This is where we are, this is where we're going

Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication”

This is a tough one to blog about, because anecdotes, by definition – no matter what the nature of the relationship, is always going to be very personal – between me and them. It’s kind of a shame, because anecdotes about open communication are often some of the best, but I’m struggling to think of any I want to write about online!

Great communication isn’t just about making sure everything you just said is understood, but about making sure you understand the other person’s position, and making sure you’re both working towards the same goal.

It’s not too complicated really though; the best relationships – working, personal, families, friendships – whatever the context, are ones that involve being honest, and clear, and proactively communicating things. Often it can be that you’re fearful of how someone might respond to something, and actually the fear is completely unjustified.

I guess a good example my be in the context of a mountaineering expedition. There’s two of you, presumably friends, in a remote place seeking to climb a thing.

Communication is the key – if you need a rest, you need to explain you need a rest (as opposed to just sitting down), if your partner needs a rest, giving them an opportunity to tell you that (because you’re walking next to them, rather than 500m in front) will work best.

If your partner feels that you’re taking too many rests, or is concerned about the progress you’re making a team, they can make things better by saying so. Often the most difficult things to say are things like this: “I feel we’re not making enough progress. Is there anything I can do to make things easier for you? Can I carry something perhaps?”

This is where we are, this is where we're going
This is where we are, this is where we’re going

You might be in situations where one person can speak a local language, and the other cannot, and so in a conversation where the linguist was negotiating a meal, he might choose the appropriate moment to relay that on to his friend, to give his friend confidence in the situation. After a while, they might trust each other enough to know that the linguist would do the talking, whilst the other person did something else – but only once they’d built up some trust between them.

Learning to communicate, under pressure, in a non-confrontational, problem-solving way like that is a fantastic skill.

Often, if you communicate clearly about how you’re finding things, and what your thoughts are – particularly when it comes to fears, worries, nerves, frustration – then as a team you can work on them to solve them. Often the things that seem like a big deal, once communicated openly, are actually nonissues.

Sometimes there are issues, but communicating well (and in some cases over communicating – reiterating and saying things that may not be necessary, just in case they are) can make things much easier – because you’ll both respect the others ease of communication, and honesty and frankness.

Often other people aren’t as good at communication as you, so you can help them, and help your relationship with them by offering them lots of opportunities to tell you their thoughts. In a mountaineering context, you might ask your slow walking friend how they were finding it, or where they were looking forward to reaching.

Communication is the key to all social units of people. Learn about communicating, and how you can do it, and you’ll get good at building relationships surprisingly quickly.

Learning Russian

Pursue Growth and Learning

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Pursue Growth and Learning”

I love that this value can apply to personal growth and development and business growth and development. (Whilst it might not always be appropriate value for, say, a community enterprise that really doesn’t want to grow significantly, if growth is part of the plan, then focusing on it is very wise.)

In a business situation, pursuing growth seems logical, but codifying it as an aim – makes it clear that the business doesn’t want to stagnate, and seeks continual improvement in everything it does..

If you view everything as an experiment with aims to increase growth and learning, then it means everything you do will have a positive outcome if you grow and/or learn from it.

If you take that to the extreme, it’s the Lean Startup Methodology. You may not want to apply it to everything you do to the extreme – but even

“We tried putting tea cakes in the toaster. It sort of worked, but now the toaster smokes a lot, so work out another way to toast your teacakes or work out a way to do it less smokily.”

is something learned from an experiment.

When you’re making things happen:

  • Pursuing growth is good
    • because it means you can work out how to help more people
    • makes you think about learning how you can grow
  • Pursuing learning is good
    • because you can understand what drives your customers, and what it is you’re doing that makes your customers really happy
    • because you can understand what drives your growth (maybe you want to pause your growth engine whilst you understand better what drives your existing customer from satisfied to super happy)

This is something I epically failed to understand a few months ago, which caused me to re-examine my approach to learning, and to look carefully at what I didn’t know about.

