Entries in sxsw (6)

Sunday
Mar242013

It's been a blast, now time for the next challenge

Note: I've been reflecting on my time off during the past few months and found it useful to write a few things down. This was a helpful way for me to collect my thoughts and didn't initially intend to share them but it was suggested by a couple of people that I post them online. It may be interesting, or maybe not!

I've broken it down into my past work (application, webby stuff); my time off (music, travelling stuff, occasional tipple of bourbon); and thoughts on the future (what I'd like to do next) so that you can skip the bits you're not interested in.

On the 17th of September I made a pretty big decision. I decided it was time for me to move on from my job at BT and find a new challenge. I was at BT for ten years and that's a long time to be at one place, although in a company the size of BT it's easy to move around and try different things and each time feeling as though you're joining somewhere new.

Deciding to hand in my notice turned out to be much easier than I thought it might have been. It had been a little while coming so certainly not on a whim, I decided on a Friday night that it was time, gave myself the Saturday to not think about anything work related and then re-thought about it on the Sunday - that evening I wrote my resignation letter and the following day met with my manager to talk through my decision.

From the point of handing in my notice I've not had a single thought of doubt about the decision. Plenty of people have questioned me as to whether I was making the right choice, and each conversation left me more and more convinced that it was the right thing to do. I was asked probably one hundred times that week what I'd be doing next, and I didn't have an answer. I knew a lot about what I didn't want to be doing but much less than what I did want to do.

I was fortunate that personal circumstances allowed me to take some time out, I booked a trip to the US to see friends (and make new ones), unwind and clear my head. That adventure is now over and it's time to move onto the next challenge.

The past...


When I first started working with BT I had no idea what I wanted to do. I'd been to college and studied computer science, human biology, sports science and maths. I'd planned to go to university but a mix up with my UCAS application and a college tutor mentor who went AWOL meant a bunch of applications (mine included) were never sent. I found out too late and decided to take a year out to earn some money and re-apply the following year.

I'd qualified as a personal trainer and massage therapist and joined a company who promoted healthy working within large organisations and was given some clients - Rolls Royce, Reuters, BUPA and BT. The part of BT (Carrier Services & Solutions at the time, now BT Wholesale) that I was working with had a hugely different atmosphere to all my other clients. They'd taken on a big intake of university graduates, recently moved to new offices in Three Bridges, West Sussex where the majority of people were co-located. There was a big social element to working there - everyone worked hard but also had a lot of fun.

A year of getting people fit and healthy flew by pretty quickly and I started thinking that I ought to consider what I wanted to do. Someone suggested to me that joining BT might be a good thing. Being young and having had a year of earning some money the prospect of going to university and being a student again had lost some of its appeal. I knew and liked the people at BT, and that they were working on some really cools things (this was just at the advent to Broadband becoming a thing) so I decided to give working at BT a go!

Understanding your users

My first role at BT was on the technical support team for a CRM application. There was a lot of repetitive work, picking up and closing off trouble tickets. This was a new world to me so the repetition and nature of the trouble tickets being on average 15-30 minute fixes meant I was able to learn quickly about the application and how it was being used. Something thats stuck with my from that role is that regardless of level a good place to start a new job is spending some time solely working on trouble tickets or bug lists. My manager at the time, a guy named Dave Maxwell, suggested that it might be useful to do some analysis on the types of tickets being raised. He and I spent time manually trawling through historic tickets categorising them into groups. After removing all the one-off issues we found that the majority of tickets sat in three groups:

  1. people trying to do something that the application wasn't designed to do
  2. people doing things that the application was designed to do, but in the 'wrong way'
  3. actual application errors/conflicts

We broke these down into further sub-groups and I was asked to present findings of our analysis to the application steering group - a mixture of senior stakeholders, external consultants and project managers. They were surprised at some of our findings and asked me to join the steering group as a "user representative" to help form requirements for future application builds. Through this role I learnt (and fully recognised later on) the importance of understanding the user, seeing how what you've built is being used in reality and factoring the learning back into application development. At the time though it mostly just felt fun to be a part of helping to design something new.

Learning about agile

Over the next year I worked more closely with users both on the internal sales/service side and external customer side. This allowed me to see how the application I cared about fitted into the bigger picture - how sales opportunities turned into actual orders, how those orders were fulfilled on other systems and then fed back into the CRM application. At the time there was a lot of focus around moving customer applications away from deployed thick clients and putting them onto the web. This fascinated me and I spent as much time as I could working with the 'online team' to learn about what they were doing. After a while an opportunity came up to join that team and I moved across with a remit of managing the development of web applications for order fulfilment and fault tracking user journeys.

My new role allowed me to spend even more of my time split between users and the developer teams. I'd spend time at customer meetings, forums and workshops observing the discussions and listening to the issues they faced. I'd then play back what I'd learnt to the team and we'd come up with potential solutions. This is before I was aware of what agile was and one of our biggest downfalls was that we'd take a real customer problem, identify a great solution, get the buy-in from the users and business ...and then go away build it in isolation. We'd come back with what we'd promised to deliver but by then priorities of users had inevitably changed and usage wasn't as expected.

