Before diving head-first in to 2016, I want to look back a year and look forward a bit less than that. It’s said, “The days go by so slowly, and the years go by so fast,” and I see evidence of that when reflecting over a timeline of at least as long as a year
This was my 2015:
Changes at work
Since about mid-2013, at my dayjob I’ve been the nominal, non-supervisory team lead for what was once called our “Release Management” team and is now called “Software Delivery” team. It’s grown considerably since its inception, both in terms of people and breadth of responsibility.
When I took the lead role in 2013, it was a team of 2 and grew to about 5 by the end of the year. At the start of 2015, the team numbered 11 people.
The biggest change for me over the past, say, 1.5 years, has been accepting that successfully leading a team of this size cannot mean “Individual Contributor ++”. I no longer measure my performance by my own productivity, but instead on whether my team members are growing, making meaningful progress on important, fulfilling work in service of organizational and individual goals. It’s been a seismic shift for me, wholly uncomfortable. All growth is.
A correspondent change has been more attention to influence outside my immediate team. It’s difficult without any formal authority, but it’s not impossible. Building relationships with others outside your immediate vertical is critical to enabling your and other teams to doing their best work. Probably not surprising that this has been the greatest source of frustration for me this year; but gains in this area are sometimes the most meaningful. I’ll continue to work to improve here in 2016.
I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished and excited about what’s coming up.
Books and other learning
The two most meaningful professional books for me this year were Lean Enterprise and Tribal Leadership. I credit Lean Enterprise with helping me rethink how we do projects at work, and it led directly to a significant early-stage pivot on one project (more on that later) that is one of my proudest work-related contributions of 2015. I credit Tribal Leadership with helping me rethink how relationships work on successful teams.
I strongly recommend both.
In addition, I listened to all episodes published up to the end of 2015 of Revolutions Podcast. These episodes covered the English, American, and French revolutions. What a thrill!
Subsequent to the French Revolution, I re-read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which I encountered first in high school. Fantastic.
Related: this is the 2nd book in 2 years I’ve re-read with a span of 15+ years since the first reading, the other being Siddhartha. I’m discovering that one of the joys of aging is revisiting past treasures but with more experience and, one hopes, wisdom. It’s a blessing to encounter great books when young enough to be wide-eyed about the world and old enough to appreciate them; and a double-blessing to revisit them.
For the 3rd year in a row, I failed miserably to spend all of my dayjob’s generous training allowance. Still, I managed two conferences: VelocityConf 2015 in Santa Clara, and DevOpsDays DC.
This is my second VelocityConf, and the content was as expected spectacular. However, I’m starting to question the value proposition for an East Coaster like me to take two 13-hour travel days for a two-day conference. If I attend in the future, I’ll stick with New York.
I took notes on sessions I attended.
DevOpsDays DC was phenomenal. Considering the cost ($100), I can hardly imagine a more valuable 2-day conference. I was kind of dubious about the open spaces, but I was sold after the first session. I met great people and had great conversations about topics I care deeply about. I’m a fan.
I started the year with a lightning talk at work on “How Organizations Learn”, with a focus on learning from failure. This presentation is one in a series of years-long, persistent nudges in my organization toward a more deliberate approach to dealing with failure, and I’m proud to see some results. We’ve been doing production incident post-mortems, to some small degree, for a while, but not so much on the larger project level. I’m seeing gains there. My mantra on organizational learning is: “If the lessons aren’t shared, then the organization hasn’t really learned anything”. Another way to phrase it is: “‘I learned’ does not equal ‘we learned'”.
After taking 2 years off from conference presentations, I got back on the horse this year and presented at DevOpsDays DC (Video | Slides/Notes). This presentation was the story of applying some of the lessons from Lean Enterprise to a project at work, mentioned above. I think it’s a good story and I invite you to watch.
Enough about work, for now.
In 2015, our family took in a fair bit of live entertainment.
We saw a Cinderella ballet and Chinese National Acrobats. For the former, my daughters were freaked out by the tight leotards (kids these days); the latter was a stunning testament to the talent of humans. Jaw-dropping. My 12yo daughter and I saw a Frank Sinatra tribute performance, now that she’s declared herself Sinatra’s biggest fan.
My wife and I saw David Sedaris, who was funny.
We also saw Justin Townes Earle and Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. The latter was my musical highlight for the year. Though Bela Fleck is one of the most accomplished banjo players ever, I was blown away by Abigail Washburn. She’s a consummate performer, both in terms of banjo ability and stage presence.
Finally, I crossed seeing Primus off the bucket list. They did about an hour of their classic material and an hour of their new Chocolate Factory stuff. Totally awesome and creepy.
This year, my wife and I celebrated 15 years of marriage (yay us), and we honored it with an October trip to Maui for 10 days.
It was, in short, the trip of a lifetime. Aside from simply relaxing and growing closer, we did a bunch of stuff, too: snorkeling, jumping off Black Rock, zip-lining, sunrise on Mt Haleakala and bike-riding from Haleakala to Paia, the Road to Hana, ridiculous and fun dinner theater Luau emceed by a guy I affectionately referred to as Luau Don King.