Books I've read this year
Books I’ve read this year

I didn’t have a smooth relationship with my schooling, so it was well after I’d left formal education before I realised I’d been learning for fun for a long time!

Academia and I didn’t manage to align perfectly, and the medium in which most academia is conducted (thorough literary explanations, rather than applying the learning to real life problems) didn’t work perfectly for me.

Possibly one of the more useful things I learnt from school was a lecture on how it’d be useful for to evaluate areas you’d like to improve, and then rather than just say “try harder” at, say French vocab learning, to put some plans down in concrete steps: “I’m planning to improve learning french vocab by making flash cards with each set of words, and learning each set of flash cards”.

Turning a set of intentions into the concrete next steps, and then applying them with the best discipline, can really help work towards goals.

I guess my aims for this year, and my commitments from 2013201220102009 to reflect on how things went, and plan where I want to grow myself have been quite helpful. Of course, this year, I’m staying slightly more on top of things, by reviewing things every 3 months.

My preferred way of learning has often been to have a go – make a breakable toy project around a problem or desire I had, and play around with it. I guess there’s been loads of these projects that quietly concluded, and from each of these experiences, I’ve learnt something about how to do things, how hard some things are, what works, what doesn’t, what interests me, what is quickly really dull. Sometimes weekend hacks, turn into larger things, like jobs, and often just trying to learn more about things helped guide ones path in the right direction.

One of my aims for this year is to read 24 books. I’ve not said whether they have to be fact or fiction, but currently my preference is very heavily on nonfiction that will help me understand more about things I’ve naive to. I don’t think the goal is super ambitious – it’s just meant to be achievable.

A word on TV:

I have an almost certainly slightly unfair and limiting mantra that TV limits learning, but what I suspect this comes from is that while *I* find TV entertaining, there’s rarely anything super informative in any field I want to learn about. For nonfiction, it’s just a less efficient knowledge transfer medium compared to text .

This means I almost never watch TV. This week, I watched the same amount of TV as I watch last week: 0 hours.

I like entertainment, but I tend to choose to have that in the form of action sports like hiking. :)


Be Humble

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Be Humble”

This is really hard. Like, really hard.

It’s particularly hard to explain in a blog post how good you are at being humble! Err, yes. Ummm. Right.

Some people might point to candid blog posts like these and suggest they’re evidence of humbleness, I’m sort of uncomfortable talking about humbleness at all in the first person, because I think I’ve a long way to improve.

One of the ways you can instantly communicate humbleness is by trying to improve your communication. It’s incredibly easy to use words “I” and “me” a great deal in constructions like: “my thoughts are”, “I’ve found that”, “one things I’ve considered”.

There are times when this is only option, but often you can improve your relationships with people, by working out how to rethink and rephrase what you’re trying to communicate by removing yourself from the centre of the sentence. It’s surprisingly tough thing to try to do, but it can be surprisingly rewarding. My journey towards perfecting this is just beginning.

What I will say is that I think humbleness is really important. Many people who are widely disliked are the opposite of humble – arrogant, and many of the people we most enjoy looking up to are incredibly humble. In fact, the more humble, the more one directs attention away from oneself, the more is revered.

I recently watched this interview with Pharrell – the musician, and was impressed with how often he turned the interview away from himself.

If I was rewording this value, I’d be tempted to reword it as “be down-to-earth“, but I can see why “be humble” clearer in meaning and semantics.

Being unpretentiously friendly, modest yet generous is a great thing to work towards in a business or personal context.

I hope I can work further towards it over the next few years.

Look forwards
Look forwards
Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

Listen First, Then Listen More

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Listen First, Then Listen More”

Everyday we hear things, TV, people talking to us, but how much do we listen?

Sometimes, it’s quite easy to talk – if someone tells you about their recent holiday, sometimes it’s tempting to talk to them about your recent holiday the moment you get a chance. But that’s not always what you should do.