A while later a particular problem came via one customer who was being very vocal. After meeting with the customer one of he design team suggested that we ought run the project in an agile fashion. This was new to me but the more that he explained the more sense it made. Funding was already in place for the year so that was one challenge out the way, however there were three obstacles that we had to overcome:

  1. Getting a real customer to agree to work more closely with us than they usually would and be willing to use and feedback on an 'in progress' application
  2. Getting everyone co-located - the dev team were in Mumbai, the designers in Pune, the customer and I were in London
  3. Being able to find an environment where we could drop code frequently and outside of the standard 90-day release cycle

Thankfully those obstacles were overcome and the only compromise made was around everyone being co-located - I spent sometime in Mumbai with the design/dev team and we held regular video conferences with the customer. As we moved through the sprints I quickly learnt that setting the right expectations was particularly important with agile deliveries. Users were accustomed to handing over some requirements and the next thing they saw was 'finished' product. With this project we were being very open and transparent about where we were and what'd been completed. Particularly during the early sprints (each two weeks in duration) what we showed was functional but not complete and it took a bit of coaching (for all involved) to focus feedback on the right areas. As the project progressed the overall vision remained pretty consistent but certainly some of the subtleties evolved as we learnt more about was was really important.

After the success of our first agile project we were keen to use this approach for all further work, however this wasn't always easy to do. It wasn't because people were particularly reluctant or didn't see the benefit, but rather they were tied into practises and processes that had been in place for many years and were hard to circumnavigate. At my position in the organisation I had little influence over changing this.

Being open and following standards

Thankfully I was introduced to a part of BT called Osmosoft. Osmosoft was a company owned by Jeremy Ruston and subsequently acquired by BT with the primary purpose of helping the organisation understand more about open source, open standards and better working practises. They did this by splitting their time between running an open source project called TiddlyWiki and then later TiddlySpace whilst simultaneously delivering web based solutions for internal BT users and BT's customers. Meeting with the team was a breathe of fresh air and I jumped at the chance to join them!

I joined Osmosoft as their Community Advocate which meant I was able to continue the close interaction to users that I'd enjoyed in previous roles, however the size and dynamics within Osmosoft meant I was also able to work much more closely with the developers on the team. This taught me a huge amount about what was possible on the web and the pace at which things could be achieved when done right. Working independently to the rest of the organisation we had the luxury of a great deal of autonomy. This meant that not only could we follow agile principles more closely but we also had the freedom to pick and choose the right frameworks and tools required to tackle a particular problem. This was great during development and whilst running user trials, but when it came to handing the work back over to the core business we often encountered push back due to this different way of working. I wrote a little bit about that a while ago.

I also learnt a lot about the use of standards and what make The Web important. Everyone on the team influenced this learning but none more so than Paul Downey (aka @psd) and his awesome 'The Web Is Agreement' uber-doodle!

Joining the leadership team

A 18 months of so after joining Osmosoft there'd been some changes within the team, various people had decided to pursue opportunities outside of BT, including Jeremy. There were also senior supporters of Osmosoft who'd moved on from BT. This left some uncertainty around the future of the team. Thankfully the CEO, Clive Selley, recognised the importance of what we were doing and supported the continuation of the unit and I was asked to take on the running of the team.

With this new role came a position on the leadership team. This was a big jump up for me but the best advice I was given was to not change what I was doing and how I was doing it. As a stroke of luck at my first meeting with some of the leadership team I met someone who remembered me from my days in the gym. This made me think that whilst he may be a sharp suit, power tie wearing executive he was also just a person and that put lots of nerves at ease!

With Osmosoft having successfully delivered a number of projects I was asked to take on a new challenge. Alongside Osmosoft I was approached to set up a 2nd team and be responsible for the design and development of a new BT product in the world of supply chain management. This was a completely new proposition for BT and the timescales to get something out to market were extremely tight.

The senior stakeholders responsible for funding the launch of the product had seen the success we'd had within Osmosoft at delivering the minimal viable product for internal applications and wanted to follow the same approach for this product. They already had a real customer lined up who had bought into doing the development on their internal systems that our product would require - and for me that meant it was worth accepting the challenge!

Within the core team of the customer, the developers, product owner, and business lead we were all clear on what was needed to be delivered. However the area that caused the most headaches were when having to engage with wider communities such as the finance, legal, commercial, operations and marketing teams who's goals and measures were less about meeting the immediate known needs and more around the future longer terms aims. Ultimately, we had the right senior level backing allowing us to do things differently and a first iteration of the product got shipped and that is now generating revenue.

Decision to leave

There wasn't single particular reason why I decided to leave BT. I'd enjoyed my time there and was fortunate to be able to work in a number of teams in varying roles across the business. I was extremely conscious that 10 years is a long time to be in one place and I felt that should I stay the direction my career was likely to take would see me moving away from close interaction with users and developers, and I was pretty certain that's a place I didn't want to be heading.

