No expense spared!

Do More With Less

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

“Do More With Less”

Howto repair the best phone in the world
Howto repair the best phone in the world

Well, I’m an incredibly humble, world class expert shopper at Lidl – where your money buys more for less!

I should be more serious: But this is a fun one to talk about. This is basically about hacking, scrimping, making ends meet – lots of doing.

A few years ago, I used to use a Nokia 3310. Almost indestructible, but yet I managed to destruct one and crack the screen. I had another broken 3310 that wouldn’t turn on – though the screen looked alright. I set about to see if I could replace the broken screen. Unfortunately, Nokia 3310’s use torx screws, and I only had philips and flat head screwdrivers. So, using a trick learned from my dad, I sawed a groove into the top of each screw with a hacksaw – and simply them used the flathead screwdriver to unscrew them.

From that point on, it’s a trivial task of swapping the internal circuit boards around, and doing the screws back up. I got pretty good at repairing them in the end. I can’t remember exactly when I finally retired them, but I was still seen with a Nokia 3310 in 2010.

The stairway with an improvised handrail
The stairway with an improvised handrail

Finding a way through things, is just what I do. I mean, it doesn’t really occur to me that I’ve some cupboards build with scrap wood from an old bed, or that I turned the rubbish filled cellar of the house I live in, into a home office by salvaging a table, dropping several extension cords down, and setting up clip spot lamps. It’s just standard problem solving.

I guess one thing that I’m aware is less normal is a piece of functional interior design. The cellar leads down a number of uneven steps, and the bannister was long gone. Replacing the bannister looked like a real faff, so instead, I got two big loops, and screwed them securely at the top and bottom of the stairs, and hung a thick, knotted rope between them – so that people walking down the stairs can steady themselves with a hand on an overhead rope.

Flawless? Certainly not.

Functional? Definitely.

Characterful? I’d say so.

There’s a bunch of other things like this in this blog post about growing up without a TV.

When it comes to tech, the easiest way you can do more with less is just to use slightly older hardware and open source. I’m pretty good at that. Apparently the company laptop I’m writing this blog post on was made in 2011 – but I don’t care – to me it is pretty fantastic and does all I want from a laptop. It runs Debian with awesomewm, and the concept of buying software I can’t just install with a sudo apt-get install is foreign to me. I self-host a lot of things (like this blog!), but there are also services I pay to have managed for me. There’s a pragmatic line to tread.

I guess some people might arguing that getting a job without a degree is doing more with less. I think I dispute that – the degree was never the requirement – just the maturity, knowledge of area, and attitude.

One of the pragmatic lines I tread relates to travel. I cycle round Manchester most of the time, but occasionally I take a taxi or a train. I still find that to cheaper (and more comfortable) than owning and insuring a car.

Lots of things are about tradeoffs between different things – travelling is a good example. Hitchhiking is certainly the cheapest form of transport, but often the least reliable. Flying is often the fastest, but probably most expensive. It’s good to always be aware of the options because sometimes you find that, the cheaper options can be the most fun, or something be advertised at an unbeatable price.

In business, being able to hack the way around problems is great trait. Especially if the problem is “limited funds”. We might be talking something as simple as sleeping on a friends floor whilst you go to a conference, or just watching lots of conference talks on youtube rather than paying for a conference ticket. It might be about working from your bedroom, sharing office space, skimping on furniture, reading second hand books. There’s an almost endless stream of options.

In sysadmin, this probably means automation. One well known digital rights commentator whose website once hit the reddit frontpage 3 times at once, told me that he hosted the site’s server at home on the balcony of his flat to keep it cool, with the site served behind a CDN.

I like doing more with less. It often can be a fun challenge – though it’s often wise to take a pragmatic view – weigh up a range of options and take the option that’s best for you. Doing more with less doesn’t always mean spending the smallest amount of money.


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
Looking for the answers in a teacup

Embrace and Drive Change

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

“Embrace and Drive Change”

When it’s change you want – change you asked for, it’s easy to talk about embracing and driving change, but that’s only part of it.

