2021 into 2022

Another pandemic-tactic yearly round-up!

As a reminder, I like to look back at the end of the year, write myself a reflection on how I’d found it, and curate some memories for future me. This is the 2021 edition.

But before I start, a little aside is that I realised earlier I’ve been writing these for ten years now! Here’s the 2011 into 2012 post if you’re interested, which seems to be the first one I captured online.

When I started thinking about kicking this off I was worried it’d be yet another doom and gloom post. In hindsight I was in a pretty dark place at the end of last year when I wrote my roundup, and it took me a good amount of time and support to get back to a decent level. I described last year as “the hardest year of my life”, and whilst this one wasn’t quite as bad it was certainly another tough one. There was however enough good to balance some of that out, and whatever happens pandemic-wise there are (all being well!) going to be some changes next year. Let’s jump in.

🏡 COVID year 2, home-bound year 3

I ended last year’s post by saying “But please, please, if I could pass the year without having to spend a third year at home that would be really bloody great”. Well, dear sweet naive past me, that absolutely didn’t happen… mostly for protective and health-related reasons (we’ll come on to that) I did extremely little. However, whilst I’ve definitely had my ups and downs, I’ve also felt much better equipped overall, and I’m actually feeling pretty optimistic about heading into what will likely be year 4 in a similar vein.

I was extremely grateful each time I got vaccinated. My first was in May, second in July (both Pfizer), then I was boosted with the Moderna/Spikevax.

Most of the things I did do were in the summer and months either where numbers were low enough to feel ok about the level of risk, or where I could be outside and stay away from people. As I say, it was limited, and I was actually pretty surprised looking back at my photos and records as to how small life was this year. However some of the few things I did do:

Ate inside a whole FOUR times throughout the year

The highlight was Store at Stoke Mill, followed by Brawn in London with some colleagues, Dishoom breakfast, and a Wagamama.

I managed to travel a little bit, but stayed within England. Outside of day trips I…

Went to Norfolk for some days around my brother’s numbers-restricted, outside wedding. Explored some places on the Broads and coast I hadn’t been before, ate at the above Stoke Mill, had some nice times with my mum.

Shortly after that I had an absolutely fantastic time driving down to stay in Radar at Dungeness on my own. It was the first time I’d been on my own properly in absolutely ages and I utterly loved it; Dungeness was perfect. I walked a lot, took photos, went to open studios, bought art, sat on the beach thinking, lit fires, made Bakewell tarts, enjoyed a massive bath and sauna, and loved how the birds would perch on the posts around the house every morning.

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Square photos against a white background, showing the modern interior of where I stayed, some beachy wilderness, fish, a seagull in flight, and a lighthouse
Assorted photos from Dungeness

I loved it so much that I ended up going back a little while later, this time staying in a different place and ‘letting’ my husband come with me.

I only went to London three times the whole year, with two of those being for work. On the first trip we had a Product Leadership offsite with 4 of us at one of my colleagues’ houses, followed the next day with lots of walking 1:1s to actually meet people, and an outdoor work summer party. The party was really fun but was the most people I’d mixed with all year, and on returning home I felt extremely anxious about having been around so many people (even with restrictions having been removed and cases being low at that point). I came through unscathed in terms of infection, but it just didn’t feel worth it to me… which was actually quite nice to realise.

My second London trip was a little bit impromptu after my promotion to VP of Engineering and joining the exec team (more on work later). I came in for a couple of nights to join a board meeting and have some individual sessions with investors. Outside of that I pretty much holed up in my hotel room, with the highlight being takeaway cold spicy yuzu ramen from Kanada-ya.

The third time was when things were starting to look a bit more dubious again levels-wise, and it was a heavily FFP3-up trip spending a lot on taxis to avoid the Tube. I had a week off, and we went to stay in a hotel that I’d originally booked for my 2020 birthday. We went to exhibitions at the British Museum and Japan House, spent a lovely day at Kew Gardens, and met up with my brother and his wife to eat outside in what ended up being torrential rain at Mercato Metropolitano food market. Otherwise we fully embraced the excitement of food delivery and eating in the hotel room whilst looking out over the skyline. I also got to say hello to some ex-Monzo friends which was so nice after not having seen them properly since the start of 2020.

