h-notes ∈ February 2021

Some things I was thinking and doing in February 2021.

What is work if it’s not in a team

A thing I hadn’t anticipated about becoming a full-time engineering manager was that I’d no longer really be in a team. I’m not the only engineering manager at work so I’m not the only person doing this kind of work, and we do get together to talk about this work, but it’s not the same as being on an agile team and I think that’s why it’s taken me a while to get into it.

I’ve been a developer for ~20 years, and mostly I’ve been on teams of people working together on something. For someteen of those years the teams I’ve been on have been practicing some variant of agile, so not only has my day-to-day work had a certain rhythm to it (daily standups, moving work across boards), my weekly or fortnightly work has too (planning meetings, retros, show’n’tells). I don’t have any of that anymore.

Obvs, we can debate if agile is a good way of working or not, but it was a way of working. And now I kinda have to make it all up as I go.

Or not.

Thinking about it on more than a surface level, my week does have a rhythm to it. Lots of 1-to-1s with people, writing up a team NPS summary for the previous week, the weekly engineering managers and engineering leads group meetings. But it’s not the same as being on an agile team. There’s something different about the nature of my work now.

As a manager most of my work is delivered solo1

On a team most of my work has been delivered via consensus

Most obviously I would raise a pull request for some change I wanted to make to the system and await approval from a peer before I could merge it. There’d often be back and forth on some detail, but once merged I’d know that at least someone on the team agreed with my approach.

Then there were the planning2 sessions where we’d agree as a group approaches to the work and break things down into small chunks. And any number of other opportunities to work with one or more of my peers, directly or indirectly: pairing, doing reviews of pull requests, mobbing, whiteboarding designs and technical approaches, etc. There are so many ways that the technical work of shipping software is a collaborative and consensus building process.

As a manager I really don’t get any of that. I chat to people. I write documents. I hope I’m doing a good job, but the cadence of finding out how it’s going is significantly different. I’ll suggest something to someone in a coaching or mentoring sense, and then we’ll follow up on it in a week or two. This feedback loop runs over aeons.

It feels useful to reflect on this and point at the differences between now and the past. There are no easy answers, but at least I can start working out what to do about it, or how to embrace it.

Perhaps I could just be less needy?

An economic theory

When it snowed again this month we donned our chunky hiking boots for the treacherous stomp to and from the nursery. T doesn’t get much use from hers so we were fairly surprised to find that after one outing the soles on both her boots had completely split and were flapping about like the boots of a cartoon tramp.

Being a nerd I was immediately reminded of “the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness”, except, these weren’t cheap boots. They were fairly expensive when we bought them, and now they’ve just turned to dust through lack of use. So I don’t know where that leaves my economic understanding of the world.

A simple recipe

I made the first ratatouille of the year. I love making ratatouille, not least because it’s about the only dish I know how to do make with an aubergine.

Well, I say “ratatouille”, but I don’t know if what I make actually is ratatouille. It’s a certainly a tomato, aubergine, & courgette stew that I call “ratatouille”. It’s one of the few dishes I can make that I’ve never followed a recipe for, just sort of thrown something together based on culinary understanding I already have. Something like this:

  1. chop onion + garlic small
    • maybe a carrot? or a leek? some celery?
    • sometimes I’ll keep a bit of onion and cut into disks to add later for some stringy texture
    • yes, basically a mirepoix if you want to get technical, you massive chef-nerd
  2. sweat it off in a big casserole
    • you could add some tomato purée at this point
    • I’ve been known to add an anchovy or two here for a bit of a fancy zing
  3. add some dry vermouth, or white wine, and let it sigh3 off
    • champagne or prosecco in a pinch,
    • I used elderflower cordial once, I guess because we were being dry
  4. chop courgettes and an aubergine into rough chunks
    • or disks, maybe a mix of the two; rustic is my aesthetic
    • maybe roast a pepper and chop that too
    • tried using up some spare cabbage once … it was fine but I probably won’t repeat the experiment
  5. got any fresh tomatoes? chop them4 up too.
    • quarters for cherry tomatoes, chunks for anything bigger - you want to see these extra tomatoes
  6. add all the chopped veg and give it a birl about for a while
  7. pour in a can of chopped tomatoes; more birling
  8. put some stock powder in the can and top it up and add that
    • if it was still a ratatouille up to this point, it is almost certainly no longer one now 🤷‍♂️
    • you could probably add some red wine now if you wanted, I don’t think I ever have
    • if you roasted a pepper earlier, you should pour in the oil from the roasting pan now. I hope you didn’t already it wash it because you’re all about the mise-en-place as if your home kitchen is masterchef.
  9. pop the lid on and cook it all off until it’s less liquidy
    • how much less liquidy? up to you, innit? it shouldn’t be a soup, but if it’s dry you’ve gone too far
  10. at some point I’d put some herbs and seasoning in, maybe “herbes de provence” or “herbes de maquis” or whatever
  11. eat

“Spiral” / «Engrenages»

We spotted that all eight series of French police & justice system procedural Spiral (or Engrenages for the francophones) is currently available on BBC iPlayer. We’d seen series 1-4 back when buying DVDs was a thing, but hadn’t seen later series because we hadn’t bought them. So we watched S5 this month, and aim to watch the remaining 3 series over the next few months.

It’s a weird show for several reasons:

  1. The French justice system is firmly in the “uncanny valley” of what I expect and understand of a justice system based on the English and Scottish systems I’ve lived with, or the American systems I’ve seen in other media. Sometimes we just don’t really understand what is going on or why, and it’s clearly down to some quirk of the French system we’re unaware of as «les etrangers».

