Management Communication: Priority Exceptions

Constantly-changing priorities and surprise projects erode team morale and leave everyone unsure of if they’re working on the most important thing, or if they’ll ever get to finish anything. While being adaptable and flexible is critical for most teams, it’s always important to have some kind of roadmap and approach to prioritization and planning work. There are many different ways to plan and prioritize your work; what’s important is that when priorities change — and they will change — you acknowledge that change and adapt quickly.

If you don’t clearly acknowledge the change in plans, your team can start to question the point of the plan in the first place. They’ll start to wonder if they are expected to do this new thing and the old thing, or just the new thing, or since the new thing is not in the plan, perhaps they should actually ignore it? Don’t leave room for interpretation. Clearly set expectations and make sure you communicate unambiguously what is being asked of them. Sometimes they need to be given clear “permission” to really work on this new thing, and delay or drop the old thing.

On my teams, we use a process we call a “Priority Exception” to clearly address a major change in our plans. This process is used when we had a plan of work, and for some reason something not on that plan jumps to the next most important thing for us to work on. The goal is to acknowledge the change, clearly communicate the impact this change will have on existing work, and critically; highlight why it is so important that it should disrupt our plan. We use this template to ensure the right information is always included, and distribute the details to everyone on the team (and any other relevant stakeholders).

What new thing is happening?

Right up front, we outline the new work at a high level so that we all know what we’re talking about. We link out to our project management system or code tracker for further details. This section includes which individuals or teams will be required for the new work.

What existing thing is being delayed?

Next we’ll specify what work we’re putting on hold or slowing down because of this new work, or how we’re creating capacity to work on it. We’ll try to include details on the expected impact of our delay; If we can put a number on it, this is where it goes. Lost revenue? Delayed launch? Losing more users? Be specific.

Why is the new thing more important?

This helps head off questions about why we had to “drop everything” to work on something unexpected. This should clearly demonstrate why the new work is more important or more urgent than the planned work. You should be able to clearly illustrate why it offsets the impact of the delayed work (as detailed above).

How did this come about?

As a form of mini-retrospective, this is a chance to highlight why this work was such a surprise. It’s an opportunity to learn and avoid surprises in the future, or come up with other mitigation strategies, depending on what happened.

Timeline

We set a clear timeline covering any wind-down of current work, transition to the new work, and expected completion or progress milestones. Since Priority Exceptions often come with an external deadline, we’ll make sure that is clearly communicated as well.

Priority Exceptions are a useful, lightweight tool for communicating changes in priorities, and for learning how to reduce priority-thrash over time. Teams have appreciated the clarity they bring to otherwise-potentially-confusing times, and the clear permission they give to delay work in favor of something more important.

Arc’teryx Norvan SL Hoody Review

Before we get into any details, let me just get this out of the way — I absolutely love this thing, and giggle every time I get to use it. It makes no sense, I know, but here we are.

OK — now that you know how biased I am, let’s jump into some details.

I have the black and red, size Large. I’m 6’4″ and have bizarrely long arms, but the Norvan SL Hoody fits as well (if not better) than most standard long-sleeve items I get my hands on, and isn’t too baggy around the body. When I first pull it out of the pouch it might be a little short (because the fabric is all crumpled up), but then it smoothes out to full length pretty quickly. The semi-rigid hood rim and extended and reflective cuffs are really nice touches, and help make this jacket feel like more than just a super-expensive poncho.

When it’s tucked into the pouch, this jacket is so small and light that I end up taking it with me everywhere. I throw it in my work backpack in case it starts raining on me while I’m out. I take it to outdoor concerts in case there’s rain. I’ve taken it on a couple of work trips so that I could use it for a morning run in the cold and/or wet, or just to save space when I’m traveling carry-on-only. I throw it in my mountain biking backpack in case it rains while I’m riding. It’s great — it’s about the size of my fist, and just fits everywhere. I often just have it on a small carabiner and clip it to my belt loop if I don’t want to carry a bag.

On one work trip, I used it when running in 32 degree weather, over just a t-shirt. It cut enough of the wind and provided enough warmth for me to get 5k in without too much discomfort (my legs were a different story). On a ride, I was able to throw it on and avoid getting soaked during a surprise downpour. While I definitely heated up (and got more sweaty) wearing the jacket and riding in pretty warm weather, it remained impressively breathable and drawing the zipper down a little was enough to cool off a bit.

My only concerns with the Norvan Hoody are just how delicate it is, since I’ve read reviews about it losing its waterproof surface when used with a backpack (straps). I try not to wear a heavy backpack or move around too much if I have one on, to minimize damage. So far it’s looking good. I keep it in the pouch most of the time (vs hanging it up), and am hoping that’s not going to contribute to any fabric deterioration. I guess my one other wish would be pockets, but for something this waterproof, minimal and lightweight, we can’t have everything.

