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Bytemark at LRL 09

How I came to work at Bytemark

At the end of September, I left my job at Bytemark where I’d worked for the previous 6 years.

I’ll be sharing more, about the future in due course, but I was reflecting on my path to Bytemark.

I first was introduced to technology by the #manlug IRC channel, where I quickly became affiliated with the local fundamentalist free software group (and not ‘open source’), launched by Matt Lee. Matthew gave the first talk of that group about – as I seem to remember – how lack of open source cpanel was a big issue.

Lots of members of that IRC channel were Bytemark customers, and one (later, briefly) even went on to become an employee.

I remember going to LugRadioLive 2008 – where Bytemark had installed LTSP on some servers and figured out some way to run Team Fortress on them via WINE or something. For their efforts mbloch and employees [at the time] ahowells & lupine were given some kind of miniprize of tshirts by the LugRadio crew.

Bytemark at LRL 09

Bytemark at LRL 08

Around that time I was helping one of the largest Manchester tech community events to date, and managed to persuade Matthew to sponsor it (eg I asked, and Matthew said “yes”).

One of my two first jobs was as a contract Xen sysadmin for BBC R&D, (relying heavily on Skemp‘s work on xen-tools !), and also for a VoIP provider. When we needed a virtual server, and the VoIP company’s existing hosting supplier couldn’t provide Ubuntu because their bought-in virtualisation platform didn’t support it, I emailed Matthew to go to York and have a chat. We were very nervous about hosting VoIP servers in a datacentre in those days.

We went on to buy several servers, and I spent several months annoying the support team with correct and incorrect diagnosises of networking issues that may or may not have related to Bytemark. (I was a bit like a monkey with a sword using mtr at that point – I knew it was powerful, but I couldn’t always point it with the right end).

Around the middle of 2010, I was subscribed to the dolphin emporium mailing list, and looking for something technical, with clearer troubleshooting possibilities available. VoIP call quality issues are surprising tough to do automated monitoring on, and it seemed like there must be more clear-cut types of technical problem to diagnose. My thought was that web hosting had to be easier – either the web server was there, or it was not – nobody could complain that only half the page was there, or that it sounded like it was underwater.

I tried to get into M247, Melbourne, (M247 said no, Melbourne said they wanted more Windows experience), considered approaching some others, and then I saw this Bytemark job posting on the debian-uk mailing list.

I remember feeling terribly underprepared for the job interview. I knew about ~1/3 of the technologies mentioned, and had used very few of them. This was my dream job, but I felt the chances of me getting it were.. “slim”. But y’know, you gotta try! The first time I read about Varnish and caching proxies was on the train to York for the interview!

My sense is that the interview didn’t go ‘well’. I didn’t complete the technical task within the timeframe given, and I was conscious of that and pitched myself right at the low end of the spectrum.

A few days later, my heart leapt when I got an email offering me a job. I accepted and celebrated with a curry.

And so with the start of November 2010, so began my time at Bytemark in the office in Turing house.

If you’d told me then, where I’d be in 6 years time, I never would have believed you. But that’s for the next blog post!

Feel free to check out my LinkedIn profile.


What I learned from a landing page

Recently I’ve been working on canvas and landing page for a Muse business.

SleepyClean Lean Canvas

SleepyClean Lean Canvas

Let me explain where I started:

What I was aiming for

Dave suggested to me that I might want to look at Tim Ferris-style Muse-businesses – lifestyle businesses that might at some point generate passive income. Not startups. By listening through some of the examples, I figured that finding a niche that you could get someone else to do all the fulfilment for was the aim.

The problem

I saw some people chatting on twitter about how to get their down sleeping bags cleaned. They linked to a poorly written page on a cleaning company website that explained you could post them your sleeping bag, with a cheque and your contact details, and they’d send it back. It seemed that unless you knew about this page, there’d be no way you’d find it.

Down (feather) sleeping bags are quite delicate, and so cleaning them seems a faff, you have ~5 options:

  • Don’t clean
  • Hand wash in the bath
  • Machine wash (perhaps using a special product
  • Dry clean
  • Get professionally cleaned by specialists

Some people recommend different things. Most of the labels on the sleeping bags tell you not to do anything. I’ve washed mine in the washing machine before, but drying it was a pain. It’s not easy.