I started and ended the year with cold bike rides, and mostly rode year-found, which was new for me. I put somewhere between 2 and 3k miles on the bike this year, far below what I had hoped but far more than previous years. I did 1 century and a bunch of metric centuries, including 2 self-supported ones which was my big cycling goal for the year.
That said, I was inexplicably beset by thigh cramps on long rides this year, with the severest resulting in total leg lock during one of the metrics. A former Army medic, bless his soul, stopped and helped.
I attribute most of these problems to improper ride nutrition, suboptimal bike fit (now corrected), and some degree of absence of conditioning. In addition, this leads to:
I started meditating more regularly in November of 2014, and one of my 2015 goals was to make meditation stick. I did so-so with this until the summer, when the cycling leg cramps led me to modify my meditation routine and practice.
This probably violates all manner of strict meditation rules, but I started using my 20 minutes of meditation for stretching, and since then I’ve both more consistently meditated and haven’t cramped since. Win-win.
I started using Headspace, which I like, with a focus on relationships and kindness. I’d like to think it’s helped me be more empathetic in difficult situations.
So, yeah, I try to spend 20 minutes stretching and thinking about being kind.
Perhaps a day will come when I can sit and meditate for meditation’s sake. Right now, though, the motivator is the feel and physical benefit of stretching.
Plateaus and un-met goals
I fell short in several important-to-me areas for 2015.
First, I hoped to drop about 20 pounds but instead ended up gaining weight.
Second, I didn’t improve my performance at all on the bike, even with the additional miles. This is a total rookie move… it was all riding, but no training.
Third, I made zero progress on the banjo this year. Again, I played, but I didn’t improve.
I have all manner of reasons for this, but when I started to become concerned later in 2015 about my absence of improvement, I focused on one keystone change I could make in my life that would, I hoped, help:
In November, 2015, I decided to take an extended break from alcohol. The whys, hows, and consequences are enough for a series of posts. Ultimately, though, it came down to a desire to be more present in my own life.
Spend enough time in tech culture, and you’ll readily observe how alcohol permeates it. I hesitated to even mention it here because, strangely, abstaining can be seen as some weird stigma. But life’s too short for worrying about that, so if I can serve as a model by acknowledging that alcohol wasn’t doing any favors, and I decided to take action, so be it.
Breaking past “Expert Beginner”
When I was young, I spent hours most days riding my bike.
In Will Smith’s words, they were hours and hours and hours of beating on my craft. Learning, executing, and perfecting new tricks is the closest I’ve ever been to pure joy in this life, excepting the birth of my children.
Over the past few years, though, I notice that when it comes to learning, I get stuck at Expert Beginner stage. Or, whether it’s real or imagined, it feels that way. I get far enough with something to be competent at it, and then plateau. I see this manifested directly in how I spend my time, and while I think it’d be worth spending a lot more words in another post on this topic, I’ll sum it up here:
For me, a result of moving from a maker’s schedule to a manager’s schedule has been a near absence of time for getting into flow. My work calendar is this swiss-cheesy thing, with days being broken up between meetings, 1:1s, and small odds and ends, leaving no long, uninterrupted blocks of time for diving deep on any one thing. I’ve referred to it as a “fast food schedule”, because it can be filling but not always nutritious.
I see the most insidious effects of this in my decision-making on how to spend the 30-60 minute chunks of empty space that do come up. Rather than start or continue something difficult and fulfilling, I’ll often choose something that I know I can complete in that time, because it has become emotionally and damn-near-physically painful for me to try to start something and then have it drag out over days and weeks because the schedule does not accommodate significant near-term progress.
Now, apply that to the banjo: given a 30 minute chunk of time at home, should I start learning this new ditty that’s played so fast and whose notes I can barely pick out, knowing full well that to really get it will mean hours spent listening to the song at half-tempo, and then practicing and practicing and practicing until maybe a few weeks or a month from now — in 30 minute increments — it’s going to sound somewhat like it should? Or should I just practice something I already know because at least that feels a bit satisfying?
Spread that kind of decision-making over the course of a year, and it’s easy to see how you can do a thing for a long time without growing at it. It’s an unsatisfying way to live.
I see this pattern too much in my life, and I will break it. I refuse to live a life of the same year of experience, over and over. It starts today.
Discovering what’s next
Not much in life is certain, but here’s something: In 2016, my job is guaranteed to change (this is good!). The change may be small (same role, but official) or significant (new role? new org?). Regardless of outcome, discovering what’s next is exhilarating.
Remember the kindness meditation I talked about way back when? Well… this is one reason I started with that theme. I’ve been bracing myself for this change for quite some time, and come what may, I’ll face it with optimism, grace, and gratitude.
- Rediscover the joy of deep learning and deliberate improvement in all areas of life
- Continue building relationships and deriving joy from helping others do kick-ass work
- Continue working on being the best dad and husband I can be, which are the greatest privileges of my life