Category: Work

Mostly an archive of my posts from onemanwrites.co.uk – a blog I used to write when I worked in the Tech Comms industry

work life balance

Work

Amongst the many internet trends – the commercialisation of happiness, the quasi-religion of productivity approaches – there is one phrase that makes my toes curl and my blood start to simmer.

“Do what you love.”

It’s a distillation of a thought first offered by Confucius “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” and the sentiment is a noble one yet for many it is largely unobtainable.

I used to love my job, I loved the busy nature of it, I loved the different areas of helping build a product, and for many years as I progressed through the company, getting more senior roles, I truly thought of it as doing what I love.

I am a geek, I enjoy many aspects of building a software product, most of them on the user/business side of the equation admittedly as I’m not a developer. I enjoyed learning about accessibility, usability, user research and analysis, storyboards, roadmaps and more. I invested a lot of my own time and effort into it, working long hours across multiple timezones, chatting to teams in Indonesia in my mornings and San Francisco in my evenings (my Boss was, for a time, based in Boston, MA).

And then as I was about to transition to a newer role, one I was excited for which would’ve taken me into the world of product strategy with a sales and marketing view, the rug was pulled out from under my feet with one simple word. Redundancy.

It was the third time I’d been made redundant and, as with the others, completely blind-sided me. We’d had a couple of rounds of redundancies in the past but I’d always felt secure as my role and knowledge was fairly niche and unique at the time.

It was a blow.

Looking back it was likely a very good thing for me, personally, though. I managed to take a couple of months off, and when I started working again I did so as a contractor in a role I’d never done before, although I’d worked closely with them in the past.

It’s a different world when you are paid a day rate. I work 8am to 4pm, I don’t get sick pay or paid holidays, I pay my own tax. This means it’s not in my interest to invest any more of my own time, and that’s purely on a financial basis, my current project and contract has a finite end so I know I will be moving on at that point, which is yet another reason not to invest my time too heavily. I hold myself to my own professional standards and work ethics but at 4pm I am done.

Do I love what I do? No, it is a job that pays my bills. This is not a vocation, a calling, or anything like that for me and, despite the internet clamouring for validation and the strange need to attach higher value to things than they necessarily require, I’m quite happy with that.

The issue I have is that if I was to love what I do, my job would be a mish-mash of sitting on the sofa playing computer games, walking about in the fresh air, reading books, and a few other things commonly known as hobbies.

Which nicely brings me to another point, once again peer pressured into existence by the internet, of having to always be the best you can be at something. Why? A hobby should be relaxing, a way to unwind and switch off from the daily pressures of adult life, not a way to add to the stresses and strains you no doubt already have by demanding constant improvements of yourself! So you can knit a wonky scarf, but can you knit a pair of stripey socks.

I digress.

Since I started contracting my work/life balance, something I actually place value on, has never been better.

Granted I’m very lucky to be at least working in a job that is palatable, suffer-able, and on some days is actually fun (albeit in a ‘everything is a challenge’ kinda way). I don’t think I will ever place much value on loving what I do for work, but for me that just means I have all the more time and energy to put elsewhere, in things that offer me much more value; family and friends.

And oddly, spending my time with my loved ones whilst living life as best I can boils down to doing exactly what that phrase, the one I so loathe, suggests.

Do what you love.

I am Dolly Parton

This post is brought to you by the Dolly Parton song ‘Nine to Five’. You’re welcome (hey, it’s been stuck in my head for days now, just thought I’d share the joy).

As I think I’ve mentioned, I got a new job late last year. I now work in a big office (well, two, actually) for a large business (no names!). It’s been quite a learning experiencing and a lot of change; it’s my first foray into the world of contracting, it’s a more defined role than I’ve had in years, and it’s in an environment which has a dress code, a clean desk policy, and which is about as far removed from the software company I used to work for that I could imagine (although I’m still working on a software project).