A set of photos, this time showing shots of a Japanese Olympics exhibition, Hokusai, Kew Gardens, and more
A mix of snaps from the last London trip

I went to Cranwell for a night to stay at a friend’s house with another couple of friends from teenage years, and beyond that the only other place was a few times staying with my mum.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t in a very good place at the start of the year, and after a couple of conversations with both my therapist and husband I made a snap decision to go and stay with Mum for a while. At that point we were in a covid “Support Bubble” household with her as she lives alone, and it was the only place I could go legally to get some headspace. Looking back it was a really good decision, both because it helped with my mental health, but also because it was so nice to live and work from mum’s house – something neither of us had done since I’d come back home from uni. I was able to be there for her 70th birthday too, which ended up being a really fun couple of days for both of us.

🥀 Unfortunately, another notable death in the family

Outside of looking out for myself, Mum’s been my main concern throughout this. So far she’s managed to stay unscathed, but this year more and more of my family and friends have been infected, to the point where I think more probably have had it now than haven’t.

We thankfully haven’t had any more covid-related deaths since my husband’s grandma last year, but that doesn’t mean it was a year without loss.

Some years ago now, my step-mum, dad, and half-brother were preparing to move from their current placement in Dubai over to France from her work. Out of the blue she keeled over, and it turned out that she had a brain tumour. She was given months if not weeks to live, the family threw their plans out of the window, returned to her native Singapore, and started prepping for the worst. Incredibly, she fought it for so much longer than anyone had ever considered possible, but she died in February.

Wai Ling/Rebecca was one of the women in my life who I had a huge amount of respect and admiration for, similar to Joan who also died from cancer a few years back. Her influence on me will definitely live on, and I was grateful to be able to attend her funeral and say goodbye, even though it was online and in the middle of the night UK time.

A Singaporean woman looks into the camera smiling, whilst holding a small baby
My step-mum, Wai Ling/Rebecca, plus a tiny Erik

Ok, let’s change the subject… work! Oh wait, that involves death too 🙄

Some of my experiences with death and dying have definitely been factors in why I’ve found working at Farewill so rewarding, and that continued into this year. I’m incredibly proud of what I and we have managed to build this year, and I’ve also appreciated working with really kind, talented, and supportive people.

My most notable achievement work-wise was being promoted, from Head of Engineering to a VP of Engineering role that grew in scope to be responsible for Engineering, Data & Insights, and IT. Our CPTO transitioned into a Founder Director role, and so in August I joined the Exec team to be responsible for technology, and moved over to report into our CEO. There have been a lot of ups and downs since then (startup life!), and as a team we’ve had to navigate some tough decisions at points. However, even over the course of the last 6 months I feel like I’ve grown so much as a leader, and that I can be really proud of the things I’ve advocated and fought for. It’s satisfying to know that I’ve made a difference. There’s a lot I can’t talk about yet, but some of the things I’m most proud of individually and as a team from over the year:

  • Building out some key new products, but balancing that with notable improvements to both customer facing and internal tools.
  • Forming a Platform Engineering team to compliment Product, who’ve done some brilliant work, and are excitingly soon going to be our first team who solely work 4 day weeks.
  • Shipping some massive fundamental changes to our architecture and customer accounts, and the team pulling off a really smooth data migration.
  • Focusing on developer experience, and making lots of improvements around things like quality and testing, massively speeding up CI, as well as paying down a good chunk of debt.
  • Bringing in new tech to our stack, which is already helping us to spin up new products faster and easier.
  • Winning a major big-name partnership for the year ahead, for which I led on technical due diligence.
  • Bringing in a lot of foundational process improvements, including two progression frameworks, and shoring up things like how we approach proposals, decision making, incident response etc. We also gave salary band transparency within engineering.
  • The ton of glue work the team did, whether updating the engineering wiki, giving over 30 internal tech talks, improving hiring processes, interviewing, running socials, bringing in ‘pairing roulette’, or forming working groups for cross-team system management.
  • Building a fantastic team, including supporting another internal career switch into a junior role.
    • Currently being 50% women engineers with 75% of our Senior engineers and 100% (of 1!) of Staff as women, plus our Data & Insights team is actually 100% women! (although my colleague Erica built that entirely without me, and I know is keen to balance it!).
    • We tend to float around 50% white, although there’s more we could do here and with other intersectional diversity.
  • The feedback the team give each other in our quarterly Engineering Satisfaction Surveys always makes my heart sing (as well as giving us helpful pointers around things like codebase maintainability).
  • The Data team brought in dbt, built out a Looker implementation to help teams self-serve, and created powerful reporting all the way from team-level to company level.
  • On the IT side there’s been a huge amount of work, from supplier/services mapping and a ton of cash saved, through to upgrades and security improvements, a load of help documenting policies to help with regulatory and partnership due diligence, and office upgrades underway!
  • Having a company-wide ‘Circuit Breaker’ mid-way through the year to help people people unwind a bit more.
  • Sharing knowledge and helping others, particularly speaking to a big fashion company about their plans to make a progression framework.

