I was recently facing a bit of a conundrum. I was trying to work out why I was reading far more using Audible than I was out of paper or even kindle books. The obvious answer was because because I was listening to 45 minutes of audiobooks at double speed every morning but I was only getting half an hour every other night with my real book (currently Waltzing with Bears). The former I was fairly sleepy at the start of the day, the latter as I’m trying to keep my eyes opening in the evening.
The obvious answer I came up was because I was spending less time with my mind on the physical book. But also most likely because I could listen further than I could read.
However, as I pondered the question a little further I also realised that I was trying to do several things in that precious 30 minutes in an evening. I journal every day, I am reading a book on my kindle as well as the paper book and I enjoy painting my Warhammer and Game of Thrones minatures to undwind. In other words I had too much WIP in my evening routine!
We all know that WIP is very bad news and kills all productivity, what I had uncovered in my own routine was a bottleneck where I was trying to push several projects through the same 30 minute space in my day.
Wondering where else these existed I began thinking about my working day and carved my time into three categories. These are Hands Free, which are tasks I can complete while my hands and eyes are occupied on something else like driving or housework. Computer, which I spend a lot of time at so I created two parts. Hands On, which are times when I can complete a task with my hands. For example reading a paper book or painting my toy soliders.
I decided to call these Personal Swimlanes, you can now clearly see why I was having so much trouble delivering on the last one. I was thrashing between the various projects with no focus on any of them.
So, what’s the solution?
Well – you’re looking at it. By indentifying which work falls into each categories I can properly throttle WIP coming through and prioritising. Right now I’m focusing all my “Hands On” time on finishing Waltzing with Bears. When I finish that (in 70 odd pages) I’ll look at what the next project to move onto is. At the moment it’s looking like that unit of Ultramarines I picked up the other day!
What Swimlanes do you have in your day? Am I missing any? How do you focus your precious hands on time to make sure you focus on one project before moving onto the next?
Performance Management are two words which have the power to strike dread into the hearts of developers and managers alike. For engineers it conjures images of being fired, for managers it’s the sinking feeling that you’re going to have difficult talks with people with people about the quality of their work.
But that isn’t what performance management is about. At least it shouldn’t be!
Performance Management should always be about you working with your boss and mentors to continue to improve your performance. It should involve feedback, praise, and coaching. It should be something junior engineers embrace because it helps them progress their career and develop their skills. However, giving feedback is very difficult and unfortunately finding a boss who will give you honest, valuable feedback is rare.
I could write pages about Performance Management but this post is intended as part of my Junior Developer series so instead I’m going to focus on the most common mechanisms companies use and what you should expect when you join.
Probation periods are very common across the software industry (and elsewhere). In effect they’re a trial period for both you and your employer. They’re an opportunity for you to ensure you’re really happy with the company you’re working with but also for your boss to ensure you can do the job (or at least that you have the potential to do the job).
Typically probation periods last three or six months and during that time your notice period (the amount of notice the company has to give you and the notice you give the company if either wishes to end your employment contract) is significantly shorter. A month’s notice period is fairly typical for developers in the UK (or longer if it’s a more senior role), however during your probation this may be a week, or non existent. This is intended to support both sides. Personally I have never failed a probation, but I have left a company during my probation and being able to make that clean break was much simpler than having to wait an additional three months.
Every employer should set very clear objectives or what they expect you to achieve during this probation period. They should never simply book a meeting at the end of the three months to tell you if you passed or failed. The golden rule of good management is to never surprise your employer. A good manager will work with you during your probation and, if you’ve got some areas that you’re struggling make you aware of them so you’ve got plenty of time. You should never be unclear whether you’re on track to pass or fail a probation period.
1 to 1s
One of the most effective ways to support and coach your team is for managers to book in 1:1 sessions. Typically these are every couple of weeks but it varies with the individual and the circumstances. I have senior engineers who only watch to check in once a month and team leads I meet with weekly (or more often if they need it). I always hold more frequent 1:1s with people during their probation to make sure they’ve got the support they need.
Your 1:1 is your managers opportunity to coach and your chance to ask questions. It’s also your opportunity to talk about goals and career goals. There are countless excellent articles out there about 1:1s so I’ll leave it there and say that you should expect them and that they’re nothing to worry about.
End of Year Reviews
Most companies operate an end of year review cycle. These vary from company to company but they often involve talking about the positives and negatives of the year with your managers, some kind of goal setting exercise for the upcoming year, and often a discussion around pay and/or bonus. Often these are split into various conversations which may take place over a few weeks or even months.
The key is to understand what each session is for and what topics are likely to be discussed. This will help you think of examples where you’ve done especially well and give you a chance to think or a few areas where, with hindsight you may have done things a little differently.
