10 travel tips you might not read elsewhere.

May partner and I have been on the road for around 9 months now, travelling around Europe and South East Asia, and I’ve learned a few things about myself, the world, and how to travel. Some things are obvious, like how important it is to have decent travel insurance, buying local pay-as-you-go sim cards instead of racking up a big roaming bill, and setting some sort of spending budget…

However, here are ten tips (and a few bonus ones) that you might not read on the average travel blog.

Vietnamese lizard
  1. Everything breaks, so get good at fixing stuff, and learn to sew. Pack superglue, electrical tape, and a small sewing kit, and you can fix just about anything. I’ve repaired shoes, shorts, sleeping bags, watches, sunglasses, bags and cameras over the past few months.
    Repair on a sleeping bag.

    Sugru is also a great resource, but each pouch has to be used immediately once it’s opened, so take some, but use it as a last resort. And seriously, learn some basic sewing skills, like darning socks, sewing on buttons, or repairing rips and tears.

    solar charger, water purifier, backpack
    Halfway up to Annapurna base camp
  2. A good first aid kit is crucial. Stock up on antiseptic, plasters, bandages, bite cream, water purifying tabs, tweezers and anything else you might need personally. I even took some emergency tooth filling repair stuff, and I used it. You can also use superglue to patch up wounds, but be careful as it can get very hot when it dries, and the standard stuff sets stiff so it’s not good for cuts over skin that moves, like the soles of your feet.
    Kathmandu, Nepal

    Zinc oxide tape is great to prevent blisters and secure bandages. Electrical tape serves as a superb fix for a wound dressing if you’re going to get it wet. I cut my toes fairly badly while cliff jumping (whilst climbing up, not jumping down) and used bandages and electrical tape for a couple of weeks to keep it bandaged while in the sea.

    Cliff jumping in Vietnam
    Kayaking and paddle boarding in Vietnam

    Also stock up medicine when possible. Painkillers aren’t always available and you can go through them quicker than you’d expect. Take with you antihistamines, sleeping pills, anti-diarrhoea and rehydration salts. If you can, get some antibiotics like amoxicillin for general wound or tooth infections, and metronidazole for stomach bugs  and amoebic nasties.

    Our trekking guides, Santosh and Puskar

    If you find yourself somewhere like Nepal where you can get antibiotics over the counter, buy some. Buy more than you think you need (but not so many that you’ll be thrown in jail for smuggling prescription drugs). If you get an infection and you’re in deepest Cambodia, you really don’t want to leave it until you can find a reliable doctor.

    Walking in the Himalayas

    Buy hand sanitiser when you can find it cheaply, because it gets expensive when you’re remote. You’ll probably acclimatise to the local stomach bugs eventually, but using hand sanitiser regularly will reduce the likelihood of getting a bad one. I wasn’t careful enough in our first week in Kathmandu, and after vomiting in the street, and a very tense taxi ride, rather regretted it.

    Pub Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia
  3. Get a decent knife and learn how to use it and look after it properly. Buy one that locks open so that you don’t cut your fingers off when closing it. Keep it sharp using a decent stone or steel. Sharpening a blunted knife is really difficult, but keeping a knife sharp just takes a bit of discipline. I carried around a stone in my bag for 8 months just for this purpose. You’ll use your knife for everything from preparing food, repairing clothes, and cutting hair!

    Look after your knife.
  4. Eat local food whenever possible. Some of the most amazing food I’ve had travelling has been in the cheapest street stalls and markets. However, good local food isn’t always available. You’ll often find yourself forced to eat whatever is provided, and it might not be to your (or frankly, anyone’s) taste. Tabasco sauce can make all sorts of bland, weird, slightly off, or otherwise less-than-great food palatable. Take a little bottle of your your own with you, and even carry a few spices, salt, pepper, and sugar.
    Nepalese street food on the road to Pokhara.

    Cambodian market food
  5. Keep your hip flask topped up. I recommend whisky because it’s drinkable by itself and goes well mixed with lots of stuff from coke to coffee, gin is pretty nice to carry around but good luck finding tonic in rural SE Asia. Cognac could work for you if you’re an artist or something. Vodka if you’re doing the whole serious alcoholic thing. When you get invited to an impromptu beach party, or a chillout on a porch, you’ll be pleased you’ve got your old faithful hip flask with you.

    Chilling in Lisbon
  6. Buy a bunch of dry bags of different colours and sizes. You can almost never have too many dry bags. They’re really useful for simply keeping your kit organised and separated, so you’re not hunting around for your socks every day or wondering where your favourite big-night-out T-shirt is. It also means that if your bag gets wet or something springs a leak inside, most of your stuff will be ok. I used a big red one to keep dirty washing in (red for danger, obvs), and also used various dry bags for trips to the beach, backpacking in the rain, or kayaking trips. 