That’s not even all of it, so it’s been really satisfying to look back and see just how far we’ve managed to come in the last year. I’m hugely proud of everyone I work with in terms of what we’ve achieved together.

But anyway, there’s more to life than just work…

🎮 My interests were pretty unchanged

This year there was still a lot of walking and taking photos

Some of my favourites were probably a proper snowy walk in February, and when mum and I ended up seeing seals when we rested on Horsey Beach I also managed to do a (pretty pathetic but also fun) few tiny ski runs down a hill in the village on my short skis.

An assortment of shots taken on walks, including in the snow, of vast open fields, seas and lakes
A wide range of walk locations again this year

I read a lot, and played a lot of video games

In August I thought I’d make a little site of small reviews to start tracking the ones I’d enjoyed most, which still needs a lot of work but has already made me more deliberate in reflecting. I got an Xbox Series X in April, and finally properly embraced Game Pass. My game of the year was undoubtedly Psychonauts 2, and some others I played before the list was up include Cyberpunk 2077 (janky but enjoyable enough), Call of the Sea (cute story and puzzles), Donut County (simple chaos), Spiritfarer (gentle and touching), and of course I replayed the hell out of the 3 Mass Effect Legendary Edition games and fell in love with it all over again.

I’m currently racing through all of the Murderbot Diaries books (Martha Wells) which have been brilliant. I don’t have a good list of the books I read before August, but some that I didn’t list and which stand out in my head include Wayfarers Series books 2 & 3 by Becky Chambers, and A Memory Called Empire/A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine.

It was another year of overly-elaborate cooking

The return of the postponed Euro 2020 heralded another month-long Euro Dinners cook along, which we managed to keep up even when away in Norfolk/Kent. That actually sparked me to start baking more on weekends, which I’ve enjoyed even if my waistline hasn’t. There were some other big cooks, notably including a lunar new year feast featuring hand-pulled noodles, an unagi/squid feast for my birthday, and lots of experimenting with the wild garlic from the garden once I got confident enough I wasn’t going to kill us. Restaurant meal kits featured prominently too when people were doing nationwide delivery, so we’ve managed to have some very good eats.

Various dishes we've cooked this year, ranging from okonomiyaki, to wild garlic pasta, sticky toffee pudding pancakes, ramen, and more.
Some of the home-cooked creations from over the year

Crafting away from screens

I was still much more drawn to the physical when I wanted to make things. I’d experimented a bit with epoxy resin in 2020, but 2021 brought my first foray into learning about mould making and making resin models by hand.

I also experimented more with decoration, painting a wooden fox I’d bought ages ago, and decorating a Kid Robot figure with sharpies over my birthday. I’ve got another one lined up, and am considering trying to augment it with clay before painting it this time.

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A set of images featuring resin figures, a snowflake, Lego botanicals sets, painted figures, and more.
Some experiments and explorations of new things... plus some Lego

And finally, Japanese was of course still in the mix

I’d been doing group sessions on the weekend which I’d loved, but they were all done on Zoom with the interaction being typed only. After they wound down and I was honest with myself about just how much my speaking was atrophying with so long away from Japan, I set out to find a new tutor for conversational practice. Thankfully I’ve found someone I really get on with, and I now have lessons every weekend again which I’m loving. I still feel a bit hampered on being able to express myself properly, but having the regular time is definitely helping get my confidence back.

Shameless plug, I’ve been using italki.com, and if you want to get some credits and give me some, here’s my referral link.

Exams were once again cancelled this year, and without that structure I’ve struggled to feel like I’m “allowed” to move on to new N2-level formal learning material, which I think has held me back a bit. I know that’s silly, as I can have whatever learning path I want, but it honestly helps me so much to have a more rigid framework to move within and I feel like I’m missing ticking off the N3 exam. I’ve been feeling that way since I was originally going to try for the exam in Dec 2019 though, so I really need to get over it soon! In the meantime outside of my lessons I’ve mostly focused on reading more (I may make a separate section of my books site for this, and try to capture my thoughts in Japanese), and watching films. I’d like to push on with the formal side this year too though.