Synthetic sleeping bags are somewhat easier, more robust, often cheaper, and people seem more comfortable washing them as normal.

Minimum viable research

I posed this question to my twitter followers:

How much did you pay for your sleeping bag?

The results:

  • 30% paid over £100
  • whilst 21% paid over £150.

My guess was that the owners of the more costly sleeping bags (often down ones) would want to look after them better.

Minimum viable landing page



I used a template to put together a quick landing page, did some bootstrap+mailchimp hack to get a popup saying “we’re not quite ready” if anyone tried to order, hooked in the analytics, and at last minute, removed most of the references to me from the page.

You can take a look at either a full page screenshot, or the site itself if it’s still online.

Stealth testing

I posted the landing page to my facebook, probably breaking Tomer Sharon & Steve Blank’s rules, and without hinting that I had anything to do with the site, posted a link and:

How do you wash your sleeping bag? Anyone got experience using anything like this?

Sleepyclean - full page screenshot

Sleepyclean – full page screenshot

I was lucky to get an interesting stream of advice explaining how people currently did it:

  • suggesting I bought a down wash thing, and took it to a laundry
  • they always dry cleaned
  • they washing machine/laundry
  • “If the label says not to machine wash, you can probably ignore it”
  • many synthetic sleeping bag owners put their in the washing machine
  • “I wash my down bag on a cool, gentle wash with a down wash that I got from Cotswold. Then tumble dry it on a low heat for multiple hours with a couple of tennis balls to keep it fluffed up”
  • “How much do you lot piss and vom in your bags!? I’ve never washed mine. Just air it out in the sunshine.”
  • “I washed my down bag once. Never again – it took forever to wash, even longer to dry, then sat for hours teasing the down clumps apart. After the bottle of special down soap, long cycle on the machine, and hours of tumble drying down the laundry, fifty quid isn’t far off the cost of diy. Avoid having to do this too often by always using a bag liner.”
  • “I recommend I send our down bags to them every year to get professionally cleaned. It costs £35 I think per bag plus £10 postage. They are in and when I searched a few years ago for professional cleaners of outdoor stuff they were the only ones mentioned in the UK. They can also make repairs and add feathers. Wouldn’t dream of putting my £300 down bag through a normal washing machine!”

I did similar on twitter, and got a similar range of replies.

The last two replies give a kind of hope – there’s one person saying that they’d pay for it, and another person saying that they have in the past. These are reassuring responses.

In a sense, replies like this:

aren’t a problem at all – they demonstrate people who aren’t in the target segment, who struggle to imagine what it’d be like to be in the target segment. If you don’t have a £300 sleeping bag, it’s fairly difficult to imagine there are people who do.

The future

Having said all that, I think this may be the end of the road for this idea. I’m going to keep the site live, and I’ll keep an eye on the stats, but I have some worries about it that put me off investing further in it at this point:

  • The revenue/markup is too low
  • and the market is too small.

The revenue stream that I can imagine is very weak. The operating profit I can visualise, is quite meagre, and I can’t think of a way to streamline that without being a laundry.

The market seems smaller than I’d hoped for, and to need the product even less than I predicted. As in, even people who would use it, would seek to avoid using it as much as possible. It makes loads of sense, I just failed to predict that clearly.


Not one person who has visited the site has clicked the buy buttons, or signed up to the mailing list.

  • 0% conversion.


  • This is a good thing. I have learnt all this before investing greater time & energy
  • I perhaps could have got similar learning by posting a competitor website to facebook and asking the same question
  • testing in my facebook friends is probably not good enough
  • I’ve learnt a lot about building landing pages, and this is perhaps one of the best things. I’m going to use those skills for my next thing.

Stay tuned, I’ll share more thoughts and learnings soon!


Can motorists and cyclists ever be friends?

My friend Josh recently posted on twitter:

“The weird thing is there is literally nothing bad about more people cycling yet there is a cultural war against it.”