Most crucially, as I’m not salaried, I’m keeping to 9 to 5 (well 8.30 to 4.30ish) and my laptop remains locked away in my locker at work. No working at home for me, no adjusting my hours if I have a dentist appointment, and by and large I’m enjoying that aspect of things.

I am NOT enjoying having to use Windows, nor the very restrictive internet usage policy that is in place, but these are just things I need to adjust to. What probably irks me the most is that I feel a bit locked out of my personal tech ecosystem as I can’t install any apps outside of those that are approved.

Of course it does mean I’m much more appreciative of all the little in-jokes and whatnot that others have shared on Twitter and in blog posts over the past decade. The fight over the thermostat, the gruff security guards, the ‘someone stole my milk’ shenanigans.

First world problems of course, I am genuinely happy to have a job that pays well, is interesting and I’m getting to work with some good people. Add in the fact that I leave my work at the office (for the first time in 10+ years) and it’s doing a lot for my work/life balance which is probably why I’m so enjoying the adjustment. I am completely out of work mode by the time my 30 minute commute home finishes (on a bus, another change!).

Long may it last!

Professional Pride

Pride in better

My official job title is Product Operations Manager. I’m still not quite sure what that means as the role is still fairly new to me, and to the company.

My main day to day role is to help the team of Product Managers, Product Architects, Business Analysts and UX designers shape and scope out the next product release. We take a feed from Product Strategy which encompasses analyst data, customer commitments, improvements to help our own project staff, new features that we can market and sell, and those which continue to make our product better than many others out there.

I take pride in my job, I don’t like making mistakes, I don’t like things not working, I am always looking for ways to improve things and my biggest frustration continues to be being unable to influence change as quickly as I’d like. But that’s me, my work persona is 1000mph and high level. As I work in software, it’s fair to say that a lot of my time is spent slowing myself down and providing a level of detail to those who need it.

Blog Pride

A lot of my job is in the murky world of ‘management’, spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations, conference calls and meetings. Unlike my previous roles, my background is in technical writing, I don’t produce all that much that I can point at and say “I made that”. That doesn’t hugely bother me but that’s largely because I’ve turned to this blog as a means of fulfilling that need.

This blog has always been a bit of a lifeline, a place to ‘escape’ to, where I can write what I want with only my view and my expectations being met. I guess it’s only recently, during a particularly stressful fortnight, that I’ve realised just how much this tiny escape valve is needed.

I find myself looking to improve this blog too, and once again thoughts are turning to building my own custom WordPress theme. I reckon I can manage that over a weekend but who the hell has a weekend to themselves these days?!

Still, every time I visit my own website I see those little niggles. The spacing isn’t quite right there, the format of those posts could be better, and so on and so forth.

Happily Imperfect does not mean I’ve settled for imperfection, just that I’ve accepted that everything is and that I will always push to make things better.

House of Cards: What can I learn?

Fear not, I am a fan of House of Cards so there are no spoilers here, a fair spattering of melodrama perhaps but that’s all mine and, for what it’s worth, I quite enjoy it.

House of Cards - S2e07 punchbag

I am easily affected. I take on traits, mannerisms and tropes with no real forethought and file it as part of the continued development of my sense of self.

I am not Francis J. Underwood nor to I ever hope to be.

Yet there is admiration of that character. He is aware of his flaws and has set his own moral compass, living by it, apologising to no-one. He has a long term plan, a vision of where he wants to be and will do whatever it takes to complete that journey. He is not a nice man.

The last few weeks have seen my working hours increase, stress levels rise and (but of course!) my insomnia kick in. The latter helps at times as it means I have more hours in which to get things done but that then destroys any real semblance of a work/life balance. This periods drain me, but this time it has been particularly bad. Something needs to change.

I have tomorrow off (at my bosses insistence) and a long weekend ahead of me to relax and refresh … but part of me wants to push on, that I don’t want to pause, not now. I want to act on my current stresses and tackle them, rid myself of those frustrations, strike while the iron is hot.