The present


A quick note to potential future employers. My time off was much more rounded than this section might suggest, it just happens that a lot of the fun stuff happened to take place in dive bars across London and the US!

I handed my resignation letter on September 17th and worked an extended notice period to help ease the transition of projects that I was involved with. Right up until the last day it was pretty intense. My first day of not having a job was a weird one. I it dawned on me that for the first time since I was 18 (15 if count part-time) I didn't have a job. It took me more than a few days to stop constantly checking email and looking at my phone. Thankfully I had plenty of things planned and it wasn't too long before I was able to properly switch off and relax.

I thought I'd jot down some of the highlights. Mostly because it makes me smile when I think back over the past few months, but also because I promised a few people I've not yet caught up with that I would!

If this section needed a soundtrack then I'd pick John Moreland's, Earthbound Blues. That album got played pretty much everywhere I went. Give it a listen here, and then go buy it here!

Lucero four-night stand

About a week or so into my period of unemployment Lucero came to the UK to play a four night take over of my favourite bar in London, the Brixton Windmill. If you've talked to me about music then you'll know that they're one of my favourite bands and I've probably played you a bunch of their stuff. If you don't know who I'm talking about then hit the play button below and check them out:

If I hadn't started to relax before those four nights then I sure had by the time they were done. Each night just got better and better and by the time they were over there were some fairly sad farewells!

Lucero
Last night of Lucero at Brixton Windmill

Little Rock, Arkansas

A few days after the Lucero show's at the Windmill I was due to be heading the US. I had a travel itinerary sorted that would take me to a few places I'd not been to before. One place I'd wanted to visit was Little Rock, Arkansas. In Little Rock is a bar called the White Water Tavern and a whole bunch of my favourite bands (Lucero included) compared the Brixton Windmill to the WWT. When I was booking my flights I'd looked to see who was playing and as there was nothing listed I decided to visit on another trip some other time. ...but then on the night of the last Lucero show one of the best line ups I've seen was announced for the WWT right when I was due to be in Memphis!

Being someone who's never driven a car and also lives in London the distances between places in the US was a bit incomprehensible. Was it possible to get from Memphis to Little Rock? How would I get there? I posted something on the Facebook event page and straight away the utterly awesome Travis Hill (organiser of the event and owner of the brilliant Last Chance Records) sent me a message telling me that I should plan to go and he'd help get me to Little Rock! I didn't need to be told twice, I bought my ticket straight away.

My US trip started out with a couple of nights in Houston, before flying to Atlanta and then onto Memphis. With the help of Travis and some other folk who were attending the gig at the White Water Tavern it turned out that the easiest way from Memphis to Little Rock was by bus. I'd heard some tales about riding the Greyhound but figured it was during the day and only 140 miles. It'd be fine.

I checked out my motel in Memphis and took a taxi to the Greyhound station. On the way the taxi driver asked me whether I'd taken the Greyhound before - I told him nope. He then gave me two pieces of advice. Firstly, never hold eye contact with anyone - even the driver! And secondly, if anyone speaks to you and you have to respond the best response is simply "right on, brother" and then walk away. I don't know whether that was good advice or not but I kept it in mind.

The bus terminal in Memphis was pretty easy going. It was new and there were only about 10 people hanging around. I waited for an hour or so for the bus and when it arrived the 10 people and I formed a queue by the gate. The driver told us that Memphis was the first pick up and that Little Rock was the 2nd and from there it was going on someplace else. Perfect, a big bus (one of the new ones too) and hardly anyone on it.

When we boarded I was about the 8th person to get onto the bus and took an empty seat a few rows from the front. A couple of other people got on and sat further down the bus. And then the last person got on. He was quite a big guy, probably about three of me wide and one-and-a-half me tall! And yup, he sat in the sat right next to me - not across the aisle but right next to me, practically on my lap! At this point I probably should've just gotten up, squeezed past and sat in one of the other 40-or-so empty seats. But I figured it's only a three hour journey, it'll be fine! I put my headphones on and stared out the window.

About 15 minutes into the journey the guy next to me tapped me on the shoulder, I looked at him and he asked me "hey boy, da' you think you're pretty!?" Thinking about the taxi driver's advice I thought that a reply of "right on" wasn't going to cut it so nervously shook my head and went back to looking out the window hoping that'd be the end of it. It wasn't. About 20 minutes later he tapped me on the shoulder again, I tried to ignore it but he kept tapping. I looked back at him, "hey boy! You tryin' to be pretty!?" I managed a very nervous sounding "no" and willed the the bus to speed up whilst thoughts of Criminal Minds and CSI episodes ran through my mind! For the remainder of the journey the same line of questioning happened about 10 times, each time he said nothing else and did nothing else. When the bus pulled into Little Rock bus terminal I think that was the happiest I've been, and even happier when he stayed on the bus!