Cyclists often feel marginalised— like everything has been setup to favour those with four wheels and an engine.

And if you get into the vehicles, and talk to the people behind the wheel —  the drivers often feel marginalised — like everything is changing, and none of it is changing in their favour.

Whoever you feel has the strongest claim to being correct, understanding that both groups include some people who feel marginalised, is probably a good step to figuring out solutions.

I agree with Josh. I do think more people cycling would be a good thing. But without support from those who are driving, it will probably be difficult to make significant leaps of progress to better infrastructure. It is a chicken and egg problem.

So how can cyclists gain support from other road users? How can cyclists get motorists to say “well, y’know, I’m probably going to keep driving, but still, cycling is something we should see more of”?

In 2014, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson gave a 10 minute speech at to the UN. Perhaps take a moment to (re)watch it. I like the content, but instead of listening to the content, perhaps think about how she is presenting her issue.
In her speech, she’s representing a marginalised group who sometimes have had difficulty communicating their perspective to another group. One reason the second group sometimes struggle to be receptive, is that they feel marginalised and targeted. And usually vicious cycle ensues where no-one listens to each other.

This is how Emma gets around the vicious cycle:

“How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”

“I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from illness, unable to ask for help for fear it will make them less of a man …. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are.”

Emma diffuses the situation by acknowledging the difficulties of those in the “other” group who feel marginalised, and brings the challenges they face together with the challenges the original group bring. She goes on to suggest by combining forces, they can work on all the challenges together.

She’s not appealing to lawbreakers or people who hold strongly held opposing views, she’s appealing to a silent majority apathetic and disempowered bystanders and is saying “together we can make this better”.

If you like feel-good movies, you may have seen Pride (2014) — a true story of how, in the midst of the mining strikes of the 1984/1985, a group of Lesbian & Gays formed a group to support the miners.

You see a similar thing that Emma does, repeated by the Lesbians & Gays in Pride:

  • When they go out of their way to support the mining communities, including those who ‘beat them up when they were young’.
  • When they realise they can win over the least tolerant people in the village by helping them with something that they want.

By supporting those communities who felt most marginalised, the marginalised Lesbian & Gays were able to build stronger allies — from Wikipedia:

Miners’ labour groups began to support, endorse and participate in various gay pride events throughout the UK, including leading London’s Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in 1985. Additionally, at the 1985 Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, a resolution committing the party to the support of LGBT rights passed, due to block voting support from the National Union of Mineworkers. The miners’ groups were also among the most outspoken allies of the LGBT community in the 1988 campaign against Section 28.

And when we think back to Josh’s tweet — the marginalised-feeling cyclists, and marginalised-feeling motorists makes me think…

Perhaps there’s more in common between these groups than either of them realise?

I wonder who will be the first to find a way to include both groups, and all their concerns, into a campaign that is for everyone?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts in the comments or on twitter

 I cycle and drive a white van, which has let me gain some perspective from both sides of the wheels.

Van + stars

My 7 aims for 2016.

Last year was tough.

It was so tough, that I didn’t write any resolutions or plans, because I couldn’t divert any outward energy to them, and didn’t feel I was able to write candidly without self-censoring. So I wrote no plans.

This year I’m going to try to be more transparent – my current aims for this year are something like:

  • Find someone who’ll love and support me, and let me love and support them.
    • So we can explore our journeys together.
  • Ingest as much information and knowledge about relationships in whatever forms I can: books, talks, audiobooks etc.
    • So I understand more, and at least know where to look if I need to quickly develop skills I don’t have, which help me be a better partner.
  • Improve and polish the van to make it more desirable to live in
    • So that it’s more polished, more comfortable and could grace the pages of insufferable lifestyle magazines.
  • Get fitter by doing more hiking & climbing
    • So I feel physically & technically fit enough to consider more outdoor challenges.
  • Travel, explore and see the country (and others).
    • To see the world from different perspectives
  • Learn Javascript programming and AngularJS so I can build simple web apps.
    • So I can play around with building ideas that might make other people happy
  • Figure everything else out.
    • So there are answers to the unanswered questions in my life.

