• Goodbye Argyll


    Yesterday, after five years, I said Goodbye to Argyll Environmental and left my job of Senior Developer Team Leader behind me.

    What have I learnt over those five years?

    The key thing is learning about the Plain English Campaign. I was fortunate that they came in and gave us an introduction on how to write clearly. This made a massive difference to how I write and communicate. It gave me the confidence that clear communication isn’t all about long words and complicated sub-clauses. It reminded me that usually when we communicate, we’re trying to share an idea. It isn’t, or at least it shouldn’t be, about showing off.

    Building on this I came up with a way to explain our technology to non-technologists by telling a story and using hand-drawn robots in an Ed Emberley style to illustrate it. I’ve also used this story and robot method with people from a technology background. And it has worked well for me. Yesterday, amongst the replies I got to my Farewell email, I got this from a member of the technology team based in Exeter:

    You (and your robots!) have an amazing talent at explaining complex things in very straight-forward ways, and I’ve learnt a lot about communication from you, whether you realise or not. You’ve also brought a sense of fun to everything you’ve ever explained to me, which is so refreshing

    Reading that made me feel very happy.

    What do I feel that I have achieved?

    The most significant thing is leading the technology part of the project to move us into our shiny new office. Arriving at work the morning after we’d relocated the business and migrated the production systems and seeing the team get on with their work as if nothing had changed was such a good feeling.

    But I have to say that the most rewarding thing has been using technology as a tool to improve the quality of our consultants day to day lives. Trying to remove the drudge and repetition from their work freeing them up to use their brains for far greater things.

    Sounds pretty good, why am I leaving?

    For the final year or so I’d become far too thinly spread across too many roles and projects. Nothing seemed to be changing in the organisation to free up additional resources. And I noticed that my standards had started to slip about what I thought was acceptable. I didn’t want to become that person.

    What do I think I’ll miss?

    I’m going to miss the people. For the past five years, I’ve spent time surrounded by environmental consultants, the people who use the outputs from software I’ve produced. Being that close to my users has been brilliant. Watching the team understand, or if I’ve got it wrong fail to understand, what an error message means so that they can solve problems themselves has been a great way to learn. And I think I’ve crafted better error messages as a result. They have challenged me to learn more about communication, to work harder to explain technology simply so that non-technologists can understand it. This experience has been transformational for me. And it’s made me realise that I really enjoy it and want to do more of it.

    What am I going to next?

    Short term: I’m giving myself a couple of months of deliberate downtime. I’m planning on visiting some nearby National Trust properties, go to some exhibitions, try out the new Brighton bike scheme, and maybe actually learn some of our choir songs for this term.

    Longer term: I’d like to do something that builds on the communication of ideas thing I mentioned earlier. Something that uses my rediscovered love of words, language, and stories as a core part of my day to day work life. Ideas and suggestions welcomed!

  • Sea glass

    We spent a lovely week in Eyemouth, just north of the England/Scotland border in September. The beach was about 100m from the front door of our rental property so we spent a lot of time down there with the dog. One morning I spotted something glistening in the sunlight. A piece of sea glass. It had been a while since I’d last seen any. So I picked it up. Over the course of that week, I found another couple of pieces. And then I remembered reading about Seaham, on the Durham coast. Our next stop was East Yorkshire, so driving to Seaham would only add an hour or so to our journey. And so we did.

    The sea glass I collected

    Seaham Harbour was the home of the Londonderry Bottleworks. Based on what I’ve read at the end of every day discarded and waste glass was dumped into the North Sea. After a century or so of being subjected to tide after tide it gets thrown up on the beach. In a new smooth form. And there is plenty of it. We spent about an hour or so on the beach. And there were bits of sea glass all along it. In different colours. I found it absorbing and didn’t want to stop. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

    Sorted and displayed in the sunshine

    I sorted my favourite pieces. Washed and lightly oiled them. And they’re now in a small bowl on my bathroom windowsill. And they make me smile every time I look at them.

    I love the industrial waste element of them. The idea that waste has been transformed into small objects of beauty and delight through nature doing its thing. And I love the subtle colours of my little bowl of them. The pale blues, the not quite clear ones, the slightly more aqua ones.

    If you’re ever in the area, I’d thoroughly recommend stopping for an hour and seeing what treasures you can find just washed up on a beach in County Durham.

  • It is likely that

    It’s been a while since I last wrote about error messages. But it is still a subject dear to my heart. I still find error messages one the most important part of an application to get right. And I still spend quite a lot of time considering how best to word something to give the user a fighting chance of fixing the problem themselves.

    I was testing some work done by one of my developers last week. It is part of a back-end application collecting data from various sources and pulling it together into one complete record. It then does some validation to make sure we have everything we need before moving on. The only time it tells our user anything is if the complete record isn’t as complete as we need it to be.

    So a set of my tests were about checking the validation. What happens if one of the data sources isn’t there? What happens if a piece of data is missing? That kind of thing. So I removed a piece of information and ran the application. It told me that a

    “It is likely that <piece of information> is absent”.

    So it functionally worked. I couldn’t force the application to use the data. But I didn’t like the error message. It didn’t tell me what to do. And it wasn’t definitive. And actually, I find absent a strange word in error messages - though that could be me.

    We had a conversation about it. We considered what we wanted the user to do if they got this message. We decided that we wanted them to find the piece of data and put it in the source system. And we knew that it would fix it. So we re-worded the error message to be more definitive and helpful. It now says “<piece of information> must be supplied” which I find to be much more pleasing.

    If anybody knows of any open source projects that could do with some error message help, let me know. I have some spare time coming up, and I could help out.

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