“There you go, one large glass of wine. That’ll be £6.50.”
“Sorry but can I get some more? I can see the level is just off the 250ml mark on the glass.”
I turned to my two friends stood either side of me.
“What? Look if I’m going to go speed dating then I’m damn well getting a full glass of wine.”
I took the glass off the bar in a swift motion that resulted in the extra liquid splashing across my suede heels.
“Good job you demanded more wine Alice.”
“You’re so funny!”
“Thanks, it’s just me being me I suppose.”
“No really, you’re naturally great. How you can make someone laugh just on the topics of pens, that takes skill.”
“Calm it down, if all the guys knew I’d leant you my pen after three minutes I’d be the talk of the town. Now I don’t know how you men play it in Calne but in Swindon this is big stuff. What are you on anyway, Diet Coke?”
“It’s actually full sugar.”
“Jesus Christ! Full sugar? Now it all makes sense, now I know what your game is. You’ve been eyeing up my pen all night!”
And then there was a minute of laughter.
“You know, you really should write this down.”
“Funny you say that, I actually write a blog.” (Said for the eighth time that night.)
“What’s it called?”
“My Housemate’s a Mermaid.”
He started scribbling it down on the paper when showcase Alice leapt out of my throat.
“I have a business card if it helps?”
“Oh yes please!”
As I handed over the tiny card I caught my friend’s eye from the table opposite me.
“What?” I mouthed. She responded with a look that said “you know what”. I’d joked all week about giving out business cards at this speed dating event, in fact only a few days before at a house party a friend had yelled “for God’s sake Alice!” when she pulled out one I’d smuggled into a card deck. In many ways giving out just the one business card all night was a poor showing on my part.
When you go speed dating it’s hard to get any understanding of what half the room are doing. In fact it’s probably the only time in your life when you have a better understanding of the opposite sex versus your own. As a woman you never get to (or want to) get a firm grip on the ‘competition’. At best you get hear-say reflections from what rotating men tell you about the other women they’ve chatted to on the night.
My grasp on how I was polling? I was the funny one, the leading one, the in-control one or, as one man put it, “the dominatrix of the room with the submissive friends”.
I was strangely flattered by this comment and in the same way that when I was six I let my policewoman ambition go to my head, at the next interval I told my two friends to get on the floor and worship me. If they didn’t I’d hit them around the head with a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Why have you even got that out on the table?”
“In case I get bored. Also a conversation starter.”
“And has it worked?”
“Why aren’t you on the floor already?”
My Dominatrix man was Jade’s ‘White Guy’ on account of his white shirt (although not before I’d yelled out “they’re all white Jade!” For all to hear). And White Guy was my other friend’s ‘Awkward’.
The latter description was fair, this man wasn’t a first class in fast flowing dialogue. In fact he’d come to my table with the opener, “I’ll probably say something that’ll weird you out and you won’t want to talk to me.”
“I wrote a blog post comparing men to snack bars. Try me.”
“I mean you could try to weird me out but in three and a half minutes you would be doing a very good job, so much so that actually I’d be more impressed than weirded out.
“As for me, I’ve long since learnt to not care. See if you chat to me now and think ‘she’s alright’ and we match then good times all round, if we don’t then that’s life. Why should I care what you think of me after four minutes if we never meet again? I don’t care. So go on, convince me why I shouldn’t tick yes for you.”
If Dominatrix was a computer I turned him into the blue screen of death. He froze for a second, that fraction of a moment when you could sense something was rebooting and then went from being uptight to putty in my hands. And, once again, I was branded “hilarious” for being me.
Another highlight mistake of the night was agreeing to do a collaboration video with a YouTuber who dresses as a Bear (I did an impression on my bar stool of how I’d be dancing in a mermaid costume. As glamourous as you’re imagining.) There was also a man who announced he’d seen me before, which given work, blog, Swindon 18-30 and being a normal human did not help either party. Someone else set up Cloud software for IT illiterate companies but had never seen this clip…
…which I instructed him to watch the second he got home.
“I’m not flipping kidding Jim*.”
There were other guys who either rocked up to my table as being loud and outgoing or deeply introverted to the point of barely getting a word out. At the time I just played me, I’d comment on their shirt and get them talking from that, or I’d make it obvious that I knew nothing about motor bikes.