    Unpacking along the Annapurna Trek
  7. Be careful using squat toilets. In many parts of Asia, you’ll come across squat toilets. Once you get used to them, they’re actually pretty good, as long as they’re kept reasonably clean. However, make sure you zip up your pockets if possible, or at least put your phone and wallet somewhere else when you’re using a squat toilet. If something falls out, you really don’t want to be rummaging around down there, however fancy and expensive your phone is. 

    Riding around Koh Chang, Thailand.
  8. When travelling, if there are seatbelts, wear them. The same goes for helmets whilst riding motorbikes. It’s cool to be safe, kids. Driving standards outside Europe and the US are significantly lower, and in many places there’s not even a requirement to pass a test in order to drive on public roads. Our coach from Kathmandu to Pokhara overturned after having to avoid a speeding car on the wrong side of the road who’d miscalculated an overtake. We were fine, as was everyone in the coach apart from our Annapurna guide, who smacked his knee hard. We were lucky, but it could have been much worse.
    Everyone was fine, fortunately.

  9. Wear synthetic underwear. Seriously. If you’re walking a lot, or spending a lot of time in hot and humid conditions, you don’t want to be wearing cotton underwear, because they absorb water and will at best be very uncomfortable, and worst cause such severe chafing that you can barely move, or it gets infected. Synthetic underwear doesn’t absorb water, so it’s way more comfortable, particularly for trekking and/or humid weather. It’s also great for impromptu outdoors swimming, because your pants will dry quickly and frankly they’re also less transparent when wet than cotton pants…
    Swimming in cold water in El Bosque, Andalusia.

    Snorkelling in Thailand.
  10. Go offline. Going off-grid can be a great experience, especially if it’s for a decent amount of time. If you get a chance to get out into the wilderness, the mountains, or out to sea, then use that opportunity to go fully offline and away from the distractions of modern life. We went off-grid for about 12 days on our trek to Annapurna Base Camp, and it made an amazing experience even better.
    Prayer flags at Annapurna base camp

    Although initially you might suffer from bad FOMO, or fear that your parents and friends might worry if they don’t hear from you (by the way, you should probably tell people you’re going offline lest they spark an international manhunt), after a few days you’ll feel back in touch with the real world a little more, maybe feel a bit more calm, and able to be more present in the moment. You might even find that after a week or two of being off-grid, you really don’t want to reconnect after all.

    Taking the night train to Saigon
Jade relaxing on a snorkelling trip in Thailand

Finally, here’s a few bonus tips that didn’t quite make it to the top ten:

  • Shower gel is a fine alternative to washing machine detergent. Just don’t use too much.
  • Toilet paper is valuable stuff, always keep some with you, especially on a mountain trek. A roll of toilet paper can cost the same as a night’s accommodation high up in the mountains.

    The Himalayas at sunrise
  • Always carry snacks, because you will definitely find yourself in places or on journeys for considerable lengths of time with no access to food. Individually wrapped cereal bars are great. Try to avoid things that melt.
  • Take digital photos of your passport and other important documents, in case you lose them, or in case you need to show them to someone but don’t have the documents on you.
Putting our feet up during a Himalaya trek.
  • Take rechargeable batteries for torches and other gear, and a charger for them. 
  • Learn to open beer and wine bottles without openers. Don’t use your teeth. 

    Mucking about (fallen angel pose) in Lisbon.
  • Carry some US dollars for emergencies. Almost everywhere accepts them as currency, or at least to change them. They’re often essential to pay for visas at the border around SE Asia too.
  • If it’s within your budget (or someone else’s), get yourself a proper adventure camera. Jade bought me the amazing Olympus Tough TG-5, which is waterproof, drop-proof, and packed with features.

    Olympus TG5 camera.
  • Get a Curve card. It’s a Mastercard, so it’s accepted nearly everywhere, and you can use it instead of your credit and debit cards, so you can keep them safe somewhere and only expose your Curve card to potentially risky ATMs and restaurant owners. Curve also converts currencies for you, saving you money on fees. Shameless promo: sign up for Curve here with code NPWZA and you’ll get £5, and so will I.
  • Take a tablet or laptop with you in order to work, research and book travel, or simply watch Netflix. We spent many, many hours on shonky wifi connections from nearby cafes watching Anthony Bourdain on Netflix. Try to download stuff to watch or listen to later if you know wifi might be patchy.

