Marriage, Work/life integration, real-time web technology evangelism & Kwwika: A retrospective of my 2010

07 Jan 2011

A lot of people have written up their thoughts on 2010. Whether the thoughts are personal or a look back at specific things such as real-time web products the purpose is the same; to reflect on what has happened during the year, an opportunity to realise what's been achieved, what hasn't, what could've been and how things can be learnt and bettered.

So, six days into 2011 I'm writing this blog post. It's purpose is all of the above but it will hopefully also act as a reminder to me about why I made some decisions. Why I'm here, and not there. What it is that drives me and what I want. And how my decisions were made after consulting and considering others. I also hope that it will explain a bit about work/life integration by demonstrating the problems that I've faced and that things can be achieved (ongoing) and opportunities created by following what you are passionate about (I'm midway through writing and reviewing this and there are definitely ups and downs).

The blog post is a personal post but since work is a big part of what I do, and I've made a decision to accept that rather than fight it (work life integration v work life balance), it's also relevant to what I do to make a living. If you are truly passionate about it can you really drop it at 18:00? Can I?

January: The Work/Life Integration decision

I've been very aware that the standard 9 to 6 doesn't suit me. Heck, it probably doesn't suit a lot of people and most definitely doesn't mean you work when you are most likely to do your best work. How many developers work in to the night because they are "in the zone"? If you are in the office in the middle of London and your partner is waiting for you to get home from work it's highly unlikely that you are going to hang around until 2am. Especially when it takes over an hour to get home and the trains stop before midnight.

How many of us enjoy parts of our job but not all of it? How many only like a small portion or none at all, we just need it to pay the bills? I've had a nagging feeling about this for quite some time. In quite few of my jobs I've absolutely loved the work but disliked some of it. In others It's just got to the point where the dislike overpowered the enjoyable moments for far too long so I left. The thing is I would go home and then start thinking, solving problems, generating ideas and writing code again. I'd leave my job where I'd be writing code to go home and write code! I couldn't help but think there must be a better way.

Then in mid 2009 I read a couple of books by Ian Sanders (LEAP!: Ditch Your Job, Start Your Own Business & Set Yourself Free and Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim your Life). Juggle! in particular made me realise that I was already juggling a 9 to 6 job along with a few personal projects, some general dev consultancy as well as helping develop, and owning shares in, an e-commerce website. It made me think about what it was I was passionate about, what I enjoyed in my current job and what I would ultimately like to do and how I would like to achieve it.

Then in December 2009 I picked up a copy of Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It! Why Now is the Time to Cash in on your passion as part of going to an event. There were a number of reasons why I liked this book and why it hit home. It wasn't the title nor was it that Gary signed it "It's real-time time!" - although that helped. Firstly it said to me that if you are passionate about something and, very importantly, good at it then you can make a living from it. From this point on it was all about building up the courage and belief that I could make something work. That my passion and expertise for the Real-Time Web could really help me achieve true work/life integration. That what I would do when I went home after my job is what I actually did as my job!

My plan was to try and build a reputation as a "Real-Time Web Software and Technology Consultant" (Evangelist) by blogging about real-time web technology, building cool real-time demos, playing with real-time APIs such as the Twitter Streaming API and generally enjoying myself whilst generating loads of really interesting, cool and useful content for others. The belief is that by doing this, and building your "personal brand" (sorry to anybody who doesn't like this term) that opportunities will present themself and you will also be able to react to opportunties that you see. And these opportunities will be related to the thing that you are passionate about. In my case this is real-time web software and technology and social media (hmmm, The Word Media is wrong). Along with the work I love I was aware that I would have to take on other work that would help pay the bills but hopefully the amount of this type of work would decrease as I became successful.

Just to be very clear: work/life integration is different from work/life balance. Work/life balance tends to be associated with having a defined work time, keeping your weekends free and not thinking about work when you walk out of the office or turn off your computer. I'm not looking for that. I love to work as long as I'm working on the things I love.