Holiday Hangout

After recovering from the bus ride it was soon time to head over to the White Water Tavern for the first night of the 'Holiday Hangout'. The gigs were taking place over three nights and were a celebration of artists related to (and friends of) Last Chance Records and Arkansas, as well as Travis Hill's birthday - it was undoubtedly the best birthday party I've ever been too! If I could've picked my perfect line up of artists I don't think I could have done any better over the three nights. There was music from (and I think I've remembered everyone):

HolidayHangOut
Micah Schnabel at the Holiday Hangout, by Carra Martin

The venue itself was uncannily similar to that of the Brixton Windmill, from the locals hanging out at the bar, the intimate environment and lack of backstage/green room area meaning that everyone hung out together. They'd also recently reopened the kitchen - if you're in the area you have to try the Double Wide (a fried bologna sandwich topped with sriracha and a fried egg)!

Over the course of the three evenings (I'd only planned to stay for two but it was too good to leave) I had an amazing time and made so many new friends many of whom I've run into since leaving Arkansas. A couple of those friends took some brilliant photo's from the weekend, you should check the photo's out: Carra Martin and Melissa Brawner.

Memphis, Tennessee

After the Holiday Hangout weekend I headed back to Memphis for a few days. I'd been given a ride back from Ben Nichols who'd suggested a bunch of things to do - record stores to check out, BBQ to eat and the Museum of American Soul. Due to the impromptu visit to Little Rock I only had a couple of nights in Memphis but being based in mid-town gave me a good starting point for the day and a good end point for the evenings and I pretty much managed to squeeze in everything that I wanted to do.

On the first night I took the obligatory walk down Beale Street, the temperature had suddenly dropped (it had gone from being warm enough to sit outdoors at 1am to being so cold my phone stopped working!). Beale Street looked like it could be a fun with a group but the people hassling you at the doors to come in for an $8 beer put me off, plus there was another bar a few blocks away that I wanted to check out. If you in downtown Memphis you have to check out Earnestine and Hazel's (531 S Main St) and if you're a Lucero fan it's opposite Arcade Restaurant.

When I arrived at Earnestine and Hazel's there were about three people sat along the long bar, I grabbed a seat and order myself a bottle of Ghost River, a local golden ale and a Soul Burger. I knew a bit about the history of the bar and when the bar tender asked where I was from he was more than happy to pull up a stool and give me the full history. Everything from it's past as a pantaze drug store, the building's life as a former brothel, and the place where the likes of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Albert King and a whole bunch of Stax musicians would hang out at. Finishing the story he asked if I wanted to take a look around upstairs, probably something that all tourists coming to town do! He handed me a key and pointed me in the direction of the back stair case. Upstairs was a long corridor, walls covered in flaking paint and dimly lit red lighting. It looked as though nothing had changed since the days of the 60s. I had a wander around but it was seriously eery and didn't hang about too long. Plus I needed another Soul Burger before closing time!

Upstairs at Earnestine & Hazel's
Upstairs at Earnestine & Hazel's

The next day the weather had picked up and I had a wander about mid-town stopping off at Sun Studio's. The place is tiny but if you're in town and have time for the 30-40 minute tour then it's definitely worth it. The history of the studio is amazing. From the recording of the first rock 'n' roll song, Rocket 88, through to the early Elvis Presley tracks, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins. A whole load of my record collection was made there and it felt pretty cool to be in the studio. Later in the evening I happened to sit next to a couple of people in a bar who worked at the studio, one was a tour guide and the other an engineer. It was clear how much they love the place and offered to give me an extended tour the next day, unfortunately I'd be heading out of town.

Sun Studio #nofilter
Sun Studio

After the Sun tour I headed over to the Museum of American Soul. It was a bit of a distance from where I was so I ended up taking a taxi, I happened to get the same cab driver who'd taken me to the Greyhound station a few days before. We had a good chat and he told me some hilarious stories of when he was a driver for Ray Charles. On the way to the museum he asked if I was hungry, I'd not eaten so he suggested BBQ. He turned the taxi meter off and took me to Payne's Bar-B-Que. If you're in Memphis and need a ride definitely call Tim: +1(901) 619-5777.

On the site of Stax Records (though not the original building) the museum is a replica of the Stax Recording Studio. If you're a fan of Motown or Soul then the museum is worth a visit. The tour starts off with a 20 minute video showing the history of Memphis music, after which you're able to wander around with an audio guide if you need it. For me the highlight of the museum was right at the end - Isaac Hayes' restored Cadillac El Dorado!

Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis

After finishing off at the museum I did a bit of record shopping - a Sun Records vinyl box set being my favourite find of the day - followed by meeting some friends for drinks at the Buccaneer Lounge to see out my last night. Here my Memphis trip gets a little hazy!

Nashville, Tennessee

Next stop on my US trip was Nashville. From Memphis it was another Greyhound ride and thankfully aside from being crazily busy on the bus this one went pretty smoothly. I had planned to stay in a hotel whilst in Nashville but during the Holiday Hangout I got chatting to Bingham Barnes from the band Glossary. He told me to cancel my hotel and to come stay with him and his girlfriend, Angela. They both welcomed me into their home and were super kind in showing me around and introducing me to a whole bunch of people. I hope that in the future I'll be able to return their generosity.