Lots of people, starved of good listeners, find actually actively being listened to a very powerful thing. You can gain respect, make friends,  simply by listening to people.

When I tried to do politics, and stood in the 2010 general election for the Pirate Party, we learnt this the hard way.

If you ever get involved in a political campaign in the UK, you’ll find that the best way of engaging with voters, is knocking on their door. This is kind of scary the first 2-300 times, but to some degree the fear subsides.

What we came to learn was that it was much easier, and much more effective to knock on people’s door and ask them what problems they had in the neighbourhood, than knock on the door and try and get them to vote Pirate.

A couple of weeks ago, I read How to Win Friends and Influence People which pretty much codifies, and expands upon what we learnt on the streets: people like being listened to.

During a council election campaign, there was this one council house that we knocked on, and asked if they had any problems with the council. At first they said “nope, we have no problems here”, and then “well there is just one thing” and showed us an uncollected recycling bin, and then “oh well there is one more thing”, and showed a half-smashed window, and another bit where the council hadn’t made a correct modification to accommodate one disabled resident, and a string of other things. When we got back to our base, we had huge wad of issues we knew we could help them with, and we knew their life stories.

In contrast, I remember a lovely lady, I once tried to persuade to vote for me. She’d lived in the area for ~30 years, and I’d lived there for ~2, and in the nicest possible way, she batted questions at me to try and get me to justify myself. I suspect I talked myself out of her vote, simply by answering honestly. It was around then, that I decided that trying to influence politics was less enjoyable than I’d hoped, even at the best of times.

My girlfriend once described me as an extroverted introvert, and I sort of agree:

When you first meet new people, sparing using your words, and encouraging them to do the talking can help you to understand where they’re coming from and how to help them relate to you.

It’s easier this way too – you don’t have to say much, and can get a feel for what they’re interested in, and how best to respond to them.

It can even help over email.

One theoretical problem I’ve often thought about is, “if you meet someone very well known, who you respect the work of, but have little to say to, what should you say?”  What should you say if you met Tom Cruise, or Katy Perry or David Beckham or someone?

It’s complicated, but, my feeling is that relying on pieces of wisdom like these can help:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something.”


“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

-Abraham Lincoln

When it comes to customers, and business, encouraging customers to talk about things that they care about can make a great deal of difference. I like rock climbing, and I was looking over this customer’s website, and I noticed the person I was talking to was also a climber, so I asked them where they’d been recently. It was as if I’d opened a floodgate – suddenly they were recommending me places to go to develop my climbing, and suddenly it felt like we were communicating on a friend-to-friend basis, rather than a business-to-business.

Another memorable moment is once when I went to a customer site to work out how we could help them. Talking about the tech they were building, where they were, where they were going, what their challenges were made a real impression on them. I thought I was just sort of gathering information, somehow, by being interested and asking them questions about how they planned to do things, they were delighted to have someone to explain it to. They took me through these details, those plans – and by the time we left, I understood a great deal about their system. The customer was so happy, they broadcasted on social media about it, and still remembered it a few years afterwards.

I think it’s also relevant if someone has some criticism aimed at you, or something you’re in control of. Going and giving them your full attention, and saying “you’re absolutely right, this does sound serious – thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’d like you to tell me all about it”, can make someone feel a lot more valued, and pacified. Do that with enough passion, and it’s completely possible to turn their relationship with your business from frustration to love.

Listening is more difficult than it sounds, but you can learn to do it, and it makes people happy. :)

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
Create Fun and A Little Weirdness - Zappos Values

My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

Two companies whom I feel have very positive company cultures are Zappos and Buffer.

Because these organisations go out of their way to embody a high purpose, I’ve a feel a great deal of respect and awe towards these them.

The thing is, the values all seem relatively familiar, and I’m interested to see how many of these values are things I already feel aligned to.