It’s also helpful to understand what form of conversations the ones around pay and bonuses are likely to take. What’s normal for your company? Many television shows give the impression that you can march into your boss’s office and make a pitch for a higher salary. In reality (at least in the uk that’s rarely how it works). Often managers are given a pot of money to work with, once a year, and will have to make the fairest choices they can. However your manger be able to advice you on what happens at your company and what the financial review process will look like. Don’t be surprised if you’re not included in this process if you’ve been with the company for less than a year, it’s not uncommon for people who have recently joined to have to wait to be part of the uplift process.
When talking about goals for the following year try and be open and honest about what you would like to achieve. Ask your manager to support you and whether you think your ambitions are realistic. You can achieve a lot more if your manager is also looking for opportunities to stretch you than if you have to go hunting for them yourself.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that normal Performance Management is nothing to be worried about. Sure, there are cases need to be coached through areas of under performance but the vast majority of what I’ve talked about in this post is the positive side of how to work with you manager to avoid needing and performance improvement plans.
What are your experiences of performance management? Are your experiences similar to mine?
I recently finished Algorithms To Live By, a book by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. I’ve been putting off this book for a while (I’m not sure why) but after reading a few positive reviews I fired up Audible and listened to it.
The book opened extremely well. I wasn’t entirely sure what optimised stopping was. What the authors do incredibly well is take computer science concepts and apply them to real life problems. In that case when to offer a candidate a position or when to say no and hope for someone better (the secretary problem) or when to opt for the empty parking space and when to carry on and hope for one closer to your destination.
There were interesting chapters on sorting and searching (football games league and organising books), Game Theory (employees at companies with unlimited holidays), and scheduling.
While extremely interesting what it lacked was… how do I say this… a lot of of take away value. I felt there was so much interesting stuff in there, but I’d have loved to have some really clearly spelled out takeaways. I think there’s still a jump to be able to take what the authors talked about and apply it to day to day life in any more than the lightest way. A great read, but perhaps not as paradigm shifting as I’d hoped.
Everyone gets stick right? And it’s not unreasonable that you’re going to want to spend some time off to go on holiday (current Covid situation aside). All companies have slightly different procedures for managing absence, in this post I’m oing to talk about my experience over the majority of UK companies. Your company will almost certainly be slightly different, those are the differences you need to understand during your first fiew days.
Nobody wants to get sick, but it does happen. In my experience most companies in the UK which hire software developers will have a certain number of paid days of sick leave. This is often not contractual, but layed out in a handbook somewhere. How many days varies massively from company to company and it’s often worth trying to understand ahead of time.
Almost every company I have ever worked for expects you to call your manager if you wake up feeling too sick to work. Some are happy with a message but you should always understand what these procedures are before the inevitable day when you wake up full of cold and can’t drag yourself into work.
Many companies use a system called The Bradford Factor to assess sickness. This is a calculation which calculates a score. Companies often have a threshold of what score they’re willing to accept before they stop paying sickness days. It’s worth being aware that the system weights number of occurrences far more severely than number of days. So someone taking every Monday off sick because they’re feeling a bit hung over would score far higher than someone who caught a nasty bug and was off for a week. I should stress very clearly though – sickness policies are a benefit designed to support employees who genuinely aren’t feeling well so they don’t feel financialy pressured into spreading germs around the office. They’re not free days off because you’re feeling a little worse for wear after a late night.
Planned surgeries and procedures are often handled slightly differently and you should discuss what options are available. Some companies may support you. Others may ask you take some (or all) of the time as holiday.
One of your tasks in the first week at your new company should be to understand exactly what the policy for sickness is.
Let’s assume that coronavirus is a thing of the past and we’re all flying around the world to ski and relax by swimming pools.
Most UK companies offer a number of paid days off. You are legally entitled to Bank Holidays (or a substitute day) and will often have a number of days which you can book whenever you wish. In the UK the minimum is 28 days, but you should expect that 8 of those are the bank holidays. However, some companies may offer 25 + 8 or even more. It’s not uncommon for employees’ holiday allowances to increase the longer they remain with a company. It’s worth remembering that you take 5 days off each week as most software companies don’t work weekends.
Usually you have to book holidays and have them approved by your line manager. It’s usually good etiquette to give as much notice as possible. The typical rule is to give as least as much notice as the time you’re intending to take but personally if you’re planning on taking a week or more I’d encourage you to give as much notice as warning. It’s rare for managers to refuse holidays unless there’s a good reason, especially with lots of notice.
A few final points – always make sure you understand when the holiday calendar starts and finishes (your first year’s holidays will probably be pro-rata’d). If you can carry over any untaken holiday into the next year and if there are any conditions, and what the company’s rules are over Christmas time. It’s not uncommon for offices to shut and companies require employees to save several days of holiday for the gap between Christmas and New Year.