Arriving in Nashville the first stop that Bingham took me to was Robert's - the first and only time we'd visit one of the honky tonk bars in downtown. It was a fun experience and something ticked off the list! Next up we grabbed some food at the Family Wash. For anyone visiting Nashville from the UK and feeling the need for some familiar food then the Family Wash is for you - a Shepherd's Pie as tasty as home but in American sized portions!

The next day I was in for a treat. I got introduced to the craziness that is Jesco White. I'd never heard of the him or his family before and having seen him I'm not sure I'll ever be the same again! Jesco, also known as the "Dancing Outlaw" is from Bandytown, Boone County in the Appalachian Mountains and is an American mountain dancer. He was 'performing' a show in Nashville that drew a surprisingly large crowd. The show mostly consisted of him sitting on stage with his sister, downing cans of PBR and occasionally getting up to say something incomprehensible into the microphone and doing a bit of a dance! I think for the 40 minutes-or-so that this went on for I was just stood by the stage with a look of utter confusion! Thankfully I wasn't the only confused person in the room. What was already a fun night was made evening better by seeing Birdcloud play after Jesco. They were also a new to me and a lot of fun - careful though, their lyrics and videos are probably NSFW!

The following day was pretty special. Austin Lucas was recording his new record with Glossary and said I'd be welcome to stop by the studio. I obviously jumped at the chance. I think that everyone thought I was pretty crazy for wanting to hang out in the studio but and found it fascinating to the see the process artists go through whilst recording. I'm not sure when the album's coming out but hopefully sometime soon and from what I heard I reckon it's it'll be right up there with some of his best stuff.

New Orleans

I wished that I had more time to spend in New Orleans. From the moment that I arrived to when I was heading back to the airport I loved the city. I had rented an apartment that was a few blocks away from Frenchman Street. My flight in was early evening and I had just enough time to grab some food and a beer at Buffa's Lounge before heading over towards the financial district to see Amy LaVere play the Circle Bar. She was great but played quite late and by the end of her set I was about ready to head home via a quick stop at R Bar.

I only had one full day in New Orleans and wanted to do as much exploring as possible. I took a walk along the banks of the Mississippi, coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde and then boosted my vinyl collection at some of NOLA's record stores. Walking around town Bourbon Street was already pretty crazy, and this was on a Monday morning. I decided that seeing that part of town should probably be avoided in the evening and I'd find somewhere else around Frenchman Street.

Coffee and beignets - another recommendation checked off the list!
Coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde

In the afternoon I headed out to get some food. I wanted to try a place that Bingham and Angela had recommended, a place called Liuzza's By The Track (1518 North Lopez Street). Supposedly it does the best BBQ shrimp Po-Boy in all of New Orleans, it was also the place the John Goodman's character took his last meal in the series Treme. It was about 15 minutes by bus and well worth the trip. I'm no expert when it comes to Po-Boy's but if there's a better one out there then it'll be insane!

During the evening I didn't have anywhere specific to go, I took a wander around the French Quarter and headed over to Frenchman Street. Compared to the busyness of Bourbon Street this area was pretty quiet. I stopped by a couple of bars but I seemed to be arriving at places in between things. I moved onto a bar called the Apple Barrel, I walked in just as a guy (who I now know as Sam Cammarata) was taking the stage. It seemed like a cool place, small and smokey. There was an empty seat at the bar and ordered myself a bourbon and a beer. It wasn't long before I got chatting with others at the bar and it turned out they were all local musicians playing the Frenchman Street circuit. They told me all about what it was like being in New Orleans during Katrina and what has happened since. They told me about how they saw the Bourbon Street area expanding and the fears they had on the impact of local musicians and the music they'd be able to play. It was a great crowd and drinks were flowing pretty steadily.

A part way through the night a girl stumbled into the bar and took the seat next to me. She was on the drunker side of tipsy and asked if I could read her a chapter of the book she was carrying. I was also approaching the same level of drunkenness and I think my new found friends at the bar could see I needed rescuing. Sam came over and told me that "...if we wanted to make it then we'd have to leave now..." and looked towards the door. I had no idea what he was talking about (or maybe it was a previous conversation and I'd forgotten) but got up and followed him out the bar. We met up with his girlfriend, Stella, and they took me over to the 9th ward and a divey blues bar called BJs Lounge. Here the drinks must have been extra good or the music extra fun because I have recollections of dancing, and that never happens!

California

Next up was California and a welcomed change of pace. I also got to meet up with my girlfriend, Anna who was joining me for the last part of the trip! I flew into LAX where I met with Anna and a friend of hers, Zita. I'd heard a lot about Zita but this was the first time I got to meet her and her husband, Joseph. We were spending the first few nights of the California trip at their home in Huntington Beach. I knew a bit about Huntington Beach but mostly from my buddy Eamon who told me no matter what anyone else says Santa Cruz is the real surf capital of the US and not Huntington Beach! Having now been to both places I have to say it's pretty close at to which one is better. Sorry Eamon!