Tipping Point

It is here I look to Francis J. Underwood and fight my natural disdain of office politics. There is probably no coincidence that, in my current state of mind, House of Cards rings true and very loud. There is a scene which the image in this post alludes to, I won’t spoil it but I feel like Frank seems to at that point as he stands, silently, before voicing his opinion. It’s a tipping point in the storyline. I may be at a tipping point myself.

I am still learning my job, learning the boundaries and limitations but as they start to crystallise I find myself looking around for a hammer, or a machete, I’m not sure if I’m fighting my way through a dense forest of vines or smashing through walls but either way, some things will need to be broken for me to get where I want to be.

Can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

If I wasn’t doing this

What would I be doing?

When people ask me, if you could do anything, what job would you do? Well, I tend to flippantly respond by saying that I’d be a Zookeeper.

Part of me believes that. The part that loves animals, that finds them fascinating and would love to spend more time around them.

Part of me doesn’t though, because Zoos make me sad for the most part. I find myself torn between the desire to see these beautiful animals in the flesh, and then usually appalled to see them caged up, prowling round and round.

Wildlife parks seem to be better, for the most part, as it tends to be the small enclosures that trouble me the most.

So, if not animals then it would definitely be something to do with music. I’ve no idea in what capacity mind you, but I like to think that if my life had taken a different course I would be much closer to the arts in general, less tech-obsessed, and … happier?

I have this view of how my life might have panned out if I’d stuck with the piano lessons and pursued a career in music. I see myself happiest when playing an instrument or listening to music, I don’t see a house full of tech and gadgets but one full of books. It would look more cluttered but there would be less ‘stuff’ lying around. All of the mess would be consistent, bohemian abandon.

Romantic visions aside, I have a dusty guitar in my living room, a voucher for a guitar lesson still to cash in (it was a Christmas present) and so I thud back to earth with the realisation that no, I wasn’t destined to be a musician nor, as it turns out, be that engaged with the arts in general.

As for my love of animals, I perhaps look at the fact that I don’t have any pets, not solely because I rent and the terms of lease forbid it, but because pets are work, they need feeding, looking after, cleaning up afterwards. Hell I don’t have any kids, so why would I inflict a pet on myself? That said, I know there is a dog in my future somewhere. Probably a beagle.

Ultimately I am where I am today, doing what I do because it’s right for me. There may have been other opportunities along the way, decisions I’ve made may have steered me away from something notionally better, and certainly different, but then the grass is always greener.

C’est la vie.

Insomnia

I’ve had insomnia on and off for years but in the last year or so it’s started to occur more frequently.

I’m starting to figure it out though and it’s definitely work related. It seems that, during periods of high stress, my insomnia kicks in.

Beyond that I’m a bit hazy about why I wake at 4 or 5 in the morning, wide awake, regardless of when I went to sleep. I’m trying to track how fatigued or tired I feel at the moment to see if there is a pattern there but all that’s really doing is highlighting the things I stress and worry about and, obviously, that then allows my brain to focus on them and worry and stress some more!

There is possibly an element of decision fatigue at play as well, my new role demands much more in that respect, and as I’m still learning it, each decision is harder to make (takes more energy). Whilst the team size is no larger than in my previous role, at least there the decisions were easier as I had 15-odd years experience in that role.

Part of it is definitely down to the additional timezones I now have to work with, particularly as the overlap with California is so small. It makes each day that little bit longer, and each communication point and decision that little bit trickier to negotiate.

What to do?

Well I’m exercising more, trying to stagger my start times (later) to accommodate conference calls with the US, and largely doing what I can to be more organised as I know part of my stress is worrying that I’ve forgotten something!

I’m also hoping a holiday will help, roll on Glastonbury!

The Best Google Reader alternative

It was only back in December that I pondered this but with the news that Google Reader is to shut down I find myself revisiting some of those choices.

