Hello world!

I just love that title, it reminds me of the first program you ever write in any programming language, first attempted in Basic on a ZX Spectrum by yours truly at the tender age of 11…

Anyway, more importantly, before I ramble on: Welcome to my journal site!

Read more about me on the ‘About Tess Barnes’ page link.

This blog covers more than one area of interest so if you’re here for more than just [code] you might also want to try one of the other blog sections in the sidebar.

3 years and counting

If I don’t make time for my wellness I will be forced to make time for my illness. This week I definitely had to learn this. I’m having to own up internally to having a weakness in the face of Strep Throat and needing to be extra vigilant in the winter months of the year to avoid getting it.

Having clear boundaries for myself on my remit (even if no one else does) and making sure these are understood by my colleagues are a great way to avoid scope creep and show trust in others. The clarity and strength of these boundaries helps me prioritise and helps me to give up guilt when things don’t go as planned, especially in areas I’m not expected to control.

Taking on additional lead responsibilities over the last year has also changed who I think my team is (and who my support team is; they are no longer the same thing). I’m continually reminded that you can become part of the account team, client liaison team, architecture team, hiring team, training team and line management team as well as the engineering team, sometimes (but hopefully not often) all in the same week. Getting the balance wrong is an easy ticket to burnout, or at least to you treating your constitution like your dump stat. Getting it right is a motivating spread of variety.

number 3
number 3 by Leo Reynolds (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On a really positive note, this week I celebrated 3 years of working as a senior engineer for Made Tech. I joined as an experienced engineer but a complete novice in the public sector and now I can’t imagine working in the private sector again. It’s not without its challenges but the rewards of bringing citizen-facing, positive impact are bigger than any sales bell or black friday success. Putting the career progression ladder to the side for a while, in favour of learning new domains, technologies and ways of working, was the right decision for me. All the progress I make from here is built on broader and even stronger foundations. 

Light: a many faceted prompt

One of the prompts from the weekly photo challenge I am following this year was “Light”. It’s the first one where I couldn’t simply be happy to take one shot; my mind raced with a multitude of possibilities. Even putting aside “carefree” and “lightweight” (falling blossoms are beyond my photographic skills right now), there are so many favourites to choose from as light can mean so much…

Light can bring out a shine

Lesser celandine in early spring light

Light can be bright and bring sparkle

River water over weir stones catching the light amongst dark trees

Light can define sharpness

Urban punk
A proud teasel “punk” in an urban setting

Light can reveal the hidden

Self portrait by light revealed
By sunlight revealed – a self portrait

Light rays can penetrate more silently than anything else

Light rays can slice through the river without a single ripple

though refraction shows we cannot trust everything we see, especially when caustic

Caustics in shallow water

Light can bring translucence to hint at delicacy

Young elder leaves
Sunlight revealing the translucence of new elder leaves, a few days after bud burst

and also make the translucent appear opaque

Opacity of water
Movement plus sunlight brings an opacity to water

or to become a mirror to bring tranquility to the wildest of hearts

Riverbank reflected
Riverbank reflected – home to otters, wrens and bumblebees

Stepping toward the light

This has been a week of juggling and deliberate switching. I’ve found that being whole hearted in one activity and taking a breath (and some notes) before the next brings best results. Getting distracted with updates on the other things just weakens those boundaries and my energy just leaks out all over the place. Bring clear and honest about my boundaries and where my focus will be helps others be kind to me and get more clear focus in their day too. Most of the time a response does not have to be immediate and asking if tomorrow or next week is ok is a great way to take control.

It’s also been a week of strong opinions and creative ideas. This leaves me feeling buoyant but is most useful when those opinions and ideas are loosely held. A key lesson learned this week was the initial summary of a situation and the written confirmation were quite different. If I was deeply wedded to my initial assumptions it would have been quite an emotional effort to change my thinking in the face of new evidence. I’m so glad I’m comfortable, indeed strangely excited to say “my assumptions need to go out the window“ as I know the following ideas will always be a much better fit for the challenge at hand. I think I’d find it much harder to be a consultant without this skill.

Monday brought a chance at a rarer experience, the chance to sit back and observe another colleague facilitate a training session we’d put together. I got to see how they tackle discussion, questions and time keeping. We also ran a mini retro afterwards to talk about things we’d do differently to make it even better, and also how to write up the session for other facilitators to follow us on the path we are carving.

In the next few weeks I’m expecting to consider that aspect of engineering quite a bit where we pick up prototype work: how to make it easier for people follow after. Key stakeholders for proof of concept are usually counted as product owners and end users. However, having been on the receiving end of assumptions about production releases of prototypes, I believe the engineers who build from (rather than on) the work you’ve done are valuable stakeholders too. 

