My Role

As someone who has spent their career working with systems I have come to love a good framework. Taking a systematic approach to how things should operate enables me to conceptualize the tasks at hand and to identify gaps and weak spots so that they can be managed successfully. Identifying the component parts of my new role as Director of Software Innovation with ACETECH and weaving them together into a framework of sorts has helped me in these early stages to approach some difficult topics with confidence as well as quickly establishing where I can add value.

Having spent some time deep diving on where things are going well and where there are definite needs for improvements with my new employer, I have worked out that there are four major focus areas of the role:

  • Product Management
  • Team Leadership
  • IT Management
  • General Management

As I worked out how to group my work into focus areas and these four headings emerged, I realised that only the people focused area was about leadership in the truest sense whereas the other three seem more accurately defined as management areas. This is reflective of how I have assessed the job ahead of me and how I feel that so much of my focus needs to be on delivery and addressing certain key challenges with processes and approaches, as opposed to needing to “manage” the team I am working with. To put it more succinctly, the processes need management capability whereas the people deserve leadership.

Product Management

The main thrust of the role is about delivering software products. ACETECH produces IoT devices that are installed into vehicles to aid in the management of the vehicle, the operation of the vehicle and more, on into areas like real-time tracking of high-value assets. In order to unlock the value of these devices, customers are given access to a suite of software tools delivered in a SaaS model, that enables them to view, manipulate, and derive even more value from the data that is captured from the devices on their vehicles.

All software benefits from strong product management, and there is a definite opportunity here to implement some new approaches to product management that I am sure will help to improve the pace of delivery while also better addressing the needs of our customers.

Team Leadership

While there is significant focus on the Product Management aspects of the job, for me the most important aspect of the job is managing the development teams, meaning directly managing the team based in Tullamore but also working with remote teams around the world, both in-house and outsourced.

Managing a team is an absolute joy, either regardless of the challenges or maybe because of them. Walking into a situation where a team has been without direct technical management for a little while was especially interesting as it had highlighted the value a manager can bring to a team in terms of offering guidance on activities for a given period, providing structure in terms of how things need to be done, delivering feedback and developmental advice, but most essentially acting as a buffer between often conflicting needs of the business who had gotten used to approaching engineers directly and demanding action on a variety of things.

The nature of managing the outsourced teams is different in that their performance management is more clear cut from my perspective but I still want them to operate in a certain way, to utilize the same tools as everyone else, and to align their processes as closely as possible when it comes to areas like Agile. The distance and time zone differences are challenges but not insurmountable especially when taken properly into consideration – simple tricks like including the timezones of the outsourced teams on my Outlook calendar are gentle reminders that other people are experiencing their day at a different point to us when scheduling meetings or calls.

IT Management

Every company is in someway a technology company due to the reliance on Information Technology that all businesses have. In order to be able to unlock the value of that technology there is an ever present need for someone to be thinking about how the internal network is managed, how the hardware and software we need is purchased and supported in the long run, and how the whole operation can be kept secure.

In a practical sense, for smaller organisations there’s little chance of having a dedicated Systems Administrator, despite the need for that type of focus, and ours is no different with Sys Admin falling to members of the Software Engineering team. I’m not opposed to this in principle as that team are the ones best placed to look after the running of a network but also because it’s good practice for those who are tasked with looking after a cloud estate to understand the fundamentals of networks and the types of issues you will encounter when users are unleashed and where better to learn that in a realistic but also relatively safe manner than a company LAN?

General Management

As a member of the leadership team, I have a duty to contribute to the broader running and direction of the company as a whole, beyond my areas of direct responsibility as part of a holistic management structure. That being said, there is a significant opportunity for me to address the impact of software and data products on the strategic development of the company, by looking at how software can drive sales and help push the company into new markets.

More broadly though, this part of my role is for me all about delivering at a higher level, about making a mark on how the company will grow into the future, about setting the tone in terms of culture particularly around diversity and inclusion, and about guiding us to greater success through initiatives like strategic partnerships with other technology organisations but especially with local educational institutions, and not just for recruitment purposes but also to contribute to, and of course benefit from, original research.

Conclusion

There is always more to a role than can ever be accurately captured in a job spec and it is this element of possibility that often brings the most rewards from work; in the spaces between the lines of a job description lies the chance to do something wonderful, though it is something of a skill to be able to spot those opportunities. To that end I have found that, in the early days of starting in my new position at least, it has been beneficial to classify the major areas where I can make an impact and thus put some level of structure around where I need to focus my attentions and where I can develop the technology offerings of ACETECH.