    Lemon tree in Prado Del Rey, Andalusia
  • Practise mindfulness and meditation; you’ll many have periods of time when all you can do is sit and wait, so you may as well put it to good use, and you can continue to practise when you’re back in the “real” world. If you’re new to it or prefer a little guidance, there are some great apps out there for meditation practice, such as Headspace.
Getting to Annapurna base camp

Travelling is very much about experiencing abstract, intangible things. Meeting new people, seeing different parts of the world, experiencing other cultures, eating different food and finding ways to be at ease with discomfort such as sleeping in bad beds or walking for hours with a heavy pack on your back.

Don’t worry about buying souvenirs. They’re just added weight. Take photos, record the sounds, make memories and friends.

Vietnamese fishing boats

As Bourdain says: “It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realise the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realise how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.

Wild swimming in a pool in Koh Chang, Thailand.
Jade at Ninh Van Bay, Vietnam.
Getting bamboo tattoos in Thailand
Barcelona beach

Leave a comment with any travel tips you have.

Why the UK Porn Block is an Awful Idea

From 15 July 2019, the UK’s age verification system for online pornography will become mandatory. Here’s why it’s a terrible idea.

  1. It actually doesn’t block much porn at all. It only applies to commercial porn, which you need a credit card to access anyway, and children generally don’t have credit cards. It doesn’t apply to porn on social media, free sites, or P2P sharing, which is much easier to access.
  2. It will likely do more harm than good. It may provide many parents with a false sense of security that their children can no longer access porn online, resulting in a lower emphasis being placed on parents properly managing their childrens’ internet access. Parental controls on home wifi, home computers, and mobile devices are widely available and relatively easy to use.
  3. It plays into the hands of the big commercial porn providers. The main age verification system (AgeID) is owned by the same company that runs the most popular and lucrative porn websites in the world. The largest porn company in the world is being tasked with controlling access to porn. Already, some smaller businesses in the realms of ethical porn and feminist porn have shut down because implementation of this system is too expensive for them. If we’re going to have porn on the internet (and who are we kidding, there will always be porn on the internet), do we want it controlled by one big US firm?
  4. It has serious privacy implications. The age verification systems will contain the personal information and erotica browsing history for every adult who’s ever wished to access online porn from July onwards. If (or more realistically, when) this database is breached, it will be a treasure trove for identity thieves and blackmailers.
  5. It just won’t work. Technologically, it’s easy to bypass the system. Because it only applies to the UK, a simple VPN to break out to a different country will easily and cheaply circumvent most controls. At the same time, as has been seen in China, India and other authoritarian regions, consumers simply switch to other channels, such as torrenting, social media, newsgroups (yes, they’re still a thing), and the dark web.
  6. It’s based on flawed evidence. Whilst there’s anecdotal evidence that children “stumble across” online porn, there’s very little evidence that they access commercial porn sites, particularly when parents make some effort to manage internet access. The main study cited as the catalyst for the Act “found” that “almost a tenth of all 12- to 13-year-olds thought they were “addicted” to pornography”, and was carried out by OnePoll, the same people who generate such hard-hitting research as “German men are the world’s worst lovers” and “Fifty percent of British adults think Mount Everest is in the UK“. There is evidence that children access porn online, and some evidence that it’s harmful, and some that it isn’t as harmful as you’d think. Whichever way it’s cut, this age-verification approach is not evidence-based.
  7. It’s censorship and control. It provides a mechanism for the government to monitor online activity and decide what content is acceptable or unacceptable for the population to access, and change this definition as they see fit. The terms in the act even include the ability to block “material other than the offending material”. We may trust today’s government (though do you, really?), but we’d be foolish to implicitly trust future governments not to extend the controls to other content. As the award-winning English lawyer Myles Jackman put it, “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die. If this assault on liberty is allowed to go unchallenged, other freedoms will fall as a consequence.”

Technologically, this approach is fundamentally flawed, is unlikely to work at all, and creates some worrying implications for digital identity and privacy in the hands of large US corporations.

Anonymous feedback can destroy your team

Feedback sucks. Advice is better.

First of all, feedback sucks. It really does.

Unless the person delivering the feedback is highly empathetic, has lots of free time, is highly skilled and is in the proper position to provide it, and the person receiving it is in the right frame of mind, open to feedback, confident, mature and in a safe place, it’s probably going to be uncomfortable at best or at worst, devastating.

Delivering feedback is hard. In my experience managing teams over a couple of decades, I’ve seen it done so badly that it verges on abuse (in fact, on occasion it certainly was abuse), and despite my best efforts, I’ve have delivered feedback so badly that the relationship took months to recover. I’ve learned from those experiences, and now I’m better, but certainly not perfect.