Hopefully this has been helpful and has given you an idea of what to expect. As I said at the beginning of the post expectations will vary from company to company and hugely as you move around the world. I can only speak about my experience in the UK. You should always try and understand the sickness and holiday policies of your company as soon as possible. Before joining ideally, but for various reasons it’s probably not something I’d ask in an interview – perhaps a good question for a recruiter?
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I recently read Eat That Frog, a personal productivity guide by Brian Tracy.
It’s an interesting book. There are 21 easy simple tips which work together, I especially like the format because it’s easy to dip in and out of. Some of the suggestions are very very good. Putting technology aside, breaking big goals into smaller steps, and making sure highest priority tasks are identified.
Brian Tracy makes a huge point of picking up the most important task for the day at the very beginning. Personally I’m not a fan of this approach (as long as it’s identified and gets done). But I can see the wisdom in it.
Would I recommend Eat That Frog? If you’ve not ready many personal productivity books before and are looking for a few tips to help you organise things and deliver – sure, there’s probably quite a lot in there you’ll like. If you’re not new to the genre then you probably won’t get a huge amount of new advice from the book.
So you’ve been through the interview process, had an offer, and accepted the role. Time has passed and you’re getting nervous. What will your first day be like? What should you expect and what should you do?
The most important thing to remember about your first day is that there won’t be any huge expectations of you. No one is expecting you to sit down and write features and fix urgent bugs straight away. Focus on the people, get to know your Line Manager and your team. Find out where you will sit or whether the company has a hotdesking policy. Take a notebook and use it because you will be overwhelmed.
Your top priority for your first day is to get to know people, to make a good impression by being polite and friendly to everyone you meet and to ask lots of questions. It’s quite likely you’ll be bombarded by so many pieces of information you’ll start to lose track so don’t forget that notebook! Remember, people’s names are more important than every detail they’re telling you – you can always ask them for clarification later, but only if you remember who to ask.
Many companies have a formal HR training on the first day which can last anywhere from half an hour to a full week depending on the company and the role. These often run through basic Health and Safety and in some cases legal/data protection rules. These aren’t the most exciting sessions you’ll attend during your time at the company but they are important. If you’re starting with other people you’ll likely take part in the same training as them, say hello and ask a few questions. I still remember many of the people I attended inductions with with even though we’re scattered across the departments (and in some case companies).
You’ll also likely be given your computer and be expected to set it up. Focus on things like email, calendars, and whatever IM program the company is using. Over time you will also need to connect to your team’s source control repositories and install your development tools but I’d often recommend waiting until you’re guided on this. It can be quite easy to get it wrong which can cause more challenges than simply asking for some support. Be careful about installing software you’re not authorised to do so – always check with your manager before installing something if you’re not sure if it’s allowed on work hardware.
Make sure you know what to do if you’re sick on your second day (I hope you won’t be) but it help to be prepared. It often helps to get your manager’s phone number if you don’t already have it.
It’s fair to say that first days can be a little overwhelming so wanting to get a second opinion I asked a colleague of mine, Lizzie who joined our department last year as a junior engineer. She said
Most all all try to relax. You’ve worked very hard to get this job and you should be very proud you’re there. Focus on building relationships with the people in your team. Be humble and be willing to learn and take advice. Because when you need help, and you will need it, it will be those people who will support you.
What are you most nervous about when you start at a new company? What do you wish you’d known before you started? Drop me a message on Twitter or post your questions below.
I like to think of myself as prolific reader. I set myself the goal of twenty one books this year (very conservative for me because I’m not getting lunchtimes in the office to crack open a book) however at the time of writing I’m already up to 9 books and am expecting to have another two finished before the end of the week.
If you’ve read my post on Personal KPIs you’ll have seen that I track my goals to provide visual encouragement, but also an early warning if I’m running behind. Here’s my reading graph:
I believe reading is one of the most important habits any adult can develop. There are millions of books out there with valuable information and contrasting ideas which will stretch you and force you to make a decision. There are books on every conceivable subject and (just in case you needed any more motivation) they’re a fantastic way to unplug and relax.
However, before I go any further let me tell you a joke.
One day a chicken walks into a library, a little surprised the librarian asks how he can help and the chicken replies (perhaps not unexpectedly) "Book!". The librarian passes a widely recommended book which had recently been returned and passes it to the chicken who struts off. The following day the chicken returns and says to the librarian "Book book!" Deciding to humour the chicken the librarian passes the chicken two books. The third day the chicken returned once again and went up to the librarian. Ready this time when the chicken said "Book, book, book..." the librarian hands the chicken three books. Curious now the librarian follows the visitor, determined to find out what was going on and where the chicken was going. As they rounded the corner to a quiet part of the library the chicken strode up to a frog and placed the books on the table. The frog sighed, looked at the books and said "Read it, Read it, Read it..."
