remember that they have a room full of people, not "resources" [2], and that by investing in the people and supporting them in their own goals, they will reap the benefits in terms of that employee's productivity. As is often quoted, "A happy employee is a productive employee." The managers I remember most favourably are those who recognised that this is one of the most important factors in managing someone, and I believe they got the most out of me for doing so.

Thank you for taking the time reading my insights and ideas about team productivity. As you can see, many of the past experiences I've had in business and beyond have given me some deep insights into how to make teams more effective. In this post I have tried to cover some of the key areas but have still only scraped the surface of what is possible. I hope you found something useful. Whatever your thoughts, I'd love to hear them - feel free to post a comment! And in the meantime I will continue planning how to convert my insights and skills on team productivity into a marketable service!


Friday, 20 March 2009

Life after IBM

Finding a new path to follow

Every now and then you come to a point in your life when you are at a fork in the road, you have a choice before you and you know that whichever choice you make, your life will probably end up very different - for example, when you decide what University to go to, or move in with a partner. For me, that is exactly how it feels at the moment. Not so much the decision to move to Canada - of course that was a huge decision to make, but more the decision to leave IBM and "do something different" that came with it.

Thoughts on leaving IBM

I know a number of people who've left IBM in the last year or two - Roo Reynolds, Robert Berry, Ian Hughes and Alan Lepofsky to name just a few (A search on Google reveals many more). Usually there is a good reason - the offer of a fantastic job or the fruition of a plan to set up your own business. I think there must be a "physical law of IBM": An employee will tend remain there unless acted on by an external force!

For me, the choice was not a career choice so much as a lifestyle choice - to be with my wife and help her get her career off to the best possible start with a postdoc position in Canada. It wasn't possible to move to IBM Canada because there was no "pull" from the Canada side. I hoped at first I might do the same job remotely, but that proved impossible. But once I accepted the reality that I would need to leave IBM, thought processes began about what else I might do, I became more and more excited about the possibilities of a fresh start.

I got a huge amount out of working at IBM - experiences of the whole software development cycle, of designing & developing software, leading teams and projects, improving collaboration and productivity, working with customers and users, and developed technical skills in a number of areas, from Java and databases to Web development and Voice technologies. Over 7 years at IBM I grew in confidence from a junior coder to a senior all-round developer.

What next?

I've realised that IBM has given me a fantastic start to my career, and while I could easily continue on that road, this 3 years in Canada is a great opportunity to broaden my skills and experiences and try something completely different. Some people think it's a big risk I took to leave the stability of a job with a multinational, without a job lined up to step into, especially in these times. But I've found that leaving that job behind has opened a lot of doors for me, and given me the time and space to take stock and consider what I'm really passionate about, and what my ideal job would be (an idea I've talked about before in the internal Productivity@IBM podcast and in a previous blog post). As Charles DuBos put it:

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."

I've spent a good deal of time considering what really drives me, what kind of work I enjoy most, and what job I would choose. Starting out in a new country is a great time to do this kind of thinking, because anything is possible, and I have no commitments to distract me from any endeavour I want to throw myself into. I've drawn upon various sources for inspiration; one book I've found incredibly useful is "What Color is Your Parachute?".

I'd recommend this book to anyone considering a change of career, it is full of practical tips and takes you through a series of exercises to help you work out what your ideal job is, based on the things you've been most successful with and most passionate about. The main exercise involves writing down a number of things you've achieved that you really enjoyed and are proud of, and then breaking them down to see what skills you used. Once you've done that for several of your successful projects, you can pick out recurring skills, and prioritize them. I came out with this list of my top 6 skills (favourite/strongest first):

  1. Following through, getting things done, or producing in a group
  2. Enabling others to find or retrieve information
  3. Instructing, tutoring, training or teaching an individual
  4. Persuading a group, debating, motivating a group
  5. Translating, programming, developing, improving
  6. Empowering, advising, coaching, counselling, mentoring an individual

Coming up with this list and seeing it written down gave me a great insight into myself; I completely identified with it and thinking back I can see that almost all the things I've worked towards and been passionate about, inside and outside of work, can be linked to one or several of these skills - from promoting the use of wikis and other knowledge sharing tools to improve collaboration inside IBM, to my volunteer work with Nightline and On the Level, and most recently with the work I did overhauling agile process and tooling in IBM's Voice team.

I took further inspiration and insights from John Osborne Hughes and his Creative Visualization Workshop and just this week I caught a podcast by Jonathan Fields at SXSW on being a Career Renegade - that is, someone who makes their own career based on what they're passionate about and making it profitable. I'll certainly be reading his book very soon. Getting used to empty days

You've probably guessed by now that I have figured out my ideal job, but before I reveal my thoughts on that, I wanted to share a little bit about my experiences here for the last month. I found that the adjustment to being without a job and not having a routine has been very hard to get used to - that has been much more difficult to adjust to than getting used to life in a new country. As many of you know, I've been on something of a personal productivity quest for the last couple of years, and I always had that feeling of "if only I had more time". Something that's been a revelation to me is that it's really not about the amount of time you have - for over the last month my time has been pretty much unlimited - even though I've had more time, I've still experienced the same "not quite getting round to things" or not being as organised as I'd like. Mrs Alex has outdone me in terms of keeping a blog up to date for friends and family back home, even though I have had more time as she's been at work. I did have an excuse of almost no internet access for the first two weeks, but the reality is that actually, even though I'm pretty good at getting things done, I'm not that great at starting things, especially when the number of possible things I could start is pretty huge. I think the feeling I've had is best summed up by my very good friend Meg in her blog post Which Dream? where she wrote:

I am used to working every day surrounded by lots of people, where there is always a friendly face, and lots of scheduled work to do. [...] I am not used to working with a completely blank sheet where I imagine, design, create and run every single piece of work that I do from scratch [...]

