Friday, February 26, 2010

The five P's

With a new fiscal year looming, it is Planning Season at work. Not that we have much to plan with. No money to do anything but essential operations, and big organisational changes being concocted largely behind closed doors at the executive level that will probably derail anything we might consider doing.

But we must try, if for no other reason than to get our unit into the best possible shape to take whatever merde drops on us over the next few months.

So we are building next year's operational plan using a framework to capture goals for different aspects of our work. Under the "process" heading, my director chose to use "the five P's" as guiding principles for building branch-wide processes.

Many years ago, I developed "the five P's" as a yardstick to help me decide when something could truly call itself a standard. I've used this for software development standards, but I guess the same principles could apply anywhere where people are trying to regulate their own or other people's activities.

These are what I am looking for in a standard ...

It should be ...


This is a biggie for me. And helps explain a contradiction in me. I hate over-regulation, and yet I am an avid fan of professional standards. My maxim is "no rules without reasons".

Trouble is, once you start down on the standards road it is difficult to know where to stop. Ever-increasing control takes over and becomes an end in itself. I've seen standards manuals where everything is rigidly set out in minute detail, and everybody sweats blood to conform, but nobody can begin to explain why.

And for all you conformity nazis out there, "consistency" is not a valid purpose, not in itself, even though it is often cited as a reason for setting standards. Ask yourself why consistency is a good thing in this instance. For example, layout standards might help you quickly orient yourself in an unfamiliar piece of code, or variable naming standards might allow you to make some safe assumptions about a variable's characteristics when you see it, without having to track down every reference to it first. Those are perfectly good purposes, but make sure they exist and that you understand them.

If everyone out there understands why a standard is there, and can see benefits in it, then they are more likely to apply it.

And, finally, understanding the purpose allows you to recognise when it is out of date, or when it is in need of updating and how to do so safely without losing sight of the original purpose.


Should really need no explanation. If it is not practical to use, then it won't happen!

And, remember, standards are supposed to be there to serve you, not the other way around. The best ones are those that make life easier rather than harder.

And the very best are those that are an integral part of your working methods rather than an add-on. For example, if your standard is to use a source code repository and a change process that specifies how & when code should be booked out and in, then what better than to integrate that into your development desktop so that the correct standards are applied automatically as you go about your work?


So, the first two points were probably fairly obvious, if not always practised. Now we are getting into more subtle areas.

To me, a standard cannot call itself a standard until it is documented. Until then, it is simply a convention or a common working practice.

If it isn't recorded, then how can it be communicated? How do you know everyone has the same understanding of it? How can you be sure that it is being applied correctly and consistently?

But simply writing it down somewhere is not quite enough. By "published" I mean documented somewhere accessible so that everyone can get at it.


It's one thing to write down a standard, even somewhere accessible, but what good is that if no-one knows it's there? The next step is to make sure the right people know about it, and understand it, and remember it.

In other words, you need to promote it.

And, most importantly, people need to know that you are serious about this, which leads nicely into the home straight ...


OK, you've got a good standard, it has purpose and it's practical. You've written it down somewhere public, and everyone knows about it.

Are we there yet?

Not quite. It is still no good unless people actually use it. And the only way to determine that is to police it. Somehow.

Now, I don't necessarily mean that you literally need to have someone watching over people to make sure they do the right thing, and to pick up on infractions. You can do, of course, and in some cases that may be the right thing to do, but not always.

What you should do is decide how to make sure your standard is properly applied rather than just leaving it to chance.

Often, simple peer pressure is enough, especially if the working environment is collaborative. And if you've done a good job of making sensible and practical standards that the whole team buys in to and can see the benefits of, they will soon spot and correct problems.

Or you can take the more formal approach, for example by explicitly including standards checks into your QA process.

But, as with practicality, the "gold standard" to look for are those standards that are an integral part of normal working practice. In other words, you do it the right way because that is also the easiest way.

So many people see standards as constraints, as obstacles. I think that is usually because they've had a bad experience with the standards zealots.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Winter sunshine

It seems quite surreal. Watching winter sports live at the Olympics just a few miles away across the water, then stepping outside in t-shirt and shorts to give the front lawn its first trim of the year.

And it was a good day to get outside and progress one of the landscaping jobs left over from last year.

When we bulldozed a strip off the front lawn last year to make a parking area for the trailer, we half-demolished a very old rose bed. We really wanted to save the roses, so I built a new bed for them.

They seem to have survived the move very well. All of them produced blooms that same summer, which we honestly didn't expect.

Of course, that left a messy hole in the lawn which, one day, will be a shingle beach garden. I got as far as the landscaping ties to form the back edge, but the bit in the middle is still far from beach-like.

Today's little bit of progress was to dig out and re-route one of the lawn sprinklers that now lay within the boundary of the new bed.

This afternoon, sun still shining, we loaded up the bikes and drove down to the Lochside Trail for a bit of fresh air and exercise. And a snack at Mattick's Farm before heading back home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Meant to be?

