Year in Review 2019
A year of simplification.
The year kicked off with a two-day, snow-shoed, walk around a mountain in the French Alps. One of the major benefits of working at Propellernet is it’s institutional obsession with snow-based activities.
We (Gary, Jon, Jack & I) spent the walk wrestling with the future direction of CoverageBook. A discussion that would dominate 2019 for me.
One March evening I “performed” The Impermanece of Software at BytesConf a small, Brighton-based (mostly) front-end conference. Only a handful of other talks, but all terrific.
Went Go Karting as a team. Practice and qualifying were completely dry. Come race-time the heavens opened and the track was awash. I blasted into the front from the second row of the grid, because I was watching the lights and am not as polite as Alan and David, only to spectacularly spin to a standstill on the second corner. Such good fun.
The final major March event was the full Propellernet AGM in Flaine. I was only able to attend for a night as the kid’s birthday landed in the middle of the event. But I did spend a long morning learning to ski for the first time, and staggered across a closed ski-run in a blizzard to get from the big meeting to the car for the airport.
I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else, a win. Propellernet as a company was two hospitalisations within the first 24 hours.
Attended Business of Software in Cambridge. Managed to catchup with Derek, and old friend who was speaking and had a couple of good chats with new folks.
Although the talks skewed a little toward the generic & self-important with the “raising a bunch of money and growing the sort of company I would never want to work in” there were a couple of humdingers. I even borrowed one for Brighton Ruby.
Plus Cambridge seemed nice.
A big change at CoverageBook as Jon left to go back to consulting and coaching earlier stage businesses, as well as continue to keep an eye on The Skiff.
A massive change for the team.
Jon was a driving force behind getting CoverageBook from nothing, to hack week prototypes, through an aborted PR CMS product, to the impressive SaaS business it is today. He even introduced me to the team.
June saw me step up a drive in the simplification of everything; processes, tools & products. One of the unique challenges of our two SaaS product business is our insistence on growing headcount extremely slowly. We’re only 9 people, working 4 days a week.
This requires a constant vigilance on volumes of busywork, adding complication and making sure we focus on doing the right things.
One of our team struggles over the past year was the split in focus, not only between running AnswerThePublic and CoverageBook in production, but an internal project to build a sequel product to serve the same audience as CoverageBook.
It’s been a long, fascinating, difficult, enlightening process. We’d user-tested various iterations of the project and in it’s creation we’ve certainly improved the existing project as a result of changes demanded by the non-public prototype.
Part of the renewed focus within the team was the decision to roll the best ideas of our CoverageBook sequel into the existing project. Throughout its life the new product had diverged massively and explored other areas adjacent to the existing project, but had begun to reconvene on solving pretty much the same problems.
So in many ways we’ve decided to take the best ideas from the CoverageBook sequel, roll them into the existing CoverageBook product and treat the explorations as a research project.
The learning we’ve done isn’t lost, although we could definitely have been more efficient, but now all of our existing customers will benefit. We also save ourselves the difficult marketing job of explaining why another version, how it’s different and knowing ourselves when it’s good enough to start to ‘sell’ the new version.
It does mean, careful, exacting, technical work to refactor our existing app to support new workflows and features that we’d been able to explore freely in a greenfield, non-production environment. We’ll also need to rationalise existing functionality where we had “built features fast” without necessarily completing the features once initial versions were shipped.
This is not easy work, but I have an appetite for it. Plus there’s a huge psychological win of delivering all the cool new stuff for our thousands of customers.
Another early July, another BrightonRuby. I’m never the best judge of how the event went, but the re-usable KeepCup swag was received well and there were some lovely talks.
Only a couple of weeks later I heard the sad news that Matthew Rudy Jacobs, a Ruby community stalwart and speaker from this year, had died. He was an excellent fellow and will be missed.
Took most of August as holiday.
