In spring 1988 I travelled to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for a week with my school. We flew from London to Moscow, stayed in the capital for a few days then took an overnight train to Leningrad (now St Petersburg), not far from the Finnish and Estonian borders.
For a few months before our trip I thought it would be useful to learn some Russian. I used a couple of resources: Russian Made Simple (Heinemann, London, 1982) and Russian Language and People (BBC Publications, London, 1980) with its three accompanying cassettes. (That was hi-tech then.)
I got as far as learning the 32 characters of the Cyrillic alphabet, reading some simple words like ресторан (restaurant), опера (opera) and вода (water), the question что это? (what is it?) and a few pleasantries—спасибо (please) and пожалуйста (thank you / you’re welcome). But that was it.
On our trip we had a government-approved tour-guide, Mikael who spoke excellent English so I had very little use for the smattering of (largely useless) phrases I’d learned, for example:
мой багаж в метро или в такси.
My luggage is on the subway or in a taxi.
I would have done really well if I’d just spent my week losing my luggage on various modes of soviet transport.
Over the years, I’ve had a niggling regret that I never learned more.
I felt sad that I hadn’t learned more before I went (not that I would have had much opportunity to try it out) and that I had simply dropped it after I returned—admittedly to focus on noble pursuits like trying to pass my exams and get into university.
I’ve regretted when hosting Russian choirs in the past that I have not been able to say much more than good morning (Доброе утро), please and thank you.
Unpacking my books a few months ago, after moving to Crail, I once again found myself stacking my few Russian language books onto a shelf and thought to myself, when is a good time to learn a new language? There isn’t one… so, I might as well just start now.
So for the last 60 days I have been using Duolingo on my mobile phone to help me learn what has been described by many linguists as quite literally the language of Russia.
And I’m really enjoying it.
I know that if I really want to do well I am going to have to put in more than just six or seven hours a month, and hit the books to really understand the subtleties of the distinctions between ты (informal ‘you’) and вы (formal ‘you’), tenses, plurals, and all that linguistic jazz. But for now, this is giving me a gentle taster of the language and I’ve been surprised at how much I understand already after only a few minutes each day for a couple of months.
When people have asked, “Russian?! Why on earth are you learning Russian?”
I have enjoyed simply saying, “Well, you’ve seen the current political climate—I thought was probably a wise move to learn to communicate more fluently with our eventual political overlords!”
And on that satirical note I will wish you до свидания!
Having attended a few Lean Agile Edinburgh events (the next one being next week at the Skyscanner offices), I was excited to learn there was a similar event starting in Dundee which is significantly closer for me.
The welcome was warm and enthusiastic, the platters of food were plenteous and as I sat keenly at the front I chatted with the guy next to me.
“What do you do?” I said, feeling like a member of the royal family for asking that.
“I’m just a software engineer here at SolarWinds.”
“There is no just in software engineer,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said with a smile. “You’ve passed my test.”
A short conversation later I learned that he was also a fellow St Andrews alumnus and we talked about people we knew in common from the School of Computer Science.
The main (and only) speaker was Santiago Lizardo Oscares, a software engineering manager also at SolarWinds. He spoke about his experience of using impact mapping—a simple planning technique that communicates assumptions.
I’ve used impact mapping a couple of times, mostly when deprecating services so we could clearly see which audiences would be impacted and for making decisions about what to do to facilitate the transition. But it can equally be used when introducing new services.
At its simplest, an impact map comprises four columns, or four levels of a mind map:
Goal (Why?)—Why are we doing this? This is the goal we are trying to achieve. It can help to make this SMART (specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, time-based).
Actors (Who?)—Which stakeholders will be positively or negatively impacted? Who are the users? Who can produce the desired effect and who can obstruct it?
Impact (How?)—How will these stakeholders be affected? How should their behaviour change? How can they help us achieve the goal, or prevent us from succeeding?
Deliverable (What?)—What can we do as a delivery team or organisation to support the required impacts? These are the deliverables, the software features, the organisational activities. These can be anything from epics, through user stories to simple tasks.
Much like user stories, the real value here is in the conversations that it encourages within the software development team. As well as reading the diagram from left-to-right, it can also be helpful for developers to read it from right-to-left to trace back from a feature they are developing to understand why they are developing it.