This is a snapshot (accurate only on the day it was posted) of constantly evolving plans. If I decide that one of those isn’t so important, it may be removed, changed etc – and that’s ok.

So here’s one last thought, if you’re able to help me take any small footsteps towards getting closer to any of those goals: recommending, suggesting, encouraging, supporting etc. then you’ll be helping me with exactly what I want to be – and I’ll be incredibly grateful.

If that’s anything I can do to support you then I’d love to know, to see what I can do – I appreciate you taking the time to read this. :)


Can we use coloured text to speed up reading?

According to Wikipedia:

German gothic text

German gothic text

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → colour synesthesia or colour-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured.

My thought is whether artificially helping people associate letters with colours, can increase the speed of reading, specifically, in ‘specially prepared’ texts read from a computer screen, but I’m also interested in whether it might persist away from there.


Most people read by pattern matching the first two letters (ish) of a word – it’s how the neolism Typoglycemia works: for how you can largely understand:

“Amzanig huh? Yaeh and you awlyas thguoht slpeling was ipmorantt.”

Often though, we’re reading text on a computer, that the computer can help us with. That is to say, a webpage, an email, an ebook. Computer manufacturers spend a lot of time developing typefaces that are easy to read, and hard to confuse the letters of (Google even came up with an entire typeface for Android).

But it’s not always possible or desirable to read things in typefaces that are different from the original,

My theory is that the brain can probably increase its word-based pattern matching skills, by assigning each letter of the alphabet a shade of colour.

This might sound like the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard or seen, but if you consider that programmers used syntax highlighting to quickly derive extra meaning from great blocks of text – it seems more reasonable that there might be some way of using colours to improve up pattern matching when reading words.

So take a look at this prototype colourphabet I just threw together.





The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

You’re not the only one thinking “this is much harder to read than ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’” and I don’t propose that I’ve solved this, or got anything more than the start of a stupid-sounding idea.

I wonder if it might better apply with different colour pallets, or perhaps colour pallets applied to different words in sentences – perhaps based on adjective/verb/etc… or something else?

How would you improve it? I’d love to hear your ideas!


How much money is the ideal amount of wealthy?

We’re taught that annual salary/’the amount of wealth’ we have is something that matters, so if we’re going to devote our lives towards working towards something, it makes sense to think about it carefully.

If you say “Would you like to be richer?” to people, most people will easily answer “yes”.

Ask people – “How much money (in GBP) do you think is the ideal amount of wealthy?” - say by specifically how much, and it becomes an order of magnitude harder to answer.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this question is not what is the ideal amount of money, but what you think is the ideal amount of money.

Recently there was an article that at first glance is designed to enrage you (“‘We earn £190k a year. Do we need to sell our flat to afford private school fees?’”) and maybe it does – and yet perhaps there’s a powerful lesson to be learnt: “no matter how much cash you have, you can still be really stressed”.

There’s another lesson there too: “and when you have more than everyone else, people are less sympathetic to your stress”.

Another thing you don’t expect is something Paul Graham mentioned:

And one of the many weird little problems you discover when you get rich is that a lot of the interesting people you’d like to work with are not rich. They need to work at something that pays the bills. Which means if you want to have them as colleagues, you have to work at something that pays the bills too, even though you don’t need to. I think this is what drives a lot of serial entrepreneurs, actually.

You think you can see the upsides, can you also see the downsides?

So it’s worth considering – the question: “How much money (in GBP) do you think is the ideal amount of wealthy?”.

I’ve thought about this question a great deal, and I still don’t know my answer.

Having spoken to people in less economically developed countries who earn an order of magnitude less than me, my sense is that it’s difficult for them to imagine life could be stressful when earning what I do – and when my salary is a 10x multiple of theirs – you can see how it could be tough.

Put in perspective, it seems like the easiest way for me to answer the question isn’t to answer it at all – and to wholly separate wealth from happiness. Whilst this can’t be easy to take to heart, I think this must the right way.

I guess you can link wealth with quality of life, but it seems unwise to link wealth with happiness directly.

