Get back (part 3)

May 30, 2012

So I’m back at work now, and settling back in; unsurprisingly, some things are the same, some are different. I’ve got the same job title and job description as I had before; I’m sitting at the same desk; my team-mates are mostly the same people. However I’m now working part-time (80%); I’m working from home on one of those days; I’m working on different projects with a different emphasis; and there are other, bigger changes on the horizon.

Admin first: working part-time is, so far, a bit like working full-time except I run out of time to do everything slightly sooner. In my experience work is never really ‘finished’ and will always expand to overfill the time available. I do find that it still takes me by surprise slightly when Thursday is the end of the week (particularly as I’ve shifted my hours earlier so I’m leaving at 4 to pick baby up from nursery), but I’ll adapt to that in time. I also find that I simply can’t finish off odd bits and pieces in the evenings and at weekends as I used to, because at home baby takes up all my time. On balance, I think that’s probably no bad thing! Working from home one day is useful from a work point of view as it means I can work longer hours that day (I don’t have to travel) and I don’t get interrupted all the time; it’s useful from a personal point of view as it means I can have lunch with my husband (who has that day off work — he’s also gone part-time) and my baby, and give her an extra feed or two in the daytime.

As for the actual work: the emphasis has changed because a) the work our team is doing has changed, and b) my hours have changed. As a team we’re doing a lot more Drupal work, and my line-managers wanted me to focus on that; they (quite reasonably) argued that if I was only going to be working 4 days a week I should specialise a bit more rather than trying to do a bit of everything. This makes perfect sense, but I enjoy being a generalist and sometimes I feel as though the new regime is going to be a bit more limiting; still, there’s plenty of interest to be had in it at the moment, and we’ll see how it goes. I had barely touched Drupal before I went on leave, now I’m one of three ‘Drupal people’ on the team: it’s been a steep learning curve, and one that’s been frustrating at times. I’ll explain a bit more about the situation as I think it illustrates some of the problems of team/project work, but also how the personnel of a general web development team can shape the projects that the team takes on (and vice versa).

Our team handles web projects across the University. It does other things too, but the web stuff is what’s relevant here. Once upon a time, J (one of my line-managers) was our only Drupal developer; this was sort of a hangover from him having been the ‘Web Design Consultancy’ in the department, but let’s not get too far into organisational history or genealogy here. Anyway, J started making lots of good sites in Drupal, and people around the University started asking him for more of them. He became very busy. When he hired T (another Drupal developer) to cover my maternity leave, he doubled the capacity for this sort of project; but it’s one of those things where increasing the capacity actually increases the demand, in a sort of virtuous circle: more people get good sites built for them, more people tell other people, more people want us to build sites for them. By the time I came back J and T had developed an efficient system for rolling out new Drupal sites, and demand had increased even more, and their workload had increased to the point where they were having to turn away projects because there simply wasn’t time. The idea was that I would come back, learn Drupal, and take some of the strain off J and T; but of course they were often too busy to show/teach me the necessary stuff to allow me to do that. Obviously I did my best to make progress on my own, but there were times when I was frustratingly stalled. Fortunately, that’s getting much better now, and it’s another virtuous circle: the more I learn, the more I can do on my own, so the more I can actually help ease the workload rather than just increasing it. On the other hand, maybe it won’t ease the workload: maybe it will just continue to increase the demand, in the same way that building a bigger motorway actually just increases traffic. All I know is that personally I’d much rather have too much to do than be unable to get on with anything.

The bigger changes are also interesting: the University’s three central IT departments are merging to form one big department. The three departments are:

  1. the department I work for, which provides IT services that support academic computing
  2. the department that provides IT services for the business/administration side of the University
  3. the department that provides IT services for departments A and B

I won’t go into details about the merger, but it will hopefully mean lots of positive changes: more streamlined processes, less duplication of effort, less development of incompatible systems, and — hopefully — lots of new opportunities as people move roles and new positions are created. In a way it’s an excellent time to be coming back to work: starting again has meant thinking a lot more explicitly about what I’m doing, what I want to do, and how I want to do it, and that’s a good state of mind to be in when new opportunities are arising. Of course, it’s a good state of mind to be in at other times too; but in general it’s quite easy to put off strategic thinking — in terms of the actual work, or in terms of your job/career — until all the day-to-day stuff is finished, even when we know that the daily to-do list will never actually be finished.

So, the ‘year off’ wasn’t a holiday, but it has been a ‘break’ in some ways: a break from the routine, a break in the endlessly-refilling task-list, a long enough break from some ongoing projects that I’m (thankfully) no longer seen as the only go-to person for them. There are valid reasons to worry about a break in your employment record, but in the long run I think this break will turn out to have done me more good than harm.

Get back (part 2)

May 29, 2012

Before having a baby, I’d heard lots of people say that you get more organised when you have kids. “But I’m just not organised,” I said. “You get organised. You have to,” they’d say. They said the same about learning to sleep at any time, anywhere: “You get good at napping. You just have to.”