Cycled around Lake Annecy for a couple of days without the kids, having travelled there by train. The Eurostar felt very civilised and it was only the return journey that felt long.
Had to hire a heavy ‘city bike’ (and the last electric version for Jo) which was fine right up until a steep climb 3/4 of the way round. I gave Jo a running bump start uphill and then off she electrically shot, past the lycra folks. I pushed the incredibly heavy bike up the mountain.
A longer break, to celebrate my milestone birthday, with my oldest friends in a villa in Italy. Four families, eight children, one pool, Italian supermarkets. Kids learned to play cards, I read lots, mass cooking and lots of excellent cheese.
My 40th. I was kinda born forty, so I haven’t had any giant mid-life crisis (that I have been made aware of) so it just felt like an opportunity to reflect on my fortunate situation. And do karaoke. Spectacularly well/poorly.
From a work perspective so began the great “writing billing systems” project for both CoverageBook and AnswerThePublic. European regulations changed to include SCA, so in order to continue to take money (job #1 for a SaaS business) we needed to upgrade the billing/checkout process.
It seems that most countries opted out of the new regulations, so rather than being against a hard deadline, it all turned into work for some future date.
However it led into improvements our approach to charging and rationalising the code so it’s broadly the same for both applications and improve our first checkout flow for new users. Plus some long overdue work to remove some antiquated approaches to usage that we’ve mostly removed from customer sight.
An overnight stay in a treehouse with an outside bath in Knepp was amazing, once I’d remastered making fire to stave off the cold. Even then the bath took three hours to heat.
We started working more concretely with Berst, we’d done some ‘imagineering the future’ projects in the last days of the CoverageBook sequel, but this was the first of two projects where we truly added them to the team and gave the useful constraints of the existing applications. Expect next year to be delivering some of the concepts that came out of these work periods.
At home my father-in-law went a couple of long holidays, meaning we badly missed his help with post-school childcare. There’s nothing like an absence to appreciate something that you’re at risk of taking for granted.
Attended the London Ruby Unconference, tacking on attending the People’s Vote march which was taking place the same day. Felt good to be marching amongst people, in good humour but resolute, for what they believed in. The rest of the year, outside the Brighton “political-Lucas-bubble”, was more disappointing pretty much everywhere you looked.
My sphere of influence is small. I can only affect change in my work and my community, so I need to stay focussed on that and not despair at the wider context in which we find ourselves.
Said goodbye to Tadej from Brighton. Sad to lose a good friend and sometime work colleague, but he’s headed round the world and then back to Slovenia.
With Jon gone from the team we are smaller than ever. We took a bunch of time to sit with the situation but when one or two of the product team are off it feels a bit operationally tight.
It is time to add a pair of hands to the product team. We approached someone we knew, but it wasn’t the right time for them to join us. I still think it’d have been a great fit, but you can’t win them all.
We also had another team day out. At the Crystal Maze. Which we nailed. Go us.
Managed to flip the switch on a new marketing site.
A new design, a complete change of platform, from part of the main Rails app to a Jekyll site. Styles provided through customised bootstrap via gulp, and then purging unused classes. This leads to huge decreases in CSS weight. There’s still work to do in terms of improving images and JS, but we’ll get there.
Lot’s of DNS and application redirect fiddling to make the final switch. Lesson learned. Always start with a marketing site on Netlify to whatever.com, application on Heroku at app.whatever.com.
Formalised a job spec for the new Rails developer we’re looking for. It does a pretty decent job of explaining who we are, and what we’re about, whilst also casting a pretty wide net.
I’m pretty proud of it. Applications are still open.
The other role that’d be an alternative for our team is a CSS/JS-er happy to use bootstrap and none of the mega JS frameworks. But I’m not sure that person exists, so I think it’ll probably mostly be me!
Stuff I’ve loved this year
There’s no doubt that Avengers: Endgame stuck the landing, a resolution to 20-odd movies with literally hundreds of characters. As a technical achievement in logistics and plotting it’s incredible, plus just a great movie and a proper cinema event.
