anthony galvin

Heading north again, as we do every summer. Mirroring the paths of the migrating birds who also head for the islands. They travel far more efficiently than we do, laden as we are with tents, stoves and a collection of coats and hats. They soar on the wing, using the motorway thermals and road kill for their own ends. As we trundle north, in a queue near Preston (always Preston), I envy the lightweight ease of the birds overhead.

But the roads do open up and we find ourselves by harbour in Oban, watching the ferry’s come and go. The familiar queue at the seafood shack snaking it’s way along the quayside. It’s become a familiar routine, the slow ferry queue and the dash for essentials that we might not be able to get on the island (food, drink and a haul of books) but the excitement is always the same.

Finally we are away. Despite already being on the road for a couple of days, it’s only now the holiday feels like it’s begun. The ferry slides up the Sound of Mull, past the Lismore lighthouse, which is always a marker for our trips this way. Then beyond Duart Castle and the brief glimpse of Tobermory as we head for open water. We swing away from Mull and a school of dolphin jump in the swell below the boat. The four of us (not to mention the dog) settle down to another few hours on the ferry, broken by expeditions round the deck and fetch provisions from the CalMac cafe.

The boat slows as we find the slightly smoother water and shelter of Castlebay. We shake the tiredness out of our legs and join the cluster of passengers in the afternoon sunshine to watch the castle come into view. Low clouds hang over the little town, and in the distance we get our first glance of the white sand beaches of the Island.

Over the next week those white sand beaches will be our daily destination for a swim or to launch a “sit on top” kayak. Afterwards in the photos the water will look fake, too blue to be real.

All that is yet to come as we dash down to the car deck. Our thoughts turn to the camping gear crammed into the car, and the drive past the beach runway of Barra airport up to the campsite at Scurrival which will be our temporary island home.

#scotland #family #holiday #barra #camping #islands #hebrides #ferry

03/09/2019 permalink

That moment when you let go of the saddle and instead of swerving off to the left or right they glide forwards, feet whirring almost in a blur.

When our eldest Vi learned to ride her bike, it was a slow and painful process. I’d bought a heavy old bike off eBay. At that the time we lived at the end of a cul-de-sac. On a Sunday morning we’d go out and try to get her riding on her own, but it usually ended up in both of us getting frustrated. Bike on the floor. Tears. Shouting. She can ride her bike now. We soon got rid of that clunky old bike for something more lightweight and easy to manoeuvre.

A few years on and it’s Hazel’s turn. Full of gung-ho enthusiasm to emulate her sister. We don’t live on the ‘banjo’ anymore, instead there’s a few quiet village roads which have served as good training. Hazel wobbling along with me running alongside. Grabbing the saddle as she veers towards the curb. Almost there, but not quite.

Easter time and we are away on holiday, staying on the old Stanegate. There’s some traffic during the day to the Roman fort of Vindolanda, but after closing time there’s no traffic at all. After a few test runs she’s racing up and down the Roman road.

Over the next few days we find a few different routes. A disused railway in Kielder Forest and a dedicated trail at Wallington. But it's the deserted Roman Road each evening that's the favourite.

"Dad, can we go on a bike ride"

#cycling #family #holiday #northumblerland #kids #bikes

07/05/2019 permalink

It's taken me a while to come to this realisation, but I've spent a huge chunk of my life trying to achieve things with teams. Sports teams, software teams, bands, orchestras, actors and product teams. To be fair not all of these notional teams have been successful - but when they work well, teams are awesome.

It's a cliche to say that "being a team player" is important at work. Most of the time this is just a platitude for people who don't rock the boat. A way of saying that the person in question is no trouble. I don't always buy into this team of mates dynamic.

To continue the cricketing viewpoint, Mike Brierley, arguably the greatest exponent of captaincy and understanding the psychology of teams sums it up nicely "If individualists are too powerful, too divisive and too selfish, the team suffers. If they run riot, the notion of team scarcely exists. At the other extreme, some teams can become flat, conformist and dull. Far from running riot, individuality is suppressed."