“Like the Wallace and Gromit one?”
I.e. I got them all laughing and smiling. And although it seems a bit narcissistic, me thinking I’m God’s bringer of four minute joy…
…but I genuinely wanted to put people at ease and avoid the alternative option of four minutes of torture. I’d have thought I was being normal if not for the fact that the men were leaving my table with a look or comment that suggested they would linger longer if they could.
At a post event debrief I learned of some of the more ‘challenging’ conversations my friends had experienced, conversations that were non-existent on table nine. My little perch where I’d been doing me, chatting, laughing, smiling warmly through ink-laden eyelids. And while I sat there in the well-worn and stained surroundings of a neighbouring Wetherspoons a thought flashed before my eyes and exited through my mouth.
“I’m going to have to be the bad guy aren’t I?”
And then I realised the UHT milk pods I’d taken from the pub’s condiments table had leaked in my pocket.
Guess who’s been writing internal news articles again? Below was produced to promote the tool I’m developing as part of a team for a sub-project at work. More details below but so far the reception to both writing and project outputs have been great.
Keanu Reeves is a Better Career Advisor than Britney Spears
When I was a little girl I wanted to be Britney Spears. Then around the age of seven I realised it would be a difficult career path (turns out it’s a ‘dead man’s shoes’ role), so instead I settled on hard-hitting journalism, only to find myself documenting the adventures of a pineapple in a party hat (don’t ask). Post University there were three years in charity and now I’m fast approaching two of the same at Nationwide but it’s only recently that the words ‘Project’ and ‘Management’ have sprung out as possibilities for someone like me.
I applied to be on a team for this year’s Association for Project Management (APM) challenge with echoes of Britney in the back of my mind. What skills and qualities do you
need to have to enter it? Where do you go to access accredited material? Is Project management even the right career? I was about to call it out on when someone else said it, and then another, until we’d all agreed that between our collective 17 and a half years’ experience no one knew the answers to these fundamental questions. Our deliverable was born; in four months we’d build a tool to help practitioners focus their development time more effectively. We would call it the “Project Development Matrix” (and Michael, our project manager, would tell me to stop suggesting we wear long coats and shades like Keanu Reeves’ did in the 1999 film The Matrix). With our tool all you’d need to do is answer a few questions and the answers would automatically populate charts to help tailor the development plan of the user.
The APM challenge is designed to develop project management qualities and knowledge of the project lifecycle. We produce detailed reports to deadlines, stage project boards with our sponsor and must deliver what we set out to do. For the finals night in May we’ll either have produce additional material or present to a panel. You’re up against teams from a range of organisations so company lingo has to be stripped away and everything taken back to APM fundamentals. The project would be enough of a challenge for a single co-located team, however we’ve added a layer of fun to the mix by basing ourselves across two Swindon and one London office.
So where are we now? In February we housed a focus group to get consumer views and refine our ‘product backlog’ for the first release, with a view to develop and expand the tool and its use case after that. No project is entirely smooth running, given the snow I experienced in central London I struggled to see why the original focus group in Swindon had to be moved, but it’s the setbacks you learn best from.
The tool is presently due for release at the end of this month. Give it a go and let us know your thoughts. Any issues and I’ll don my shades and get Keanu to enter the Matrix himself and investigate further.
Been curious as to my whereabouts these past few weeks? Sat at home wondering what coffee shop I’m loitering in or whether, quite possibly, I’ve melted into a sticky puddle on the Tube? Well now I’ve come out the other side I can fill you in on exactly what I’ve been doing.
Snapshot summary: shut up in freezing cold rooms with the same people, ferried about the country in bright t shirts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. After 15 days pushed onto a large stage in front of important people to perform a corporate dance. For the winners, glory, for the losers, vending machine coffee. Scaring hashtag memories and bursting inboxes for all.
Make sense? Lets take it back a step or two.
In the beginning…
Cast your mind back to mid June. That crazy time when the temperatures were seasonally normal and people scoffed at England’s chances in the World Cup. Myself, alongside all those on two of my organisation’s career development streams were called into a room and informed that for the first three weeks of July we were to come off our day jobs and work on another sub-project titled “Innovation”. In true project style, the title Innovation remained as clear at ditch water to all but the organisers so what followed was a more detailed brief. Simply put, in teams we had between then and the 26h July to produce a new, innovative, solution to a problem being experienced currently by our organisation.