Maybe it works better when you read it out loud?
The point of the joke is this. Don’t be a frog! Your job is not simply to read books and say “Read It” over and over again. Reading isn’t about bragging, it’s about expanding your knowledge. Always make notes, scribble some ideas you have while you’re reading the books, non-fiction ones at least. Otherwise you’re simply being a frog. The authors of the books are trying to convey information to you – try to take at least one action from each book you read and use it.
Back to the orginal question. How to absorb so many books, especially given a full time job and a hectic lockdown home time?
The answer is two fold. Audiobooks and Playback speed.
A lot of people have a snobbery around audiobooks. In the same way many people say that reading off an e-reader isn’t as good as a real book. However, I’d ask you – if you had the choice of waiting until you could pick up a paper book or listening to a pre-recorded version while you’re doing the washing up or driving somewhere which would you rather do? I do read physical books and on my kindle too, but the vast majority are audiobooks. There are many providers but personally I’m a huge fan of audible, if you don’t like the book you can simply return it. You can’t ask much fairer than that!
The second way of improving the rate at which you listen. My wife laughs at me because she says I listen to everything at “hamster speed” which I suppose I do. The first time you try to speed up the playback it is really hard to follow what’s going on but, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you catch up. Try adding going to 1.2x and then a few days later 1.4x and so on. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can get up to 2.0x and even 2.5x. For quite a while I resisted this, I didn’t want to rush my absorbtion of the books or my enjoyment of the fiction. However, honestly, if I listen to something now at 1.0x times it sounds like the narrator is drunk, speaking slowly, and slurring.
Do you listen to audiobooks? Do you use audible or another supplier? What speeds do you listen to and why? Comment below and don’t forget to follow the blog for future updates.
An unfortunate part of any interview process is rejection. Unless you’re very lucky you’re going to be turned away from more opportunities than you’re offered. Especially when you’re trying to make a particuarly large leap – such as the one from student to professional.
In an attempt to gather some good advice for people who have been rejected from a role I reached out to my LinkedIn network. Not because of any lack of experience on my part but because there are probably people out there who handle it better than I do (seriously the sulking isn’t a good look for anyone).
If you’re on LinkedIn (and if you’re not I strongly recommend you join) then have a read of the question here. However, I wanted to capture some of the advice I got in this post.
I used to work with Kurt and he’s a good guy. He’s also a DevOps evangalist and hired lots of people himself. I think this is great advice, we’re in an industry where we gather feedback and respond accordingly. Why not do this with your own career? Listen to what the feedback was from the company, look at any weaknesses they highlight and use them to drive your next stage of learning. Kurt wasn’t the only person to stress the importance of taking feedback on board.
I’ve worked with Simone before and she really knows her stuff. She also understands that sometimes it can be very difficult to seperate clients and sometimes it comes down to things like team fit and how they performed on a single question in the interview. Not every rejection is a huge blow, you never know just how close you were to getting that offer. Don’t get disheartened!
Philip echoed this sentiment. Sometimes it’s the smallest things which seperate the successful candidate and the ones who were rejected. Don’t assume that you were nowhere near because you may have very well been a close second.
However, I’ll leave you with an optimistic idea from Nick. He says:
I’ve spent a lot time reading about daily habits and routines recently. Both Atomic Habits and Routine Machine strongly advocate spending a small amount of time each day to contribute towards your larger goals. I like the idea, after all as an agile geek I fully support the importance of transparency. Otherwise, how can we expect to inspect and adapt?
I mentioned some of my 2021 goals recently. Some of these are perfect examples where I must display if not daily, then weekly behaviour if I’m going to hit them. Donuts and Dragons isn’t going to write itself, I need to put words on the page day after day. My reading goal isn’t magically going to happen, I need to spend a little time each morning listening to audible or perhaps reading in the evening.
To this end I’m experimenting with a Personal KPI spreadsheet. In this spreadsheet I’m tracking various KPIs such as “Donuts Words Written” and “Time Reading”. I’m also tracking various KPIs around health and daily routine. Am I hitting Inbox Zero every day?
My spreadsheet gives me a daily score, however most beneficial I believe will be the weekly rolling averages. I don’t have to write a blog post every day, however I aim to write at least three a week. I don’t have to listen to my audiobooks every morning but I do want to make sure I’m listening for an appropriate time each week to hit my quarterly targets.
It may seem like overkill, but I’m hoping that this mechanism will help me stay on track for some of the big goals I’ve set myself this year.
What do you think? Is this overly complex for personal goals? Do you have a similar mechanism and how did it work for you? Let me know in the comments below!