So there's plenty of scope for the right kind of discussion and a team that's able to sometimes hold divergent points of view, at least for short periods of time.

It's not always easy to identify the right group dynamic from the inside, never mind on the outside. In my experience it's one of the reasons why agencies often struggle with consistently casting high performance teams. Even if resourcing is operating beyond the principle of "availability as a skillset", the people making the decisions when pulling together new project teams are on the outside, and from there the signals of a genuinely good team are almost impossible to detect. In an agency it can sometimes feels like the approach is "We've got this project team performing really well. Now we've delivered everything we should break the team up and make sure this group of individuals never work together again".

I've written recently about some of the challenges in scaling teams across multiple locations, but as well as geography having a significant impact, more people also comes with a time cost.

More people doesn't have to mean your people. As the number of integrations, partners and vendors increase the time cost of managing, motivating and co-ordinating all these different folks can have a significant impact. A small team that has many thrd-party integrations doesn't just have a scope challenge, it also has team management challenge as well.

Perhaps this is the ultimate team challenge - when the team in question isn't just your team, but other teams as well.

#work #teams #agile #remote #software

25/02/2019 permalink

It often starts with a sigh. Away from work you hear the obvious sound of frustration when an app or service doesn’t work as expected or crashes at a critical moment. As more and more of our lives are mediated through different glass rectangles, the expectations and importance of delivering brilliant, scalable and reliable experiences on those devices grows.

Which means in practice that the numbers of people involved in creating and engineering the apps and services that people rely on are inevitably large. One of the challenges for people like myself responsible for delivering the software to make all this happen is that with so many people involved how do you create an environment that delivers high quality software and services.

It’s a bit of a management speak truism that everyone on a project is “on the same team”, but in practice that’s not really possible. For some of the global projects I’m working on at Huge, there’s often over 100 folks involved, with a large percentage of these made up of engineers in variety of locations. We have a common objective but in practice we are many teams.

Where location does play a factor is often around balancing time zone coverage so that there’s enough people in each location to ensure effective collaboration. There’s no point adding a single developer with almost no time overlap with anyone else on the project.

However, in practice the amount of overlap doesn’t always have the positive effect people might think. Complex engineering problems require deep focus and an environment that reduces interruption in addition to cross discipline collaboration. The reality of a distributed team is that at some point of the day there are times when there’s fewer people online. Which correlates with fewer interruptions.

Would I choose to have the engineering teams scattered across the planet if it was possible to have everyone in one building. Probably not, but the reality of the work is that this isn’t really possibly, and in practice it’s not the most important piece of the puzzle.

#work #teams #agile #remote #software

10/11/2018 permalink

An autumn day on the west coast of Mull. It’s been wet all week and the desire to sit by the wood burner with a book and wine has been anchoring us all to the sofa.

But today it’s bright and clear, though the wind that’s bringing the change of weather is wiping down from the artic with an icy core.

Treshnish point is a rare corner of our nation of islands. Probably continuously inhabited for the last 6000 years, it wears the impact of human endeavour lightly. The landscape shaped by a mix of people, farming and the elements that sometimes pummel the exposed beaches and clifftops. There’s evidence of old sheep pens and landings as I walk beyond the last cottages at Haun.

In late autumn the wild flowers that I’ve seen here are in retreat but the grasslands that foot the rocky steps are punctuated by a variety of fungus and mushrooms that stand out with their red and yellow marks against the bright greens and moody greys of the landscape.

With the wind behind I’m blown down the winding track past the rocky coves and rock stacks that look out to towards the twin islands of Coll and Tiree, and the carved presence of the Treshnish Islands. The ground is a little boggy underfoot in places, the result of a wet end to autumn.

