100 miles. Done.

Thank you to everyone who sponsored me, in the end I raised £1,785  which is 143% of my original target! It is all going to Cancer Research UK, a great cause.

Fortunately I finished the race in one piece on Sunday with no injuries, crashes or mechanicals to speak of. Although my legs are still a bit sore today! It was a great experience riding with 20,000 other cyclists on closed roads throughout London and Surrey. The hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets certainly helped me to finish in a faster time than I expected. After being in the saddle for nearly 6 hours I’ll never forget sprinting down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace spurred on by the crowds.

Thanks again!

Final stats:

  • Time – 5 hours 46 mins 31 secs
  • Position – 5944th of 15045 finishers
  • Distance – 100 miles / 161 km
  • Avg Speed – 17.9 mph / 28.8 kmh
  • Calories – 4500
  • GPS tracking results here

Here are a few photos:

RideLondon

Route

My sponsorship link is here www.justgiving.com/donalpsmith - please feel free to donate!

I’m attempting the @RideLondon 100 mile bike ride for @CR_UK

I’m cycling 100 miles for Cancer Research UK on 4th August because it’s about time I did something useful and personal in the fight against cancer. I think it’s increasingly important to take the chaotic destruction that is cancer and turn it into something good.

I took this opportunity, not only to challenge myself physically and mentally, but to raise some money for @CR_UK to help them develop newer, kinder treatments, and get closer to cures. 

More than 1 in 3 people will develop cancer at some point in their lives and with our ageing population, this statistic is getting worse. Many of my family and friends have been affected in my lifetime, so I decided it was about time I stopped watching it happen and did something positive to help.

I’m taking this challenge seriously, 100 miles is a long way to cycle for a vets-eligible front row forward like myself! That said, I’ve lost a bit of weight in order to get fit for August 4th, and I intend to get as much pedaling practice as part of my daily commute as I can. My wife even bought me a new set of weighing scales and a personal trainer for my birthday!

triathlon

I’ve set up a fundraising page on JustGiving. Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to the charity and make sure Gift Aid is reclaimed on every eligible donation by a UK taxpayer. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – I raise more, whilst saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

I’ve signed up and paid the registration fee myself, but @CR_UK require all their “athletes” to meet a certain fundraising target.

So please dig deep and donate any amount. It will all help.

I intend to write a series of blog entries over the next few months to give updates on how my training is progressing (I’m logging rides and runs on Strava), and to remember some of the people for whom I’m doing this.

Take the time to share non-work interests with your team

As part of our global architecture status meeting, we have been taking 10-15 mins out of the agenda to share some of our non-work interests. Our team is geographically distributed, so not many of us have never met face to face. This is a great way for us to build rapport and improve our working relationships.

So far we’ve had some very quirky and interesting topics:

  • Indian weddings
  • Building a space elevator
  • Community engagement outside work (being a local politician)
  • RC helicopters
  • The “Cinco de Mayo” festival
  • Lacrosse – the oldest N American sport.
  • and me on Rugby Union

Here’s the slide deck that I used to explain Rugby Union to the uninitiated –> Rugby Explained (External)

Why not try something similar in your next team meeting? It’s surprising how it can break up a regular monotonous status session.

Donal’s approach to complex problem solving

There are all sorts of frameworks and whitepapers on this subject. But quite simply, I try to break down complex problems into more easily solvable chunks…

To do this, I use my own take on the Decision Analysis and Resolution (DAR) approach from CMMi.

DAR is a structured, formalized and somewhat long-winded process that helps organize and document complex, high-impact decisions where multiple resolutions are possible and the optimal one isn’t obvious from the outset. It facilitates the objective comparison of alternative solutions using sponsor/stakeholder agreed selection criteria and weighting.