One of the way Dave Logan and friends recommend finding your core values in Tribal Leadership (buy it, read it, reread it), is by writing a story about how you learnt something from an experience. A specific given example in the book is about honesty, when an 8yro is caught stealing in a shop, and the painful memory sticks hard into their values from that point onwards.

For the next 20 days, I’m going to try and release a blog post a day, each dealing with a mixed up list of Zappos and Buffer’s core values, and seeing how much it is aligned with me and whether I can relate to it.

The aim is simply to understand more about myself, whilst also probably being a nice opportunity to tell stories.

The Values I’ll be investigating:

  1. Be Passionate and Determined
  2. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  3. Do the Right Thing
  4. Always Choose Positivity and Happiness
  5. Show Gratitude
  6. Listen First, Then Listen More
  7. Embrace and Drive Change
  8. Be Humble
  9. Pursue Growth and Learning
  10. Make Time to Reflect
  11. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  12. Do More With Less
  13. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  14. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  15. Live Smarter, Not Harder
  16. Be a “no-ego” Doer
  17. Have a Bias Towards Clarity
  18. Deliver WOW Through Service
  19. Have a Focus on Self Improvement
  20. Default to Transparency

The danger your children escaped! Technology!

At school, I was largely a goodie-two-shoes – however, that is to say – I was was aware of the line, and however close I was to it, I did my best to ensure I wasn’t caught crossing it. I’m dubiously proud to say that I never got a detention.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always successful, and after a particularly creative, episode of circumventing content filtering systems so I could access my webmail (which for some reason was blocked), my parents and I were called into the headmasters office.

Tut. Bad Tim.

After I explained how I simply wanted a way to check my webmail account every day at school during my breaks, the headmaster suggested I might be “addicted” to technology.

Me, being a being a hot blooded young man, retorted:

I’m not sure comparing an interest in technology to illegal substance abuse is appropriate to this conversation.


In hindsight, whilst that clearly wasn’t the way in which they intended the word, I feel this speaks volumes.

During those years of school, I spent many waking hours playing with technology. I certainly spent more time playing with technology than any other single activity, but I wasn’t “addicted” – I was interested, and thirsty to learn.

For inexplicable reasons, there were absolutely no academic opportunities for me to develop these skills, and so using Portable Firefox and Tor to bypass content filtering and access Gmail in my spare time, seemed a relatively productive.

Suggesting I was “addicted” to computers, was just as shortsighted as it would have been to suggest that my more academically studious classmates were “addicted” to revision.

Whilst my punishment (downgraded from suspension to effectively being banned from using any computer in the school), let them keep the perception that content filters work, and stopped me breaking their AUP on a daily basis, they failed to recognise the problem – that they were just years away from being asked why they did not teach “app development”, or indeed any technology subject.

Essentially they were sealing the middle fingered handshake goodbye from me as just a year later, I moved schools, and 18 months later was working in industry.

I hope that in the future, my grandchildren won’t be accused of “being addicted” to their “Raspberry Pi 3000″ – simply because they’re fascinated by how it all works. Please help us make that future.

Shouting quieter makes things better :: How I learnt to yell less and win more.

At quite a young age, I realised I enjoyed arguments; a second to face up one’s opponent of the moment – a chance to put them down with cruel language – an opportunity to let go and lose one’s temper.

Of course, it was all about being on the winning side, and with those wins being few and far between, frequently I’d end up crying in someone’s arms.

As I grew older, I started to notice how the person who spoke quietest, seemed to keep the upper hand – speaking quieter appeared to make the other party shout even louder… a seemingly illogical and bizzarre state of affairs.

