Two “Magic Rules” for Achieving Great Things

Ok, I lie – but it got your attention.

This week I want to talk about the two most important rules you can follow if you want to deliver great work and hit goals. Regardless of whether they’re software projects, books you want to write, or exams you want to pass. They are utterly underwhelming…

Rule 1: Start doing it

Rule 2: Keep doing it until you finish

There you go, I told you they were underwhelming!

However, I want to go a little deeper (otherwise this would be a very short post).

Failure to start is one of the biggest reasons people don’t do things. How many times have you planned to do something one evening only to get home and fail to do it? The reason (according to James Clear in his book Atomic Habits) is because it takes energy and effort to start doing things. Far too often our brains follow a pre-programmed pattern to avoid decision fatigue. Do you want to go running tonight or watch television? What do you need to do to start running? You’ll need to get changed, then you’ll need to find your trainers, then you’ll need to actually do the running… oh, and then there’s the shower. But the TV remote is just there.

In his book James describes ways to reduce the friction required to take on these individual habits and actions and make them easier to do day to day. I do this myself. I want to listen to audiobooks each day, so I leave my headphones by the side of my bed so they’re the first thing I pick up each morning. If you want to go for a run after work then put your kit on your bed before you leave in the morning – or even better put it on before you leave the office so it’ll actually be more effort not to go for a run than it will be to just get out the door!

Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

Once you’ve got started that’s a huge step forward. But a single run doesn’t make you fit. A thousand words doesn’t make a book. So how do you keep that momentum going day after day to make progress until the work is done?

The first step is to understand what “Done” is. Is there a done? If it’s about fitness then you may be looking for a particular weight or time, but you may also be looking to maintain. If you’re building a product you may be looking for a number of active users. Just like in product management and software development we should always be clear about what we want to accomplish before we set off. We can evolve that view, but it helps to act as a beacon.

This leads directly into the motivation question. If we understand our objective we can track our progress towards it. Visibly seeing our progress towards a concrete goal is a very powerful motivational tool (as well as the other benefits of transparency and adaptibility). Burn up charts for your personal goals may seem like overkill, but they’re really not.

Here’s my burn up chart for my reading goal (you can see I actually made the goal far more ambitious because I was doing so well).

You can see I’m doing something similar with my cloud computing exams. This one isn’t going so well, and what am I going to do about it? Revalidate the goal, recalculate the effort and expectations, and then really myself. As with all things agile create transparency, inspect, and adapt.

I know this post started a little tongue in cheek but hopefully it helps and has provided some valuable tools to meet your own goals. Don’t forget, start… and then continue until you are done!

A Talk about Goals

I was recently lucky enough to give a talk about Goals at the Hainton’s Community Group (currently online). Rather than doing a blog post this week I thought you’d enjoy this.

.A huge thank you to Tom and the team at Hainton as well as the participants for coming along and listening to me. It was really exciting to hear what people had planned and how they were getting on.

What goals are you planning? Drop me a message or comment below!

What I’ve Learned Since Writing Code Black

Last year I finished wirint Code Black and published it on LeanPub. It wasn’t an easy challenge, although I enjoy wiriting I’ve never written a technical book before and had never really self published anything.

This week I wanted to share some of the lessons learned since writing the book which I took into my current project Donuts and Dragons.

Lesson 1 – You’re going to sell a lot fewer copies than you think you are! I had plans of the book becoming a runaway best seller, and to be honest I’ve genuinely been overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve recieved (even some suggestions I should enter it into competitions). However, I’m still working as a Dev Manager and have no plans of retiring and living off the royalties just yet.

Lesson 2 – Scheduling a “writing day” doesn’t work. Firstly, it’s too much to expect yourself to write for 8 hours straight. Second, if something cancels that day then you’ve lost a lot of potential words. The best way to write is to a schedule. When writing D&D I set myself a goal of about 500 words every week day. The book doesn’t appear overnight, it appears incrementally and inevitably.

Lesson 3 – Plan what you’re going to write. Maybe this comes down to personal style? Or maybe it’s because both of my books are trying to teach rather than just entertain but I would have got completely lost if I hadn’t had my trusty outline. Procrastination occurs most often when you don’t know what you’re going to write, having a plan – even a high level one makes it easier to hit that word goal.

Lesson 4 – Be proud of what you’ve done. When I first released Code Black I found myself belittling it. When someone said “Adam’s written a book” I’d say something like “Yeah, but it’s only a self publish.” or “Yeah, but it’s not sold many copies.” Don’t put yourself down, you wrote a book. That’s amazing, it’s something millions of people want to do but few ever actually succeed. Don’t you dare undermine what you’ve done.