Engineering Management Lessons From Mountain Biking

Since moving to Colorado, I’ve been lucky enough to get out mountain biking pretty frequently. I love it. On some rides you’re just trying to get up or down the mountain in one piece, but on some rides you get good time to think quite deeply. On a recent ride I was rolling around (pun intended, you’re welcome) some ideas about engineering management, and realized there are some good parallels between mountain biking and leading teams of engineers.

Look Out Ahead

When you’re riding single track, it’s really common to have your eyes glued to the trail right in front of your wheel. Big mistake. Not only does it mean that you’re going to be constantly reacting and trying to respond to things as they appear right in front of you, but it also means that you’re not going to have any advanced warning of big changes ahead. Like a tight turn. Or fast descent. Or a jump/drop-off.

Instead of staring right in front of your wheel, you should keep your eyes further out ahead. This gives you more time to react, some time to pick your line, and the ability to adjust your approach as needed by speeding up, slowing down, changing your stroke on the pedals, or even just bracing for impact 😉

With engineering teams, if you’re heads down responding to the things right in front of you, you’re going to be in that same reactive position, and things will constantly take you by surprise. Take some time to not only plan out ahead, but forecast and “game out” what the future might hold. Will you need to hire more people soon? Adjust team structure? Train your people up in some specific skill? Transfer knowledge between key people? If you’re not looking ahead, these things can catch you by surprise, and become a much bigger issue than they needed to be.

Build Momentum

When you’re on a really gnarly section of technical trail, it’s all too easy to slow right down and find yourself picking your way through rocks and bumping across things uncontrollably. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s often better to speed up and keep moving than it is to slow down and try to delicately navigate every little obstacle. You can end up feeling like a bit of a steamroller, skimming over the top of everything, but you end up with a smoother ride, and it’s a whole lot more fun than bumping and grinding through every rock in your path. Instead of slowing down and being overly cautious, a common refrain is “let it roll”, meaning don’t brake, just roll through the obstacles using your momentum (and then quickly move on to the next one).

Something similar can be said for engineering teams, who benefit from building and maintaining momentum in their work. Get in the habit of shipping, and always protect that habit. Don’t slow right down and get stuck in the details. If you adopt an extremely slow and overly-cautious approach to shipping, then you can quickly find yourself in a state where you’re not shipping at all. Once shipping becomes a habit, that momentum is easier to maintain and build upon, to continue increasing your velocity.

Find Your Velocity

As a balancing point to the previous one, it’s also important to find the right velocity. On a mountain bike, if you go too slowly, you’ll have a rough ride, experience every bump and rock, and probably not enjoy yourself much. If you go too fast, well, there are plenty of YouTube videos to show you what happens. You need to find a pace where you’re making good progress, but you’re not completely out of control. It’s probably a little faster than you think it is, so you should push yourself and really find your limits.

If you’re moving too quickly as an engineering team, it probably means you’re shipping sloppy work, failing to validate ideas, accumulating a ton of technical debt, or just plain old rushing things. Find a sustainable pace where you can deliver quality work, without burning people out, and without shipping junk. That being said, moving too quickly is rarely a problem with engineering teams, so remember that speed matters, and always push to move as quickly, but sustainably, as possible.

I’m sure there are more parallels to be explored, but these were the only ones that came to me before I hit the more technical section of the trail, and had to really pay attention!

Keyring 2.0 and Keyring Social Importers 2.0

Yesterday I released new versions of both Keyring and the Keyring Social Importers packages, containing a bunch of updates and new additions. If you’re already using them, you should have update notices in wp-admin. If you’re not yet, then download them at the links above, or search for “keyring” in wp-admin under Plugins > Add New.

What’s changed? It’s been a while since the last official release of Keyring, so there’s a bunch to catch up on:

  • All Google services have been modified to use a shared base service (cuts down on code duplication significantly).
    • Added a GMail Service (props @poisa).
    • Added a YouTube Service (based heavily on @superbia‘s work with Google Analytics).
  • Added a Pocket Service (props @roccotripaldi).
  • Keyring is now available for use with Composer, via Packagist.
  • Lots of bugfixes, including token refreshing should now work properly.

The Social Importers haven’t seen an official release since 2017, so there’s a ton going on there as well:

  • Added a Strava importer (props @mdrovdhal) and introduced a bunch of improvements via iteration (props @marekhrabe). Having another service with map-based data makes me want to add some core to make it easier to map things visually.
  • Introduced a global option (for all importers) that allows you to set posts to published, draft, private, or pending when importing them. A lot of people were asking for/hacking this in, so I figured I’d just add it to the core package. Being able to import as draft and then selectively publish, or import an entire service to “private” posts is a nice addition.
  • Lots of improvements and bugfixes to both Twitter (some props @chrishardie) and Swarm/Foursquare.
  • Added a Pocket importer, again props @roccotripaldi. It works similarly to the Instapaper one, so if you’re using Pocket instead, check it out.

