Goodbye 2015, hello 2016

I didn’t end up doing this last year, but it feels like 2015 has been an important year for me both personally and professionally and I’d like to document some of my learnings for my future reference. As such, here is my recap of the year.

It’s been a bad year. A really bad year. I’ve read quite a few people’s year round-ups and it sounds like it has been for quite a lot of people actually. To put my everything in context, these were my main challenges:

In November 2014 a large piece of building work started mere metres from my home in what was previously a beautiful, quiet paddock. To date it’s not yet finished and there is still heavy machinery floating around. It has made it near impossible to work from home as I had done for the previous two years, and was a huge factor in me taking a 3 month contract on the south coast and all-but abandoning my home office for the rest of the year. I can’t explain what it feels like to be woken up daily by HGVs, diggers, and drilling, and I am currently still on sleeping pills to be able to deal with this (thanks for the Christmas Day early wakeup noise, site!). Fighting almost daily breaches in planning permission, having to run out to make sure lorries didn’t drive into my kitchen window, receiving threats from site workers, and documenting all of the infringements has been exhausting, but without putting in this effort (along with the rest of the other residents), repeated official complaints, and help of a local councillor everything would have been much worse. Here’s a selection of lovely views to illustrate:

  • Building works

  • Building works
  • Building works 2

Because of this, along with what now totals half of the road’s other residents, at the start of 2015 we decided to sell up and move. Without question, trying to move (in conjunction with the building work making home a misery) has been the most exhausting and demoralising process I have ever gone through. To date we have not moved, and have not even been able to get to the point of exchanging contracts. We lost one house entirely and have had to suffer numerous chain collapses, sometimes mere days before proposed completion dates. We’re currently having to reapply for an entirely new mortgage offer – the old one couldn’t be extended any more.

All of this has made running a business extremely difficult. From May large portions of my days became consumed by endless emails and calls up and down the chain, and trying to find creative solutions to the assorted problems that have cropped up. Apart from the commitments that I had booked up at the start of 2015, I struggled to be able to commit to dates for work. The huge battle of being able to get consensus on completion dates throughout the chain, added to our desperation for the move to finally be over meant that I didn’t want to book out too much of my time. I didn’t want to leave the country or be on-site miles away during windows where I’d need to be signing documents, packing up, or moving. I didn’t want to book workshops, or have clients gather their team for meetings that I was worried I may need to move. I didn’t want to be unprofessional by messing anyone around. I would book out blocks of time for moving, only for the move to fall through and be left with dead time, and have to move the block. This would repeat and repeat, until I would take some work simply to keep money coming in.

On top of this, in April, I was given a new reason to need to leave the country when I couldn’t, and another factor to juggle in the moving/earning/uncertainty puzzle. Completely out of the blue my step mum had a fit and was found to have an enormous brain tumour. She was working in Dubai, but was a couple of weeks away from moving to France for her job. Instead, after her rushed initial surgery, my dad, step mum and half brother had to pack up and move out to Singapore to be close to her family. She is still here, but is still having daily chemo and radiotherapy, and much to my huge sadness I have yet to be able to get out there despite best attempts.

The biggest lesson I have learnt this year is how little control you will sometimes have over your life, and this is something that I am still struggling to deal with. This year I have turned down over £75k of great work that I would have loved to do, simply because work was the one thing that I could control, by removing it from the equation. This is a position I never want to be in again, but at the same time I couldn’t have done anything to change it.

Achievements unlocked

Despite this, I managed to do quite a bit on a few different fronts. Things that I’m really pleased about include the following:

• I’ve worked on some great projects, ranging from a continuation of my work with Henley College Coventry, start-up Patchwork Present, and Hotelplan (Inghams), through to new work with SSE, charity Survivors UK, a large software company, and assorted others.

• I spoke at 7 events in 3 countries – Colchester Digital, Front-end London, Web in the Woods, From the Front, R(E)volution, Fronteers, and Apps World. I took a different approach to speaking this year, mainly talking about open data – something that had interested me from the previous year’s projects but which I was by no means any kind of expert in. That turned out to be pretty terrifying, but I think that I’ve managed to learn a lot about speaking this year.

• I took part in Good For Nothing Colchester again, this time helping a local Women’s Refuge.

• Wrote for 24 Ways on the subject of effective technical writing, and snippets for net Magazine a few times, but didn’t do enough writing in general due to a lack of mental capacity.

• Was interviewed about my work on two podcasts – The Freelance Web and One Design Guide. I find podcasts surprisingly terrifying considering my speaking experience, and it was good to face my fears.

• I kept to a long-held ambition, and managed to go skiing for two weeks in Austria for my birthday at the start of the year.

• I did a lot of documenting my life through photography, although this isn’t reflected by my most popular Instagram photos, which are mainly of animals:

Instagram popular photos

Learnings

Throughout all of this, and on top of my realisation about control (or lack of), there are some key lessons that I’ve learnt.

Shifting identity

A friend of mine recently said that they thought I came across as having a really good sense of what I do, and what I can offer. It certainly hasn’t felt like that throughout all of 2015, and at times I have struggled with my my confidence and my identity with regards to where I fit in.

Central to this is my ongoing battle between the part of me that sees development and technical skills as intrinsic to who I am, and the fact that I really enjoy and see a demand for my work in non-technical areas. This year has probably been my least technical and most strategic to date, and in fact a huge amount of my work now lies much more within the user experience and business consultancy realm than anything else. I’m coming to accept that this is ok – that my continuing journey and evolution away from development is exactly that: a journey, and that it doesn’t mean that I’m somehow any less skilled. I would however like to work on refining exactly how best these two strands work together, for my own confidence if nothing else, but also to help explain to people how technical thinking during the early stages of projects can be really beneficial.