In my role as a Technology Architect, I often use a cut-down DAR to help solve the following types of problems:

  1. Selecting a technology platform, product or application (e.g. Siebel vs SAP CRM vs SalesForce.com)
  2. Resolving complex technical architecture decisions (e.g. Legacy vs Packaged/COTS vs Custom Build)

It’s useful to refer to a previously approved set of requirements or standards when choosing which selection criteria to specify. I’ve often used a client’s Enterprise Architecture Standards, or project specific Functional and Non-Functional Requirements to good effect. Here are some examples of the common core selection criteria I’ve seen:

  • Business Strategy Fit – alignment to business drivers, goals and objectives
  • Functionality Fit - adherence to functional requirements and regulatory compliance etc.
  • Technology Architecture Fit - adherence to technical requirements, reference models, road-maps, strategy, principles and standards
  • Resource/Skills Fit
  • Cost Factors – software, hardware, CAPEX, OPEX, resourcing, licences etc.
  • Implementation Time-frames
  • Barriers to Delivery – impact to/of in-flight programs and initiatives

It may be obvious, but the complexity of your DAR model should be proportional to the complexity and importance of the decision you are making or the problem you are solving. That said, I often use the same, simple scoring and weighting mechanism whatever the complexity (see below). Although I know a few people that prefer Harvey Balls for this – incidentally, did you know there was a MS Word font for this, and even a MS Excel conditional formatting setting?!

For each of the weighted selection criteria, a group of stakeholders and Subject Matter Advisers(SMAs) should discuss and agree on the relative score/multiplier for each option under consideration. This process should be as collaborative as possible, but it often helps if you draft a initial straw-man model prior to the meeting in order for them to review it. Although a clear winner may not emerge straight away, it will at least narrow down the decision to a couple of pivotal areas, focusing the debate and avoiding paralysis by analysis.

For me, the key benefits of this type of approach are:

  • It organises and structures my thinking into a simpler, more manageable process;
  • It enables a more collaborative and consensual approach – this is essential in some client cultures!
  • It objectifies the selection criteria and weighting – it’s not just my opinion;
  • The solution comparison becomes obvious, even to a lay person;
  • The document produced creates an unchallenge-able paper-trail. These types of decisions will come under scrutiny at some point in the future.

What frameworks do you use? My simple process isn’t infallible, nor is it all-encompassing, but it has proven very useful for me in the past.

Avoiding Decision Fatigue The Barack Obama Way

According to Wikipedia, the term decision fatigue describes the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual caused by a prolonged period of decision making.  The common consensus is that decision fatigue is a phenomenon experienced by us all, whether we realize it or not. It can occur at work, at home or in our social lives.

In most cases, this has negative connotations: for example, my friends recently amassed over 1000 Facebook messages just to organize one night out over the Easter holidays, just because nobody could make a decision on where to meet, what to eat and at what time. But some industries use it to their advantage – I’ve learned recently that the reason why most supermarkets have magazine racks and junk food situated next to the checkouts is because people are so worn down by having to make constant choices throughout the store that they will often pick someone at the end of their shop without thinking.

Car manufacturers have cottoned on to this and now have learned to avoid swamping their customers with endless decisions up front and tend to offer a reduced set of options by packaging them up into distinct specifications. But in closing the deal they’ll offer you all sorts of additional extras like paint cover, extended warranties, gap insurance and expect you to be fatigued into ticking all of them – that’s where their bonuses come from.

As technology architects often working in high-pressure working environments,  we experience decision fatigue inducing scenarios all the time. Whether it be big up front design decisions, technology selections, change impact analysis, production change approvals, we need to find ways to remain as ordinarily sensible people and reduce our decision fatigue to become more effective architects.

How do other people cope? Barack Obama famously enforces a streamlined process on all (100+) of his direct reports, whereby they must include three check-boxes on any document they ask him to review with the options: agree; disagree; or discuss further. I really admire the simplicity of this approach.

Unbeknownst to his technique I tried something remarkably similar a few years ago when my fiancee went through a period of intensive wedding planning. Whenever she needed my input on a decision e.g. wedding invitations, colour schemes, menus etc. I asked her to do some research (she loved this bit) and come back to me with her three preferred options and we would pick our favourite together over a glass of wine. I could then focus my time on the important stuff like how much beer and wine we’d need and the location for the honeymoon etc. Incidentally we also had a huge shared Google Spreadsheet with reams of detailed plans and lists, which still serves a purpose nowadays as our Christmas card list complete with people’s addresses!