While we understood the aims and objectives of the Innovation Project as a whole, what we struggled with more was the idea of being removed from the business for three whole weeks. As you can imagine our day managers were less than thrilled but conveniently had been briefed in a separate meeting in a different building. Their ‘feedback’ pinged into inboxes just as we were being put into teams.
After brief conversations within our separate units, team names and compulsory hashtags were provided to those in charge. Given at the time none of us expected these to go any further than a internal communication or the organisation’s corporate social page, my group went for team “All Change” alongside #WeAreStrange. The hashtag in particular was done in good humour at the organisation of the Innovation Project. A week or so after that we were assigned a topic to base our separate projects around. For my team it was “how might we better identify member* needs of the future?” (*member being another way of saying our financial customers’) And with that we were all set off into the big world. It was now mid-late June and we knew that in a few weeks we’d be presenting an idea, a solution, a product to senior executives.
Late June – Another presentation on presentations…
Enter Capgemini, one of our organisation’s third party suppliers and soft skills trainers for the duration of the Innovation Project and organisers of several weeks of WebEx talks and dynamic team building sessions. On the whole these were good, it only took an hour a week to listen to the online video conferences and they required zero preparation (unless you had a question). Unsure of who did or did not know me, my signature intro ended up being “hi this is Alice, Alice Bennett here” but otherwise I held up my strong cool-kid reputation. Admittedly given my London location I often couldn’t attend meetings in person, but instead dialled in to noisy boardrooms only to question the benefit of me hearing fragments of ten different people instead of my team mates.
Other than these sessions our day jobs carried on as normal. All of us manically working away in the background to get what we could completed, tidied up or handed over for someone else to cover whilst we were away. It really did feel as if we were leaving our current teams for some shiny prospect that none of us could quite explain without making it look like we were going to be paid to do nothing for three weeks. Like parrots our default justification was “it’s development”.
July – week 1
Admittedly I was off in Majorca for the first formal week of tech training, led by second supplier IBM. Although I was off enjoying the sun I felt a bit sorry for the two remaining team mates who had to go through a tough five day boot camp into all things tech related from coding to the Cloud. As the heatwave blistered on outside, within the walls of the hotel the teams were shut away in ice cold rooms, spaces that were so chilly I later heard tales of people bringing cardigans and jumpers to keep warm.
Getting over holiday blues and how Britain could possibly be so hot still, the day after I landed back in Birmingham I was off again up north to Manchester. Here all the teams spent three days with, you guessed it, another third party supplier. Cisco is very proud of its innovation labs up in the northern powerhouse city, so was keen to show us what a dedicated innovation space looked like. But before that we had to settle into our hotel accommodation and be presented with our team t shirts. Remember what I said before about assuming the team name would go no further than that? Well I learnt a very painful lesson that evening about making assumptions…don’t. So now everyone had brightly coloured t shirts with a team name and hashtag printed boldly across the front and back. And we had to wear them the next day. And we had to walk halfway across Manchester to get to Cisco’s offices. Coincidentally management had long gone to bed by the time we realised all of this.
Day one in Manchester and we spent most of the day sitting on bean bags, because the stereotypes of creative spaces aren’t reinforced enough nowadays.
On this day we learnt more about what Cisco were doing at the MI-Idea labs and we met with start-ups to understand the personalities, mentalities and ideas that fall under the umbrella term.
On days two and three in Manchester IBM were back again to teach us how to unpick and create our own chatbots and visual recognition (VR). We found these sessions to be a lot quicker and easier to pick up and in no time at all Mike in my team was formulating his own Gareth Southgate chat bot and I looking into the boundaries of VR. I also posted several witty social media posts such as…
We started Wednesday’s session earlier than planned so we could rush back to Swindon in time for the England vs Croatia match. That evening both our bodies and souls were crushed. It would take several days for us to regain ourselves.
On Thursday all of us reunited in the conference suite, alongside the corporate graduates, to be briefed on another project we were to start working on. So now we had both an Innovation and Charity project to work on. As you can imagine we were so very, very, happy that day. So happy.
Friday was the first day were our teams all got together in separate rooms and started thrashing out ideas to tackle our theme. After so much time travelling or being lectured or learning or fighting off angry day job managers, the strain showed on everyone. We were all ready for the weekend.