After discussing things with my family and friends I finally made the decision to choose work/life integration. This decision meant leaving Caplin Systems, for the second time, after they had taken me back just over two years earlier. It also meant moving back up to Scotland to be closer to both mine and Jo, my girlfriends, family. Since we were getting married in May 2010 and had hopes to start a family this was also a big factor in the decision.

So, it was time to have a chat with my bosses.

February: An unexpected opportunity

I spoke to my bosses and explained what I was planning to do and why. I also started discussing the possibilities of still being able to use Caplin Systems excellent technology of which I had a very good understanding. This is where things got interesting. I remember in one conversation begin told "if you are going to do that [use real-time web technology] we'd like to help you do it properly and support you". This was fantastic for a number of reasons. Firstly I could still use the technology, secondly it meant I had made a positive impact and was reasonably highly thought of, thirdly I would potentially have some kind of salary and finally it meant I had potentially created an opportunity to work on something I was truly passionate about. I had almost created my own role, exactly the sort of thing Ian Sanders talks about in Juggle!

After a number of meetings, a presentation and quite a bit of research we came up with the idea of putting Caplin System's software "in the cloud" and offering it as a service for others to use (it took months to eventually come up with the name "Kwwika"). This wasn't the first time that "Caplin in the cloud" has been discussed but was an interesting way of taking the idea forward. During what would have been my notice period at Caplin I finished off some core work, handed over my development line manager duties and started to investigate putting "Caplin in the cloud". With a very small amount of effort we could clearly see that Liberator (Caplin's real-time streaming server) performed excellently running on only a small Amazon Linux instance. We also tested clustering of instances, sharing data, publishing using what would previously be classed as our client APIs and it all worked very well. The unnamed project was given the go-ahead.

I got in touch with Ian and we met up for a coffee.

March & April: Moving back to Scotland and getting started with Kwwika

In March 2010 we moved back to Scotland where I would be working from home in a flat in Broughty Ferry, near Dundee.

[nggallery id=6]

The time between March and May is unsurprisingly a bit of a blur. Work on Kwwika continued and lots was achieved including:

But most importantly for Kwwika it was becoming very clear that there was a market for real-time push services with the general interest that had been shown and the emergence of quite a few possible competitors including Beacon Push, Pusher and Web Sync on-demand. Although Kwwika is potentially a lot more than this it was a really encouraging sign.

Since all that had been done it's probably clear that the work/life integration had probably been very dominated by work. This had always been expected and Jo and I had accepted this because was a fantastic opportunity for me and I really felt I needed to put in as much time as possible to prove Kwwika as an idea. I'm not complaining. A lot of the work I was doing, building new APIs, building a brand for Kwwika, searching for potential uses for the technology and interacting with people who were interested in this sort of technology is what I wanted to do. It was a bit unfair on Jo though.

May: Let's get Married!

Almost exactly one year after I proposed to Jo we got married. Because my focus was mainly on work Jo had done almost everything to organise the wedding. You'll be pleased to hear that I didn't check my email on my wedding day but unfortunately up until the day before and every day after I would be checking my email and replying to potential clients as well as ensuring the Kwwika service and demos were running as expected. Again, I didn't mind too much. The work was great but I was very aware my priorities were a bit off centre.

On the wedding day itself I was completely emmersed in the occasion and loved everything about the day from the ceremony to spending time with my beautiful wife, my friends and family. A big thanks to Jo's parents who hosted the event in their fantastic home, my new brothers and sisters in law, my new niece and nephew, my Mum, Dad and Granny for all their support and a MASSIVE thanks to Jo for saying "Yes".

Unfortunately on every other day I was in a mindset where I was always thinking about Kwwika, did I have an email I should read and reply to, was the service running okay, were all the demo applications up and running. I don't regret anything up until this point but I do regret not taking more time off  to spend with my wife and try to relax a bit more around our wedding day.  Jumping ahead a little, this is also something that I regret about Christmas and New Year - although I wasn't nearly as bad I was always aware that I wasn't 100% relaxed.

In 2011 this will have to change: my mindset, not the married part!