Go Big and Go Home

Introduction

A new opportunity has presented itself to me that is so aligned with my desired next move that it’s hard to believe. Next week, I start a new role heading up the software engineering department of a technology company located in the Irish Midlands; in fact, located about 3 minutes from my home. And this isn’t a small opportunity, this is the chance to head up the software delivery aspects of a global player that makes a real impact on people’s lives.

The Commuter’s Tale

For about twelve years or so, with only one or two very brief exceptions, I have commuted from my hometown of Tullamore, Co. Offaly, to work in Dublin. For most technologists in Ireland, Dublin is where the action is. There you will find all the major technology companies as well as the Irish head offices of so many financial institutions and other organisations that depend on hired geeks that if you’re a technology professional of pretty much any type, most of the opportunities for you will be located there. Not all, of course, but most of them, and certainly the better paying ones.

Commuting to work is an accepted part of modern life and something that nearly everyone must do in some way. What marks out “Commuting” (with a capital C) as something different is the scale involved. Getting to and from work is commuting, getting up at an early hour and taking the train halfway across the country every working day is Commuting!

Humble bragging about how far you’re prepared to travel for work aside, commuting long distances has a lot of downside; it obviously takes a lot of time, time that is spent away from family, friends, and being a part of the local community in any meaningful way. There are financial costs to commuting a long way, with train tickets for my type of journey reaching several thousand Euro every year and travelling by train every day brings its own set of challenges. And of course, there are the early starts and late finishes that combine to make every day a “very long day”.

Making a Down into an Up

During my time commuting on the train from Tullamore to Dublin I have tried to make the best of that challenging situation. At first, I did all the things commuters do; I watched movies on laptops, TV shows on iPads, listened to podcasts on my phone, and read many, many books. After a while though these techniques for killing time lost their appeal and I came to the realisation that I had to do something a little more productive with the roughly ten hours every week I spent on the train. I started studying.

As part of a work initiative around project management, I found myself attending a week-long PRINCE2 course where the plan was to sit the first, foundation-level exam at the end of the third day before trying at the practitioner exam on the fifth day. In order to be in with a fighting chance of passing it was necessary to do some study in your own time. Considering what was at stake as well as how best to pass these exams I made use of the time I had on the train to study, and I found that it worked amazingly well. Not only did I pass the exams but I found myself in the strange situation of being almost disappointed when the train arrived at my stop, I found that I could always use a just a little more time with the books and always expected that I had more time than I really did, a marked difference from times where the journey seemed to drag on for ever!

That course set me on the path of studying on the train as a way of passing the time constructively. After PRINCE2 I studied for and passed the ITIL foundation exam, followed by the AWS Solution Architect Associate exam, and then five of the CIMA accountancy exams to earn the Certificate in Business Accounting. With that hanging on the wall, I turned my attention to degree level study, pursuing the University of London BSc in Management and Digital Innovation.

A Base of Operations

Even though I was making something of the time I spent travelling every day, there is no escaping that I want to be able to spend more time nearer to home, to effectively be based out of the Midlands region as opposed to only living here. The heartlands of the country is my idea of a good base of operations for logical reasons like proximity to several major towns and cities, and for the simple, more human fact that this is my home. Our environment can energise us, it can motivate us to do excel, it can help to remind us of who we are and where we come from which is an essential part of figuring out where we are going; and it’s vitally important that it’s “we”, as being a part of a community is important for social animals like us.

The region is not overly populated, so participating in life in the Midlands requires to be part of communities that are pulled together from different towns, villages, and parishes across the four counties, which brings surprisingly different insights and points of view. This is where I want to spend the majority of my time, not all my time to be sure, there’s a wide world out there to explore and experience, and working in technology has provided me so many great opportunities to see the world that I could never fully retreat away from what’s out there.

Stick-with-it-ness

The ability to compromise is important in order to successfully navigate relationships and maintain a healthy balance in life, but there are also times when something is important enough that it’s worth pursuing to the fullest extent, to not settle for something nearly as good, which makes the ability of recognising when a goal is important enough not to compromise on a perhaps more valuable skill than understanding where ‘good enough’ lies.