Like Mr Obama, we can do this by both employing prioritization techniques and structured decision making tools to our advantage. And if we’re lucky enough to have direct reports then get them to do some research and streamlining up front. We need to take stock of the types decisions and their cadence. Often, it’s easier to tackle big issues first before attempting simpler day-to-day decisions.

In my experience it always feels safer to weigh up all pros and cons in to arrive at the “best” answer for the bigger more complex issues, but to avoid fatigue try to focus your attention a few key criterion, and leave the rest alone. Where possible, try making quick decisions on smaller choices that don’t matter as much, or try empowering your team members to do the thinking for you and just provide you with the opportunity to quickly Agree, Disagree or Discuss.

What do you think? Is decision fatigue a problem for you at work or at home? How do you cope?

Getting to “Inbox-Zero” and staying there…

What is “Inbox-Zero”?

It’s about how to reclaim control over your email, reduce stress and increase your attention span.

“Inbox-Zero” isn’t necessarily how many messages are in your inbox, it’s how much of your own brain capacity is taken up by what might or might not be in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be.

Merlin Mann originated this concept, he wrote a book about “making the time to be scared of more interesting things”. Here’s a bunch of articles that describes how he does it: http://inboxzero.com/articles/

Personally, I’ve been able to keep to “inbox-zero” for many years. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I turned off the Outlook desktop alert and taskbar email-notifications and instead I perform periodic email “dashes” a few times a day.
  2. I flag emails for “follow-up” that require further action from me.
  3. Then I use my personalized Quicksteps buttons to file email away quickly and “mark it as read” with one click.
  4. I’ve set up and maintained an Outlook rule to move internal newsletters and circulars to a “read-it-later” folder.
  5. I’ve set up and maintained an Outlook rule to move emails where I’m cc’d to a “low-importance” folder. Once read, I use my Quicksteps again.
  6. I use the Outlook ignore button to remove myself from irrelevant email conversations (thanks to @billglover for the tip).
  7. I use the Outlook cleanup tool to remove lengthy email chains but keep the most recent email response.
  8. I categorise and colour email and calendar entries by project / initiative.
  9. reduced my infobesity by un-subscribing from external sales, spam and marketing emails to my work email address.
  10. (from @conradnajohnson) For old projects create a rule that archives everything from a group of people into a project folder and run it. This can take time when done for the first time. Run it when you go to get a coffee.
  11. (from @conradnajohnson) For other mail just archive everything from a date. If you don’t know what it is, you probably wont need it. Learn how to search better: http://office.microsoft.com/en-gb/outlook-help/learn-to-narr…
  12. (from @conradnajohnson) Make sure your archives are listed in indexing (click into a search, note the new options in ribbon/menu, search tools > search options > indexing options > modify). When you get a new PC the indexing of mailfiles takes time. Always good to check it is building and that you have your archives listed
  13. Make sure everything has a folder and file emails appropriately once you’ve processed then – even if that folder is as generic as “all support message threads”.
  14. Limit your active working mailbox to set period of time or project. Then archive items when the last period or last project is complete.
  15. Configure the “Do not disturb” function on your device to silence ringtones, notifications and alerts during your working/waking hours e.g. http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5463

I agree with Merlin, you’ve got to keeping tweaking your approach to this. Don’t stand still. Keep an eye out for other people’s tips and tricks and add them if they work for you.

“You’ll never stay ahead of this stuff if you don’t recal­i­brate starting today. Give each message as much attention as it needs and not one iota more. Remember the con­tex­tu­ality of triage: if you keep trying to care for dead and doomed patients, you’ll end up losing a lot of the ones who could have actually used your help.”

Please feel free to add your tips in the comments!