On along with the coast watching the huge waves crash into rocky stacks and across small pebbly beaches punctuated with small caves and dark black rock pools. As I round the corner, the vista opens up. The islands of Gometra and Ulva nestled into Loch Tuath. At first glance the two islands look like one, but on closer inspection the small gully between them is just visible in fading light. In the distance hidden amongst the clouds Mull’s own Monro, Ben More forms a brooding backdrop. Tomorrow the first snows of the winter will dust the tops, but today the mountain looks grey and austere.

A few minutes trying to soak it all in and then I turn, stoop into the wind and battle back along the headland to the comfort of the fire.

#scotland #family #holiday #mull #walk #islands

26/10/2018 permalink

Nearly 7 years on and we are back at Rhyd Fudr. This time there’s four of us, and in the time that’s passed it seems that it is only us who have changed. The hills, houses, lake, rain and mud seem timeless.

But that’s not quite true. This time the sense of Wales being a separate country seems more acute. Perhaps, it’s the strident debate that’s escalated after the EU referendum, which in the media is played out with England and the UK as interchangeable concepts. Slightly out of season In North Wales, away from the crowds we are routinely mistaken for people who speak Welsh. There’s a lack of big chains in the small towns and villages. Even the Gin is made differently.

More than last time we were here, this corner of Wales seems like an escape.

#wales #family #holiday #mud

17/05/2018 permalink

Do you still write code?

Some thoughts on technical leadership and coding.

The other day someone in the team asked me if I still write code. Which got me thinking about how, especially in agency land, senior technologists often don’t. Faced with the growing need for Technical management and client facing technologists, many larger digital agency environments have a fork in the road where people can pursue a less hands on route.

Over the years I’ve worked with lots of senior folks who continue to be practitioners. People from an engineering background who are still, at least some of the time working with software. This isn’t unusual in other fields - nobody expects the top brain surgeons to do all the operations, but they are expected to do some. The same is true for lawyers and in agency land often true for strategists and UX / design folks.

That’s not to say that management and leadership aren’t skills in themselves, skills that require practice and a significant time commitment. As an engineer the way you scale and produce a better output is (or at least should be) by having a team. The team is your unit of awesome.

There’s code, and then there’s code. On the projects I’m involved in the amount of real technical output I contribute varies significantly. Often the things I’m doing are prototypes, setting a direction - more like someone doing a sketch that communicate an approach or a style. It’s not about being ‘the best developer’, firstly because defining best is difficult (fastest, fewest bugs, most code, least code, best collaborator etc..) and also because that’s probably not your role on the project.

Sometimes it’s just about chipping in with a bug fix, picking up a few tickets and helping when the deadline is looming and JIRA is looking a bit unpleasant. It’s fairly unlikely that I’m going to be picking up lots of dev work across any of my client work, but it is an aspect of how I go about solving problems in my  day-to-day work.

That’s not to say it’s easy to stay on top of the ever changing technology landscape, but for me it’s not a binary choice between management and coding. They are part of the dynamic of technical leadership, and it’s important that you make time to develop your skills in both areas.

#work #technology #coding #leadership #management

2017-11-15 14:47:11 GMT permalink

Once more. With feelings.

Back to the “inner isles” (Na h-Eileanan a-staigh) for our summer trip. Some new islands this year. But the same objectives: Immersing ourselves in landscape and history. Exploring beaches. Scanning the horizon for the wildlife (this time including Basking Sharks).

Each time we go back to these islands the connection gets stronger. Our collective Islomania intensifies.

3 weeks, 1500 miles driving, 5 Scottish Islands (Coll, Tiree, Mull, Ulva, Bute) and 11 ferries. Happiness.


#holiday #scotland #islands #hebrides #family

2017-09-11 20:22:59 GMT permalink

Adventures with Voice Interfaces

Recently I’ve been doing lots of work with voice interfaces. Globally AKQA has been working with clients on VI since it started to go mainstream, and in the UK we’ve helped Jamie Oliver and Arsenal get onto the Amazon Echo platform.