It’s different when it’s unexpected change. Suddenly you have to do things differently (when you didn’t ask for it), suddenly things are different around you, and you realise you don’t know how to do things you previously were an expert at.

I think it’s really useful to choose a value about choosing Positivity and Happiness – that way you can take an optimistic approach to all change – which makes it a lot easier.

If you’re thinking, “this environment has changed since I first came into it, but maybe this change will help it in great ways that I don’t yet understand“, then you’re likely to be able to accept and drive the change much more easily, than if you were worried about the negative consequences.

I’m struggling quite hard to think of times that I’ve embraced change when I’ve not been one of the drivers – I guess it’s quite important for me to feel that I have a stake in the change – otherwise I don’t class it as “change to be embraced” – just “things that happened”.

Looking for the answers in a teacup
Looking for the answers in a teacup

So changes to my role at work, were embraced and driven because they directly involved me. Changes to the way software and processes worked were critically evaluated, but embraced.

I’m not sure, but I feel I don’t have enough life experience to talk much about how I’ve embraced change. I probably have done so – the tech industry has changed, I’ve changed, my friends have changed – but I can’t see examples in front of me.

I guess attempts at politics and activism reflect my desire to drive change, but I feel that the best I can come up with in the embracing bit is “sure, I embrace new technology, I use Uber“.

My feeling is that it may be that I just enjoy a constant state of change – I enjoy diversity in things I do, I enjoy hearing about positive changes to UK law, working on different projects, climbing different mountains, and going to different places.

Despite my uncertainty about whether I can say I apply it, I think this is really important and clever value to have in a business – a self-updating module in anything is always wise, as human organisations go through many changes, incarnations and phases – just like software. A value like this helps ease the organisation through those hoops and hurdles and makes the path much smoother and clearer.

What do you think?

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.
The long and winding brook

Show Gratitude

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

“Show Gratitude”

This value is distinct, and yet very complimentary to yesterday’s value.

It took me until my late teens to realise many of the things I am grateful for, when after a series of turbulent times, the stars aligned for a moment, and things fell into place all at once, and suddenly there was a chance to consider where all the pieces of the recently assembled jigsaw had came from.

Since then, making an effort to go out of my way to thank people is something you may notice me do. I guess occasionally there are the times I’ve shouted about itto encourage other people to follow. Most of the time however, I’m more likely to say in private, or by email/letter, how much I appreciate someone’s efforts – often, it doesn’t feel like anyone else’s business.

I think showing gratitude is important – acknowledging sacrifices, support and encouragement from others is important, and it also reflects into a strong desire to pay it back/give back to the same community.

One of my favourite stories about paying it forward is a simple story about running of petrol. If you’ve not read it maybe take a look?

The nice thing about gratitude, is that it’s free. It doesn’t cost anything to profusely thank someone for their time, or their help showing you something, or the manner in which they did their job.

But the impact it can have, is much larger than anything that can be bought. Surprising your IT department with an email of thanks. Sending a family member a card for helping you get through a tough time. Thanking people always has a positive impact, and the more frequent, free and enthusiastic you are about expressing your gratitude for others, the more you’ll find things go the way you want them to go. :)

I’m also grateful for the luck and privileges I take for granted, but I feel that discussion is actually separate from what this value is trying to convey.

Happy Daffodil!

Always Choose Positivity and Happiness

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

“Always Choose Positivity and Happiness”

I once watched a film on television. I didn’t know it at the time, but it had quite an effect on me, until today, I’d always attributed it to other films.

The film was the Pollyannathe 2003 adaptation of the 1911 book by Eleanor H. Porter. As Wikipedia explains:

Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centres on what she calls “The Glad Game”, an optimistic attitude she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation.

It originated in an incident one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things—in this case, to be glad about the crutches because “we didn’t need to use them!”

I don’t think I realised quite the effect that this (and my family’s apparent worry-free approach to life) had had on me, until relatively recently.