Large-scale Systems Integration & Programme Management

A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to help out Accenture’s  Technology recruitment team by giving an “ITMB Guru Lecture” at the University of Manchester on the subject of IT Management for Business. Little did I realise, but this was to be no ordinary lecture. It was on behalf of a not-for-profit company called e-skills, and rather than just talking to one class of undergraduates, the lecture would be webcast simultaneously to all (14) other universities who were following this degree program. A scary prospect for someone like me who isn’t comfortable in speaking to large audiences. I’ve always known this, so have have always tried to challenge myself whenever suitable stretch opportunities arise.

The lecture title and content was up to me as long as it didn’t overlap with any previous or upcoming lectures. I didn’t have much time to prepare anything new, so I refreshed the slides I used for the Warwick lecture earlier in the year.

On my train journey  from London to Manchester, I looked back at some of the learning points from the first time I spoke to students and also the guidance from the e-skills team:

  1. Keep it simple.  It is easy to forget that 18 year olds have a much less developed ‘world view’ than us. Don’t assume any particular level of knowledge – technical, business or otherwise.  If a particular concept is crucial to your talk then give a straightforward explanation first.  Analogies that the students can relate to work well but don’t use acronyms.
  2. Use a top down approach revealing complexity as you progress through the talk. Pin what you’re saying onto real world issues/products/services/experiences that they will relate to.
  3. Focus on five clear key points that you’d like to get across. Tell them what they are at the beginning and again at the end.
  4. Use real life stories, metaphors and humour to illustrate the points wherever possible.  The students will remember the stories and hopefully this will provide the hook for remembering the business/technology message. If the stories involve emotion – ‘frightening’ challenges that were overcome – the euphoria of success – etc. then they will be even more memorable.
  5. Most importantly, you are being billed as an inspirational guru so we need you to be inspirational! Please communicate your enthusiasm for the work you do and the customers you serve in order to inspire the students to commit to work hard and pursue excellence.
  6. Your presentation will be web cast live to students in other universities. There will be multiple cameras focused on you at all times, so you will be asked to stand reasonably still throughout the presentation in order to maintain video and audio quality.  It’s unlikely that this is your normal presenting style so you may want to spend a few minutes beforehand practising your presentation standing still!  Facial expression and hand movements however will be visible to all and extremely important.

Sound advice for anyone giving a webcast style lecture I think.

Once I arrived in the lecture theatre, there was quite a bit of logistical and technical preparation to get through before we kicked off. Getting 14 other universities to connect in was quite a feat!

The presentation itself seemed to go reasonably well, I got over my nerves and into a steady flow after a while. The physical audience was very attentive and engaged, which was apparent with the high standard and quantity of questions at the end.

I’ve been granted access to the recording, although it’s pretty tough for me to watch without cringing, it should help me identify ways of improving my presenting style.

Olympic Volunteering – Part3

Now I have finished my volunteering experince, people ask – “Was it worth it?”

I’ll answer this question in this, the final part of my Olympic blog…

Personal Highlights

London 2012 has been universally lauded and declared a rousing success by many people. But for me, being involved in an Olympic Games in my home town was a unique privilege. Here are some of the memories that stand out:

1. Watching the Opening Ceremony rehearsal live and in the flesh before the world got to see it. Danny Boyle did Great Britain proud. That experience in itself was worth going through the protracted application process. Here are a  few snaps:

Stratford Station:

Heading to the Olympic Park (lots of mobile phones!):

Great seats, watching the country-side scene unfold:

Audience participation, holding up the sea:

Industrial Revolution:

NHS scene:

Music scene:

2. Testing commentator headsets during Tom Daley’s 10m synchro final – and being caught on the BBC coverage in the process.

Here’s me caught live on TV:

And here’s a photo I took from that very spot:

3. Being on the Olympic park on Super Saturday and listening to the crowd in the Olympic Stadium roaring Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah on to their Gold Medal wins (albeit from outside the stadium). That same evening I witnessed Michael Phelps win his 22nd and final Olympic medal in the 4*100m relay. He was also awarded The Greatest Olympian trophy.