At the start of May I also delivered a Real-Time Web Workshop at the SPA 2010 conference with Adam Iley from Caplin Systems. It went fantastically and we got some excellent feedback putting our session 3rd for feedback scores in the entire conference. We really must do this workshop again.

June, July and the World Cup

The World Cup was always going to be a big part of the year. Since John Barnes retired (some might say I was obsessed) my interest in league football has waned and my real focus has been England international football. As ever my hopes were high and I was massively let down by the England team along with the rest of a hopeful nation (yes, I'm an Englishman living in Scotland).

Just prior to the World Cup I had an idea for a competition for Kwwika. I'd write an app that recieved all the World Cup Tweets from the Twitter Streaming API and push them through Kwwika. I'd then ask developers to do their best to subscribe to this data in Kwwika and use it to build a cool real-time web application and the best entry would win an Apple iPad (I'd heard they were all the rage). The competition started off a little slow but we eventually got a number of entries, some great publicity, and we decided to award two developers, Aaron Bassett and Gergely Orosz, an iPad. You can read the winners announcment blog post here.

Other Kwwika achievements during this time were:

A big positive in June was going to Poland for Keith and Ewa's wedding. This was probably the first time that I felt work/life integration really worked. I got up in the morning and did some work and then spent a lot of the time with friends and enjoying Krakow. I was on holiday but I didn't mind doing a bit of work.

[nggallery id=7]

Dexter

Jo and I have always loved the thought of having a dog and it wasn't until I started working from home that this was possible. We didn't feel it would be fair to work full time and leave a dog home alone. Jo was still looking for work after the move and the wedding so it gave us the opportunity for her to be able to look after a dog for a while almost fulltime - Jo was absolutely knackered every single day.

On June 29th 2010 we picked up Dexter. Anybody that follows me on Twitter will know about Dexter (@Dexify on Twitter and Dexter's facebook page). Dexter most definitely deserves a section all to himself.

[nggallery id=8]

To say that Dexter was a handful is an understatement. I can't say things have got much easier with him although he does't wee all over the place he still requires a lot of attention but he does bring a lot of joy into our lives and guarantees a good few laughs every single day.

August - November: Continued focus on work

Things were strange between August and mid-November. I spent the majority of the time working but had very little visible to show for it. Under the hood of Kwwika we made really big strides with the infrastructure and we also created an admin web application that allowed us to set up users, API Keys, Groups, Topics and Permissions (the need for all this stuff will become clear this year). I also stopped blogging quite so much about Kwwika because it had become very clear that the lack of a user dashboard was a massive barrier to entry for users so my efforts to drive beta users to sign up wasn't leading to many real opportunities.

The only real visible things during this time were:

  • Built a Kwwika-Superfeedr demo showing how to stream real-time updates from Superfeedr into a web browser using Kwwika with the code available in GitHub. Unfortunately I've taken the demo down as we've ran out of Superfeedr credits but the video that's embedded in the blog post shows the application in action.
  • Aaron Bassett using Kwwika on The Meet 140

The work/life integration focus again was mainly on work with very few social activities going on and a lot of time spent sitting in front of a computer. The main problem here is that the work had moved away from interacting with others, away from evangelising about technology, away from adding value to APIs and over to what I'd class as bog stardard web development. I was struggling.

I did have a fortnightly trip down to London and a couple of trips out to see insitebright and also Matador Digital but other than that I spent a lot of time working home alone.

On top of the Kwwika work I also started doing some freelance writing for Programmable Web and did a small consultancy project with insitebright for a large oil company. This actually provided a nice focus away from Kwwika so when I came back to it I was fresh and I was much more willing and able to tackle the bits I was less keen to.

In August we went to Gigha which is a small Isle off the west coast of Scotland. The weather was fantastic. It was the first time that I felt work really getting to me and I suffered my first ever migraine. That wasn't fun and acted as a sign that I was working way too hard.

[nggallery id=9]

Jo started work in September and although I had Dexter to keep me company I found working home alone very lonely. This is something that I'm still trying to find a solution for but think that social media can be part of the answer along with increased transparency of Kwwika. I'm also very aware that if Kwwika is a success it will mean a lot more client interaction and technology evangelism which I'm really looking forward to.