Impact mapping can be a useful tool for writing user stories:
As an Actor (Who?)
I want Deliverable (What?)
So that Impact (How?)
After his presentation, Santiago ran through a practical example with us.
The goal we were presented with was to double the attendance of the next Lean Agile Dundee (probably in three months’ time) from 6 to 12.
We identified the actors as the organisers, previous attendees, and other Lean Agile groups, and then set about looking at how these actors could help achieve the goal—move from EventBrite to Meetup.com, provide incentives, share on social media, word of mouth, etc.
It was a useful example, I’m just sorry that Santiago stopped the exercise after completing just the organiser branch. It would have been helpful to have at least completed the map in full as a first pass, not least because we attendees could have taken away some practical ideas of how to help grow the event.
The evening was over within the hour, but wasn’t that entirely in keeping with Lean Agile. I really enjoyed the evening—meeting new people, discussing useful tools and how to improve communication and processes. I’ll definitely be back and may even offer to give a talk.
If you are interesting in Lean, Agile, Scrum, DSDM, XP, Kanban and live in Fife, Dundee or nearby definitely keep a look out for the next meeting. Check Eventbrite and Meetup for details. I’ll also try to remember to post the next date here.
What music, no matter when you play it or whatever mood you are in, always transports you back to a happy time or happy moment in your life?
I found myself pondering this last week when I listened to The Seer (1986) by Big Country.
It’s 1986 and I’m at my friend James’s house.
“You’ve got to listen to this,” said James reaching for his new 12″ album.
The needle came down on the vinyl and we listened to the anticipatory crackles and pops as it wound its way to the opening track.
This time we run This time we hide This time we draw on all the fire we have inside. We need some time To find a place Where I can wipe away the madness from your face.
Lyrics from “Look away” by Big Country
We sat in almost silence for the next 50 minutes and 30 seconds as this Celtic rock washed over us. It was heavy, it was delicate, it was rousing and beautifully sweet in equal measure.
This was one of those moments of simple contentedness and the simplicity of sitting in the presence of a best friend.
If I remember correctly, James was made homeless that year—or maybe the next. He moved into the spare room of someone from church. This was one of the first albums we listened to on my first visit to his new home.
This album always reminds me of our friendship. The closeness we had. Both the fun and the laughter during these formative teenage years and the moments of sitting in silence with one another listening to music—Big Country, Sting, Jean Michel-Jarre, Guns n’ Roses—letting the music and lyrics change our view of the world.
I know the weary can rise again I know it all from the words you send
Lyrics from “Remembrance Day” by Big Country
I’ve not seen James in many years—he eventually moved to live in Sweden—but this album reminds me of him every time I play it.
I’ve started using NAPS2 to convert paper documents to PDF to store in Dropbox or Microsoft OneNote as part of my paperless(-ish) office approach to productivity.
Predictions about the paperless office have been circulating for over 40 years now. And yet here I am in 2018 sitting next to a four-drawer filing cabinet containing letters and documents about everything from my house rental and utility bills to health records, university qualifications, and work-related documents.
A couple of years ago I decided to try to keep an electronic copy of my most important (or frequently used) documents and after comparing the relative benefits of Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, I finally settled on OneNote (with Dropbox as a backup in some cases) and started scanning.
OneNote stores its files in OneDrive, which I wasn’t using for much else—and given that I subscribe to Microsoft Office 365 I have about 1 TB of cloud space* at my disposal.
[* Disclaimer: There is no such thing as the cloud, it’s just someone else’s computer.]
I like OneNote because:
I can view the PDF on the page, I don’t have to wait for it to open in Acrobat Reader.
The documents synchronise between my desktop PC, laptop, tablet and mobile phone, so I can access them wherever I am and away from home.
I can annotate and highlight the document using the draw functionality of OneNote.
I can type notes on the same page, which are searchable.
OneNote has built-in OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities which means I can right-click the PDF print-out embedded within OneNote and extract editable text from the document to the clipboard to be used elsewhere—that can save a lot of typing.
I’m fortunate to have an Epson flatbed scanner on my desk. It came bundled with among other things the Epson Copy Utility which allows me to use the scanner with a printer (or PDF writer) much like a photocopier.