But ultimately it is important to give and receive feedback if we want to get better at the things we care about. Given how incredibly hard it is to deliver feedback in person, why would we facilitate anonymous feedback?

A misguided solution.

Anonymous feedback is often presented as a solution to problems including unequal power dynamics, bias, fear, or a lack of candour. In reality, anonymous feedback masks or even exacerbates those problems. Great leadership and management solves, or should solve, those problems.

Anonymity reinforces the idea that it’s not safe to speak up. It’s mistaken for objectivity. It presumes that the people who receive it will interpret it exactly as it was intended.

Feedback must be contextual. It must also be actionable, otherwise why provide it?

Conversations matter.

The reason we deliver feedback in person is because it demands a discussion; for example, imagine someone wishes to give you feedback on the way I behaved in a meeting because you came across as aggressive and intolerant. You’d certainly want to know, but you would also want them to know that an hour before that meeting, you’d received some upsetting family news and were struggling to deal with it. That conversational feedback then provides a channel for an open and frank discussion, and an opportunity to support each other.

If that same feedback was delivered anonymously, not only is your theoretical self having a tough time with family problems, but now (in your head, for that is where we all reside) you’re overly aggressive, intolerant, and failing in your role.

Feedback must be actionable.

Anonymous feedback is incredibly difficult to act upon, and can breed a sense of frustration, fear, and resentment, particularly in small teams and organisations.

All feedback must be a conversation. And in order to have a conversation, you must be able to converse with the other party.

You may work in a high-trust, low-politic environment. Or you may believe that you do, since rarely is this truly the case. If you believe that you do, check your privilege. Are you experienced, senior, well paid, white, cis, male, able-bodied or neurotypical? Chances are, for those that are not in those categories, the degree of trust and safety they feel may be somewhat lower, and the impact of feedback considerably greater.

Unconscious bias

There are numerous biases in effect when it comes to feedback and indeed all interpersonal relationships, particularly in the workplace. For example, women are often perceived as more aggressive than men when demonstrating the same behaviour, due to an unconscious bias that women should be more feminine.

Anonymous feedback, rather than removing that bias, enables it, and feeds it, because a woman receiving anonymous feedback that she should “be less aggressive” is forced to accept it as objective, when it’s actually less likely to be the case.

Bias affects everyone. A man may receive feedback suggesting he should be less softly spoken in meetings, an introvert may be told they should speak up more, or (and this happens a lot) a young woman may be told to smile more.

Motivations

Consider the motivations for someone providing anonymous feedback. One reason might be that they genuinely want you to be better, and they already think you’re great, so they’re giving you a chance to excel even more. That’s the only good reason for feedback. All others, including power-plays, envy, bias, inexperience, or simple misunderstanding of the situation, are terrible reasons, and will only have a negative impact on the team.

The point is that when providing feedback, even if your intentions are pure, you will not be aware of your unconscious bias, and working through those biases is that is something that only a conversation can facilitate.

Dialogue.

In every single 1-1 you have with a team member, ask what you can do better, what more or less you could be doing, or what, if anything you could change in you interactions with team members. This regular, light-touch, conversational cadence provides a safe space for feedback. And even if in 99% of the sessions, there is no feedback to give, it ensures that when there is some feedback required, it comes easily, and isn’t a difficult process.

Anonymity encourages poor leadership.

Anonymous feedback processes also provide a get-out, an excuse, for poor leadership and avoiding conversations where feedback is requested or proffered. The thinking may be “I no longer need to ask what more I can do or how I can be better, since we have regular anonymous feedback instead.” This is dangerous, and leads to a general degradation of good leadership practices.

For these reasons, I never provide or accept anonymous feedback. I will always, instead, have a conversation.

Culture.

If you’re tempted to use anonymous surveys and feedback, ask yourself why you feel that anonymity is required, and address the underlying issues. A truly great culture doesn’t require anonymity, and an organisation without a great culture is not maximising the potential of the people within it.

GDPR, and how I spent a month chasing my data.

sherlock holmes basil rathbone

In May 2018, I received a letter from a local firm of solicitors, Roythornes, advertising a property investment event. I hadn’t heard of them and I was damn sure I hadn’t given them my permission write to me at home. They were wide of the mark to say the least- I’m an unlikely potential property tycoon, unless we’re playing Monopoly. Even then, I’m a long shot.

It was a quiet week at work so given the recent implementation of GDPR and the fact that I really don’t like junk mail, I thought I’d give the new Data Subject Access Request (DSAR) process a whirl.

