image by Kelly Sikkema
Year in Review 2020
2020. It sounds so futuristic. Like jet packs and hoverboards. Not so much.
The new year brought some great engineer candidates for our small team at CoverageBook. We chose Emma after she aced our interviews. Unfortunately she had an epic three month notice period, which felt like a long time.
Spoke at Paris RB, although I slightly object to their slogan “Europe’s #1 Ruby Conference :-).
I reprised “The Games Developers Play”, talk went well despite some AV issues, which is always a risk with lots of audio and video.
Got to spend some time chatting to Matz and lost myself running in the outskirts of Paris, although did manage to at least see la Tour despite starting jogging out in the sticks.
A couple of the talks inspired me, including one about _why from Sunny that fed into my planning for this year’s conference.
At the beginning of March my other half went on a dramatic, solo, trip away and almost as soon as she had left we began to hear about the serious arrival of this virus that had been a background hum to the early months of the year.
In the ten days she was away I went from “what’s going on” to “this isn’t going to happen” to “I’m going to cancel this event”. Meanwhile time was bending and distorting out of shape.
Then an hour, day or week later (who could tell?) lockdown.
There was an adrenalin, a panic, to the early weeks of the UK lockdown and yet a stoic trudge through home-school, home-work, flipping home-_everything_.
I’ve, as many, struggled whilst also being incredibly cosseted by my own fortunate circumstances. It felt like everyone wanted someone else’s lockdown: single lonely folks craved people, family members craved a moment to themselves, people furloughed wanted to work, while others were rushed off their feet.
For us, the first couple of hours of each day were down to me, as I leapt around my lounge to “PE with Joe” with our brand new, Lycra-clad, national treasure and then segued into and hour or two of Maths and English of our own devising.
After that I’d head upstairs to start my work day while my other half (who was on a years leave of absence) then took the weight of the rest of the day.
We’d often all go out and do our ‘hour of exercise’ together. Our plan to finally get the kids to learn to ride their bikes sadly succeeded in a single afternoon, we’d hoped that would occupy them for a couple of weeks at least.
What I’ll remember of lockdown (one) is the spectacular weather. Thank goodness. Bike rides, seaside walks, criss-crossing the golf course and the kids rediscovering each other as playmates.
But it went on forever.
At work, Emma joined, mid-lockdown and immediately made a huge impact, both in our process and improving the product as it recovered from a scary couple of weeks financially as the PR industry was hit by COVID-shock.
We were already remote-friendly as a company so our transition wasn’t too arduous mechanically, but the loss of communal existing was hard on everyone.
The conference was under water financially and at that point I also didn’t want to try and recover my deposit from Brighton Dome. It’s an excellent venue—an arts charity devastated by the prohibition of live events. In retrospect I would have been on target for a full refund, as they’d have had to cancel, but in April when I was working out “what next” it felt better for us to share the financial difficulty.
I spoke to my sponsors, letting them know I was going to do something and the lovely folks at Cookpad and FreeAgent let me keep most of their already provided sponsorship monies and I began to plot something unencumbered by the requirement to be in a single location at a single time.
The outcome was Alt::BrightonRuby. A weird quasi-conference. I abandoned the requirement of timeliness, in favor of videos and a podcast and something else.
The most amazing part was entirely down to Emma, who undertook the mammoth task (whilst also homeschooling her son) of typesetting a copy of Why’s Poignant Guide and leading me through the printing process.
We shipped hundreds of books to over 15 countries during a pandemic. We raised thousands of pounds for Shelter, Black Lives Matter and the Stephen Lawrence Trust. Something good came out when what might have happened was a huge personal financial loss. I remain indebted to my kind sponsors, Emma and the speakers.
All travel was pretty much still not happening, so we pieced together a summer break with UK house swaps and a short Cotswolds rental postponed from spring.
Northern Ireland & Chelmsford were our destinations. The change of location was good at least and there was no chance of getting caught in the late summer quarantines.
Kids returned to school. A new one after six months of none. But they’ve settled well. It finally felt like a weight was lifted. Although queues remained strange and my eye-smiling got a hell of a work out in public it felt as though the dramatic world-stopping, was over.
The user-facing portions of CoverageBook have seen big, but not feature-y, strides in terms of data-quality, speed and reliability over the last year, but we’ve also been toiling away on a vast refresh of the fundamental structure and user experience of the main book and coverage editing experience.
It’s been a meandering road. Whilst Jon was still with us the project had morphed multiple times, but in the summer of 2019 we made a call to simplify, but not dampen, our ambitions and pour all our learning from that (in retrospect) research into the existing product. In 2020 we finally started the work to make that happen.
By this point in the year we’d also been working with Mark, who’d been doing some ace front-end prototyping on top of the foundational work we’d put in. So in a moment of recruitment madness we offered him a job rather than the contracting we had been doing. What have we become? Recruiting two people in a year? MADNESS.
I think this was when a corner was turned from a “working on the next thing” perspective at work.
The foundations for a full replacement of the CoverageBook experience, built in January—March, seem to be holding as we layer on improved user-experience and features.
We did some early tests with existing customers this month, feedback was good, there was a lack of “woah” but for me that’s a good thing. These were existing customers so they’re expecting non-scary, evolution: the existing product they are paying for was their “wow moment”.