But recently I’ve found the Epson Copy Utility to be increasingly unstable. Often, midway through scanning a document the application will crash and tie up the scanner requiring me to either hunt down the processes to cancel in Task Manager or reboot the PC, which is often quicker. Though, to be fair, the application is over 11 years old and is a 32-bit application running on a 64-bit system.
Hunting around for an alternative, I discovered NAPS2—Not Another PDF Scanner 2, which is also an open source project, which I wholeheartedly support. So far, the results have been superb and I haven’t lost a single document yet
For those who understand this sort of thing, NAPS2 supports both WAI and Twain. It allows you to reorder the scanned pages. It will save to PDFor image (it supports multiple formats including bmp, gif, jpeg, png and tiff). It supports built-in OCR. Or you can simply print the document—including send to OneNote straight from NAPS2.
My experiences so far
Having been trying to live a more paperless office experience for over a year now, I can’t see me wanting to give up my filing cabinet anytime soon (there are still some documents that I would want to keep in paper format) but this has certainly enhanced my productivity.
Before I started scanning, I decided on a document structure within OneNote. I store all my documents within the same notebook but in different groups and sections. I try to keep these as consistent as I can with how I have organised my filing cabinet, which helps me locate the hard copy when I need to. And I adapt and extend the structure when it seems sensible for me to do so.
When I started scanning documents to PDF and embedding them within OneNote, I didn’t simply start at the front of my filing cabinet and work my way through. Instead, I prioritised those documents I thought I might need most often. Whenever I am out and realise that document X or Y would be useful in OneNote, I add a task to Todoist to scan it when I get home.
What I should maybe do next is then use this as the basis for determining which documents to recycle or shred from my filing cabinet.
Having my key documents available wherever I am has been invaluable. Hurray for mobile phones, OneNote for Android and 4G network connections.
Overall, while there is a little overhead in sitting scanning documents as soon as they arrive—although many companies like insurance and utility companies now use PDFs via email as their primary documentation—I have found this approach to be entirely worthwhile. It keeps all my documents together, I can access them whenever and wherever I need them and I feel much more organised as a result.
I am currently learning Russian and reminding myself of the integral importance that failure has in the learning process.
I visited the USSR in 1988 as part of a modern studies high school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg). You can see the photos from my trip on Flickr.
In late 1987 I started a short course to learn some Russian phrases. I didn’t get much further than Что это (what is it?) and это стол и стул (it’s a table and chair) before I gave up. Still, at least learning the Cyrillic alphabet helped me read signs as we travelled around this other-worldly country that was then still behind the Iron Curtain.
Since then, however, I have always wanted to complete the course and learn Russian for nothing other than the academic satisfaction. Plus, obviously, if Russia is to continue to interfere in national politics and influence elections it would be useful to be able to communicate with our eventual overlords in their own tongue.
Thirty years on and I still haven’t learned the language. Which is why, last week I decided that now was the right time. I realised that there would never be a perfect time. I would never have a free six months to devote to the task. If I wanted to do it then I would just have to start now and squeeze it into my daily schedule—five minutes here, ten minutes there.
Why did I give up so easily?
But why did I give up so soon after starting to learn?
There are likely to be a few practical reasons, not least energy levels, volume of school work, and family dynamics (my dad was suffering from brain damage by that point).
Surely, it can’t all have come down to time or motivation. Back in 1987/1988 I had all the time in the world—besides school I had few other commitments. And I had the motivation—I would be visiting Russia during the Easter break in April 1988.
But I still gave up. Why? This puzzled me for a long time, until I found the answer in a couple of books about parenting.
I think the problem was that for as long as I remember I had been told that I was clever, and learning Russian is hard—I gave up, I reckon, because it challenged my self-perception as a clever boy.
During the late 1990s a couple of psychologists (Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck) from Columbia University, New York ran a series of experiments with children, during which one group of children were praised for being clever while the other group was praised for the effort they put in (regardless of whether they got the answers right or wrong).
What they discovered was that children who were told they were really bright after completing one set of tasks were then less likely to exert themselves when presented with a choice of further tasks. While the children who had been praised for the effort they put in during the first task were far more likely to opt for a more difficult second task.