I couldn’t find contact at Roythornes to send a DSAR to but, helpfully, GDPR places no restriction on the medium someone can use to make a request, so at around 9am that day I filled in their online contact form, despite my concerns that it would get picked up by a clueless admin assistant. I requested a copy of the data they hold on me, the source of that data and the evidence of my opt-in for direct mail. I also asked that they delete the data they hold on me and send no further marketing material.

At 1:42pm, I had a from “Norma” of Roythornes (not joking, sorry Norma), asking for a copy of the letter and stating that she couldn’t find me in their database. So far, so good…

At 1:55pm, I received an automated recall email from Norma.

A few hours later, another email arrived, this time from the firm’s “compliance partner”, stating that they had acquired my personal data in a mailing list they purchased from Lloyd James Media, on the 1st of May 2018, and that my letter was sent out on the 21st May 2018. She stressed that the purchase of the list, and the sending of the letter itself was prior to the GDPR implementation date of 25th May 2018, and therefore legal.

Solicitors abiding by the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law? Imagine that.

Dancing around technicalities notwithstanding, Roythornes did confirm that my data had been deleted and I wouldn’t be hearing from them again. Phase 1 complete, but who exactly were Lloyd James Media, and how did my data fall into their hands?

For Phase 2 of my quest, a quick google told me that Lloyd James Media “is a multi-channel data agency focusing on the intelligent use of data to optimise customer acquisition and retention.” I can only assume this translates as “we make and sell mailing lists”. So, off went my DSAR email to their sales email address, because yet again, there was no contact information available for non-sales enquiries, let alone DSARs.

Andrew of the compliance team at Lloyd James Media only took 24 hours to get back to me. He confirmed that they sold my personal data to Roythornes for a postal campaign. They had acquired my data from another firm, “My Offers”, and the consent for postal marketing was obtained by them, apparently. Helpfully,  Andrew suggested I get in touch with the “compliance team” at My Offers. Evidently, this is a team of one, someone called Saydan, whose email address Andrew provided. I reminded Andrew to remove my data from their system and headed off to continue the hunt for the true source of my data, feeling like a geek version of Bear Grylls tracking an elusive squirrel. Phase 3 had begun.

My Offers are “Europe’s leading online direct marketing company with a database of 22.2million registered users.” I fired my third DSAR email off to Saydan later that day. One week later, I’d heard nothing. According to GDPR, there is no need for an immediate response, as long as the DSAR is executed within a month, but the silence was unnerving. Was Saydan trying to ghost me? I found their Facebook page and sent a message to whichever poor soul supports their social channels. For good measure, I also dredged LinkedIn for their employees, emailed Ivan, one of their directors, and in true annoying millennial style, tweeted at them. The only response was from their Facebook team, who reiterated that I should email the enigmatic Saydan, then also went quiet on me.

Over the next few weeks, because nothing seemed to be happening, I pinged their facebook team a courtesy message once each week with a gentle reminder of the impending deadline for a response. Part of me was relishing the prospect of not getting a reply, and I began googling, “What to do if someone doesn’t respond to a DSAR.” I was way too invested in this.

Then, exactly one month to the day since the original request, an email from Ivan, the My Offers director arrived in my inbox. Ivan’s email was straight to the point and only had a few spelling mistakes. Attached was a password protected CSV file containing all the information I’d requested. The password was sent in a separate email. So far, so good (though, yet again, I had to remind him to remove my data from their systems).

The CSV file was interesting. And by interesting, I mean in the way that hearing the creak of a stair when you’re in bed, and there’s nobody else in the house is interesting. The data contained my full name, birth date, gender, home address, email address, phone number, data subject acquisition date and source (Facebook), as well as a list of businesses that my data had been shared with in the past year. The list totalled around 60, including Lloyd James Media, various PPI and no-win no-fee firms, and more. That explains all the marketing calls over the past year then.

This CSV file was the smoking gun. However, the trigger was evidently pulled by my own fair hand. At some point, possibly whilst drunk, bored at work, or both, I’d clicked on a campaign offering me a beard trimmer. I still don’t have a beard trimmer (I do have a beard), so I presumably I didn’t pursue this purchase but in getting only that far, I inadvertently provided My Offers with access to my personal data, and consent for direct marketing. Sounding eerily familiar, I wondered if my voting choices in the last election were my own making.

So, just over a month after I sent my first DSAR to a local firm, what have I learned from this?

Firstly, GDPR actually works. Not only was the DSAR process easy to do, it was free (for me), and two out of three firms responded within 24 hours. Presumably GDPR is also helping to reduce unwanted junk mail; after all, Roythornes as good as admitted that they wouldn’t have posted the initial letter to me after the GDPR implementation date.