I’ll also be making more of the lighter evenings when travelling – if only to enjoy sights like these…

Lighter evenings
Colourful reflections of lights of the social hub that is the bottom of Wind St in Swansea


Over halfway through February and I’m not quite sure how we got here! Much more time on a client site and the associated travel and time away from home has probably been a factor. Time for a double edition of week notes then…

I’ve spent some time with colleagues devising and kicking off a series of refresher training sessions. The aim is to help all levels of engineers talk the same language and follow a few common fundamental principles once they join a client delivery together. Not everyone has had the privilege in past jobs to work well in pairs or follow a test driven development approach whether they are entry level or senior. Learning together creates bonds that help people thrive within and across deliveries. After only one out the five sessions delivered, I’m humbled to find that many more engineers agree with me and want to take part than expected. There’s a waiting list and expectations of a re-run and additional new sessions in the future. Not bad for a toe-in-the-water experiment! I would not have been able to spin this up so easily alongside delivery commitments without access to the amazing collection of learning hours made available by Emily Bache and the other coaches involved in Samman Technical Coaching. Finding my own confidence to step up and address these issues has also been a big benefit of working with Emily and Clare Sudbery late last year.

This is just one of the parallel streams going on in my life and career just now and keeping them straight, with the right time invested, is another trick I’m learning to get better at. Alongside the training experiment, engineering on a delivery team, leading and coordinating an out of hours support team, hiring, and supporting direct reports, as well as photography, writing and home related projects: this week being more actively on site is putting me in touch with more people and work streams, ongoing and future. It’s tough but invigorating.

The downside is I’m talking to so many individuals about so many more things, I’m having to remember more actively what I have told and to whom. There’s the obvious things I shouldn’t say to some folks until the timing is right or news is ready, and there’s the usual confidential conversations, those are easy; it’s more discussing long weekend plans with my friend and then forgetting I haven’t told my husband!

Better notes are really helping with this, avoiding back to back meetings so I can take the space to brain dump before context switching. Adding known dates into a shared diary also saves my bacon!

One of the key privileges of my situation as an experienced senior is getting to know, and working with some of our academy graduates and associate developers. They are so interesting in their variety: backgrounds, starting points, previous careers and experiences, expectations and aspirations. Some have a very clear idea about the tech they want to be involved in, others are curious to dive in anywhere and see where it takes them. It reminds me that I am part of a wider diverse world, that I am not best placed to help everyone but there are some I can help; I am reassured that I work with some awesome colleagues I trust to support those they can help too.

After almost three years in my current role, it’s a great time to look towards the future with renewed positivity. 

Quote of the week (Double edition)

In relation to a humble colleague of mine, walking into a new client context:

“You don’t walk in as if you own the place, you just walk in comfortable: as if you’ve been here before and know where everything is”

In relation to the journey of a curious mind into a fascinating research area:

“So what you’re saying is, you went down a rabbit hole and then found it had broken through into a badger set? Awesome!”

A look on the bright side

This week I reconnected face to face with a long time friend after a gap and marvelled at the skills and experience they have accumulated in the intervening years. They’ve achieved so much I couldn’t have imagined achieving myself – massive respect. 

I discovered what demand avoidance is and was able to reflect on my own approaches to procrastination and to consider some fixes. Whether you’ve been diagnosed (or consider yourself) as neurodivergent or not, there’s a wealth of tips and tricks out there that might suit your context. “Don’t think about it, just do it” might not work for every situation but it’s a great technique for breaking a cycle of overthinking paralysis.

It’s easy to get lost in over planning for what might go wrong but this week I was blindsided by not preparing for success! I’ve been working with a few colleagues to devise and run some refresher sessions for engineers around test driven development and good pair coding techniques. We had talked a little about running small session sizes (8 to 10) for max interaction with participants but this is considered an early experiment that might not be popular so I thought no more about it. Within an hour of asking for expressions of interest we had 22 people per session. We are having to pivot on our schedule rapidly to still deliver what we hoped within the intended timeframe.

On the plus side, this is immediate feedback that the support we intend to offer is targeting a perceived need and has a good chance of being appreciated. It’s also reminded me to ask myself “so, what if this goes better than expected?”

Clearing the swarf

Over the last few days I have learned that sometimes the change that most delights a client can be a small one: removing friction in daily handover between support teams by moving it by an hour. If all parties agree it’s a really simple change but has a huge impact on daily lives.

Inspiring continuous improvement within a self organising team can be tricky when everything seems broken. There’s no authority figure to decide for you so how do you choose what to fix first? I’ve found a lot of value in fixing something that happens repeatedly, every day, every increment, every release, every build. This not only improves the thing you’ve fixed, giving back repeated blocks of time, it relieves the grind on cognitive load and morale. This in turn releases more energy to see and then tackle the next set of improvements. Just like clearing the swarf from your workbench to better see the thing you are creating.

Wood carving & shavings – image from outdoorbarren.com

Also this last Friday I learned more about a different kind of grind: micro-aggressions. The company I work for stages weekly showcases by anyone; these regularly bolster a sense of belonging for us consultants scattered among clients the rest of the week. Inclusivity is a big part of our culture so talking about lived experiences from our colleagues is an important theme. It’s opened my eyes to spotting micro-aggressions in new places, in my own life and with others, but learning how to challenge them positively and with compassion was the key lesson. Very few people will intend to be malicious so sharing the impact of a micro aggression can sometimes be enough to help both parties learn, grow and have a better day. In addition, there will be days when I won’t have the spoons to challenge and critically, that’s ok too. 