It’s very easy to get distracted by things that induce negative thoughts, and often things seem like worthy causes, but consider this:

We’re put on this planet for a lifetime. The reason we care about anything is because it may impact on our happiness, or the future happiness of others. But if we aren’t enjoying the present, we are wasting our minutes.

We can do the right thing AND choose happiness.

I’ve blogged before about happiness and focusing on the positive. It’s clear to me that ‘objectively’ it’s a good thing – not just for philosophical reasons, there are clear pragmatic benefits.

I actually think this is one of the hardest core values, because I think that it’s something that most people attempt to do, but find it difficult to actually put into practice. It looks simple on paper but the concious effort required, every day, to do it, is nontrivial. Having the discipline to relentlessly pursue things is hard – but often very rewarding!

There’s a question everyone will someday consider:

What would I do if I won the lottery?

If you can bear to spend a moment thinking what you do if you won a spare couple of million, stop now and think.

Otherwise, let’s move on.

My feeling is the wisest answer to this question is, “continue doing what I’m doing now, just with more money (and I might not tell anyone about the cash)”.

One of the best things you can do, is to find what you’d like to be doing, and then everyday, cross one thing off your list of things to help you get there.

I think I am doing what I’d want to be doing, whether I won the lottery or not, and I find encouraging other people to be a way of renewing my own positivity… It’s complicated, but it seems like the more of it you give away, the more you get back. :)

Star paths in Kyrgyzstan!

Do the right thing

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

“Do the right thing”

This is quite a difficult value to blog about, because if you try to do the right thing, it’s possible you might not even know you’re doing it.

I guess the point to give you confidence that specifically in circumstances where there might be a conflict of interest, you should do the right thing.

In the context of an organisation, this might be a bit like something that happened this morning.

A cost-concious customer was explaining some new requirements and was interested in how we could help. It wasn’t something we could help with easily – they’d have to take out a year contract, when all they wanted was this thing. The customer mentioned that they other competitors had given them a price they couldn’t afford, and they were considering doing it in house.

At this point, some sales people would say that I should have push the services on them, even knowing that the costs were 10x what they could manage. Instead, I told them them upfront that we wouldn’t be able to do it, it’d be way too expensive, and they should do it inhouse if they had the ability to do so. At the end of the conversation, the customer thanked me for being direct with him – he was happy to have saved both of us time and energy faffing over things that wouldn’t work out.

One of the reasons that I dislike DRM is because, in the real world, DRM can cause 10 year old girls to cry – it feels like it catches out all the wrong people and so fails to do the right thing.

A desire for things to be done “right”, specifically in relation to laws that affect the way the internet works, is one of the reasons that I got involved in politics. Of course, “right” is subjective, but for me, supporting the future of the internet was a very compelling “right thing” to put myself behind – the one that drove me to stand for parliament, run an election campaign, and go into politics when sane people might choose not to!

Doing the right thing, is also what leads my support of mySociety – the charity behind lots of the best e-democracy sites – theyworkforyou, writetothem, fixmystreet.

When I found my parents didn’t understand really what their son did for a living, it seemed sort of natural for me to take a day of holiday, bring them into the office, and explain it all to them. They may not have been kickass sysadmins afterwards, but they knew what a client-server relationship was, and they understood web pages weren’t like TV.

Doing the right thing, is why several times, I’ve taken time to mentor young people – to give back to the community, and to pay forward the support I was given. In 2010, I remember taking a week out of my holiday allowance to mentor Young Rewired State 2010 (I guess I’d sort of helped co-ordinate some of the northern contingent of Young Rewired State 2009 so it was a natural progression?), in any case, whilst taking the time off work was definitely “the right thing”, I don’t really think about it like that. The friendships forged during that week have lasted a long time, and I expect will last decades longer – that in itself is worth it!

I think I’d go back to what I originally said – this value is used to give people confidence to do things for good, and not for evil – and to empower them to let them figure out what that means themselves. I like this. :)

Pokebook public stream

Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

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

“Create Fun and A Little Weirdness”?