Lesson 5 – You’ll want to write another one. Writing a book is a lot like doing a marathon. At the time you’ll swear blind that you never want to do it again. Then your mind starts ticking and you starting having those ideas and before you know it you’ll be developing characters and outlines again. Why not!? You’re an author now!

Oh, and something a lot of people ask me what has been my proudest moment since publishing it? That one easy – when Gene Kim bought a copy!

There’s a certain irony that the characters in my book read The Phoenix Project, I do hope he smiled at that.

Have you written a book? Tech or otherwise – please share it with me, I love to read what other people have done!

Radical Candor Book Review

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott is a book I’ve been aware of for a while but haven’t actually got around to reading.

I was expecting lots of information about giving feedback but I was pleasantly surprised that there was a lot more in there than that.

Scott discusses that to be great leaders and team members we must both care personally and challenge directly. Without these two qualities we fall into one of three other quadrants.

Feedback & Radical Candor | Our Simple Approach To Guidance

People who care but don’t challenge fall into Ruinous Empathy. These are the people who won’t tell a friend that they’re unzipped because they’re afraid of the conversation. They’d rather let their friend continue to embaress themselves rather than push themselves out of their comfort zone.

People who don’t care personally are split into one of two categories. If they do challenge but don’t do it with someone elses best interests at heart then they display obnoxious agression. Or, simply put are just jerks. If they don’t challenge then they see what they could do to improve and don’t do anything to help them. This is manimulative insincerity.

Scott teaches us that we must always strive to give direct feedback to people we work with because we care about their success and their feelings. She also discusses lots of ways to do that.

I’d been expecting much of this content before I started the book but what delighted me was the actionable advice on how to go about this. I want you to read (or listen) to the book so I won’t give it all away here (plus, you know, plagurism). Suffice it to say that if you do now feel you should give feedback there are lots of tips in there to help.

But this is just for managers right?

Wrong!

Kim discusses that everyone should feel they can give feedback. Peer feedback is one of the most valuable thing we can give, it shows we care about our colleagues.

So, would I recommend it. Absolutely – go and have a read. Stop being ruinously empathetic today and start supporting your friends and colleagues directly!

Four Productivity Apps I Couldn’t Do Without

Over the last year I’ve invested time in trialing and adopting apps which help my productivity. In this post I’m going to share them and explain why I believe they’re invaluable.

Todoist

Todoist is an easy to use and intuitive TODO list application which supports projects, due dates, reminders, tags, and filters. It’s easy to use and syncs effortlessly across devices. I use it for everything from management work projects to keeping track of shopping lists and birthday presents.

The premium version unlocks additional features and it is well worth the money.

However, be aware downloading Todoist is enough to organise yourself. No tool can do that if you don’t have a system in place. I strongly recommend having a look at

Todoist: The to do list to organize work & life

Forest

Forest is an app which encourages you to put down your phone. I’ve written about it before and continue to use it. You can set how much time you’d like to “lock” your phone for and if you pick up before then your tree will die. Planning trees leads to gold which you can use to purchase more tree designs in the store or even plant trees in real life!

Braintoss

I started using this app this week and I’m really impressed. The premise is incredibly simple, the app records a quick message and then emails the text to the email address of your choice. Install on your watch and configure to the email of your Todoist inbox for a really effective way to record notes wherever you are and drop them right into your digital in tray!

Audible

Again, Audible shouldn’t be a surpise to anyone who’s read some of my recent blog posts. Listen to audiobooks while you’re driving or doing housework for a really effective way to consume books you wouldn’t ordinary have time to read. Especially if you practice building up your speed until you can listen in hamster mode!

Audible free trial: what's included and how to get Audible free | TechRadar

And A Setting for Luck

Chances are your phone has a time limiter built in already, configure this to limit access to those time sync apps to 30 minutes each day. Being asked if you really want to spend your fourth hour on Facebook (or social network of choice) really is a great way to get you off your phone!

Screen Time - Restrain yourself & parent control - Apps on Google Play

What are your favourite productivity apps? Do you use any which aren’t on my list?

Scrum Alliance or Scrum.org?

This is a question I get a lot, what are Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org and which is “best”? The truth is there is no best, both have different certifications and a different business model. In this post I want to explain the differences between the two and help you decide which to choose.