It seemed that after all those arguments about staying up “and extra half an hour”, raising my voice hadn’t been helping at all. I decided to embark upon a new strategy…

At the same time, at school, we were being taught dispute resolution procedures for use in the playground. It was a basic mediation process, colloquially called “My Turn, Your Turn” whereby one would be approached/approach others who were involved in a conflict and go through some simple, structured steps something along the lines of:

– Alice, please describe what’s wrong?
– Bob, please describe what’s wrong?
– Alice, how does what Bob is doing make you feel?
– Bob, how does what Alice is doing make you feel?
– Alice, how can we resolve this?
– Bob, how can we resolve this?
– Alice, Bob, does it work for each of you?
– Alice, Bob, resolve it how you explained and then go back to playing football.

Essentially in abstract terms, this getting each party to listen to each other, communicate clearly and come up with a resolution themselves. The “My Turn, Your Turn”, segment referring specifically to requiring each party to listen to the other person without butting in or interrupting them.

At an fundamental level, this is really quite an effective method of dispute resolution.

As I grew older, I started to realise outside school, that if I held back on getting involved in arguments I couldn’t win, I could make sure I had ‘extra ammunition’ with which ‘to hit’ the opponent of the minute with when a better opportunity arose. Several examples delivered without shouting were more effective still, but I realise that by combining that with “My turn, Your turn” tips, one could add one’s feeling into your response, eg.
“but you let $otherchildname [who is the same age as me] stay up until late o’clock, 3 times on identical occasions to this, so I feel disappointed that you aren’t applying your own rules consistently.”

Clearly, a well laid out, persuasive argument like this, is much more effective than trying to shout louder than someone, and is much more effective. Extra bonus points if you noticed how that argument also accuses them of breaking their own “due process”, and frames it within the other persons world.

Fast forward many years…

I was asked recently why I didn’t get more pissed off by car drivers who cut me up whilst I cycle round the city. The suggestion was, that being on a bike was an advantage, because it meant you could shout at idiotic drivers. This made me blink a bit… How was shouting at them going to make any useful difference?

It turns out, when I was a child, I missed out on a key point; to try to leave the conflict resolved, so it wouldn’t happen again. Whilst shouting at cars may be helpful for letting off steam, really all it does is reinforce to a few motorists that cyclists are arrogant and dangerous, whilst reaffirming to a few cyclists the perception that motorists are twits that drive away without caring, neither of which constructively addresses the situation in any way.

When friend’s of mine my lose their tempers, I feel sad.

I find it upsetting because they haven’t learnt how to identify their stress, find the a self control and skills to step back from the argument and try to resolve or mitigate it.

To me, it seems incredibly rude (or immature) – I find that losing your temper seems to characterise poor judgement – and I do my best to avoid situations where people do.

However, when your friends lose their tempers, as much as you may not enjoy it, you’re in the best possible position to bring it to an amicable resolution. William Ury explains:

William Ury: The walk from “no” to “yes”

It does occur to me, that my perspective here must partly be influenced by arguing a point effectively as a child. When I read this article about “teaching your children to argue” – I did wonder what would have happened if actually, people were taught to effectively communicate their point, things would be a lot different today.

As Adora Svitak says:
“The goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adults, but rather better adults than you have been”

I’m Tim and I suck at handwriting

When people see my handwriting, they sometimes joke,

“oh so that’s why you work with computers

but reflecting on it, that probably does relate to it in some way.

Throughout my school life, I sucked at handwriting.

My wonderful handwriting...
My wonderful handwriting...

I mean really sucked. I was slow, it was scruffy, and generally larger than that of my peers. I resented it and generally disliked everything about it – being told  I had to do a long bit of writing was awful.

In primary school, I learnt that every teacher would have a go at “getting me to improve my handwriting” but it wasn’t as simple as that for me. Whenever I switched teacher, I chose not to use my ‘best’ handwriting straight away, so that the new teacher would notice a vague improvement over time. Occasionally teachers would say “oh feel free to spend longer, writing it slowly”, but why would I want to write something really boring, much more slowly, for a mediocre boost in legibility, with a very small amount of recognition for the time and effort involved, especially when, heck, almost anything is more exciting that writing!