Secondly, once your data is out there, it gets around. It only takes one “online direct marketing company” to get hold of it, and your personal information will spread faster than nationalism in Europe.

Finally, don’t be dumb on facebook (like me). We know about Cambridge Analytica of course, but they’re not the only guys trying to harvest information and profit from it. Resist the lure of data-harvesting surveys and competitions, even when drunk.

Curve is making using money whilst traveling much easier.

Most people who know me are somewhat aware that I travel quite a lot. I love visiting new places, and I really enjoy being on the move. One thing that often bugs me, however, is how awkward using money in different countries can be.

Getting local cash at a decent rate can be a pain. Using an ATM abroad incurs fees from your bank, and you don’t necessarily get good rates. Going to a currency exchange can be a hassle too. I usually carry some dollar notes on me anyway, because they’re accepted almost everywhere.

Using your debit or credit card abroad incurs yet more fees, with unpredictable and usually poor rates.

This is where my new Curve card comes in. A Curve card essentially acts as a proxy between the world and your existing cards. You can add multiple credit and debit cards to it, and select which one to use for each payment (or even change it afterwards!). Using your Curve card doesn’t incur any currency conversion fees, and you receive a better rate than most high street currency exchanges.

Cleverly, all the transactions on your Curve appear as purchases on the “source” cards, which means you can also take cash out of an ATM using your Curve card, and choose to source the cash from any of your cards, including credit cards (without incurring the cash advance fees that you normally would), debit cards and pre-paid cards.

So what does this mean for travelers? Firstly, using your Curve card saves you money abroad, both when using it to purchase goods and services, or getting cash from an ATM.

Secondly, it’s far more secure. Just take your Curve out with you, and leave your main cards in the safe at the hotel, or simply keep them elsewhere on your person. If your Curve card gets stolen or lost, simply open the app and deactivate it. Even if it somehow got cloned by some unscrupulous bartender or waiter, you’ll receive instant alerts of any payments, so you’d know the instant it was used, which means you could instantly disable the card and request a refund.

Thirdly, you get real-time feedback and notifications, making budgeting far easier. You can tag your purchases, add notes, and scan receipts to add to purchases. This means you can keep track of your spending, check how much you’re spending on travel, food, shopping, etc, and even use it to form the basis of your expenses claim if travelling for business.

In my opinion, Curve is still lacking a few features though. You can’t yet add it to Apple Pay, which would streamline payments even further. You can’t add a single debit or credit card to multiple Curve accounts either. The reason for this is that when travelling as a group or a couple, you could all add some money into a shared pre-paid card (e.g. Monzo), and then add that to your individual Curves. This would solve all those split-payment problems when you’re paying for supplies or travel costs for the whole group. If there’s any “debate” around a certain item being charged to the group card, it’s easy to “go back in time” (as Curve put it), and charge it to a different (i.e. personal) card.

I’m pretty sure the group payment challenge is solvable, either with existing tech, or by someone shortly bringing out fintech joint accounts. Either way, using Curve has definitely made my travelling life a lot easier, and I’m excited to see what they do next.

Shameless promo: sign up for Curve here with code NPWZA and you’ll get £5, and so will I.

Embrace the silence

When i am silent, i have thunder hidden inside me.

Over the years in my career so far, I’ve found that in some (many) situations, my speaking style in meetings doesn’t always “work” effectively.

Some background: when I was young, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, and had trouble forming sentences and speaking properly. I had speech therapy until the age of around 8 years old. The word “hammer” was a particular challenge for me, apparently. I don’t know why. I can say hammer really well now. Try me.

As a result of this (or maybe it’s just coincidental), I often pause before speaking, particularly when in a larger group, or in a situation where what I say really matters. It’s partly to formulate the content, the idea, the concept, but also to establish the “how” of it; i.e. how to structure the sentences, what phrasing to use, and how the statement is to be delivered.

Now, this pause is useful for everyone. It allows for a more cogent, relevant and useful discussion.

But, people seem to feel the need to fill this audible space. Whether that’s a result of a discomfort with silence, or a desire to be the one speaking and presenting their ideas instead of me, I don’t know. I suspect both, in different scenarios. I don’t really care though, as it gives me more time to build my response anyway.

I guess I could be concerned that some might interpret a pause as a weakness, as some kind of hesitation because I don’t understand the subject matter, but I choose to ignore that concern, and focus instead on being me, and how I function best.

I wonder if we should all try to pause a little more. Think about what we say, how we say it, and how we deliver it. Imagine if meetings were 30% less talk, but with 50% better quality contributions as a result.