For anyone else, it really comes down to the much harder question “What do you want from life?”. “What would you do or want *if* you had tons of cash? Once you know that, you’ll know find it easier to answer this question.

How would you answer it? What do your friends say?

P.s. I think my answer to “What do you want from life” is “an enjoyable journey” – but that’s another blog post


My favourite parts of Upfront Mini 2015

Yesterday I was lucky to attend Upfront Mini – a smallish (150 person!) one day conference about Front End Web development – the parts that appear in your browser!

I particularly liked this part of the introduction:

First up was Lily Dart talking about how the skills of a good designer: empathising, taking responsibility etc are also the skills of a good leader:

I don’t write front end code. I wish I could, but my role is that well known sweet spot between systems administration, user research and sales, and so like everyone else – I was there to learn. Being able to understand, empathise and mentor customers and colleagues is a really useful skill and I strongly agreed with some of her points.

Her slides are here:

I enjoyed Sam Beckham’s talk about the Polymer library and Web Components.

Most of my front-end experience was gained 5-10 years ago, in xhtml 4.0 where you felt lucky if you avoided a frameset so I find HTML5 (and Web Components in particular) mindtwistingly futuristic – perhaps how the internet must feel to people who group in the era of letters and telephone operators.

By chance I read this great article about web components the night before the conference, and Polymer is a library (a HTML library actually – how about that?!) that makes Web Components easier.

In the most basic, layman’s terms (probably with inaccuracy and missed subtly), Web Components are a way to create snippets of html, and call them back later in a simpler form – perhaps slightly like creating a function in code. Say you want something to create a slider or something, but don’t want to copy all the setup code everytime you want to call it – so you can import the html library that defines it, and then simply reference it with a simple tag. It looks like this is the future.
Unfortunately, currently: Browser support = patchy.

Emma Jane Hogbin Westby’s git talk was interesting (here’s the slides and notes) – and fortunately a few days before, I’d also read this great article on git branching – so I was able to follow along and understand most of what was being said. because I don’t really touch code, and only touch git for hobby projects , I don’t have such a deep understanding of that part of software development. As a result of the talk and the article though, I now know a bit about where you might want to keep all the individual commits that make up a feature and where you might want to squash them into a single object.

Amy Philips’s talk about mobile testing gave me an incredible headsup about how little I know about testing. Basically, testing mobile software is super hard – because there are so many different platforms, software versions, levels of connectivity, accessibility settings that testing becomes super-hard! I now feel extra inspired to go listen to Gem Hill’s Let’s Talk About Tests Podcast and understand more about the subject.

Benjamin Hollway gave a talk about young people and technology – nothing out of the ordinary I thought – just another youngish developer talking about the issues of being young, and trying to get into the technology community. Then after the talk, it came to Q&A, and it was revealed that Benjamin was 17. I was floored. Of course, I should have spotted the clues, but to the organiser’s incredible credit, they hadn’t billed the talk as anything different, they hadn’t said the presenter was young. It was very well executed. The Q&A were lively, with some people clearly inspired to see 17yros doing impressive things, suggesting that perhaps agencies should be recruiting people pre-university. Other people were unconvinced, wondering if pre-university young-people would be able to concentrate through a 9-5 day. They were roundly put down when it was pointed out that most normal developers can’t concentrate through a 9-5 day, not to mention that school/college is basically a 9-5 commitment before that point!

I could empathise with Benjamin a great deal and was psyched to see another YRS alumni going on to fulfill their own dreams and forge their own path. I didn’t go to university, got a job straight out of college, and heard lots of people telling me lots of conflicting information at that time. I always love the conversations that arise when a conference supports a young speaker like that, and I really appreciate that Benjamin and the conference organisers made it happen.

I had a good time catching up with Katrina and talking to Nathan about design processes and how to build things, meeting Goose, working out scary tech halloween costumes with Chris, finally chatting to Nick in real life and Andy about marketing & deals.

As the first event in the upfrontconf/speaktheweb that I’ve attended, I really enjoyed it – the organisers – Simon, Rachel, Katie, Dan & Jack, deserve a high five for putting in all the effort to make such a great event happen. Thank you all!