Telling a child they are intelligent might make them feel good, but [it] can also induce a fear of failure, causing the child to avoid challenging situations because they might look bad if they are not successful. In addition, telling a child they are intelligent suggests they do not need to work hard to perform well. Because of this, children may be less motivated to make the required effort and be more likely to fail.
It turns out that children who are frequently praised tend to become more competitive and more interested in belittling others. Their primary interest becomes image-maintenance—having been told they are clever, they want to continue to be seen to be clever even if that means pulling others down around them.
Looking back at my childhood and teenage years, I don’t recognise that last aspect of tearing others down but I wholeheartedly recognise the image-maintenance part—I would joke years later that I simply dropped those subjects that I didn’t do well in, not realising at the time that I did this because they clashed with the self-image that I had been developing and which was being built-up by folks telling me that I was clever.
I liked being clever. I didn’t like doing things that didn’t make me feel clever. It makes perfect sense. But I wonder what I missed in giving up things too soon. I wonder what would have happened if instead I had been praised for my effort and dug in deep at times.
How can students succeed if they are not taught to fail?
While I was working as the warden in a university halls of residence, I would frequently have conversations with students about the importance of failure.
Here we had, arguably, some of the brightest young people in the country who had progressed from success to success to become, in many cases, the brightest in their school. And then when they arrived at St Andrews among other similar youngsters they found themselves to be decidedly average.
That took them quite by surprise. And coupled with a different style of learning at university and an increased workload many found themselves not hitting their usual 100% expectations.
To many it felt like the sky was falling in: their world was collapsing and their self-image was being shaken at a fundamental level.
In my first year at St Andrews, I would tell them, I failed two-thirds of my course. Two-thirds! I passed divinity but failed Old Testament and ecclesiastical history; I managed to progress to second year by the skin of my teeth. But that experience changed me—it helped me to understand how I work best. It helped me to understand what works for me, and what doesn’t. In the end, I graduated with a 2:1 honours degree that I was delighted with.
It is okay to fail
This paragraph from an article on @TeacherToolkit that I read last year resonated with me:
In recent years there seems to be an accepted fallacy that learning happens in a linear fashion, with educators setting up opportunities for children to jump from success to success without ever encountering failure. However, if this is the case, to what extent are your pupils simply working as opposed to learning?
They suggest incorporating failure in the learning process. This is their list of suggestions:
Provide the children with the toolkit to cope with failure.
Praise the children’s best efforts and show them how to move their learning forward.
Develop an ethos where the children are not afraid to fail and develop strategies to overcome challenge.
Don’t hide mistakes from children. Adults make mistakes all the time, but children seldom are afforded the opportunity of witnessing this.
Make teaching points of your mistakes and model how to deal appropriately with failure.
Pupils should have the confidence to attempt new activities in a safe and secure environment knowing that failure will be met with encouragement and support. Failure isn’t something to be feared, but rather is part of the learning process which should be embraced.
Children need to know that it is okay to fail and it is the trying again that is important, this is how children succeed.
But it’s not just children and university students who need to learn the importance of failure. For the last few years I was working as an agile project manger in a web development team—”fail fast” is something we used to advertise as one of the benefits of working in an agile manner.
I’m delighted to see Karl Scotland (from whose writings I have learned a lot over the years) is running a session at this week’s Lean Agile Scotland event in Edinburgh entitled “Failure is not an option”.
That’s right, failure is not an option—it is a necessity.
For many organisations, failure is something to be avoided. Poor results are frowned upon; people don’t take risks, and they hide undesirable results for fear of being blamed. But it’s these failures that generate new information from which we can learn, and this learning is what leads to organisational improvement and long-term success. This session will explore why failure is not an option, but a necessity, and how we can make failure a friend and not a foe. Karl Scotland “Don’t bury your failures. Let them inspire you.”
I really like that quotation: don’t bury your failures, let them inspire you.
There is something here to inspire me as I try to remember what этот (this), он (he), она (she) and оно (it) mean in Russian; as I try to encourage Joshua to do his French horn practice—”you’re trying really hard to play the right notes, well done” rather than “you’re so good at that”; and as I reflect on my last twenty years of work and try to make sense of what my strengths are, what weaknesses I need to work on and where I should put my energy next.