In the final week of formally being off project team All Change started to do that, change. We had a concept but how that would look on paper and how we could make it work for our organisation was a tougher challenge. It’s one thing to say your idea is innovative, but if that idea is a dancing unicorn handing out red velvet cake to customers then it’s not likely to be as well received compared to something that is crazy but works.
For our team this final week featured a lot of competitor research (which isn’t easy – turns out corporations don’t like to make their finances public) and trying to pin people down for answers. In any other situation you wouldn’t expect a specialist to have a free enough diary to meet, say, the next day however in our bubble project time wasn’t a luxury. We quickly learnt that saying “we have to meet tomorrow because we’re presenting next week” made no difference at best and at worst got them asking us questions instead of our team asking them. Quick emails from their side did the job just as well. Alex pulled together a great presentation and our mentor Steve was a star in helping and showing us how to build a mobile app prototype, an essential part of making our idea tangible to the panel and creating a stand out presentation.
Throughout this week there were touch points with our project sponsors, the wider project leads and general chit chat with the third party suppliers who operated in a facilitate, support and provide external perspectives on our idea. On the Friday we delivered a dry run through of the presentation to a dummy panel of persons whose role was to provide initial feedback. As a team we were quite happy with the response and readily took on board the tweaks and minor adjustments which the presentation needed.
Despite all the craziness we made time for this ‘official’ team photo:
Back in day jobs = craziness = do not disturb = reminding team members we’re alive
Adjusting Innovation presentations = making time for research = making time for team rehearsals = trying to find rooms with phones (so I can dial in) = travelling back and forth from London to Swindon = shattered but ready
Thursday 26th July
Team All Change were fourth on the agenda after introductions and then the first presentation by Acta non Verba.
As we went up onto the main stage with all the big wigs, managers and colleagues of our organisation in front of us, we felt a little nervous. I’d never seen Claudia look so uncomfortable, bouncing on one foot to another as Alex set up his laptop with the presentation. “You’ve got this” I reassured her as we walked to the other side of the stage.
We not only smashed that presentation but completely owned it. All that was missing was internal fireworks or fire itself (the budget was there for health and safety checks).
We did good for a team which had #WeAreStrange printed across our backs (or yeah, the t shirts just had to be compulsory attire on the day of the final presentation, didn’t they? Cool-kid cred reduced to minus figures in seconds.)
After post presentation questioning and celebratory complimentary coffee we returned to our table in the conference suite and listened to the other three groups deliver their problem statement solutions. As each group watched the other in turn we were all amazed by both the quality and complexity of what had been designed and tested in such a short space of time. These weren’t “have you considered setting up a Google docs account?” or “have you thought about getting Amazon in to fix this?” It goes to show that if you give people resource and a free space then the ideas that can formulate are without limit. What is that saying about a man and a fish pole?
During the panel’s deliberation time I sipped on my coffee and wondered how anyone could pick out winners when all the presentations and contents were so good but so different. To me it felt a little bit like comparing chalk and cheese.
After a lot of heated discussions, the three winning teams were as follows:
Most viable (i.e. something the business could start doing straight away) – The Dream Team
People’s Choice (voted for by the audience) – Semper Progrediendi
Most Innovative – ALL CHANGE!! Yeeesss!
I wish I could say we won a pile of cash or a mini break to Paris, but instead we were happy to accept a framed certificate and team photo where we all looked good.
After all the excitement and the close of the main event at 1pm there was only a little time to take lunch and crash. After that for most it was a case of taking off t shirts and getting back into the day job. I personally kept my t shirt on, firstly because I missed the memo about everyone bringing a change of top (and I don’t think my company is about to relax its uniform policies that much) but also because by that point I was beyond embarrassment. Enough people had seen me strutting about the office in heels, pencil skirt and black jacket like some product rep for a new health drink. I didn’t care anymore. Like the presentation I’d been part of several hours beforehand I was happy, if not a little proud to own the look on that day. And when friends outside of the challenge pointed to my top with a smile and a laugh all I had to do was turn on my heel and lower my jacket.
“Well, we are strange”
“Aren’t you hot in that black jacket?”
“You cannot begin to imagine.”