What we learnt from building a jobboard

A few months ago we built a jobboard — It was mostly a programming challenge — we wanted to learn more about databases and Node.js, and we thought that this would be useful and straightforward.

There used to be the Geekup Jobboard, run by Andrew Disley, free and for everyone (except recruiters). It was split up by functional areas — business, design, development and others. A few years ago, Andrew focused his efforts on a better solution — NeedHQ and the site received no new jobs.

Tim had talked to an Agency owner who was sad that the site had gone and we also knew new developers who weren’t aware of the volume of jobs available, because they didn’t know the names of all the different companies to look at their websites. Other jobboards didn’t have jobs outside of London, didn’t have a clear UX, or were full of recruiter jobs which obscure the name of the comapny you’d be working for.
The idea was to create a simple job board — listing one job from every tech company around Manchester for 30 days. Ideally, people would submit their jobs to us. In practice for the time we ran the site, we manually added ~200 jobs by hand, and never had one submission.

Learnings about companies

Companies are hiring all the time. Even the small ones. Everybody would like another developer or two.

Most companies suck at designing their websites with recruitment in mind. At least half of the sites we visited buried their recruitment page — we often found ourselves trawling sitemaps for a link. Given how competitive it is to recruit developers, we thought that every company would list the main technologies a developer would be using in the job, but all too often we found that ‘Front End developer’ really meant ‘PHP developer’, or there were just no useful details at all. When we looked over recruitment pages, we were struck by a unifying theme — they put no effort in. We rarely had enough information to say whether we could do a job, let alone if we wanted to choose one over the 200 other jobs in Manchester.

When we talked to employers, whilst they were interested in receiving better people, they were totally uninterested in yet-another-jobboard — especially without any candidates already coming in. There are many job boards, and it seemed like putting the jobspec together at all was a labour. They were understandably deeply suspicious of anything that resembled cold calling recruiters (even when we approached via email!).

A very small minority of companies listed clear breakdowns of the job and requirements, with renumeration, perks, and insight into company and engineering culture. We’d probably say has one of the best hiring pages of the companies we’ve reviewed. If your page is half as good as theirs, you’re above average.

Learnings about technical things

If you don’t know if you’re building the right thing, use duct tape, not superglue

On the technical side, we learnt how you (in a very hacky way) use Node, Express, Bootstrap, CSS, MySQL (especially joins), resolve git conflicts, and Tim learnt some JavaScript. We wanted to use a fairly lean approach, and we had a somewhat functional site live within hours. This was possible because we borrowed a lot of the backend from an open source Node CRUD app.

When we needed to secure the admin area where we could add and review jobs, we didn’t want to learn about authentication in javascript — so instead we created a password protected area via nginx and left it at that. Not rock solid, but good enough.
We never had a staging site — we deployed straight from our git repo. This wasn’t ideal but did force us to test a lot, and fix it if we broke it. When we wanted to move fast and get it out the door — we got it out the door.

Learnings about UX

To figure out how it worked in the hands of users, we went to tech meetups, and asked people if they wanted to see this thing we’d been building, and when they said yes, we asked them to apply for a job on the mobile site. As we watched them use it on their phone, we saw them click on the wrong bits, expecting things to work differently, and instantly gathered feedback about which bits worked and which bits didn’t. Some more experienced developers (I’m thinking Bobby and Martin in particular) were kind enough to critique the UI for us as well, which helped us get some of the common-sense navigation in place. We were reading Lean UX at the time, which gave us some great approaches for iteratively improving the user experience.

Users said many things — often they asked for features we didn’t want to implement in an MVP like search. Almost everyone wanted a clear salary range and we just didn’t have the data.

One of the challenges was that people often didn’t know what jobs they wanted.

People who could be hired into junior or graduate jobs, didn’t know whether they had the qualifications, when all they really needed was enthusiasm, the ability to learn and not being unpleasant to work with.

For more senior people, it often wasn’t really clear what the most useful details were to put in front of them. “Can I actually do the job?” seems like an important question, but understanding what the company is like, why they might want to work there more than where they work now, is also important information, which we couldn’t figure out a way of displaying.