When I look back at my journals from five years ago, it all seemed to come together as if it was meant to be. All the arrangements came together at the right time. Everything seemed to fall into place. We immediately felt settled and at home, no trace of homesickness then or since.

There was lots of good luck in the mix for sure, which made it all the more remarkable. Any one of a hundred things could have gone wrong ... but didn't.

I won't pretend that our experience was in any way representative. That would be unfair. It was our experience. Everyone's is different and not all stories have happy endings. And, to be fair, our experience included many obstacles, difficulties, and hard graft. It wasn't all plain sailing.

But there are some parts of "luck" that you make for yourselves, and some factors are entirely within your own control. For me, two huge factors are ... preparation, and expectations.

Preparation ...

Many members of my parents' and grandparents' generations emigrated in the years after WWII. They had absolutely no idea what they were going to find when they got off the boat. And they never expected to see their friends and family again.

That really was a leap into the unknown.

Today, we have the Internet.

Long before we left Guernsey, we'd arranged our first three months' accommodation and car rental. We'd taken virtual tours of many areas in and around Victoria with an eye to permanent housing. True, when we toured in the flesh we often got a very different perspective, but it did work for us in some important ways. When we arrived in Victoria, tired and jet-lagged, our apartment was already so familiar to us that we were able to settle straight in without a problem.

And the global village helps too. Many months ahead of time we consolidated our bank accounts into a bank with an international presence. Through them we were able to open up Canadian accounts, order cheque books, and transfer funds before we left Guernsey. And our main credit card was also held with an international company, which we were able to leverage once we'd landed. Things like that are worth thinking of very early on, because having an established relationship can help smooth the way.

Finally, and totally unglamourously, we paid close attention to simple logistics. Selling up and packing, winding up all our affairs in Guernsey, paperwork, travel and accommodation, kenneling and transporting the cats.

Moving is a project. It needs to be managed as such. List out everything that needs to be done. Organise things logically. Brainstorm to make sure nothing gets missed. What needs to happen, in what order, by whom, how far in advance? Write it down. Track it all. Check and double-check. Review every day, sometimes several times a day, to make sure nothing gets overlooked. It's a project. Maybe the most important one you'll ever do in your life.

So be prepared.

... And expectations ...

Wherever you make your home, life is hard. The world doesn't owe you a living, and changing countries and cultures will not change that universal truth.

If you come with unrealistic expectations, you are likely to have a hard time of it.

If you carry your problems with you, they will seek you out no matter where you settle.

Embrace the culture.

There will be differences. Expect them. There will be downsides and disappointments. Expect them too!

And there will be positive differences. Hopefully many of them. Embrace and celebrate them!

It may sound obvious, but don't expect to recreate your old life. Heck, why did you want to leave it in the first place?

This brings me on to one phenomenal piece of advice we read about before we moved: Before you move, make a list of all the things you are hoping to leave behind and all the things you are hoping to find.

Then, when things get tough, get out The List and remind yourself why you are doing this.

Monday, February 15, 2010

And the jury returns

The Secret Agent is revealed.

The agent is the awesome and deeply respected Nathan Bransford.

Part of me wants to sing, part wants to sink in despair.

I sing because there were parts of my submission he "liked a lot". Some bits were confusing, true, but any small grains of praise from the likes of Mr. Bransford are precious. We likesss it, Precious. Yesss, we does.

On the dark side, I already queried this story and got a form rejection from the same Mr. Bransford last summer, so I wasn't holding out much hope.

Pessimism confirmed shortly afterwards when the winning entry is revealed. But the winner was good. It had me hooked for sure, so I don't feel too bad.

And I still have some great comments to work from, and a renewed sense of direction.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No rest for the wicked

Back in Guernsey, oh so many years ago, we had a house which we had bought as a young, carefree ... and childless ... couple.

It did us very nicely, thank you. Plenty of room for parties and entertaining, and a garden big enough to enjoy yet small enough to be manageable.

Years passed. Children arrived. We started to feel the limitations. One of our objectives in moving away from Guernsey was to upgrade and have room to breathe. That, and the whole lifestyle / community to raise a family in / prospects for the future of course.

And we have it. Living space, decent sized rooms for the kids, and a back yard that we could only have dreamed about back then.

Of course, we then have to knuckle down and do something with all that space!

Project for 2006 - tree fort. Something I'd always wanted to build but which we simply didn't have room for in Guernsey.

2007, a tyre swing joined it, with a deck and seating area, to make that corner into the start of a proper adventure playground. Also made a swing seat for the grown-ups.

After a couple of years rest (Hah! If only!) I now have my marching orders for 2010. Seems they want a pirate ship now.

And I guess I'd better get on with it while they are still young enough to enjoy it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Feedback, feedback, feedback

Since Monday, I've been waiting for the Secret Agents posts to go up, and then for comments to start appearing. Of course I've been in there too to add critiques of my own (everyone posted is expected to pay their way by critiquing other people's submissions).