Scrum.org & Scrum Alliance Compared - TheScrumMaster.co.uk

Let’s start with what they do. Both Scrum.org and Scrum Alliance offer training courses and certifications for Scrum Masters and Agile Professionals. Both offer a variety of courses for Product Owners, Engineers, and other professions but in this post I’ll focus purely on the scrum masters.

You can think of these organisations like Exam Boards, if you pass their exam you get a certificate which you can present to any employer and it will prove that you have a certain level of scrum knowledge. You can also show the badges off to your friends and family but personally I’d recommend against that. I spent half an hour explaining to my mum that a Scrum Master had nothing to do with Dungeons and Dragons…

Both organisations offer three levels of Scrum Master certification. For Scrum Alliance these are the Certified Scrum Master (CSM), the Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM), and Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master (or CSP-SM). Scrum.org offers the Professional Scrum Master levels 1, 2, and 3 (more commonly known as PSM-I, PSM-II, and PSM-III).

Personally I hold the CSM from Scrum Alliance as well as the PSM-I and PSM-II from Scrum.org.

Where these organisations differ is in how they go about granting the certificates. Scrum Alliance require you to attend a training course organised by a certified trainer. The prices of these vary depending on whether they are being held remotely or in person, which country they are being held in, and the level of the course. Typically in the UK you will pay around £700 for a remote course and £2000 for an in person one. Obviously the trainer then pays a fee onto Scrum Alliance. Once you have completed the course you will be sent a link to take the exam on Scrum Alliance’s website. If you pass (the pass mark is 37/50 questions) you’ll be awarded your certificate.

Scrum.org also offer training courses. However, their courses are not a prerequisite to taking the exam. Personally I have never done a Scrum.org course, I simply logged onto the website and purchased the exam token. These vary slightly depending on level but the PSM-I exam is $150 dollars.

It is also worth noting that Scrum Alliance certificates expire and you will either need to attend another course or pay (about £30 I believe) to renew it every couple of years. Scrum.org certificates do not expire.

The next most obvious question is which is easier!? There is a general feeling that the Scrum.org exams are a little more challenging, however I’ve never seen any data to back this up. Personally I scored a couple of percent higher on the Scrum.org exam than the Scrum Alliance one however not enough to state clearly. If you’re looking for a simple answer on which one would be easier to achieve or which holds more market value then I can’t give that. I would say however that the PSM-II (and I assume the A-CSM) covers significantly more ground than the PSM-I and asks questions based drawn from personal knowledge rather than simply knowing the subject matter. There is a distinct step up in difficulty and, although I’ve never taken it I wouldn’t be surprised if the PSM-III was far more challenging again.

So there you have it, all the differences that I’m aware of between the two organisations. If you’re looking for a taught course with a certificate at the end then Scrum Alliance may be for you. If you’re interested in self study and funding then Scrum.org may be the better alternative however I’ve found that both are extremely high quality certificates.

Measure What Matters Book Review

I’ve had this book for a while and it finally reached the top of my Audible list. Measure What Matters has intrigued me for a while, especially as I am focusing on setting and meeting goals at the moment.

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the  World with Okrs: Amazon.co.uk: 9780525536222: Books

I have to confess to being a little disappointed. At it’s core the book discusses OKRs, a kind of public goal which does a very nice job of splitting out the goal and the actionable tasks required to complete it. Visibility creates transparency to make sure no teams are duplicating effort or conflicting priorities, they also allow people to assist each other in meeting their goals.

So far so good, I didn’t have a problem with any of that.

However, the majority of the book was a list of testamonials from the author’s long list of supporters. It was genuinely interesting to see how the technique has been applied to everything from IBM to U2. But I’m really not sure wheeling out the famous and successful was really needed (in the audiobook many of them actually contributed their parts). It felt more like a sales pitch of OKRs rather than a practical guide of implementing them.

I kept finding myself expecting the next chapter to be a “How to get started with OKRs in your business.” but alas, it never came.

Enlightening by adding a new way to think about goals, however disappointing because although I’m intrigued I feel far from equipped to take advantage of the concept.

Do you agree? Have you read Measure What Matters? What did you think?

Personal Swimlanes

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

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 is not about getting fired.

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

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.

1:1s are a great way to get feedback from your boss on what’s going well and where you need to improve.

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?

Eat That Frog Book Review

I recently read Eat That Frog, a personal productivity guide by Brian Tracy.

Eat That Frog is a personal productivity book full of tips.

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.

Have you read Eat That Frog? What did you think?