I also loved Knives Out, Booksmart, Into The Spider-verse, The Favourite. Frozen II was also a worthy follow-up, but mostly I got to take two very excited kids (dressed as a tiger & Elsa) to see it on opening weekend.
Succession was tremendous. I hate all the characters. And yet… I care what happens. And, of course, Fleabag.
Lots of excellent stand up this year too. James Acaster at Brighton Dome, an amazing set. And Tim Minchin, a life-affirming greatest hits. And Nish Kumar, whose blood pressure I worry about.
Read a lot, fiction and non-fiction. I should start keeping notes for myself.
- Atomic Habits rang true for me
- There was uncomfortable reading in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race * The design polemic Ruined by Design
- Animal entertaining standup/social science from Sara Pascoe
- Mom Test one of the best product design books I have ever read, seemed to infiltrate the bootstrapper community this year
- The Outsider, a ripping but typical Stephen King yarn
- Elinor Oliphant is totally fine, sold so many copies but a great central character
- The Sandman, finally got round to reading (some of) Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel opus
- Norse Mythology beautifully written myth retelling from Neil Gaiman, which is what led me to Sandman
Kept up a pretty good rate of One Ruby Thing’s: 23 ruby-related articles. It continues to make me write. Nadia continues to improve my writing no end. Her newsletter on building Storygraph continues to be honest, forthright and a great insight into her focus on building a business.
Continued to go to once-a-week therapy. Mostly maintained my daily habits of reading, journalling, yoga and meditation. Mostly. Hugely beneficial.
Most of English-language politics.
Missed out again on being able to travel to RailsConf and RubyConf despite having talks selected.
At work the first half of the year was psychologically hard and in the second it felt like the amount of future work piled up as I spent time writing a billing system, but the real commits tell an alternative story of solid, continual progress.
As they always do if I’ve been doing it properly.
Mostly health related to stave off the inevitable aches and pains of the middle-aged.
A good friend, with whom I run, ended up in the hospital with a heart attack as I wrote this—he’s now stable—this seems like as good a place for self-improvement as any.
I’m eating a lot less meat. I’m be no means vegetarian or vegan, but I’m mostly choosing to eat that way, when I don’t we’re buying only ‘good’ meat. I’m aware of how much impact dairy & livestock have ecologically and there’s definitely a moral case to minimise animal suffering. I’m not alone here in making a move in this direction.
I’m consistently running. I’ve never been a runner, but this is first year I’ve really kept it up (mostly twice a week) for a whole year. Mostly around 5–6km in half an hour-ish. I’ve also changed my running stance to no longer heel-strike, to protect my knees and ankles, also with the idea I might get to barefoot running at some point.
Cycling. Finally took the plunge (in depths of winter!) on a Decathlon “Gravel” bike which is lovely—I consulted multiple ‘proper’ bike riders to choose the right model, as I had no idea.
Now I roll down the hill to work, before striving back up. Saves bus fare (£5 a day!) and adds inadvertent exercise on the days I do it, when I’m not walking Raffa into work. Cycled 91km in November and December alone.
A big change for Jo as she’s on a sabbatical from Accenture. From my perspective, she’s been burnt out for a couple of years (although still doing a great job) and it’s time for a new phase of life for her. At the moment that’s taking the form of lots of sea-swimming.
At home, the kids continue to grow, loose teeth, get cheeky and impress me with the people they are becoming. Whilst occasionally driving me up the wall.
An era of change at CoverageBook and wider at Propellernet. Jon left our team and in the agency long serving folks like Stef & Nikki have moved onto new things.
The business-side is still growing in users and revenue. There’s a renewed focus on paying back technical debt and simplifying our lives to stay small whilst also delivering new fun stuff. 2020 will be a period of consolidation and progress that our customers (and we) can really feel.
Last updated on January 2nd, 2020 by @andycroll