After all that you are probably wondering what All Change’s big, award-winning innovation idea was or indeed the ideas of the four other teams. Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out… #WeAreStrange #SimplyInnovating
(A big thank you to everyone involved in the Innovation Project, including organisers, facilitators, educators and panellists. Of the third party providers there are far too many of you to name individually so I hope that in thanking Capgemini, IBM and Cisco will suffice. You guys know who you are, especially the person who thought bright t shirts were a good idea…)
When you complete each stage of a project in isolation. You can’t move onto the next stage until the previous one has been completed.
Teams may have frequent meetings in the form of monthly boards, where decisions are made by stakeholders, or dial in meetings with team members who may not work in the same office location (e.g. a Tester who works offshore).
A project example would be upgrades to multiple interlinked computer servers. Server one must first be upgraded first before server two can be looked at.
Methodical and the traditional method of running projects.
Works well for projects where there’s one end goal and nothing in between.
Enables clear investment decision points and reviews at stage ends and also ensures everything is completed before progressing to the next stage.
(Pro or con!) results in stricter levels of governance as projects need to fulfil specific criteria before being allowed to develop and implement.
Slow. A hold up at one stage affects the rest of the chain for the project.
This also includes potential impacts on dependant projects who rely on other projects for meeting their deadlines.
This in turn can lead to resource inefficiencies, project overspend and failure to meet to time scales.
Instead of aiming to complete whole stages in isolation, Agile projects take a more cyclonic approach, tackling a project delivery in multiple smaller stages (or sprints). Sprints tend to last between two and four weeks.
Teams keep each other informed via stand up Kanban/scrum meetings. An appointed scrum master leads discussions to enable the different teams working on the project provide updates. A) with what they are going to tackle during each sprint (at the start), B) progress updates (during) and C) what they have achieved (at the end). Meetings tend to be more informal and visual compared to Waterfall and the use of whiteboards with post its and/or dedicated software are adopted more frequently to enable updates in a quicker paced project.
An example of an Agile project would be the development of a App. Over the course of multiple sprints teams are able to gradually build and test the App, first with the basic code, then the functionality, then finally adding in user appeal – pictures, sounds etc.
Fast moving. Enables teams to quickly identify any faults and either fix or ‘drop’ them before too much money and time is invested.
Deliveries grow over time, a project leader can start to see formation much earlier into a project, where in Waterfall the change is sudden.
Considered to be a more resource efficient model and allows for greater collaboration.
Agile is not a suitable method for all projects. A single delivery can’t be built over time (for example, the delivery outcome ‘running a marathon’ cannot be done in separate sprints. You sign up, train, then run it. An Agile approach would be useless in this instance – you cannot gradually run bits of the marathon over twelve weeks!)
The working environment must contain all persons on the project (project lead, governance, software architects, testers, accountants, etc.) to enable collaboration. These resources can only be dedicated to one project or sprint. If resources are split between multiple projects (as they can be on Waterfall) then the sprint may fail to meet its delivery.
As sprints are quite short and projects adopting Agile are quicker paced, the project lead must ensure that suitable investment and project governance/review points are put in place as the cycle system doesn’t naturally allow for any sudden or prolonged stops.
As it’s a new methodology of project working, team members may require additional support and/or training.
And there you have it. A (very) quick overview of the two main methods of running projects. I want to add here that I am by no means an expert on either approach, having only started a career in business project management and governance three months ago(!) but hopefully for that reason it will help any new starters in the world get to grips with the basics.
(Also, I hope that doing this will stop Mumma Bennett getting into hysterics when I talk about my job- ‘Waterfall? Ha, ha, haah! What’s Waterfall?! I don’t understand, what’s water got to do with technology upgrades? You’re so corporate!’ and so on and so forth…)
And who says you don’t learn awesome things from this blog?
Ok, granted I wasn’t posing in that exact same fashion when my ankle went, but when it started to ache during a shopping trip I decided to ignore the pain and carry on walking on it. I’d decided to venture to the fair Welsh capital of Cardiff and I didn’t want to turn back before I’d even got properly stuck into my needed dose of retail therapy.
As well as the blinking obvious (walking on a duff ankle) there were other things I didn’t fully factor in whilst hobbling around the city centre on a Sunday in mid-late October. These ‘things’ feel into three categories:
The impact of a particularly bad cold virus.