In October my very good friend Mark married Lynne. I've been friends with Mark ever since I moved to Glenrothes in 1993. It was a fantastic day and the couple and the kids were really happy. Unfortunately I don't have any photos. I do have a very large and empty bottle of Jack Daniels though.

December: The culmination of 9 months effort and relax (almost & temporarily)

When I first started Kwwika I got in touch with Opta Sports. One of the reasons I decided to leave Caplin (although, as you know, I haven't) was their financial focus. I would have preferred to see the technology applied to something I have more interest in and I'm interested in sport so this was a great first target. We started work on the Real-Time Opta Sports Cricket widget - powered by Kwwika in November and it was ready during December. I'm really excited to see Opta Sport's data streaming through Kwwika and I'm really hopefully that cricket data is just the start. I was particularly proud when Opta put the Kwwika logo on their homepage. And because Opta then released the Opta Annual 2010 we are also in the brochure. An awesome feeling!

The final part of the year was spent preparing to build the Kwwika User Dashboard. We've outsourced some of the development to insitebright which means the work I've got to do is design the UX and plumb the delivered HTML, CSS, JS and images into the server-side code (it'll probably be a bit more complicated than that but you get the idea). Again, this certainly isn't the sort of thing that I really want to be doing but I absolutely understand that it's essential to be able to deliver Kwwika as a service and break down the barrier to entry for users. As soon as I've finished this post I'll be writing a post on the Kwwika blog about that.

I managed to relax a bit in the run up to Christmas and probably over compensated by trying to relax too much (i.e. just sat and watched TV). I now know I'd have been better doing something a bit more active as I feel I've done very little over the festive period and that just sitting still in front of terrible TV isn't relaxing at all. I'm actually more relaxed now. All this said I've always had the nagging feeling that I've a lot to do and prove with Kwwika which hasn't helped the attempts to relax. One thing that did help me relax was that after declaring that I wanted one I finally got a "What are you looking at Dicknose?" t-shirt on Christmas day. Thanks Jo!

Start, Stop, Continue: The retrospective

Since this is a retrospective I have to state what I now think I really should be doing (Start), what didn't work and I should Stop doing and what I think worked and I should Continue doing.

Start:

  • Spending more time with family and friends and generally socialising. I've had my first real experience of trying work/life integration and I need to make sure life gets a bit more of a look-in.
  • Increase social media use: During lonely spells try and use social media to ensure I'm getting more interation. In Particular I'm really enjoying using Quora at the moment. Some of my friends already ask me why I share so much online and already think I use social media far too much. It's a good question really especially when my tweets about Dexter probably don't mix too well with my real-time web tweets. My answer is I come as a package. I'm going to be true to myself and whilst I do apply some thought to what I publish about myself and to the content of my publishing I'm going to continue this.
  • Being more transparent: My friends would again point me to the last bullet point but in this case I mean with Kwwika in order to get feedback as early as possible and to try and get others to help me when I'm struggling to get feedback from elsewhere. My next Kwwika blog post is a move in this direction.
  • Reading more: When I worked at Caplin I found I had time to read more. Reading stimulates the mind and really helps ideas grow. Although I've had moments like this over the past 9 months I feel my general absolute focus on Kwwika and the time it's taken up has actually resulted in a bit of a stagnation of ideas. I must find time to read books and more blog posts.
  • Attending more tech and entrepreneur events: When I moved to Scotland I had planned to go to a lot of tech events in order to meet people, network and to generally get out and socialise with like-minded geeks. I've been to what seems like quite a few events but probably not too many given that this covers 9 months: 1 Scottish Lean Circle, 1 Edinburgh TechMeetup, 1 Linked Data, 1 DeveloperDeveloperDeveloper NoSQL day, the SPA 2010 conference, 1 Making the Most of Cloud event, 1 Edinburgh Web Design and Development Meetup and 1 Edinburgh OpenCoffee Club morning.
  • Planning ahead a bit more: I'm not talking about the five year plan. I just mean general planning for the month ahead. I've got a roadmap for Kwwika, and plan each day either the night before or first thing in the morning, so I also need a roadmap for social and life activity. This will better help me integrate my work and my life.
  • Exercise again: Between mid-2009 and May 2010 I lost 12 kg for my wedding. I did it by using our Water Rower and by running. I've put at least half of that back on. This time I've got a running companion - Dexter!