Client relationships are important

I’ve enjoyed having longer term relationships with clients, less focused on individual projects. Working with more trust and a wider remit has been really great personally, and has been much more rewarding professionally – I find that much better results can be usually be achieved when you’ve already got a good relationship and enjoy working together. My background was originally agencies, but nowadays I definitely prefer the integration that comes with consulting internally or working on products.

This has also particularly highlighted the problems that can come with being white labelled as an employee of another agency. Having to say goodbye when you’re moving on to other things is usually at best awkward, and at worst can harm your reputation – clients can feel misled if it later comes out that you were only brought in for the project, and sometimes think you’ve been sacked!

I have loved the client work I’ve done this year for Hotelplan, which I will write about properly at some point. Having monthly touch points, and working on a real range of aspects across the business (including project process, documentation, reviewing API design, team structure, interviews), has been brilliant and I really look forward to doing more in 2016.

100% client work takes time

Some of the projects that I have done this year have been alongside agencies. My goal is to eventually work exclusively on my own projects, but after making a big push towards this last year I realised that it’s ok if that takes time. In 2015 I got to work with Accenture as an invited digital expert, and this gave me some great insight into a world that I’d never experienced before. I also worked on a couple more projects with Coast Digital here in Colchester, who are a brilliant team that I really enjoy spending time with.

The most important thing for me when choosing projects to get involved with is how much benefit I can bring. Very often when you’re being brought into a pre-defined project team, the idea of what skills are needed and what you do may not align perfectly. I’m more than happy to work alongside other teams, as long as I’m the right person for the job, my strengths can be considered, and I can be honest with the client about who I am (see above!).

Speaking is expensive

When I first started out speaking I was excited whenever opportunities came my way. They want me! I don’t regret any of the things I have done to date, but in 2015 I had to take myself aside and have a bit of a chat about how I can’t do everything I may want to. The costs of speaking can become huge if you let them, and you basically end up paying a lot more than it’d cost to attend the event as a delegate. As a small business I’m not in the same boat as someone with a large company to fund these things, especially when conferences are abroad and expenses aren’t paid. I typically spend weeks if not months preparing new talks (even tailoring existing ones to each event), and there’s a lot of loss of income both from this and time at the event itself.

I sadly had to turn down a few events this year, either due to being overwhelmed by everything going on in my life, or because it was simply not financially viable. I did almost zero client work in September due to jumping from event to event, which put pressure on me financially in October and beyond – time which was crammed full of moving and brain tumour stress.

I firmly believe that conferences are about the talks, not about any ‘networking or promotional’ opportunities – people are there for great content. To get the best, most varied talks, conference organisers should be paying for speakers’ travel and accommodation at a minimum, and if they’re an event that charges for tickets and has big sponsors, then you should definitely be paying your speakers. I’m on several call for proposal mailing lists, and it saddens me the amount of these events that don’t provide any kind of remuneration, yet brag about their 1000s of paid attendees and huge name sponsors. Conference organisers, let’s sort this out in 2016.

Fighting to get paid

Tied into this, I have also had to fight many people to get invoices paid, a fact which saddens me every time that I have to do it. My contract is very easy to understand, and is something that I always stress should work well for both parties. When people don’t stick to the agreed terms, it’s really, really crap having to spend time chasing up invoices, and having to feel like you’re potentially wearing down an otherwise good relationship and experience. My learning here is that unfortunately sometimes you need to put on your financial hard hat, and do things like asking for 100% up-front payment, even if they’re a client you otherwise get on brilliantly with.

On the other hand I’d like to publicly thank Patchwork Present on this front, for holding the record of being my first client to ever pay an invoice before it had been sent!

Depression kills side projects. And everything else.

My energy has been sapped by all of the wrong things this year, and I have struggled to do the learning, reading, writing and doing that I’ve wanted to. I have several side projects that have completely floundered, with too much time being spent on Destiny and Fallout 4, grinding through pointless side missions. I’m not happy with this, however I also needed to let it happen up to a point, and I need to cut myself some slack. Life isn’t exclusively about output and measuring progress, and sometimes it’s necessary to focus on other things.

Intentions for 2016

So finally we come to this year, 2016. This year I would like to do more of the following:

  • Better focus on productisation – redefine what the company offers in order to help people understand how it can benefit them.
  • Continue to focus on direct work – I’d love to do more in the travel industry, with games companies, and there are some particular companies that I’ve spoken to where I really hope we can do something together I’d also like to do more in the US and Asia, whether that’s client work or speaking.
  • Carry on with my learning – I need to have more confidence in taking courses, and in finding other ways to learn.
  • More writing – finding the energy to share with others in ways that aren’t speaking.
  • Launch one of my side projects, no matter how silly.
  • Book holidays in advance and stick to them no matter what.
  • Do more exercise; get out more – I’m kicking off 2016 with rollerblading lessons, which will hopefully start this off nicely.

Due to all of the work I turned down at the end of 2015 I currently have lots of capacity in 2016, so if you’d like to meet for a cup of tea and a chat about working together then I’d love that. Get in touch and let me know what you have in mind.

Here’s to a much better 2016 for everyone, and to doing great things!