If you’d like to keep an eye on things more closely, or even contribute, check out Keyring, and the Keyring Social Importers on GitHub. It’s been really awesome to see some more contributions to both packages coming in, so I’d love to see more of that.

Download Keyring and the Keyring Social Importers plugins for WordPress.

DJI Mavic Air Review

After drooling over it for months at Costco, I picked up a bundle package with a DJI Mavic Air back in November. I’ve now flown it a fair bit, and wanted to write up some observations on it.

First of all — this thing is amazing. It’s so much fun to fly, and honestly feels a bit like magic, especially when compared with cheaper, fully-manual quadcopters. Probably the coolest feature of this thing (for me, a n00b) is that if you let go of the control sticks, it’ll automatically just hover in place. Brilliant.

The bundle that I got came with propeller guards (2 sets actually, which turns out to be ridiculous — if you break those guards you’ll almost certainly manage to destroy the drone itself), so I started out flying with them on. It has object detection/avoidance in three directions (forward, backward, downward), so between that and the prop guards, it’s relatively safe. I still managed to crash it pretty hard a couple of times, and break some propellers. I got carried away and bought a bunch of replacements, but now haven’t needed any in a while.

I’ve purchased a second battery, and got a little carried away and purchased an Anbee Power Bank so that I can recharge batteries without access to an outlet (e.g. if I was out backpacking or mountain biking or something, and watched to capture more than 2 batteries worth of action; about 30 minutes). The batteries claim to be 21 minutes of flight time, but in my experience they’re pretty much always 14 or 15 minutes (stopping at about 20% battery remaining, for safety). I haven’t tried running them down to 0% to see how long they actually go, so maybe that’d get me to 21 mins before it fell out of the sky.

Beginner mode + propeller guards is a good way to get used to things. Once you graduate out of there, you’ll end up turning off/ignoring a bunch of warnings and things; these devices and their software really try to make sure you’re doing the “right thing”, safely. The app takes some getting used to (especially the special flight modes), but generally is pretty good and pretty intuitive. It always tells you everything that’s going on, and lets you tweak and configure things a fair bit.

I find that I have to calibrate the compass almost every time I go out to fly, which is kind of annoying, but pretty quick and simple. It reminds me of calibrating the compass on an iPhone, where you have to way the phone around. In this case you’ll be spinning yourself around in a few directions, and then you’re up and running. From deciding to fly, to having it in the air, it’s normally less than a couple of minutes.

The drone itself (and the controller) is amazingly portable/compact. When you pack it down into the small case that comes with it, it’s hard to believe that the whole thing is in there. I specifically love how compact the controller is. The control sticks detach and stow inside the controller itself, genius! With the controller compacted down, and the drone folded away inside its case, you can just slip them both in jacket pockets, or throw the whole kit in a backpack.

I’m definitely still figuring out how to get the most out of my drone, especially when it comes to video. I’m looking forward to spending some more time on that, and trying my hand at editing some short videos.

Thoughts to Ponder

Loved these thoughts from the outgoing Chief Data Scientist of the White House:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

  • Dream in years
  • Plan in months
  • Evaluate in weeks
  • Ship daily
  • Prototype for 1x
  • Builder for 10x
  • Engineer for 100x
  • What’s required to cut the timeline in 1/2?
  • What’s required to double the impact?

h/t ma.tt

New Year, New Theme

To ring in 2019, I’m changing this blog’s theme to Twenty Nineteen, the new default WordPress theme, designed and primarily created by my excellent colleague, Allan Cole (check out his music, published as The Stuyvesants, they’re groovy).

Apart from being pretty similar to, but a nice upgrade from the previous theme here, Twenty Nineteen also harnesses the full power of Gutenberg, the new WordPress Block Editor. I’m going to convert some posts to blocks so that I can use some of the better gallery options and whatnot, and will be using Gutenberg for everything going forward. It also reminds me a bit of the styling used throughout Instapaper, which I’ve spent a lot of time in lately 🙂

Happy New Year!

Honeymoon in Japan

After our wedding, and cleaning everything up, we had just another day or two at home before heading off on our honeymoon. We decided to go to Japan, since neither of us had ever been there, and we both really wanted to go. It was a really amazing trip, even though it was brutally hot and humid at the time of year we went. We managed to do most of it on award points/miles as well, so that made it all even sweeter 🙂

Tokyo

Flew from Denver to Los Angeles, and then LA to Narita (Tokyo). When we landed, we caught a train to our hotel near Shinjuku, got settled, and then explored Tokyo for a few days. Highlights were ramen (duh), soba, hotel room views, Tsukiji fish market (and buying our own knives from there), catching up with Moser, and deliciously strange little mushroom chocolate snack things.