🔨 Making some more home improvements

This was the year we finally started taking the house a bit seriously, commissioning a full survey, then subsequent specialist drain and asbestos surveys (yayy). There’s a ton to do, but thankfully nothing ridiculously pressing. We’ve got some work booked in to properly dispose of some old poorly-handled asbestos tiling under one of the room’s floors, are about to get all of the upstairs radiators replaced with actual modern and nice ones, and totally gut/re-carpet/re-plaster and decoate a bedroom. One of the bits I think has made the most difference was finally finding something to go in the tall stairwell, in the form of 60 unique Studio Arhoj Pearls, which I absolutely love.

Outside we overhauled a couple of areas in the garden including smashing down the disgusting, ancient old spider-fest of a shed (so satisfying), building a new, more practical one in a different location, building a new smoked bamboo screen-fronted compost area, and clearing an area of overgrown bushes to plant two new ornamental cherry trees and make a new seating area. As usual I seemed to constantly be buying carloads of plants that just disappeared into the garden void without making a dent, but I also grew lots from seed successfully. I need a better setup to do more growing in the future, so that’s now on the list, as well as possibly a pond/rockery.

👩🏻‍⚕️ The mental health and physical health battle was real

And finally, the big ones, the things that have most shaped my outlook on everything this year.

I started doing weekly therapy at the start of 2021, and am so glad that I did. It’s a space where I can take absolutely anything; all of the things I’ve never been able to share for various reasons, and where I know I can have someone help me work through it all.

I coupled that with realising that some extra support would really benefit me, and decided to go with the doctor’s recommendation of antidepressants. It’s different for everyone, but the combo of both really helped me, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of doing this year.

I decided to come off them some months later after feeling like I was back to a better baseline, but also because I wanted to be off them before starting to think seriously about kids again after last year’s miscarriage. Thankfully, a little bit later on I fell pregnant again! It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, and I’ve definitely not been ‘glowing’(!), but so far they seem to be doing as ok as possible. All things going well, there will be a new member of the family in a few months!

The other notable side quest here was that I finally got an official diagnosis for ME/CFS after years of living in a way that I knew wasn’t ‘normal’. Long story short, it turns out that a combination of being a pandemic recluse away from germ vectors, taking vitamin D, being on antidepressants, having regular blood tests for my thyroid, and coming back as ‘healthy’ across the board was enough for the doctors to rule everything else out, which was actually incredibly validating to have confirmed.

This has however played its part pregnancy-wise. In the first trimester I had all the usual fun and games, but as things progressed into the second I had some periods where I was really very ill. I struggled as my usual triggers and patterns were thrown out of the window – I’m normally very high functioning and can manage my energy pretty well, but apparently growing a new human who wants to be a little leech on their own schedule is a whole other thing for my body to deal with! I’m a little bit better at riding the waves of it now, but towards the end of the year I made the tough call to bring the start of my maternity leave right forward, and I’ll actually be heading off on leave pretty shortly. When I’m working I tend to give my all, sometimes to my own detriment, and now of all times I wanted the best chance to properly look after myself.

All of this in a pandemic has been tough

The two biggest factors for me being very risk averse this year have been my health, and the kid’s. I’m now at the stage where COVID could be a very real factor in early or stillbirth, and I’m just not prepared to risk it.

On top of this, already living with a chronic health condition has made me absolutely want to avoid long COVID so as not to exascerbate what I already deal with. This year’s showed me just how much extra strains on my body can knock my capacity to function, and outside of kid-centric reasons this now scares me much more than whether I’d have a rough initial infection.

Hospitals are beginning to increase restrictions again now, and it’s also incredibly scary to think about giving birth in a plague-riddled environment where the poor staff are all exhausted and burnt out (or possibly ill). As I understand it my hospital thankfully hasn’t been banning partners so I wouldn’t have to be alone, but it’s just another factor on my mind whenever I hear “oh but it’s mild”.

🚀 Onward into 2022!

I’m currently trying to balance excitement and optimism with some realism about just how stressful this all is, and just how many things can (still!) go wrong.

I’m not even going to try to set goals for the year ahead. I honestly have no idea how I’ll feel at any stage, as having a child and being off work for an extended period will be entirely new to me. I’m going to do my best to take it all as it comes, but let’s see eh! Here’s to a hopefully all-round easier and happier year for everyone.