I still use Google Reader heavily, I consume it mostly through the website itself and via Reeder on my iPad, so it’s annoying that they are pulling this service.

But, as the adage goes, you get what you pay for, so I find myself, once again, revisiting the ‘what am I willing to pay for’ line of thought.

There are a few alternatives to Google Reader out there, I’ve tried some myself in the past, and already the tech blogs are offering their ‘best alternatives to’ posts.

But for me, the new consideration has to be whether I have the option to pay for the service with the hope that it offers a level of protection against the service disappearing on me. It’s either that or roll my own, or perhaps a 3rd party option like Fever (I have a server, and it is an option I might look at when I have more time, i.e. probably never!).

So far, of the many suggestions, the one I’ll be trying is NewsBlur precisely because it has a ‘paid for’ option.

As well as the specific impact of Google closing Reader to those that use the service, the fact that a company as rich as Google is (rightly) shutting down services that it sees no value from is a trend that is likely to start to pick up momentum.

Instagram prompted my original post on the “Going Paid” trend, how long before FaceBook push that application behind a paid for subscription?

Time will tell how this trend will pan out, but one thing remains constant and that’s the ever shifting nature of social media applications and their usage models.

Everything Changes

A new year, a fresh challenge.

I’ve been working in the Technical Communications field my entire career. From those first days, stumbling my way around FrameMaker 4 with only a vague idea of what I should be doing (and largely using the FrameMaker User Guide as a sample of both approach and layout) to my current incarnation as Product Information Manager which involves running a team of 6 technical writers, looking at what other services we could offer to other parts of the (now) global organisation I’m part of, not to mention running a developer community website and generally advocating a product view wherever possible.

Actually, make that my previous incarnation.

As of today I’m changing roles, with a new job title of Product Operations Manager.

I’ll be working within the Product Management Team dealing with operations issues, planning and so on, and generally helping the Product Managers, and Senior Architects do their day jobs (the phrase ‘herding cats’ has been used on more than one occasion so far).

It’s very exciting, a little bit scary (in a good way), and a big step out of my comfort zone of technical communications. Whilst the principles of managing a team with multiple deliverables and differing focus areas is something I’ve been doing for a while, it’s good to have a new challenge.

The new role will take me away from technical communications, and whilst I’ll still retain a passing interest I know myself well enough that it’s only a matter of time before I lose track of developments and trends altogether. I am a sucker for new things!

I’m not sure what that means for this blog, or my other interactions with the technical communications community, but I’ll figure that out in good time.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a job description, a new boss, new teammates and a whole new world to get my head into and it’s all kicking off this week. Hence why I’m sat in a hotel room in Sunnyvale writing this blog post.

Anyway, first things first.

Breakfast.

Going Global

One of the challenges the team will face this year is how to coordinate the creation of product documentation with geographically dispersed teams, across different product lines.

At present we have engineering teams in Glasgow, Belfast, Limerick, Jakarta, Sunnyvale CA, and Bedford NH, building four products and maintaining five other legacy applications. Currently we have six technical writers in Glasgow and one in Belfast. Initial assessments suggest there is a bit of a resourcing gap (a separate issue I’m dealing with) but beyond that the main challenge will be figuring out how to best work with these disparate teams.global-team2

I have asked this question in a couple of places and had some excellent responses. Some cover things we had already considered but there were some gems borne of real life experience that I was lucky enough to have shared with me. Many thanks to Tom Marshall, David Farbey, Cheri Mullins, Larry Kunz, Alan Bowman, and Kay Winter and others for their suggestions.

First things first though, and it will be important to discuss and agree on responsibilities, tasks, and roles. Naturally there will be a level of autonomy, so it makes sense to have sensible agreements on what issues require escalation and so on. Part of these early discussions will also need to include tooling agreement, writing styles and output formats. Ideally these can just be extend from what the team currently uses but that will have an impact on both sides.