Matsumoto

From Tokyo, we caught a train up to Matsumoto where we stayed for one night before heading to the Alpen Route. We had delicious soba noodles, visited the amazing Matsumoto Castle, dropped in to a local craft brewery, then got some sleep before a long day ahead of us.

Alpen Route

The Alpen Route is an interesting series of “public transit” systems, connected to provide passage through the Japanese Alps. It includes electric buses, a couple of funiculars, some walking (across the top of a dam), and a gondola. It’s really beautiful up there, and it was a nice way to break up our city visits, see some of Japan’s amazing nature, and also get from one part of the island to another.

Toyama

The end of the Alpen Route for us was Toyama. We stayed there a night and had probably the best sushi meal I’ve had in my life. It was amazing, and a very unique experience. No one spoke english, we just took what they ordered, and there were signs talking about purity and no smoking and no drinking. We also went to a strange rockabilly bar, drank beers outside a Seven Eleven, visited a trendy little coffee shop, had black ramen and strolled through another castle grounds.

Kyoto

From Toyama, we got a bullet train down to Kyoto where we stayed for a few days. Kyoto is the city of temples, but we only actually visited two of them. We also went to some cool tiny whiskey bars in alleys, went shopping, had more great coffee, more great food, watched a Maiko (Geisha apprentice) show, and visited another awesome market (Nishiki).

Hakone

From Kyoto we were off into the mountains again, this time to Hakone for a relaxing retreat and special experience at a very fancy ryokan. It was more of a 5-star hotel than a traditional guesthouse, but it was a really unique experience. We had a private suite with our own hot-springs-fed bath tub on the deck with a view. It was amazing. We stayed 2 nights and were treated to absolutely mind-bending food in our own private dining room. During the day we visited the Hakone Open Air Museum which was also a highlight.

Tokyo

After all that relaxing, it was time for a couple more nights in Tokyo before heading home. We stayed in the Godzilla hotel in Shinjuku, and then a capsule hotel for the final night (super weird, but pretty cool!). We got a chance to catch up with my friend Adam, from high school (hadn’t seen him in about 18 years!). We went to “Golden Gai“, an area where there a tons of tiny bars all stacked in next to each other, and we also went to all you can eat + drink with Moser, which was amazing. On the last day I went to the Samurai museum, and then we were headed home on a direct flight from Narita to Denver. We managed to get first class thanks to all the points I’ve collected from work travel, so we flew in style 😎

Japan was really amazing, and I’d love to go back. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of anywhere we went, let alone all the rest of the country that we didn’t even touch on. It’s such a unique place in so many ways, and I really feel like I just got the tiniest taste, even though we managed to fit so much in. One day, I shall return!

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Married

Erika and I finally made it official and got married this year. We were legally married on July 5th (at the courthouse), and then we celebrated with friends and family properly on July 7th. Here are some pics from the week.

Thursday Courtroom Wedding + Photos

Friday BBQ

We invited people from out of town over to our house for a casual BBQ on Friday the 6th. Since a huge portion of the people attending the wedding were from out of town, it ended up being a pretty big affair, but it was fun. I was running around like a madman, so I mostly forgot to take photos. Here are a couple though.

Saturday Photos

Before our main reception, Erika and I spent some time with our photographer in our neighborhood to get some pictures. The neighborhood is Five Points, and this particular area is referred to as River North, or RiNo. There’s a bunch of really cool street art, and we wanted to feature that in our photos. I think they turned out pretty excellent.

Saturday Big Party/Reception

On Saturday we held “the main event”. We rented to rooftop of the coworking office where I work from sometimes, which has a great view over Denver and the Rockies. We had some drama between gale force winds, sudden and heavy rain, lightning, a 911 call when the band got stuck in the elevator, and having to rescue the photo booth tent out of a tree… but we stuck it out and once things calmed down it all turned out great. We had a great time, people ate, drank, danced and chatted, and generally it was a good night.

It was stressful, it was exhausting, and hey, it was pretty expensive, but it was worth it. We had a really good time, it was excellent to see everyone, and now we’re married. We’ve got some stories to tell.

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Loosely Joined

I had to chuckle recently when I realized just how complex some of the systems in my life are, even if I rarely think about the details.

  1. Most nights, I weigh myself on a Withings wifi scale (an older version).
  2. That data syncs over Google Wifi, via a Comcast Xfinity connection, to the Nokia/Withings Health Mate service.
  3. Then MyFitnessPal automatically syncs the data from Health Mate, and keeps a copy,
  4. before Garmin Connect also syncs a copy to integrate back with other data (like heart rate and activities) .
  5. If I’ve been doing specific activities, then some of the data from Garmin Connect (although not that weight info) will also sync out to Strava and create activity records.

The last step remaining is that I want to hook up my copy of WordPress to sync all of the data back so that I have a copy under my direct control.