One idea we had was that most job adverts are sparse on details, and so it seemed like the ability to ask each company a question — in an anonymous, ebay-style public Question & Answer might be an appealing feature.

The Q&A feature

The Q&A feature

We still think it’s a good idea — imagine: You read the job advert, you’re happy with the salary, you know where they work, you have the skills, they seem nice enough — however, you have some questions…questions that might be awkward to bring up in an interview. Questions like “do people ever pull all-nighters to finish things for a deadline?” or “will I be able to leave early some days to pick up my kids from school?”. Ultimately, although we tried our upmost to seed the board with questions, and use this feature to add value — we weren’t able to get it moving. We think it’s a neat idea, and perhaps might work really well — unfortunately we didn’t hustle hard enough to see any traction.

We tried adding Optimizely A/B testing to gather data about incremental changes. We might have been better off testing more radical variations but we learnt that with the amount of traffic we had, we were never going to learn much fast with very subtle A/B testing. Ah well.

Learnings about Growth

We never had a growth strategy that was sustainable, real or existant. We tried some paid adverts to get traffic, but since we never received any revenue from the site, this was clearly unsustainable. The idea never had a ‘purple cow’ so there wasn’t much virality potential. The question feature is probably the closest we came to it.

We feel this is an area we would give more thought to next time. Really, we should have tested this part first. ;)

In conclusion

One great outcome is that a several people found jobs because of pieline! This was without doubt the best part of the experience — we’ve heard from a couple of people who found companies on pieline, applied for the jobs listed and got them, which is very satisfying. One of them became a good friend, and we got to hear all her stories of starting her first development job. It was also a great side project for Clara to show off to employers as she was looking for her first coding job at the time.

We learnt a lot from the project — about technical things, about product, about UX. I think the main thing we learned, was that a job board isn’t the best way to solve this problem. We’re not sure what the best solution is, though better company careers pages are clearly somewhere to start.

The site is mostly now offline, though it survives on, Github and trello. As for us? We’re better prepared for our next adventure.

Pieline was made in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire with love by @czmj2 & @tdobson.


Engineering Culture at Autotrader

We’ve just come away from the AutoTrader “Science Fair” and we’re full of thoughts, ideas and reflections and wanted to get them down somewhere.

We heard about the event at Barcamp Manchester last weekend, and decided to go along to get a better understanding of how AutoTrader works. I know AutoTrader as a customer – we bought the van off it – so it was interesting to understand how things work behind the scenes.

An open evening! Whoever thought of this mag-fucking-nificient idea should be knighted. What a great way to help people find out more about you in a low pressure, chilled way (with free drinks!).

It reminded us of school open evenings (in a good way) – lots of people, hands-on-activities and posters. It felt a bit cramped in places – there were some areas where we thought pushing the desks against the walls might have been a better use of space.

Clara is a developer, so whilst I would have found it fascinating to talk to their editorial team and learn more about their inbound marketing efforts, talking about technology is common ground to us both. So as we only had 45 minutes to spare, we decided to immerse ourselves in their ‘technical’ room.

AutoTrader organises its teams in ‘Squads’ – autonomous, cross functional product teams who take complete responsibility for an area of their business, which meant that when we asked one of their devops people who would be the best person to talk to about Front End, there wasn’t a clear functional stand. Each AutoTrader squad has design, product, marketing, development all together – creating user stories, picking them off one by one, and working through them. One of the things we found surprising about all this was that they don’t tend to have a purely front end function in their squads – it tends to be something that their Java developers have or develop on the job.

We had a great chat with Jan and Gareth in the Dealer Portal Squad, who were super helpful in filling us in on how the system works, and how their system’s AngularJS app works (with Flux, doing some cool sounding event based things!). We found it interesting how none of the squads we spoke to really seemed able to talk about how they handle their CSS – even “Do you use a CSS pre-processor?”. It’d be really interesting to understand more about Autotrader’s approach to the front end – especially since they seem to work in a cross functional way.