Sunset at Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach, Surf Captial?

From Huntington Beach we were taking a road trip up the coast to San Francisco stopping at a few places along the way. Anna got to hire her dream car, a black Ford Mustang convertible, whilst I nervously sat alongside in the passenger seat in charge of navigation (that mostly consisted of "keep going straight ahead"). The drive up the coast was beautiful, our first stop was in Santa Monica where spent a couple of nights and then onto Santa Barbara to spend Christmas Eve. From Santa Barbara we drove further up the coast to Santa Cruz where we spent a few days with our friend Eamon and his family.

Someone's posing in her Mustang!
Anna and her Mustang

We arrived in Santa Cruz just in time to join Eamon's family for dinner on Christmas Day evening, and I'm glad we did! Eamon's uncle had made the most amazing cioppino, it's something I've tried to replicate a couple of times since coming home but I need a lot more practise! I'd heard a lot about Santa Cruz from the time Eamon had spent living in London so it was good to have a personal tour guide showing all the sites. From his old childhood hangs to checking out the seals under the wharf, I can see why Eamon is so fond of the place!

From Santa Cruz Anna, Eamon and I headed up to San Francisco. I'd hope to catch up with a couple of other friends living there but it being the holidays they were out of town. Nevertheless we had a great time! We got the extended San Francisco tour from Eamon, checked out a number of his favourite bars (for me it was between Thee Parkside and Benders as to which was my favourite), and ate more burritos in five days than I'd had in the previous year! The end of the trip was topped off with a hotly anticipated basketball game, the Golden State Warriors playing at home the LA Clippers. It was a great game that the Warriors led from start to finish, and a perfect end to the San Francisco adventure and time to head back to London!

Pre-game at the Oracle Arena. Golden State Warriors vs LA Clippers
Warriors vs Clippers

SXSW: Austin, Texas

Arriving back in London after California my initial plan was to straight away start looking for a new job but between catching up with friends and family who I'd missed over Christmas and getting on top of some of my non-travelling to do list (working through some Code Academy projects, catching up on reading) I soon found that time was flying by and all of a sudden March was approaching and a trip back to America for SXSW. This would be my third SXSW and with snow forecast for London I couldn't wait to get to the sunshine of Austin, Texas.

SXSW kicks off with a week of interactive followed by a week of music. In previous years the group I've gone with have mostly headed home after the end of interactive but this year the majority were hanging on for the whole thing. We had rented a house not far from South Congress Avenue and this proved to be a good move, we could easily walk into downtown and had the option of getting the bus or taxi if needed. There were also armadillos in the garden!

Before buying a ticket for this years event there was a discussion amongst my friends as to whether it was worth going, the quality of talks have in the past been a little bit hit and miss. But the value is mostly in hanging out and meeting people, this year proved to be no different. During interactive I attended a couple of great talks - I think my top one was around the digital focus of the US Government, they talked a lot about what they were doing and how they were following closely that of the UK Government and GDS. But most of my time was spent around downtown catching up with friends and meeting new ones. We also managed to make a pilgrimage out to Salt Lick for an immense BBQ.

Meat. I'm officially full.
BBQ at Salt Lick

On the day that music rolls around there's a strange feeling as old friends leave and new friends arrive. The laptops and iPads being carried around the convention centre get replaced with guitars, the hair gets longer and beards thicker. It's a great time!

The first night of music kicked off with Glossary's traditional SXSW opener at the Hole In The Wall. This year they were joined by Two Cow Garage, Grand Champeen, District Attorneys, Ol' Yeller, The Ripe and The Pollies. It was a great start to SXSW music and if that turned out to be the best night then it'd have still have been a great week!

It's actually really hard to pick a highlight of the week, there were so many amazing bands. People I'd seen before like Star & Micey, Austin Lucas, Lydia Loveless, Caitlin Rose, Two Cow Garage, Glossary were all great. Also a bunch of people who I saw for the first time and would love to see again - Murder by Death, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, Waco Brothers, Whiskey Shivers, Nikki Lane and many more that'll keep coming back to me!

At the end of each SXSW I've left thinking I've had an awesome time but couldn't do it again. This year I left having had just as much fun as before and I'm already looking forward to getting back out there next year!

Power goes out and @starandmicey do what they gotta do!
Star & Micey, SXSW 2013

Food

I think that the question that I'm asked the most is "where was the best food?" There's no easy answer to this, but with the help of FourSquare checkins to aid my memory he's my best stab:

The future


In between the bars and bands, flights and Greyhounds I've had plenty of time to think about what I want to do next. When I left BT I knew quite a bit about what I didn't want to do but wasn't sure exactly what I did want to do. A few months later I certainly haven't boiled it down to wanting work for a specific company, or even a specific sector - there are however a few that I'm really interested in! What I've learnt probably sounds quite simple and obvious on paper but they are things that feel are important to me.