Continue:

  • My customer focus: I've spent a lot of time replying to emails for beta registration over the past 9 months. I want to make sure that each registration is treated as an individual to make sure that they get the most out of Kwwika. I strongly believe in providing exceptional customer service and that ultimately it will make a massive difference. Small town rules! And I really do care.
  • Working hard: As well of moments of working exceptionally hard I've experienced moments of what can only be described as burn-out. A week or two where I can't seem to apply the effort required to perform some of the tasks that, in and ideal world, I wouldn't have to do. I want to continue to work hard but I want to make sure that I do it consitently and the only way to do that is to rein myself in sometimes.
  • Finding people and companies to partner with: I've established a good relationship with Opta Sports, insitebright and Matador Digital as well as a few individual developers. It's important that I continue to do that both for Kwwika my own personal development.
  • Writing two blog posts a week for Programmable Web: I'm really enjoying writing these blog posts. They get a big audience, it's good for my "personal brand" (there we go again) and it's a great way of discovering new technologies and also trying them out.
  • To be myself: It's all part of transparency and customer focus. I'm not the sort of person to play games and wheel n' deal. Maybe this is a problem in business but I'm going to do my best to make sure I don't give in to any kind of business rules if it goes against how I feel, who I am and what I believe in. I want people to believe and trust in me because I've proven myself to be a nice guy, fair, knowledgeable and unbiased and therefore the when I say or write something it has some weight and proven foundation. That way they will believe that when I say Kwwika is a great product they will give it a go and see that it is.

Stop:

  • Spending so much time in front of a computer: It causes mind stagnation. I remember when I first began working at Caplin a senior developer (only link I could find) telling me to take breaks. He smoked and would disappear for a cigarette but quite frequently that break would lead to a fresh way of looking at a problem. I need to take this idea and apply it to my work in general (no, not take up smoking). The family, friends and social activities are all part of a package that can actually help deliver my work. And the other way around, if I'm working on something I enjoy I will be happier with my friends and family. But here I am sitting in front of the computer at 2am - yeah, but I'm "in the zone"!
  • Worrying about work when I have dedicated some time to life: Speaks for itself really. I need to have the confidence that things won't fall over when I'm not there. I actually know things are stable but I still worry. Maybe I just need a few additional processes in place. Actually I know I need and want somebody to work with me fulltime on Kwwika.
  • Doing things that I'm either not good at or am simply not interested in: I want to move away from what I've already called bog-standard web
    development. I'm not a website builder. I don't have the passion for it
    and I never will. There are parts of building a website that are interesting but once the problems have been solved I lose interest. This is a bit of an ideal world scenario. But it's most definitely a goal. As already stated I love evangelising about real-time web technology, I love interacting with clients, sharing knowledge, helping and caring. I also enjoy concieving ideas and helping to see them realised. I love data, considering it's structure, working with APIs and developing new features.

Conclusion - finally

So, what is it I really want?

Family will always come first but after that I want work/life integration and to feel that work is benefiting from life and life from work. I want to spend time with my family and friends. I want to be working on the things that I'm passionate about and helping others that feel the same way and helping those that don't understand see the light (technology evangelism). I want to work with others whether it's colleagues, partners or clients. I want to concerntrate on the things that I'm good at and that I really enjoy: That's real-time web software and technology evanglism, concieving and realising how ideas can be achieved using this technology, deliverying customer service using social media by giving a damn (caring), sharing knowledge through blogging (and maybe a bit of vlogging), events and social media and working with others to create exciting products, services and solutions. I want to be happy and I believe this will "make it so".