Phelps’ Final Medal Ceremony:

Greatest Olympian:

4. The unconditional, deafening support for every single British swimmer and diver, whether they won or lost.

5. Watching the eventual Olympic Water Polo champions, Croatia, demolish their opposition, it was the first match I’d ever been to and it was a bit of master-class. The physicality of the sport certainly appealed to the rugby player in me.

6. Watching “Our Greatest Team” Parade come close by our Accenture office in London along with thousands of other city workers:

London lunchtime skivers:

Sir Chris Hoy and his medals:

Mobot:

Unexpected Recognition 

Quite a few people have come up to me in the office to ask me how it went. Even the Prime Minister sent me a personal thank-you letter!

In summary, I got so much more out of this experience than I was ever expected to put in. Not a bad return on a few days unpaid leave!  I wonder how I go about volunteering for the Rugby World Cup in 2015… it’s in my home town after all.

Olympic Volunteering – Part2

This is the second part of my Olympic volunteer blog,  it will cover the second most common question that I’ve been asked. That is – “what did you actually have to do as a volunteer in the technology team?”

I’ve included some of the pictures I took in the hope that this part is a more interesting read…

Logistics

First, I’ll cover off the logistics of the whole thing. As I was contacted so close to the start of the Games, I wasn’t expected to commit to a minimum of ten shifts like most other volunteers. My mobility coordinator offered me the pick of the remaining shifts, so I signed up for all the available weekend slots and then a couple of other week days.

Training?

As my volunteer role was to work in the Aquatic Centre technology team, I was invited attend venue-specific training on Saturday 7th July. Luckily I didn’t have much to rearrange even though it was all very last minute, but I had to cram in a visit to pick up my accreditation and uniform in the morning and head to the Olympic Park that afternoon. The queues were fairly long – but I only waited in line for an hour or so before I was security screened, photographed, measured and fitted for my uniform in quick succession.

I quickly jumped on the DLR to Stratford and made my way through the gate and walked to the designated meeting point where I joined a venue tour with many other eager volunteers.

I think nearly 3000 people were inducted and shown around that weekend, quite a feat. This was the first time most of us had been in the Olympic Park so many thousands of photos were snapped as we toured around, it was suitably impressive to see in the flesh. Here are some I took.

Entrance to the Aquatics Centre:

Behind the scenes, just outside the Media Centre:

The starting blocks:

The diving boards:

After the venue tour, I met the technology team leadership team and we discussed the types of activities we’d need to help with during the games, but in truth they could only be vague – because they expected it to be a fairly reactive issue resolution type scenario. The main aim though, was to ensure the smooth operation of the live sporting events taking place. It would be vital that each competition is accurately recorded, judged and broadcast. As volunteers we would have to help the venue technology manager coordinate the implementation and operation of technology services and support all key user groups of the aquatics parks—the media team, games officials, timekeeping teams, athletes, coaches and other Games Maker volunteers—with any audio/visual, networking or computing problems. So in reality, I could be doing anything!

My First Shift

My first volunteer shift was the morning before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, so there were thousands of volunteers scurrying around finishing last minute tasks. As far as I could tell, all the major setup had been done way beforehand, so most of what was left was just freshening the place up. I spent most of my day working in the Aquatics Media Centre, tidying cables, re-tuning TVs and re-testing competition information screens. It was a nice easy warm up for things to come, although I did get to say hello to Sharon Davies, swimming medallist from the ’76 games in Moscow.

Normal Service

In the quiet periods between live events, most of our time was spend sat sitting comfortably in the Technology Operations Centre porta-cabin, watching the excellent BBC Olympic coverage until a trouble ticket was raised, then we eagerly sprang into action.

During live sporting events, the technology volunteers like myself, were stationed amongst the media tribunes, with the remit of providing immediate hands-on support to hundreds of the World’s media. These were generally either TV or radio presenters, commentators, translators or journalists. Here’s where I was sat during a Water Polo match:

I was impressed by the level of engagement of my fellow volunteers, which was no doubt helped by the number of initiatives put in place to make Games Makers feel welcome, useful and part of a much wider team. Unsurprisingly there were some common demographic groups represented, i.e. retired folks, housewives and students.  There were lots of daily opportunities to get involved with competitions and we were each given a brief communication newsletter on shift check-in. It helped that there were well structured team rotas, free lunch vouchers, a very friendly atmosphere and that we were continually treated with respect by the fee paying public.