I don’t think either of these things magically happen when you have kids, or develop as a result of post-pregnancy hormones, or necessarily happen at all. When it came to the power-napping, unsurprisingly, I found that being stressed and chronically sleep-deprived made it harder to sleep effectively; even when I was exhausted I couldn’t just drop off at the drop of a hat, and I still can’t. When it came to organisation, however, it wasn’t so much that it “just happened” as that I realised I was going to have to change the way I got things done (and the way I didn’t get things done) or be even more frustrated and miserable than I was already becoming. Fortunately, time-management feels considerably more within my control than sleep.

It soon became apparent that having a “fussy” baby made it hard to get anything done, including the sort of procrastination that usually gets in the way of getting anything done; I gradually realised that dithering and disorganisation were luxuries I could no longer easily afford, and if I wanted to keep my head above water (let alone do the unnecessary-but-interesting things) I was going to have to be much more ruthless about my to-do list in several ways. Here’s what I learned (all “common sense”, of course, but sometimes you have to be hit around the head with common sense before it really starts to penetrate the brain):

  • WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. I used to have written-down lists, but also hold loads of things in my head. The combination of sleep-deprivation, stress, a lack of structure to my days and weeks, and constant interruptions meant that I just couldn’t hold as many things in my head any more. I kept a notepad near me at all times, scrawled things on scraps of paper, emailed myself with typo-riddled one-finger-typed emails, wrote things on my hand… anything to get things downloaded out of unreliable short-term memory. The one thing that really didn’t work for notetaking was the ‘Notes’ application on the iPhone: once a note was made and saved there was nothing to remind me of its existence.
  • Don’t put things on the list unless you really want or need to do them. If you only have very limited time, you don’t want to waste it working out which of the things on the to-do list are actually interesting or necessary.
  • If you’re not going to do something, whether because you can’t or you don’t want to, say so sooner rather than later. The realisation that the magical period of my life “when I have more time” isn’t actually going to materialise for several years (if ever) has made it easier to give the gift of ‘no’.
  • Put tasks on the list, not projects. This is absolutely standard GTD, but when you might only have 5 minutes to do a task, you don’t want to spend that time figuring out what the next task is. (I keep thinking that it would be useful to divide my to-do list into things I can do in 5 minutes, things I can do in 10 minutes, things that need half an hour, or an hour, etc… but in practice I don’t have time to do that kind of fiddling about.)
  • When you do something, just do it. I have a tendency to get things mostly-done or even actually-done but then dither about finishing touches, feel nervous about submitting them for publication/evaluation, and so on. This even applies to emails to friends: until recently I had over 50 emails in my ‘postponed’ folder. I soon realised that putting things aside to finish later, or agonise about later, was just like not doing them at all (but with more wasted time & lurking guilt).

These days I joke that I have two to-do lists: things that are due yesterday, and things that I’ll do when baby grows up. It’s not quite that bad, but there are definitely things that simply aren’t going to get done any time soon. That’s OK: I wanted to have a child, another person to talk to and interact with; I’m not just putting my life on hold until she goes away, because she’s part of my life now and I hope she’ll never completely “go away” (though obviously she’ll get more independent as time goes on). She’s quite enough of a project for anyone. The big realisation for me was that when it came to some of the stuff that had been rattling around my to-do list for ages, if I was honest with myself, I wasn’t going to do most of those things anyway. We’re not talking enormous life-changing projects, we’re talking books to read, blog posts to write, things to make… things that could easily been done, or at least started, by setting aside time for them. I hadn’t done them yet because either I didn’t want to do them enough, or I was afraid of starting them and failing. I was holding them in the back of my head as a thing that I could do if I had enough time, because that made me feel as though I was full of potential, when in practice I was just full of lists.

What would you do if you’d done everything on your list? That is, if all your to-do lists were magically cleared of essential or immediate tasks, what projects would you start (or finish)?

Get back (Part 1)

May 28, 2012

When I had my first baby, in April 2011, I took a year’s maternity leave — the longest I’ve ever been away from work/study since starting school about 30 years ago. I’ve now been back at work for a month and a half, and it feels like a good time to reflect on things like how my ‘year off’ affected me, how being a parent has changed my attitude to work, and how it feels coming back after such a long absence.

Let’s just clear one thing up: a year’s maternity leave is not a year’s holiday (and thankfully I didn’t get too many jokes along those lines from my co-workers!). This isn’t a parenting blog and I’m not going to go into details about looking after a new baby, but for the first two or three months my life revolved around feeding myself and my baby, changing her nappies, and trying to grab some sleep wherever possible: I felt like I was doing pretty well if I managed to get dressed in the morning (or indeed the afternoon…) and get some food for myself at some point during the day, let alone actually do anything else for myself. After the first few months, once the feeding and changing was basically under control, I ended up spending half my waking moments just walking around to keep baby comforted (and to keep myself from going stir-crazy).