The work itself can be a slog because we have to essentially continue to replace the entire, broad, existing product to ensure we continue to serve our existing customers. We have been carefully balancing some principles that I want to capture.
The need to improve the existing product. We’re still doing this, fixing bugs, enabling customer support, improving data gathering and shaving off edge cases but we have to ensure we’re not stunting progress of the new work.
The urge to solve all the problems right now. We came up with a guiding principle of the first version of the new thing is ‘done’ when it’s better than what’s in the existing product. It’s way too easy to get lost in enhanced features in the unreleased area of the product that don’t get us closer to being able to move everyone to that new thing and give them the better experience we know they want.
We don’t need to have feature parity to launch. There’s a smaller group of features that can cover 100% of the use of certain customers, we can launch to those people. So we don’t need to port over everything in the existing product. We also don’t need to replicate everything, provided we solve the existing problem in a clear and concise way.
We got a lot right the first time. It’s important not to throw out the good (if sometimes incomplete) features we built the first go around. It’s too easy to accidentally miss that we have a successful, growing business based on the existing application. Whilst we see the flaws and missing pieces (and hear about them in support messages!) lots of customers really value the thing we have. And copycats pop up all the time, but they’re following us.
We’ve been operating on these principles implicitly since I got to grips with the ‘new CoverageBook’ project, it’s only recently I’ve been able to clarify them. The tensions between them are where the work is.
It’s all about managing scope, which doesn’t feel exciting, but it does get satisfying work into the world.
My house started leaking a bit, it’s still not repaired. Now we have an expanding damp patch on the ceiling.
The second lockdown was both easier and harder than the first. It spared schools, so I wasn’t trying to do two things at once. The massively reduced social contact was damn hard, coming from a lower base anyway. I never knew I’d miss a pint after work, or a board game at the neighbours quite as much as I do.
The groundhog-day-ness of life was (and is) a struggle, the repetitiveness extending even to the things one does to unwind. Here we are again on the sofa watching TV, here I am again running, here I am seeing my work chums in Zoom/Celebrity Squares. Again. Again. Again.
Emerging from lockdown (two) into a subdued Xmas period, it feels like a dreadful year I’m glad to see the back of. Even if in Brighton we were able to meet friends outside for a substantial (if freezing) meal for a couple of weeks before the shutters came down again at Xmas.
I think that it’s more about the few uncertain months to come, even with multiple vaccines for this thing meaning the end is in sight. We don’t have the public health capacity to help the number of people in this winter COVID spike, so some kind of social suppression remains an answer. But it demonstrates the limits on care are an outcome of decisons to have less beds and less help for those who need it.
I still have massive concerns about the effect these long lockdowns are having on us all. Mentally. Socially. Increases in other individual health issues through delayed screenings and treatments.
Then there is Brexit… what a waste of human energy and effort, just to make everything marginally worse.
I’ve maintained my running this year, but it feels like my ability to do it has ebbed and flowed. Some points in the year I’ve been running multiple 10k’s in a week and sometimes a single 5k has felt nearly impossible. I’m not a natural runner, typically I enjoy the “having done” more than the “doing” but I keep showing up in my battered Decathlon gear and doing it.
I missed cycling to the office. And the office.
My fortnightly writing was obliterated by the first lockdown and the energy and time/space requirement to produce an essay twice a month. I am desperate to get back to it in 2021.
Stuff I liked
We watched a lot of TV this year. Despite mostly staying in my house, there’s still too much good stuff.
Catching up on on the twisty TV puzzle of Westworld having missed it when it first appeared a few years back.
Succession and The Crown are both series where awful, rich, malicious people are compellingly dreadful to each other.
What We Do in the Shadows was a burst of silly lightness in the depths of lockdown.
The Witcher was lighter and more of a ridiculous romp than it pretended to be. And Queen’s Gambit was a powerhouse display of charisma and clothing.
The Mandalorian restored my faith in the joy of romping through Star Wars after Rise of Skywalker disappointed by trying to do too much.
And His Dark Materials was just delightful.
Little Women was marvellous as was David Copperfield.
Hamilton on Disney+. Lost another two weeks to the soundtrack after that.
Onward made me cry.
Re-read Rework & Getting Real, from the folks at Basecamp. Both have aged exceptionally well.
Enjoyed Good Strategy/Bad Strategy which really clarified that a lot of what you see described as ‘strategy’ is nothing of the sort.
I’ll return to The TinyMBA due to it’s unusual, for a business book, focus on questions & prompts rather than proscribing “the way”.
After listening to an interview I picked up Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror which was packed with insight and thus questions about the world we’re in right now.
Read Severence, a little “of the moment” in it’s pandemic setting, but I think made it better. And Boy Parts blew me away, an American Psycho-esque examination of a quite astonishing narrator navigating the art world. Ordinary People was a wonderfully evocative tale of early middle-age in London, with implied John Legend soundtrack.
I’ve bounced off a number of indies on Switch and AAAs on PlayStation, but I’ve played a lot of Fortnite, it’s an astonishing technical marvel, mechanically fun, and a good place to hang out and chat with friends. Plus it makes me cool to teenagers?
I lost a bunch of time to Grindstone on iOS which tickled my engineer brain.
And I Animal Crossing-ed for a time. I dread to think about the state of my island and the tempers of my residents should I dare to go back after I abandoned them.
Last updated on December 28th, 2020 by @andycroll