One of the recruitment tools we admire the most is two videos that Spotify’s engineering team put on YouTube. These two videos outline Spotify’s engineering approach, company structure, and explain how things get made and product gets shipped. All explained concisely & knowledgeably and beautifully illustrated. To an outsider, it’s dizzying to be introduced to AutoTrader’s two dozen or so squads on the floor of their office, without a clear understanding of how the company works, and how their development processes work within it. Before we saw the Spotify engineering videos, we didn’t have any feeling about Spotify’s tech team. Now we feel they have a great (yet modest) engineering culture that we’d try to be part of if the opportunity arose. Perhaps there’s something for AutoTrader to learn there.

To be honest, we’re inspired. Perhaps not to work at AutoTrader (sorry!), though we now know the company a lot better (yay!). We’re inspired to take this open evening approach and suggest it to the companies we work for, and the ones we know across Manchester. This seems like such a great way of getting people to understand what you do, that we wish they happened more frequently, in more companies.

Thanks for having us AutoTrader!


A refreshing beer

I gave up drinking. Here’s why.

For the past 8 months, I’ve been completely teetotal. I’ve not drunk any alcohol since before Christmas 2014.

I’ve come to realise that the answers to my life’s problems don’t lie at the bottom of a bottle, and sometimes I found I can’t be certain there isn’t an answer there, til the bottle is empty.

I respect those who wish to keep searching for themselves, and for me, it’s time to call of the search (of alcoholic bottles).

A refreshing beer

A refreshing beer

I don’t think I realised at the time, but subconsciously I started binge-drinking self-destructively – I think subconsciously wishing for something to have a dramatic effect on my life. I say subconsciously – it was concious in a sense, but I couldn’t identify it as a serious thing to avoid. It was sort of prefixed by “loooooool, at least something interesting will happen”.

I’m lucky that apart from a few sore heads, and missing some fun opportunities, the negative impact on my life has been minimal. But it could have been huge, and very painful. I’m glad to have removed myself from those situations.

I’ve never really liked drinking. Since I turned 18, I’ve always thought that the most enjoyable drinking I’ve ever done was age 17, and it’s never really got back to that point. I enjoy being aware of the situation I’m in, and I feel able to have fun, without being drunk. Not-drinking isn’t a super-new thing for me – at one point in the past 5 years, I remember going to a popular nightclub, completely sober. The soberness wasn’t a terrible part of the experience (getting lots of glass embedded in the bottom of my shoe… that wasn’t ideal!).

It’s been 8 months now, and I don’t regret it for one moment – I’m happier, more comfortable with myself and more relaxed. There are times when I like the idea of a drink – but I know I’m happier sober. :)


What do you drink?

Everything. That’s not alcoholic. It’s that simple.

Shouldn’t you just drink less?

I found it really difficult to know the difference between ‘fun’ and ‘too much’. Since the ‘fun’ wasn’t really linked to the alcohol, and more the circumstances, I feel it’s easier for me to abstain.

Isn’t going out less fun?

I find it more fun. We get to do things that are actually fun, rather than just drinking. I find things that are just focused on drinking less fun, and yet I enjoy hanging out with people who are fun to hang out with.

Don’t you miss a great beer?

Yes. My favourite non-alcoholic beers are Cobra and Erdinger. I would love to try more.

Becks Blue is an alright drink, but cannot be called a great beer.

Doesn’t this help with van driving quite a bit?

There are unexpected positive side effects. Never having to think about the drink-drive limit is one.

Are you doing drugs instead of drinking?

Lol. No.

Are you casting judgements on everyone else?

No. Just like I’m happy other people like eating broccoli so I don’t have to, I’m happy other people can enjoy alcohol without any downsides.

Is this for forever?

Probably not. I reserve the right for it to last as long as I want it to. If and when it seems like the right time to drink, I may do. It’s like to be in moderation.

Trying to pressure me to drink ‘right now’ is likely to be a bit like pissing into a jet exhaust.

Haven’t I heard this before?


This is no fun!

I said no drinking. Messing around, playing games, taking the piss, telling stories… I’m cool with that sober!