  2. It tends to end fairly abruptly and without tying up loose ends. Each series follows a single case, and although it doesn’t always seem like all the characters stories will be related to it, they all come together eventually. This single case will be wrapped up, but often the other subplots will just be left hanging. If we’re lucky they’ll be continued in the next series, but equally, they might not be. S1 in particular was the most abrupt, but S5 definitely has skin in the game.

    It’s quite nice, I guess, to not have everything presented in a tidy package, but the series finales can be frustrating. They don’t wrap everything up and end abruptly, but they’re not direct cliff-hangers; the first episode of the next series won’t pick up 5 minutes later, and may not refer to some sub-plots again at all.

  3. It’s set in Paris, but it’s really grimy. This Paris is not the one of picture-postcard Haussmann boulevards and architecture. It spends a lot of time in the suburbs and estates. Other than occasional shots of/in the Palais de Justice, we don’t really see much in the way of grandeur at all. Watching this would probably be a good prophylactic against Paris Syndrome.

Anyway, as this glowing review attests, it’s very good and you should watch it if you have access to it.

Watching it also helps put my ~1.5yrs of daily Duolingo French into perspective. I can only just barely follow along if they say simple things slowly. It’s a real shame more of the crimes don’t involve «les chouettes».

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle ♻️

Like everyone else we’ve recently bought a few foodie home delivery things that are fancier than a standard take-away. As a consequence we’ve built up a pile of Woolcool packaging. I was loathe to chuck them out, and we don’t have a compost to put them in either, so they’ve just been living in our increasingly full cupboard under the stairs along with other packaging and boxes5.

It finally got to the point where I figured I should do something about it. The internet is awash with crafting tips6, but also, Woolcool themselves have a circular economy thing were you can return them for free and they’ll re-use them properly. That’s pretty … cool 😏…, and I do wonder if more companies couldn’t start doing this with their packaging.

Our weekly organic veg-box does it for some of their products with their “club zero” service, but not all of them. There’s a rise of plastic free supermarkets and bring-your-own-container refill stations, but again, not everything, and they tend to be places I have to go out of my way to visit. Yes, I can get refills of pasta from that one shop that’s a couple of bus rides away, or I can just pop to the Tesco express that’s a 5 minute walk away. I just wish all this stuff was more joined up and convenient.

I don’t know enough about carbon and crops and fairtrade to understand the algebra of what the right choices are here. I should buy organic, but the organic bananas at Tesco come in plastic bags of 5, whereas the normal ones are plastic-free. I should use the refill station at Planet Organic for pasta and rice and such-like, but it’s a 20-minute bus journey away. How does that compare to the equivalents in recyclable plastic bags in my walkable shops?

As ever, crippled by indecision, sometimes I walk and recycle, and sometimes I take the bus and reuse. And sometimes I bulk order 5kg bags of pasta online and stuff it into my already over-full under-stair cupboard.

The impermanence of friendship

In the middle of the month one of Rs friends left nursery to move to Hertfordshire. For some reason they’d latched onto each other early on in the “you can walk now” room and became inseparable. At one point he was moved from the “is confident, but still needs help with loads of stuff” room they were both in at the time to the “pretty much just needs help with going to the loo” room. Until R was also moved our daily updates at pick up time included tales of R and him howling at each other through the adjoining doors of these two rooms.

We seeded the situation throughout the month: “M is moving to a new house soon”, “it’ll be exciting to video call M and see his new house”, “you know M’s new house is far away”, “who is your best friend at nursery apart from M”, “what present will we get M for leaving”, etc. On the day, there weren’t many tears (a disco and cake at nursery no-doubt helped), just a hug and off they bounded.

It’s impossible to know what will cause R to have a feeling, or how deep it’ll be felt. so we keep waiting for the realisation to hit R properly: it’s not a holiday, M is effectively gone from her life now.

We’re braced for impact.

A kitchen upgrade

After years of taking toast out and tenting the two slices on the plate to let the steam escape, we finally bought a toast rack. This is completely boring, but does let me link to the single piece of culinary writing that’s had the biggest impact on my kitchen skills, and, dare I say it, life.

“Perfect Toast” by Delia Smith

Before reading this I always wondered how hotel or B&B toast always seemed so much better, so much crunchier; after reading this I knew why. Turns out, a little bit of knowledge does go a long way, and there are deep technical reasons for doing things a certain way.

Anyway, buy a toast rack. They mostly all look horrible and evoke grim mornings in a motorway services café, but they are amazing. Not only will your toast be better, but because two pieces of toast look sad in a half filled rack, you’ll make more to fill it up and so you’ll eat more of it!

Delicious, crunchy, perfect toast.


Only 3 times this month. I’d blame the cold, but I went running that weekend, I just couldn’t be bothered at the end of the month to at least make it once a week. Must try harder.

There was some chat in the work #running slack channel about ultra-marathons, and this made me a bit sad. I don’t think I’ll ever do an ultra, but it would be nice to get back to the fitness and confidence I had in running half-marathons and finally make it to a full marathon. I really want to do the loch ness marathon at some point (event sponsorship by Baxter’s notwithstanding obvs) so, at the risk of sounding like an edgy sports-brand slogan I’m going to have to Be. More. Intentional.


I managed 5 books this month7. One was a slim comic, one was a complete comic series, two were fiction, and one was a memoir. Excitingly, the memoir was an actual paper and binding book. It felt good to sit down with a physical object and just focus on turning the pages. The others were all digital and I snuck a couple of pages into whatever I was doing; pushing R on the swings, one-handedly making dinner, an alternative to doomscrolling while trying to tune out PJ Peppa Patrol. It was certainly harder to find the time, but it felt like I was more engaged in the physical book because of it, and that was nice.