Regardless of their form, career ambitions can be such significant drivers that they can easily lead to frustration when the pace of progress is slower than desired, which it nearly always will be as there will be so many variables beyond anyone’s control. You will need patience as you gain experience, learn the right skills, build a network, and wait for the right opportunity to present itself, so it is vital that you are happy doing what you’re doing during the wait, especially as you will need to excel in the role you are in so that you have a better chance of achieving the role you want.

My experience taught me all this and more. I had my own ideas around what compromise looked like that I took comfort from them as they were nearly as good and felt more achievable. When asked what the future held for me I always pointed to those ideas, over time almost discounting the possibility that my primary goal could ever be achieved, however when the right opportunity arose I was ready, moved faster than the competition, and achieved that goal. I now eagerly face into a new challenge, one that will give me the chance to make the type of positive impacts I know I can deliver.

One odd thought does occur to me though as I gear up to “work from home(town)”. Maybe there is, in some part of me, an actual desire to Commute. Yes, that arrangement was certainly born out of necessity and was a huge pain, but it does have upsides, with an important aspect for me being the realisation that in many ways our commitments make us better people, like how having to catch a train early in the morning makes you regulate your bedtimes and clothing preparation. Working to the train schedule made me disciplined in ways that I never would have imagined before needing to make that daily journey. Perhaps the far future will lead me back to some sort of hybrid or split-time arrangement between home and a city, but for now I am grateful for the chance to make an impact in the town and region that I call home.

Prepare to Fail

There’s always a lot going on in work and it can be easy to sacrifice essential, foundational activities in order to progress the “real work”, but doing so eventually takes a heavy toll. Just like spending enough time contemplating what’s being done and why and if that’s the right thing to be doing, there is a need to be prepared and thus avoid going into every situation trying desperately to figure out what’s going on and determine your position on the fly, a position that you may regret taking and finding you later need to defend out of not wanting to loose face.

Some activities demand preparation, it only takes one attempt at winging a presentation to convince most people of the value of being prepared, whereas it is too often the norm, for example, for people to arrive in meetings late and utterly unprepared, which is just a waste of everyone’s time. Again, this type of problem is all about time management. How many back to back meetings or events fill the calendar? How much time is set aside for preparation, if any? And how would you feel if a colleague blew-off a meeting you considered important in order to prepare for some other meeting or event?

Personally, I’ve seen too many organizations where terrible meeting etiquette prevails, from an over reliance on using meetings to actually do work, to the lack of defined purpose or an agenda, and so on, with a particularly nasty vice being the continuous overloading of calendars with recurring events and double, triple, and more bookings, and in those organizations a common underlying issue (no doubt one of many) is the lack of consideration for colleagues. Being busy can wrap us in a sense of urgency that can manifest as a feeling of self importance that in turn erodes the consideration we would normally have for those around us.

One way to help restore that consideration might be to build enough sacred time into our schedules to ensure we are prepared for the events that keep the wheels turning in our respective organizations, and in that small way show some professional consideration to those around us and start to limit the urgency that’s pressing us to be so unprepared in the first place.

Notebooks

I flip-flop on the subject of whether to use a paper notebook or to use a laptop for everything including note taking in meetings and capturing stray thoughts. My indecision comes from appreciating both sides of the argument for either tool with laptops claiming the higher ground in terms of efficiency but loosing out to things like noise levels, having the opened screen imposing a barrier between you and other people, the issues around battery life, and the distractions that come with the installed apps all clamoring for your attention, usually when you need to be more focused.

Recently I’ve noticed a previously hidden benefit of using a paper notebook as a tool to monitor commitment levels, particularly when you’re prone to over-commitment in a busy organisation.

Once upon a time it was normal for students to take notes in lectures to later write-up into proper materials that could be used for study. This concept is where my paper notebook come back into play as it is certainly beneficial to spend some time digesting notes, transcribing them even, as an exercise in thoughtfulness around work.

However, when time is limited, do you have enough for this type of seemingly unnecessary activity? Arguably, if not, can you be sure you’re spending enough time thinking about what you’re doing at all, or are you simply running from meeting to meeting, lurching from issue to issue, and hoping that you’re doing the right thing in the heat of the moment?

Taking time out to be mindful of your work is a proactive thing to do, as counter intuitive as that may seem, and thinking about something is getting ahead of the issue. If there aren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate some time to this, then perhaps it’s time to assess if you’re over committed, need to delegate more, or in some other way need to address your workload; this is the action I’m taking away from the current use of a notebook and pen!