Filling the gap between users and devs

In all my previous roles I've been in a position where I've sat somewhere between the users and the developer/design teams. My closeness to each community has swayed throughout my career but the thing that I enjoy most is being sat in the middle of the two. I enjoy working with users to help get an understanding of a problem, trying to move their mindset away from approaching the development teams with a preconceived solution but really getting an understanding of what they need rather than what they believe they want. The same also applies to the development teams, making sure that they are fully aware of where the user is coming from.

Following on from this I enjoy working with design and dev teams to document and translate the user needs into a language that everyone can understand and working with the team to think of potential solutions that'll tackle the problem. As a project progresses I've also gotten my kicks from being the person who helps remove blockers and barriers from the developers, letting them focus on what they're good at and trying to avoid them worrying about the politics or red tape that might slow them down.

When I left BT I wasn't sure what this role might be called, our internal job titles didn't translate very well to the outside world. I've spoken to a lot of people explaining what I've done in the past and what I think I'm good at, the general consensus is that I should be looking for a role in the region of a Product Manager, ScrumMaster or Delivery Manager.

Building stuff

Working on changing a culture within an organisation has been fun, it also taught me a lot. I enjoyed meeting new people and being able to talk about the things I thought were important and help them overcome challenges in new ways. However if I wasn't in a position where I could do this whilst also being a part of a team where we built things then I think I'd have gone crazy. And with building stuff also comes being able to ship stuff. A big frustration was working on something that we all thought was great and added value but then being stuck behind a long process that meant it never saw the light of day, or when it did people's needs had changed and it'd become less relevant.

Something meaningful outside the workplace

At BT I worked on plenty of interesting projects, especially things like OpenBritain and ILGA these carried good weight in conversations with friends outside of the office. However projects like internal applications for engineers as exciting and transformational as they were they only warrant a limited amount of conversation time at the bar! It'd be great to work on something that directly means something to people I know, something that they're excited to hear about and I'm excited to tell them about.

Conversations, discussions and debates

One of the things I missed most since leaving work are the conversations, discussions and debates we'd have within the team. I've been fortunate to have colleagues around me in the past who've all been vocal about ways of doing things whether that was around methodologies, technologies or design principles. This led to a lot of shared learning and also developed a great deal of trust within the team. We were able to approach problems as a team with everyone able to influence the approach and as a result we came out with a better solution.

Keeping the hair and beard

OK, this one isn't entirely a deal breaker, or is it specifically about the beard (though in the past few months I've grown a beard that I'm quite fond of). What I really want is an environment that lets people be themselves and express themselves. Whether that's rocking up to work in a sharp suit or in jeans and converse. One of my favourite stories from a BT meeting was someone telling me that they were envious of me turning up to meetings with my long hair, jeans, plaid shirt and converse. But they wished that they were able to do the same and that their 'rebellion' was that they wore non-matching socks to work!

To sum up


If you've read from the top down to here I should apologise for my rambles. This started as me making a few notes for myself and then changing the narrative after some folk suggested it'd be useful to post online. It's long winded and I ramble on quite a bit! But thank you for reading!

I've had a great time out of work, and I hadn't realised quite how much I needed the extended break. But I'm now ready to jump into the next challenge and looking forward to whatever comes next. If anyone has ideas about roles that I might be suitable for then I'd love to hear from you. Actually, I'd just like to hear from you whatever the case. Maybe grab a coffee or a beer and check out some music!

Tuesday
Apr052011

Le Butcherettes: Track of the day - April 5th

Image courtesy of Jim DeRogatisMentioned in my blog earlier today the Le Butcherettes SXSW gig at the Dirty Dog was one of my standout gigs of the entire festival. They're a band I've been listening to for a little while and I'd been eager to see play live based on reviews of previous shows which sounded reminiscent of early Yeah Yeah Yeah gigs – chaotic, loud, full of energy and never knowing what'll come next.

The band has recently changed line up, Jonathan Hischke of Hella on bass and Gabe Serbian of The Locust on drums joining front woman Teri Gender Bender. And what a front woman Teri Gender Bender is! Clad in a blood stained butchers apron covering a 1950s style dress Teri charges across the stage alternating between playing keys and guitar and with a voice Kathleen Hanna could only dream of.

Throughout the entire gig Teri stares at the audience with a look in her eyes that'd scare many a grown man and on numerous occasions leaping off of the stage without a care of who she takes down with her. Hardly pausing for breath the 30 minute set felt as though it was over in mere seconds.

If you get a chance to see Le Butcherettes play live please, please go. You may end up with bruises, you'll possibly be shaking for days afterwards and you'll definitely have an experience you'll not forget in a while!

Le Butcherettes debut album, Sin Sin Sin, is out in May and Henry Don't Got Love is the first track off the album.

Le Butcherettes: Henry Don't Got Love.