Take time when travelling

This week has been a travelling week, choosing office interactions over time at home. The challenge is balancing the benefits of seeing colleagues in person with the (quite literal) pain of unfamiliar sleeping conditions. Ad hoc conversations have solved a few frictions quickly, chance meetings have given an unexpected opportunity to get ahead of potential problems and start on a good footing, the recovery time has been an additional days cost at the weekend.

When I’m working under tiredness or stress it’s important to take extra time to pause. Overreacting to surprises is not going to help anyone. This week, taking time to mull over a new situation with delicious food and time to myself was a good chance to step back and choose openminded curiosity over knee-jerk angry resentment.

This reminds me that although I am more extroverted I still have my limits. It also reminds me how many social cues and conversational opportunities I pick up by observing and overhearing. Many of the same good relationship outcomes can be achieved remotely if we commit on all sides to work together deliberately and directly.

Seniors need feedback too

If you ever ask yourself at work, “should I give this person feedback” the answer is always yes. What and how you deliver it is between you and that person. Hopefully you work in a company that openly values feedback and I do recommend Kim Scott’s Radical Candor as a good read to help you be clear around perspective and intent, but I maintain that the answer to “should I?” is yes.

This week I was involved in a meeting that scared me in its intensity, I believed I was not a warrior type or strong advocate. Still, I was myself and asked the questions I needed to for my situation and my reports. Afterwards I received some clear, specific (and positive) feedback on the impact I’ve made on other folks, even those I don’t normally directly interact with. I was honoured that they took the time, especially as being a senior I apparently appear like “I’ve got this nailed”. On the inside, I sometimes don’t feel like I’ve nailed anything much.

This new data has helped me switch and centre my internal world view. Knowing that others value what I do is massively heartening and knowing exactly what it was that helped, allows me to focus on improving that too.

So, receiving feedback is for everyone, not just those at the start of their career. Giving feedback is for everyone, not just those in leading roles. We’re all travellers on a journey, let’s keep talking along the way.

Begin with the balance

It’s been a mixed week back at work with some great feedback on how I’ve been leading a team of out of hours support engineers but also some new situations to deal with as a line manager.

To combat feeling disconnected from the consultancy company I work for I’ve embraced some new networking opportunities. Focusing on clients is really important but there must be balance. On top of community of practice discussions and regular showcase events, the donut app on slack is a great way to stay in touch and stay fresh!

Planning has started for some more coaching sessions; I’m excited to review these with an unexpected new collaborator and develop them more in the coming weeks.

One major highlight has been rediscovering a coding joy: a simple review session with some users of a common code library I’ve been working with brought a meaningful refactor. This turned an addition for use by a single app into a helpful update for everyone to use, reducing the specialist knowledge needed to get the same bunch of improvements. It was a great reminder of how a small change now can save hours of developer time in the future and how developer experience is an important part of high performing teams.

Snacks & candlelight

All work and no play would have made for a very dull Tess indeed so it was good to balance all the work with feeling rooted at home, reading letters from friends, enjoying walks and bird watching with new binoculars. Rainy days also inspire inside exercise and reading pulp novels hygge style. To keep this going, I absolutely reserve the right to keep the fairy lights up in the house until February!

Stepping out of phase

This week has been a really odd mix, finishing some things off, planning for a few new things in January, reflecting on some experiences from the summer and prioritising family.

After watching one of my favourite seasonal movies last weekend I have had one foot into the midwinter holidays and a head full of tinsel. Far from being grumpy this has enabled me to drag myself out of wallowing and arrange some catch ups with friends and family before the end of the year. Bonus warm and fuzzy feelings for buying extra goodies at the supermarket to donate to the food bank stall outside. I can’t solve all the underlying problems but the least I can do is share what we have.

It was also a real contrast this week to share a cautionary tale with less experienced workmates, talking about a long running upgrade project that was impacted by dysfunctional team culture. Very much a presentation on what not to do, or put up with and when to start asking all the good questions: why am I doing this alone? why did this get left so long? and surely someone in the organisation also knows about this? Two days later I found myself doing another upgrade of a very different kind and having a much better experience: just one version jump, a well known and documented system and very clear requirements. Apparently things can indeed get better!

With so many heading off for a festive break in my team and the wider organisations I deal with, much more is happening asynchronously. This is great for flexibility but has left me feeling out of phase, not sure who I have a last meeting with before 2023 and who else I have missed wishing a Merry Midwinter. A couple of things I thought I would hear about might not be finalised until the new year, so changes are afoot but a little in limbo: not yet wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Very much on the plus side: in the last few days, I have had the chance to catch up with all my reports and celebrated some of their proud moments from 2022. I am privileged to be there to support them and look forward to seeing them grow (and growing beside them) next year.

How ever we spend this time of year, may it be a kind and peaceful end to 2022.