VI is also a lens to use when looking at system or service and figuring out what an MVP really is. By it’s nature VI is a paired back user experience - so if you have an experience that works well for voice users then you probably have a good idea of your core use cases. 

From a technology perspective it also starts to place some new demands on engineers. It forces technical teams to think differently about infrastructure, code and server less at scale. The separation between code and infrastructure can get messy when working with AWS Lambda (and similar services), so it’s extra important to focus on code and build pipelines for anything but the most trivial use cases. 

Developing for voice also highlights something I think is increasingly important for engineers - the ability to bring service design thinking into software / sprint planning. There’s an increasing overlap between writing software that doesn’t have dead ends and handles exceptions well, and managing the user through options and occasions frustrations of voice interfaces.

Test automation, unit and integration tests are even more important than usual (though I’m not sure how much more important you can make these kind of tests!). Manual testing of voice services is slow (you can’t really speed it up), so you need to have good test coverage to have high confidence in your software and for the team to be able to work at a decent velocity.

It’s also important for everyone on the team to spend time using voice services and to understand the emerging design patterns and expectations of regular users. In the early days of television it was apparently common to meet people who appeared on TV shows but refused to own a television set. The same approach won’t work if you’re developing VI. Using an Echo or Google home on a regular basis is the only real way to understand the possibilities and frustrations of voice interfaces.

#work #voice #akqa #alexa #servicedesign #engineering

2017-05-17 14:25:25 GMT permalink

10 winters

Back to Morzine. I remember a springtime visit 10 winters ago, when Richard and Fiona had bought the old barn on the edge of Morzine. I slept on a concrete floor and then Richard and I went up to the top of the Avoriaz and talked about the future. Then we boarded down in the spring sunshine and it didn’t seem real.

Fast forward to 2017 and we are back in the Alps. The sun shone again and this time I’m on chair lifts with my Violet and Hazel. Sitting at the top of the resort looking out over the mountains, still thinking about the future. 

#boarding #morzine #holiday #snow #family #spring #alps

2017-04-11 22:15:44 GMT permalink

Self-driving cars: moonshot or beer wagon?

Almost every day there’s some new buzz, hype and occasional factual statement about self driving cars. The intersection (pun intended) of technology, user experience and transport policy is an interesting place. 

From a technology perspective it feels like autonomous vehicles could be the equivalent of the space race for our times. As a side effect of getting people on the moon, NASA is also credited with inventing everything from Nike Air to better dentistry. Whilst the self-driving car industry is still in its infancy, innovations in detailed mapping, artificial intelligence, motion detection, capacity planning, battery technology and machine learning (to name but a few) have already started to have a  significant impact on the technology we use everyday. 

But transport and mobility matter a lot more than as a way to get a more accurate vacuum cleaner. The relationship people have with cars is complicated. Much of what has been written about vehicle ownership, usage and urban planning doesn’t take into account the irrational choices that people make around transport everyday. How autonomous vehicles fit into real world scenarios  is going to be complicated, and based on how politicians handle most rapid technology change, I’m not optimistic about how smoothly the polity will adapt. 

In many ways the motor car has been one of the most liberating inventions of the past 150 years. If I was so inclined, tomorrow morning I could pile up the car and drive to the South of France (or more likely the west coast of Scotland) with a level of ease and freedom not possible 100 years or so ago. Yet, despite having a car I don’t really self identify as a driver. It’s something I do, but I’m more likely to say I’m a cyclist or walker. But I’m conscious for many people driving is a very important part of their identify, and for some people the self-driving car represents a challenge to the idea of what it means to be human.

As with most complex technology problems, it’s easier to get to grips with them if you start by trying to build your own version. A self-driving car is a bit of a leap, but the next step for the location aware drinks trolley I build last year is probably autonomy. Even if I don’t get as far as a universal product, a beer wagon that can navigate my office is probably a pretty good place to start.

#self-driving-car #autonomous #ai #cars #transport #mobility #words #robots #driving #work

2017-01-30 22:28:23 GMT permalink

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