Tuesday
Apr052011

Review of SXSW 2011

This year was my first experience of SXSW and now, a couple of weeks after the event, I feel that I'm pretty much recovered enough to write up a short review of the conference/festival.

For those of you who aren't familiar SXSW is a ten day festival held in Austin each March.  It covers three main tracks - interactive, film and music - each of which overlap throughout the course of the ten days.  The overlapping of tracks draws a diverse crowd and it's this which makes SXSW unique to anything else I've attended in the past.

I'd wanted to attend SXSW for a number of years but kept talking myself out of it primarily on the basis of cost.  This year when it came around to booking tickets I ummed and arred for a couple of days but with some gentle encouragement from colleagues Paul Downey and Jeremy Ruston I figured 'why not, if not now then it'll be never'!  And I'm so very glad I did.

Armed with a platinum pass entitling me to entry to all three tracks I headed over to Austin spending the first week with friends from London and going it alone for the second week.

The interactive track covered the first five days.  Each day was packed full of talks and panel discussions covering a wide range of topics – everything and anything from 'How Does SciFi Influence Our Future Cities?' through to workshops covering advanced CSS3 and HTML5 techniques.

Overall the quality of the talks was reasonably good although the sheer number of things happening at any one time was a little intimidating and somethings I managed to miss out on purely through being indecisive about what to do next.  Negotiating a way from one venue to another also proved tricky during the busier talks – and this not helped by the offer of free beer at every corner!

Some of the highlights of the interactive week were talks combining technology and music.  Jess Hemerly, Jason Schultz and Larisa Mann ran an excellent panel entitled "Music & MetaData: Do The Songs Remain The Same?" Over the course of an hour they covering aspects such as how metadata aids the discovery and socialisation of new music, the implications of data accuracy as well as the legalities and copyright concerns around the ownership of the music data.  The audience was mainly made up of technology focused individuals, so as you'd expect there was a strong bias towards open and socially driven data models.  It'd have been interesting to hear the same debate again during the music week when the panel audiences were made up of music industry folk. 

Something that I'm keen to get involved with are Music Hack Days.  Dave Haynes and Matthew Ogle held a panel entitled "Love, Music & APIs" where they discussed the concept of a hack day and demonstrated some of the outputs from previous events.  I've been to a few (non music) hack days in the past and I'm always amazed at what can be produced in the space of just 24hrs hours.  Built at the recent NYC Music Hack Day, and my pick of the demo's at SXSW, was Invisible Instruments.  It combines a Wii remote and iPhone/Touch to allow you to play practically any instrument with amazing authenticity.  One of the beauties of a hack day are when they provide the seed of an idea which continues to grow after everyone has gone home.  Invisible Instruments is attempting to launch to the masses and if its something that you might like to use then you can support them over at Kickstarter.

As good as the talks were the real value of the interactive week was in the networking opportunities.  It felt as though everyone you wanted to speak to was out in Austin and with dozens of parties happening each night it was impossible not bump into an old friend or someone you've only ever followed on Twitter.

Overlapping the interactive week was the start of the music event.  In a similar fashion to interactive there were a number of panel discussions during the day however the main focus was on live music.  And with over 90 venues each with full line ups every night there was always something to go and see whatever your tastes.  

Before heading out to Austin I pulled together a shortlist of bands I really wanted to see.  And by shortlist I mean around 50-60 bands.  My main concern was that I'd spend too much time queuing to get into venues and miss out on too much.  However with the exception of the Foo Fighters (which was actually the interactive closing party rather than part of the official music week) I never had to queue for longer than around 10mins and managed to see pretty much everyone I'd hoped along with plenty of new discoveries.

To pick an absolute highlight of SXSW music would be too difficult, there were too many.  Stumbling into a Chris Cornell gig along with Phil Whitehouse, Phil Hawksworth, Ben Barnett and Simon Doggett would rank towards the top.  As would the mid-afternoon Le Butcherettes gig at the Dirty Dog (which would also rank as perhaps the most scary event of SXSW, but that's another post).    Seeing bands like White Denim, The Black Angels, and Black Joe Lewis for the first time almost justified the cost of the trip alone as did seeing big names like Queens Of The Stone Age and The Kills play in small venues. 

Having been to a number of music festivals in the UK I can say with absolute certainty that SXSW was by far the best I've been to.  The quality if the bands was out of this world amazing.  The organisation was fantastic.  The people were great.  And a number of the Austin venues have instantly become some of my all time favourites – although not in its original location the chance to see bands play at the legendary Antones was incredible.

If you're a user of Spotify then I've created a 'my pick of SXSW' playlist.

A blog post about SXSW wouldn't be complete without saying how much of an amazing place Austin is.  It was my first time in Texas and any preconceptions I had were completely blown away.  Everything about Austin is to be loved, from the the food, the music, the friendliness of Austinites, through to the official city slogan 'Keep Austin Weird'.  If I could live anywhere outside of London then I think I'd be hard pressed to find a better place than Austin.

Roll on SXSW '12.