Embrace the silence. Embrace your own, and allow others to use theirs.

The Three Ways

The three ways are one of the underlying principles of what some people call DevOps (and what other people call “doing stuff right”). Read on for a description of each approach, which when combined, will help you drive performance improvements, higher quality services, and reduce operational costs.

1. Systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves taking into account the entire flow of a system. This means that when you’re establishing requirements or designing improvements to a structure, process, or function, you don’t focus on a single silo, department, or element. This principle is reflected in the “Toyota way” and in the excellent book “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. By utilising systems thinking, you should never pass a defect downstream, or increase the speed of a non-bottleneck function. In order to properly utilise this principle, you need to seek to achieve a profound understanding of the complete system.

It is also necessary to avoid 100% utilisation of any role in a process; in fact it’s important to bring utilisation below 80% in order to keep wait times acceptable. See the graph below.

2. Amplification of feedback loops.

Any (good) process has feedback loops – loops that allow corrections to be made, improvements to be identified and implemented, and those improvements to be measured, checked and re-iterated. For example, in a busy restaurant kitchen, delivering meatballs and pasta, if the guy making the tomato sauce has added too much salt, it’ll be picked up by someone tasting the dish before it gets taken away by the waiter, but by then the dish is ruined. Maybe it should be picked up by the chef making the meatballs, before it’s added to the pasta? Maybe it should be picked up at hand-off between the two chefs? How about checking it before it even leaves the tomato sauce-guy’s station? By shortening the feedback loop, mistakes are found faster, rectified easier, and the impact on the whole system – and the product – is lower.

3. Continuous Improvement.

A culture of continual experimentation, improvement, taking risks and learning from failure will trump a culture of tradition and safety every time. It is only by mastering skills and taking ownership of mistakes that we can take those risks without incurring costly failures.

Repetition and practice is the key to mastery, and by considering every process as an evolutionary stage rather than a defined method, it is possible to continuously improve and adapt to even very dramatic change.

It is important to allocate time to improvement, which could be a function of the 20% “idle” time of resources if you’ve properly managed the utilisation of a role. Without allocating time to actually focus on improvement, inefficiencies and flaws will continue and amplify well beyond the “impact” of reducing utilisation of said resource.

By utilising the three ways as above, by introducing faults into systems to increase resilience, and by fostering a culture that rewards risk taking while owning mistakes, you’ll drive higher quality outcomes, higher performance, lower costs and lower stress!

For my presentation on the Three Ways, click here. Feel free to use, adapt, and feed back to me 🙂

The IT hardware lifecycle explained

In our service desk, where a device is reported as being slow, broken, malfunctioning, or for any other reason the user wishes to have it replaced, we first determine the age of the device. If the device is outside of the standard hardware lifecycle, it will be replaced, because the maintenance and TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of devices older than the standard lifecycle is more costly than the replacement costs. If it’s within the life cycle, it will either be repaired, or we’ll evaluate if the user actually needs a more capable machine to carry out their role.

TCO vs age:

hardware total cost of ownership

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In very general, cumulative terms, the TCO of a device increases over time. When the annual TCO exceeds the cost of a new device, it is overdue to be replaced.

TCO includes:

  • Increased support resource costs.
  • Cost of replacement components.
  • Loss of productivity of the employee using the device.
  • Added complexity from maintaining an older (less uniform) fleet.
  • Security concerns due to older devices.
  • Power usage.
  • Staff morale.

An example of a standard hardware lifecycle is:

  • Laptops – 3 years
  • Desktops – 4 years
  • Monitors – 5 years
  • Servers and network hardware – 5 years
  • Mobile phones – 2 years
  • Printers – 3 years (but using a managed service lease contract)

This is standard across the IT industry, although many science/tech firms may have dramatically shorter lifecycles due to the higher workloads that devices are expected to handle.

The above lifecycle means that we will maintain a life cycle of replacing 33% of our laptops each year, 25% of our desktops, 20% of our monitors, and so on. This is the staggered approach; some firms employ the forklift approach which means replacing (e.g) the entire laptop fleet once every three years. This impacts cash flow harder, and can be more disruptive during the change, but has the advantage of delivering a perfectly uniform fleet of hardware each time. Many contact centre-style businesses employ this approach.

The only time I’ve modified this life cycle is when the company I’ve worked for has gone through cash flow difficulties, and we’ve extended the replacement period with a “promise” to pull it back in-line when cash allows. Of course, the promise is rarely fulfilled…

Q. How do you know that you could improve as a leader?

Q. How do you know that you could improve as a leader?

A. You’re still breathing.

Check out Jenifer Richmond and  find out more about her excellent executive coaching services. I’ve been working with Jenifer for some time now, and she has helped me hugely in identifying my career goals and, through questioning and challenging, helped me to make difficult decisions and changes of direction where necessary. I really can’t recommend her enough.