Some positive comments there (whew!) and also some consistent criticisms. I've had a feeling for some time that my opening pages might be letting me down, without being able to pinpoint why.

This deep focus on just the first page is bringing some fascinating insight.

I've already made a first pass at revising, mostly rearranging the order of the paragraphs I've already got, because most of the comments revolved around changes of pace destroying the tension. I need the images to build on each other, not work against each other.

For the next pass, I need to sink deeper into the main character's point of view.

Odd, though. When I look back on the first round of critiques of my first draft (nearly two years ago now) I've now gone back almost to what I had in the first place but which I'd subsequently rearranged in response to similar criticisms back then.

I said "almost". That first draft was way off too, but my corrections back then just introduced new problems. What I've now got is (I think) closer in spirit to what I first envisaged but avoids (I hope) the problems I had then.

Two cycling commutes this week, and the deer are out & about already.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Reasons to be cheerful

In the course of trying to get published, I follow loads of blogs related to publishing, by literary agents, publishers, and fellow authors. One of these is Miss Snark's First Victim, a writing blog by the mysterious Authoress.

Anonymous and unpublished, Authoress has nevertheless built up an impressive community of followers. And she must have some serious connections in the publishing world too, because every month or two she hosts a "secret agent" contest. This is where authors out there are invited to submit the first 250 words (basically the first page) of their completed novel to be critiqued by each other and by a mystery guest agent.

Let's be clear about this. Authors are forever hungry for feedback. And feedback from an industry professional is prized above all else.

So these contests are popular.

And Authoress limits entries to the first fifty received after she opens for submissions.

I've been looking out for these contests for a few months now, but each one specifies a list of genres accepted by the guest, and science fiction has not featured recently. So of course I was excited when I saw February's contest included my genre.

Submissions opened today at noon eastern time. That's 9am out here. I'm at work, but luckily no appointments. Email drafted and ready to send. Watch the blog for the post that confirms submissions are open. Don't want to rely on the clock, because the Authoress is the definitive judge of what "noon" is in the case, not necessarily what's on my computer, and anything arriving too soon will be disqualified.

There it is! Hit send. Wait. Wait some more. Go do some work.

Eventually get a confirmation, with a post number. I'm in!

Later looks at the blog showed that the fifty slots filled up in less than five minutes!

So, now my first page will be available for public ridicule critique. And by a real agent. Some of these contests have resulted in authors being signed up by the secret agents. That would be nice, but being realistic I'll settle for constructive criticism.

And we seem to have a resident hummingbird. We see it at the feeders pretty much every day we're around in daylight hours, so my guess is that it's there most days.

And the fish are still swimming.

Time for a celebratory curry (home-made, of course).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

(2005) We have a home

February 2005

Dear Aunt Agatha,

We are finally in! After nearly three months waiting, we picked up the keys to our house and took possession. It all felt a bit unreal at first, but we have very quickly found ourselves settling in.

After a few false starts we got the customs paperwork signed and back to the shipping company. Very relieved when it cleared customs OK, we had to be out of the apartment mid-February so had very little leeway for any delays. But the container delivery could not be arranged for a few days, so we had a big empty house at first.

All the utility arrangements worked out OK though, so we had power and water and phones. We started shuttling things up from downtown, like toys for the kids to keep themselves amused with, and picnics to eat while we pottered around. Ali quickly attacked the garden. The previous owners had done a lot of work inside, but the yard is still a huge mess. I've got months of work ahead of me to clear the heaps of stuff littering the back. There were two conifers at the front growing up through the deck and obscuring the bedroom windows downstairs. They are now gone.

By the way, the house is "upside down", with bedrooms downstairs and kitchen & living room upstairs. We both love the arrangement.

We were up at the house early on the day arranged to meet our container, only to get a phone call saying that the driver had had an accident and was in hospital! So, another day of pottering and buying yet more stuff.

Next day, more deliveries that Ali had arranged the previous month. Washer, dryer, microwave, and bedroom furniture. And Shaw connected up our cable and internet. Most of the apartment is now empty, other than what we need to cook and sleep.

Finally, the next day, the container arrived. That 40' container reversing into the driveway was the most welcome sight in the world. The three delivery men unloaded the whole thing in under four hours. Only a couple of minor breakages to report, and it was so, so good to see all our things again. All the furniture looks great in place and we can now start to turn the house into a home.

The kids completely burned themselves out that day. As soon as the outdoor toy box surfaced, they dived straight in and were soon running around the garage and garden all excited. It was a weird feeling for us, too, seeing all those familiar everyday things again that have been out of our lives for three life-changing months. A bit like coming home after a very long vacation.

Well, the place is habitable, and we've cleaned out the apartment. There is still a vast amount of unpacking and sorting out still to do, but we are getting on top of it.

And we finally feel we can look forward to some stability in this new country that we call home.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...