Now I have finished my volunteering experince, people ask – “Was it worth it? Would you do it again?” I’ll answer this question in the final part of this blog… likely to be published next week.

Olympic Volunteering – Part1

I always planned to blog about some of my London2012 Olympic volunteering experiences, but knew it would take me ages to get around to it. So, rather than keep putting it off, I’m going to split it into three parts and get the ball rolling straight away:

  1. I’ll start with the most common question I was asked – “How and why did I decide to get involved with the London2012 Olympics?
  2. The second most common question I’ve been asked is – “What did you actually have to do as volunteer in the technology team?
  3. Now that my volunteering responsibilities have finished, people ask – “Was it worth it? Would you do it again?

How and why did I decide to get involved with the London2012 Olypmics?

I signed up to a ticket application newsletter back in early 2010, just to keep up to date with news on the Olympic ticket application process and schedule etc. I was keen to try and get tickets for myself and my extended family for any event, I didn’t care what! Ideally, I’d like to see some rowing at Eton Dorney because my wife was a very keen and successful cox in her formative years, plus it’s only a couple of miles from where I grew up and where my parents still live. Excavation began on the rowing lake when I was at secondary school, so as you can imagine we based a lot of our geography projects on it at the time! I thought it would be pretty special to see something so close to home being used for Olympic events many years on.

Anyway, because I was signed up to this newsletter I received an email invitation from Lord Coe in April 2010 to apply to become a Games Maker; he said 70,000 volunteers would be required to help support the Games. After limited success in the initial ticket ballots I suspected I might struggle with getting to see any Olympic action, but I knew that being part of an Olympic Games in my home town would be literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So if possible, I wanted the chance to experience it both from behind the scenes if I couldn’t be in the stands like everyone else. Being a Games Maker looked like a good way in, and at the time I had a gut-feeling that it might be fun too.

A waiting game

So much time had passed that I forgot that I’d actually applied for a volunteer role until I was reminded 18 months later, in November 2011,  when out of the blue I received an email was offering me an interview to become a Games Maker. I immediately logged on and used the scheduling tool to book myself a slot at a Selection Event at London Excel on 16th December.

There was no real preparation required for the interview. I had applied for a role in the Technology Team, so I hoped that my day job as a Accenture Senior Technical Architect would qualify me! Apparently the process was simple, I just had to be there on the day and show proof of my identity. If I passed it, I would be put on a waiting list where I could get cherry-picked for a role by one of the full-time Games Maker staff. My interviewer was also a volunteer, so once she’d ticked all the relevant HR-type boxes she was happy just talk about why I wanted to volunteer. I mentioned my avid interest in sport and my tenuous history with the rowing lake, but this point I’d become a father for the first time so I also explained how when she grew up, I’d like to be able to tell my daughter about how I helped with staging The Greatest Show on Earth

More waiting (but a silver lining)

I waited to hear back for the Games Maker recruitment team for a long time, but I had no response. It’s no wonder, over 240,000 people had been through the recruitment process – that’s impressive even by Accenture’s recruiting standards! But, whilst on holiday in June 2012 I received an email thanking me for my patience and offering me the chance to enter a ballot to win a ticket to one of the technical rehearsals for the Opening Ceremony. I couldn’t believe my luck! I didn’t care whether I’d actually get offered a Games Maker role if I at least got the chance to visit the Olympic Stadium, so I entered the ballot straight away.

Still more waiting.

Seven months after my interview, I was offered a Games Maker role in the Venue Technology Team for the Aquatics Centre. This offer came just three weeks before the Games were due to begin so I presumed there must have been some last minute volunteer drop outs, but I didn’t care, again I accepted straight away.

… and the silver lining? I won a ticket to the Opening Ceremony rehearsal!