That's exactly how it's been for me. Even though I have had all day every day to work on whatever I like (once all the household matters were sorted), I have been somewhat paralysed by the number of choices before me and the sense of having a completely clean slate. It's somewhat like when you finish University, and you know you can go into any career you like - the hard thing is deciding on a path and sticking with it. Possible future Alexes

Mentally, I'd drawn up a list of a number of different things I could do in Canada, some short term and some longer term. I've taken small steps towards all them, to kind of test the water a little. Here's my list:

  • I could tutor people in computing - web design, programming, fixing your own computer or helping students with their learning
  • I could work freelance to design & build websites for peple
  • I could coach people on personal productivity
  • I could build tools for collaboration and sell them
  • I could work with teams to make them more effective
  • I could help out with demonstrating/supervising or even research at one of Montréal's 5 universities
  • I could make a website idea I have into a viable business
  • I could just get another tech job.
  • I could do something completely unrelated for a day job, leaving mental energy free for personal tech projects outside of work

Some of these are beginning to seem more possible than others. The Craigslist site has been incredibly useful, I've met someone who will teach me French in exchange for computer help, and someone else who has two web projects which need work (one paid, one bartered for with designer clothes). The forums there show a huge community of people offering services and provide a practical way to offer my services. So being a freelance coach or web designer could be very possible. On the other hand, I spoke to McGill University about helping out there - but they don't employ non-postgrads for supervision work. Since networking will be key for many of these, I've also got involved with tech networking communities and begun to meet local people in the tech industry. My ideal job - Team Productivity Catalyst

Business Team from Flickr
After having had plenty of time to think, I have realised with a lot more conviction what my ideal job is. There is a common thread running through almost all the work that I've done, and that's about helping people, particularly teams, to be more effective and productive, through using better or more customised tools, more sharing and collaboration, listening to people to understand the real problems, and updating processes and approaches accordingly. I now know that my calling is to work with teams to help them become more productive, through a combination of coaching, interviewing, listening, group exercises, installing new tools or even designing and building custom tools where none exist. The job title I have thought of for this is "Team Productivity Catalyst" - though I am open to improvements!

I am not really sure if this exists as a profession - but I'm not going to let that stop me. I am convinced there is a need for this kind of service, there are plenty of teams out there not living up to their potential.

There are personal productivity coaches, but these are a bit different, focussing on individual work management not teams. This would be a subset or slightly tangential to my vision. There are also management consultants, who help managers to manage their teams better. My vision is different from this too - I want to work at a grassroots level, understanding the people in the team and their problems, and work with them to deliver the right combination of training, tools and advice to make them work better. And also there are team-building companies, who specialise in running activities to help teams function better. I think that would certainly be an element of what I will do but my focus will be as much on systems and processes as it will on the individuals and helping them bond.

If you have any thoughts on this idea, I'd love to hear from you, especially if you know of someone who is doing this or something like it. Next steps

So there's the vision. The challenge of course, is making this a reality. I thought that blogging about it might help make it a little more tangible. In the meantime, I think there are a few things I need to do towards bringing this to fruition:

  • I need to get experience of how teams work here in Montréal, how they tick, what problems they face
  • I need to understand the local business climate and how I might sell such a service into it
  • I need to find others who have done similar things, and learn from them
  • I need to bring some money in while getting this off the ground
  • I need to improve my skills around team training and the people side of team building (to complement the systems/process side)

I have been offered, and accepted a web development job with a medium sized company here in Montréal. I start on Monday. This will help me grow my technical & web skills but also help to understand the tech business environment in Montréal. Who knows, there might even be some opportunities to improve team productivity within my role. It'll also give us a more comfortable lifestyle as we'll have 2 incomes instead of one. I am going to work towards a future career in team productivity coaching as a full time pursuit outside of my day job, as Jonathan Fields recommends. So watch this space for future developments! How to combat procrastination

Procrastination on Flickr
I'm going to finish off by sharing a couple of things I've learnt while I've been here and not been working. I've found a trick to help combat procrastination and get stuck into things. I read this on a blog recently but I'm afraid I can't remember where. If there is a job you are not getting started on, all you do is get everything ready to start the task. Open the book, get the necessary paperwork laid out, create the blank document in your Word processor, get those addresses to hand, or whatever you need to do the job, and tell yourself it's ok if that's all you do. Once you are all set up, the resistance to doing the task is actually a lot less and you'll probably end up doing some, if not all, of it. It sounds so simple and unlikely but it really does work!

My other tip is making sure you have clearly defined goals each week. Have a clearly defined list of projects or activities that are your priorities for the week, keep it clearly in focus daily and track your progress towards the goals you've set. This will always bring you back to what is important to you. I'm using an agile development work tracking tool designed for agile teams to set goals for myself and am running one-week sprints with myself! It's working very well this week - as my higher blog output this week is testament to!

Until the next time...