Excitable children on school holidays, pumped up on sugar and in want of Halloween ‘stuff’.
Super eager women, pumped up on caffeine and hell-bent on obtaining Christmas wares before anyone else.
The result was pure shopping chaos, particularly when I became caught up in the shopping centre at peak time. Quickly I found myself bent and morphed into shapes usually reserved only for the most brutal of Twister games. Grunting the pain away like a reindeer on Christmas Eve, I kept my eyes straight and aimed my cold-filled, Rudolf Red, nose towards the nearest exit.
Out of nowhere they came. Turning out of a shop and charging toward me at speed came a group of teenage girls. Dressed in clothes that liberated their pre-pubescent figures, the young women clutched their semi-empty milkshakes in one hand with a firmness that was nearly as strong as their grip on the pre-ripped, bloodied, shirts that were slung over their backs.
“We’ve got the dead look covered this year girls!” One of the party exclaimed triumphantly, as she pored over a small bag of purchased make up. The others nodded in mild agreement, slupping on their milkshakes and scrolling through void blocks of information. At the command of their leader, the group circulated around a black screen to appease the tiny dot before them. The first snap failing to satisfy, they posed for another photo, and another. The look of death had a time and a place, and as far as the camera holder was concerned Snapchat wasn’t one of them.
Upon realising that my collision with the party was both inevitable and likely to write off my foot (for which I felt quite sure the girls lacked any sympathetic insurance), I decided to change my path. Like a Shakespearian character my persona as flipped into a Hellish beast as I gritted my teeth and turned on the sore ankle to walk around the female cluster.
As I hobbled on, dragging my bad leg behind me, I saw bitter sweet irony reflected in the eyes of all the ghoul clad staff who regarded me with confusion and unease. Coffee stands decorated with bloodied bandages and skulls, shops festooned with beaming figurines and tinsel, each environment looked down at me with a soulless attitude that clung onto those who dwelled beneath. Of all the shopper types it was only the husbands and boyfriends that took the crown for being more out of place than I. Loaded like a Biblical Donkey, acting like a Hollywood Zombie, the men of the city took pity and avoided my half dead shape, whilst their respective partners walked in window-display bedazzlement across my path. I gave a half smile of encouragement to these brave men and pressed onwards.
It was a circular pattern of discomfort and disinterest that punctuated the day. The simple pleasures; the reading of a book undisturbed, discovering a nicely styled boot, these glimmers of joy were hard won and so easily lost. A noisy patron in the neighbouring seat, a swollen foot rebelling against a test environment. A reminder perhaps that no one can be a God in the world of the Godless. This thought whispered around my brain in mockery as I slowly staggered towards the bus station. A hissing that ended with the slamming of doors and screeching of the brakes as I departed the capital once again for English soil.
Life, sore ankles and seasonal shoppers; nothing lasts forever.
What are you thoughts on friends on social media? Do we have too many? Are they damaging or do you see them as harmless numbers?
(PS, this is really a more in-depth, more wordy, less bullet pointy version of an earlier blog post There’s a Reason Why I Unfriended You. However these guys wanted something more informative – don’t they know who I am?!)
I tell you what, I am just about at the point where I could be convinced into throwing my iPhone against a brick wall.
It’s broken down, again.
This is how I felt the first time my series 5 model died on me:
This is how I felt when it black screened on me for the hundredth time about a month ago.
(But at least back then I was able to revitalise it with my famously soft, gentle, touch *START BUTTON, JAB, JAB, JAB!*)
And this, this is how I feel about the Apple corporation today after my phone completely died on me and failed to even give a damn about starting up.
In fact Apple is worse, at least the lady got her cookies from McDonalds in the end. All I got from nagging customer service was the promise of a jiffy bag in the next 3-5 working days for my phone.
Seriously you’d think that in paying so much a month for the privilege of saying to people “I have an iPhone don’t you know?” they could at least produce something that didn’t die after taking one average photo of Cockington (don’t laugh, it’s a real place in Devon, England. The photo would have looked something like this:)
But then my iPhone 5 is now dead so I guess we’ll never know the joys of Cockington manor or Cocktington thatch or my sister sitting on a bench in Cocktington that said “buttocks rest”. We will never know. Hear that? That’s the sound of a my one German fan weeping.