 

 

10 elements of managing a successful IT team

  • Give time to your team
    • 1-1’s, development reviews, PDR’s, working together on projects, or just time for a coffee and a chat. Whatever you call it, it’s important to regularly spend time with each of the team members. Rarely, if ever, will you find that one of these sessions wasn’t worthwhile. Just don’t rush it.
  • Make sure everyone has a role.
    • Every single member of your team is important, and everyone needs to feel that their efforts are worthwhile, whether it’s setting up new servers, systems, and infrastructure, or manning the telephones and taking calls. Nobody likes to feel like the spare wheel, and it’s unproductive, but it can easily happen.
  • Take them with you.
    • Going to a conference, seminar, networking event or similar? Take one of the team with you, and prioritise the junior members. It’s a great learning experience for them, and a good bonding exercise for the both of you. You don’t need to do this every time, but depending on the size of the team, it should at least be possible to do this once a year per team member.
  • Put the team first.
    • Your team get things done. Without them, you’re nothing. Put them first, and make sure they know you’re fighting their corner. Even if it means you taking the hit for something, or to the detriment of your reputation in the business, ultimately if your team see you working hard for them, they’ll work hard for you. In the long run, this is what matters more.
  • Be a good role model
    • Demonstrate a good work / life balance. This isn’t easy, and particularly in IT, where the servers don’t sleep just because you do, but if you can show that you work when you need to, and relax when you can by making the most of your free time, it’ll set an example that will help prevent burn-out and make for a more productive, enjoyable work environment.
    • Don’t be late. Set standards that the rest of the team can abide by. Get to work on time, be prompt for meetings. Don’t be a “Do as I say, not as I do” boss.
    • Be tidy. If you want your team to keep a tidy workspace, it’s going to be a lot easier if you set a good example.
    • Put in the extra hours when you need to, but make sure you take those holidays that you earn. Don’t make your team feel guilty if they ask for time off.
    • Customer service – put the customer first. In internal IT departments, the customer is the end-user, and the old stereotype of IT helpdesk staff disliking end users still holds true in many cases. Make sure your team know that while half of their job is technical, in some ways the most important half is good old customer service. Set an example by providing excellent service to your customers.
    • Respect your colleagues – set a good example by not complaining about your colleagues in the business. Even if you’ve been terribly disappointed or let down by one of your peers, don’t pass that down to your team. It’s demotivating for them to hear, and can damage relationships between departments and teams. Be open, but not negative.
    • Enjoy your job and be positive! If you don’t enjoy what you do, it’ll be clear to your team, but if you enjoy what you do, that positivity will spread.
  • Ask for feedback
    • Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from your team. This can be intimidating, especially in person, but it’s absolutely invaluable. Asking “is there anything I could be doing that I’m currently not doing?” or “What could I be doing better?” will provide you with superb information to help you develop and improve as a manager, and help to identify any issues that could be hindering the team’s productivity. If the answer to both of these questions is “nothing”, then well done – however make sure you ask it regularly and phrase it differently each time to tease out any issues.
  • Keep up to date.
    • Ask for regular updates on performance, tasks, challenges, difficulties and successes. Whether you do this via email, phone, in person, or some other way will depend on your particular circumstances. Personally, I like the “15/five” style of weekly report via email, meaning it should take them 15 minutes to write, and you 5 minutes to read, but use whatever works for you.
  • Focus on development.
    • IT careers are all about what you know, and what experience you have. If you let your staff development fall behind, not only will they become less productive, but they’ll be thinking about moving on to somewhere else to continue to learn and develop their skills and knowledge.
    • Engender a culture of learning and knowledge sharing. In our team, we share “discoveries” every Friday via group emails, demonstrating what we’ve learned or discovered that week, from how to create a new maintenance task in SQL Server, what the new features of the iPhone 6 will be, or even facts about dinosaurs, particle accelerators, or IT industry figures…
  • Follow through on what you say.
    • This should go without saying, but you see it all the time. If you say you’ll do something, do it. Or, if it turns out that you can’t, don’t have time, or the situation changes, inform your team and explain why.
  • Be the best that you can be.
    • No pressure, right? Always strive to be as good as you can possibly be. Don’t burn yourself out, but be constantly looking for ways to improve yourself, the team, the environment, your business and your role. Be awesome.

 

Have I missed anything? I’m sure I have, so let me know by commenting.