In secondary school, I made various academic choices based on the fact that some subjects (*ahem* history), appeared to be more about how fast you could write rather than what you knew – whilst I got some support in terms of extra time – essentially handwriting was still an unwanted exercise. I made various sets of revision notes in various classes, but I was much better at remembering stuff, and quickly reading through a text book than bothering to understand what I’d appeased a teacher with several months back.

How evaporation in lagoons works
How evaporation in lagoons works

Midway through secondary school, I started word processed as many pieces of homework as I could get away with. Some teachers had the idea that rewriting an A4 sheet to make a small correction wasn’t a big deal. For me, it was a big deal. All my GCSE coursework that possibly could be, was word processed or drawn electronically, so that corrections didn’t require painful amounts of work.

By college, I used my own laptop in almost every lesson that involved any potential handwriting, though I remember that I continued to use handwrite some of my french classes, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to learn the codes for the accented letters. There were however, some incredibly technologically inefficient days when I spent the lesson (*ahem* geology) copying what the teacher had written in the presentation displayed on the projector, down into a word processing document on my laptop.

Whilst, my distaste for handwriting certainly didn’t seal my envelope for the technology industry, it must have had a knock on effect – the fact I was spending more time attached to a computer meant that technology related things were more appealing, more accessible, and actually somewhat important for my school work. The incentive to investigate and evaluate any tool that could make my work at school any easier (combined with the fact that evaluating a bit of software is more interesting than writing actual physics coursework methodology) meant that I familiarised myself quite well lots of different bits of software, as time moved on, increasingly on linux systems..

Since leaving the formal educational system, I could probably count the times my handwriting skills have been put into use on both hands.

For note taking, I vastly prefer my memory, recordings, or keyboard interfaces, and the only times I can imagine I’ve had to use hand writing is on official forms of various sorts.

On the flip side however, I write more than I ever have – a large proportion of my job involves writing to customers, I’ve written many many words on this blog for fun – what a strange concept!

I think once I was able to separate writing from making figures with a pen, and once I was able to separate, writing about things I didn’t really care about, to writing about things I did care about, I was able to actually get to grips with it.

The  idea that I’d have a log where I wrote stuff everyday – would have – at one point in time, not all that long ago, seemed like the least appealing idea ever – but I’m now 11 days through my plan to blog every day this month!

Remembering being taught Applied ICT at A Level

I recently noticed that I got quoted in The Information Age, at the beginning of the year due to the UK Cyber Security Challenge.:

“Tim Dobson, a 20-year-old university student, does not remember his IT A-level course fondly. “In one lesson, our teacher asked us how to find the YouTube website,” he recalled.

Dobson added that he had always been interested in pursuing an IT career, but it “would have helped if the course was not such a failure”. He dropped out of his course before completing it.”

It’s funny, I don’t remember being a university student, but sadly, that anecdote about YouTube is correct.

Back in 2007, I was in an Applied ICT (Double award) A level lesson. These were one of the most dull things I’ve encountered in my life.

The class was working and suddenly the tutor, who’s also working on a computer asks the room,

What’s the address of ‘youtube’?

Sadly, no one responded

*ahem*. Let me just google that for you


Shouldn’t you be teaching us that?

We were too stunned.

In the end, someone just muttered “” across the room.

Several years on, I asked one of my classmates whether they remembered those lessons:

Unfortunately I do… I loved wasting 2 years of my life that I’ll never get back.

Which is pretty much how I feel about it.

There were positive reactions to such a negative experience – my involvement with the free software community, the formation of DFEY and the building of direct links with technology companies in the area would never have happened if I hadn’t had such a bad experience.

I can’t help but wonder, however, what would have happened if it hadn’t been the way it was – contrary to the article above, despite some attempts by the college to remove me, I completed the course.

To this day, I’m still very proud to have passed an A Level in Applied ICT, at Grade E.


Post Script: It looks like almost everyone has at least one story like this. Here is my friend Josh Pickett’s!