The timezone is an obvious issue which could have a dramatic impact on communications between the teams. Case in point, the teams in Bedford and Jakarta have a 12 hour difference! So one of the first things we will need to do is consider, as we won’t have the luxury of immediacy, is a ‘rules of engagement’ or contract between teams as to how we will correspond, talk, meet and share information. Nothing too formal, but setting out expectations will do no harm. For example, when sending out an email should you expect an acknowledgement? Or should everyone have ‘read receipts’ enabled?

Some of the challenges we may face we already have solutions for; we use Google Docs for collaboration, we have conference lines ready, our engineers use a common JIRA install.

Thankfully there are numerous technologies that can help us with communications:

  • Everyday – Instant Messaging – for a quick question or two, and as a way to see who is available (and how you are working with), IM is a useful tool. Add in file sharing and it becomes a little more powerful.
  • Information Sharing – WIKI and Google Docs – for collaboration we’ve had good success with Google Docs, but there is no reason a WIKI couldn’t fulfil the same role.
  • Meetings – Skype or Google Hangouts – Skype nicely doubles as an instant messaging app, which also allows you to send files and of course you can host conference calls there. Recently I’ve seen some friends have success with Google Hangouts (part of Google+) which, as most laptops come equipped with a webcam these days, might be a good option too.

Not to forget the trusted old telephone! Ideal for a 5 minute catchup every day or so.

And, of course there will also need to be face-to-face meetings on a regular basis to make sure the technical writers feel part of the team, that includes organising social activities as well.

Other suggestions I heard, and which are worth heeding:

  • Regular conference calls – Make sure these have an agenda and that everyone has prepped beforehand to maximise usefulness.
  • Access to latest builds of the software – in our office we can checkout the latest build of the code any time we want, no reason remote technical writers can’t do the same.
  • Be sensitive to cultures, both professional practices and social niceties.
  • Adjust for time zones.

There are many pitfalls ahead and whilst I have great confidence we will figure them all out, obviously the more we can spot up front and negate, the better (and cheaper) the end solution will be. As ever, I have the advantage of working with smart people so I’m confident it will work, once we figure out exactly how.

Ho Ho HOLIDAY!!

The festive season is upon us, cards have been posted, presents have been bought, and in a couple of hours I’ll head home, leaving work behind until early January.

2012 has been an interesting year.

We started the year with a challenge, one of making the information we produce ‘findable’. Cutting across more than 20,000 topics of information, it was always going to be a big project, particularly as we still needed to keep up with product development. As the year draws to a close the final pieces of this mammoth project are falling into place and should, fingers crossed, be launched in the first couple of weeks in January.

From my viewpoint, it’s been an excellent example of giving people the space to do great things. I’ve not interferred much with this project, gently pushed it when it was needed, made decisions when required but by and large left the team to get on with it. The results are looking good.

Of course plans were impacted when the company I work for was merged with KANA software. Thankfully it was, for us, a mostly seamless experience. The day to day activities of the team haven’t changed (yet), but there has certainly been a lot more for me to pick up as the requests for documentation resource started to come in from other parts of the organisation. We are still figuring out how best to provide a service but it’s already looking like we will need to hire to backfill some gaps in other geographies.

Elsewhere I finally managed to get the new ISTC website launched, and have since enhanced it in a few places, adding in new Area Group pages, and generally beefing up the functionality in the background. Plans are coming together for the next set of changes so keep an eye out for those.

So, plenty to keep me busy in 2013, and that’s without covering off the building of a new community website at work …

One highlight for me has been getting back into the blogging habit here and generally feeling a bit more excited about my profession, hopefully I will continue to get a lot of value from sharing my thoughts here in the future!

That said, I’m off on holiday now but will be back in the first week of January. If you celebrate it, have a very Merry Christmas, and all the best to you all for 2013, thanks for reading!!