This is an unusual value, but I like it a lot. It kind of has the effect of celebrating diversity and, in an organisational context, highlights that it’s an organisation of real people.

One of the things I like most about this, is the message it sends out – everyone is a bit special an unique – and you should celebrate that and have fun!

Pokebook public stream
Pokebook public stream

Back in the day, my friend Ben Webb and I came up with a social network(before YO!) that simply allowed people to poke each other. There were no other features. We even came up with a slidedeck pitching it for business users.

A hundred or so people signed up, and with the API, a few people built API apps.

We were about to roll out version “2.0” (for the third time), with a new feature which allowed users to upload profile picture, so you poked them by clicking it – a feature we were going to call “poke-her-face“. But by that point we figured we had sunk enough time into a joke…

One of the great things about Ben is that he completely ‘gets’ this value, and good natured pranks are something he does well. :)

Most of my forays into music are a little weird. A rapidly produced rap song to celebrate a young people’s hackday (Thanks Maria, Kerodean!), the worlds first (and only?) hike-hop video - satisfying that unfilled niche of hip-hop songs about hiking (thanks Dan, Bethesda!), and then there’s the love song to Nano, the unix text editor

I guess it business contexts, it’s often easy to confuse seriousness with being solemness. John Cleese nails it when he says that you can laugh about serious things things (“the future of our children’s education”) without detracting from the seriousness of what’s being said:

It’s not even that being slightly weird and creating fun is hard… or disruptive. One of the easier ways to create fun in a relatively consequence-free way is simply by giving internal documents entertaining names – one might title a strategy document “The One Plan to Rule Them All“, or reply to an email asking “Does anyone else think this a good idea?” with a Star Trek, Captain Picard “Make it so” gif (or currently, my favourite thing is using OpenArena voiceover soundfiles!)

I guess the value also aligns well with this blog post that funny press releases and pranks aren’t just for April Fools day. 

Endorsed for high availability sarcasm
Endorsed for high availability sarcasm

My feeling is that we spend most of our working life at work. We’re all somewhat weird in our own way.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of trying to compress our people into the a sort of average-centric predictable mush, we just celebrated our weirdness and created some smiles along the way?

I think it produces a harder working, more creative, happier environment. :)

My maps that I lost in the mountains in Kyrgyzstan

Be Passionate and Determined

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

Be Passionate and Determined?

My maps that I lost in the mountains in Kyrgyzstan
My maps that I lost in the mountains in Kyrgyzstan

I can think of three things that embody this:

  • Scouting access for an unclimbed Mountain in Kyrgzystan:
    • Undocumented location, undocumented transport logistics, undocumented passport logistics, undocumented human logistics (who? language? make friends with them?)
    • With only 10 days to work out the details, there were some minor hiccups
    • But once it figured out the details, turning around would have been silly
    • I actually lost all my [soviet] maps on the second day in the mountains, rather than just retreating, I just planned to return the way I’d come and drew my own topo-map in my notebook.
  • Not bothering to get a degree in Tech, and wading straight in
    • At GCSE and 6th form, most people thought I should go to university
    • However, due to getting involved in local tech scene in Manchester, I learnt about what opportunities were available.
    • Luck was on my side, I walked into a graduate job fair and got a part time job as a Sysadmin
  • I guess there are other stories…
    • Taking a group of young people (at the time, my friends) to a big sporting race for them ~100mles away
      • Persuading a local caravan company to sponsor us a caravan for the weekend
      • Team ranked near bottom – ah well, it’s all about trying.
    • Attempting to repeat the above story, but because of poor communication on my part resulting in $drama, only half the team and none of the kit arrived
      • We found another half-formed team, beg borrowed kit
      • Placed respectably (and higher than we’d ever previously ranked!)
      • (Lesson about communication!)
    • Finding there was no peer group for young people who liked technology and creating one
    • Many mountaineering trips that haven’t gone to plan.

I guess it all boils down to:

  1. Caring about things
  2. Not taking “no” or small setbacks as a reason to give up!

Both are things I’m pretty comfortable with.

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