Anyway, it was pretty lonely once my husband had gone back to work (i.e. after the first 3 weeks), and I don’t know how I’d have coped without a) my mum, and b) Twitter. Twitter? Yes: Twitter on my iPhone meant that I could keep in touch with the ‘outside world’, even when I only had one hand free, even in the middle of the night when baby was feeding for as long as 2 hours at a time; I could tweet my despair (and, eventually, elation and ‘proud parent’ boasts as well) and be sure that a friend or kindly stranger would hear and respond. Tweets from friends and strangers provided me with a digital social life; heaps of advice (solicited or otherwise…) on all aspects of baby-wrangling; much-needed laughs; easily-digestible updates on what was happening in my area, in my profession, and in the wider world; and interesting articles to read on the occasions when I had time/energy/awakeness to engage with something longer than 140 characters. Thanks to Twitter I felt as though I hadn’t completely lost touch with my friends, my pre-baby life, my professional life: I don’t like talk of “getting your life back” after a baby (newsflash: your children are actually part of your life), and I wanted and needed to spend time bonding with my baby as much as she wanted and needed me to, but there were plenty of good things about Life Before Baby that I didn’t want to lose completely — and it turns out I didn’t have to lose them completely. I know there are valid concerns that being on Twitter (or SMS, or whatever) all the time does mean running the risk of being only ‘partially present’, and making children feel they’re not getting enough attention … but while this is definitely a real worry with older babies and children, I’d happily bet you a box of doughnuts (within arm’s reach, please, so I can eat them without disturbing my sleeping/nursing baby) that a 4-month-old who’s asleep in the sling or half-asleep while nursing honestly doesn’t know or care if their mum is reading Twitter out of the corner of her eye.

The other good thing about Twitter is that it really only needs one hand: a lot of the time I was limited to one-handed internet use, which was an interesting exercise (perhaps more UI/UX/mobile/web designers and developers need to include breastfeeding mothers in their user-testing groups, though said mothers may be a bit too busy…). While the touchscreen interface doesn’t require two hands for shift-clicking or similar, I was surprised and dismayed to find how many things were massively more awkward with only one hand for holding the iPhone and operating the touchscreen.

Before baby arrived I’d been used to being able to go and do something on my laptop if it was impossible on a mobile, and I’d been willing to spend more time wrestling with bad usability if the goal was important to me. Confronted with enforced mobile-only web access and very limited time and attention span, I found that I was much more likely to give up if a site made it difficult for me to get where I was trying to go. I also found it much harder to write emails: limited to one-finger typing on an iPhone it was hard to avoid top-posting, tiresome to type more than a couple of sentences, and — if I did manage to type something longer — hard to keep in mind what I’d already written when it all disappeared off the tiny screen after a couple of sentences.

(As an aside, the sling I mentioned above — a Moby wrap — was far and away the best item of baby ‘equipment’ I bought. It’s a handsfree kit for a baby! The rare times when baby was soundly asleep in the sling while I was at home were basically the only times I got to use both hands to do anything online.)

Particularly enlightening (and depressing) was trying to fill in web surveys: YouGov, Mumsurvey, and Bounty’s ‘Word of Mum’ panel all produced surveys which were more or less uniformly ghastly on a mobile browser, though I often battled through them anyway for the dubious payoffs of a few more ‘points’ in my account (probably never to be cashed in for any real material gain) and the chance for my opinion to be counted. Page after page of text that didn’t wrap to the smaller screen and had to be scrolled from side to side; ‘text’ embedded in images which didn’t resize nicely; tables which had a choice of zoom between ‘whole table’ and ‘single out-of-context cell’ so I had to keep scrolling back and forth to check I was “agreeing strongly” or “disagreeing strongly” with the right thing; radio buttons so tiny that a baby’s finger would have been too big to click them reliably; and — most frustratingly of all — drag-and-drop ‘put these things in order’ questions which were actually impossible on a touchscreen (these usually made their appearance over halfway through a survey that I couldn’t save and go back to on a non-touchscreen device).

With all the things I was trying to do online, I noticed that the hard bit was contributing and creating. It was easy enough to read my email, read online articles, write short replies, tick boxes on surveys… but writing enough to start an email conversation (let alone make a blog post or write an article) was difficult. I felt constantly frustrated by how difficult it was to find time/hands/energy to write anything, to make anything, to do anything except consume other people’s creativity. This is another place where Twitter really came into its own: it’s easier to feel you’re contributing to a conversation — even being creative — despite only contributing 140 characters, in a medium where everybody’s contribution is limited to 140 characters. It also feels immediate without relying on actually synchronous conversation or realtime attention. I did make other attempts to participate in ‘conversations’ online — I tried to follow IWMW 2011 as a remote participant, with some success, but the chances were high that I’d miss something crucial in a live streaming talk: a tiny baby’s interruptions tend to be immediate and insistent, difficult to defer even for a few seconds. I also took part in some research on how people use Twitter, though I took baby with me to one of the two interviews (she slept through most of it in my sling) and the other interview took place over Skype early in the morning, before my husband went to work, so he could look after baby for the 20 minutes or so that it took. All in all, though, my Twitter timeline was my main outlet for any kind of urge to create, contribute, or even speak. That’s why I say I don’t know what I’d have done without it. A year is a long time to remain silent.