Half-term with COVID travel restrictions in place. It feels like everyone is trying to find somewhere quiet to get away from it all. At the same time.
There's ways to avoid the crowds and still enjoy the best the UK can offer at the end of May. Which for us means a 3am start, driving though the dawn to arrive at Stonehenge for the 5:30am shuttle up to the stones. It's a beautiful warm morning. Our group of 20 or so other early risers are greeted by a couple of skylarks as we walk across the dewy grass. With a quiet reverence we move amongst the stones. The hour passes quickly and before we know it we are back in the car park feeling dazed and ready for breakfast.
As we leave the roads are already filling up with the holiday traffic. People passing through to Devon and Cornwall, but we aren't heading quite so far. We fill-up with a breakfast deluxe and then head up the Tor.
In the afternoon the A-roads are thronged with cars. We soon swing off to our campsite, quietly tucked between the Quantocks and the coast. For once on one of our camping trips, the sun shines none stop. We hang out with family. Potter about quiet lanes. Grab ice-creams.
At the end of the day we sit out round the fire. Talking until late in the evening and wondering why people drive through Somerset instead of stopping here.
I've always been interested in boats without actually spending much time on the water. Born by the seaside, my dad had worked in the customs on the Humber. I had plenty of childhood stories of jumping from ship to ship on rummage crews. As a child I devoured Swallows & Amazons, reading the series again and again. But apart from the occasional ferry to Arran I didn't really spend much time afloat.
I did convince my parents to let me try some dinghy sailing. But the romance of sailing wore off in the cold of a Sunday morning on Hollingworth Lake. I was clearly destined to be a landlubber.
Years later, I managed to spend some time commuting along the Thames by the underused river boat service. From Greenwich to Charing Cross on the clipper. Then if the connection ran to time you could transfer to a small boat down to Chelsea. This seemed like a hidden service. A chap called Peter at the helm who seemed to be straight out of a Graham Greene novel. He'd tell you about what was "app-nin on the river" or ignore you as the small boat nipped along the grey Thames.
A few years ago we moved to rural Northamptonshire. As far from the sea as it's possible to live in the UK. At first glance without much in the way of waterways to need anything more than a pair of wellies to navigate by. Firmly landlubber territory.
However, on our annual trips to Scotland I started to do some sea kayaking. Inspired at first by Nick Ray in Tobermory. Then with the family paddling round Castlebay. I rediscovered the quiet joy of travelling under my own steam by Kayak.
Like most people our horizons have been a little closer to home in 2020. We've managed to keep this going on the more sedate waters of the Nene and The Broads. The odd bit of portage aside it's a pretty relaxing way to spend a day as a family. It opens up the landscape and wildlife in it's own unique way.
At the moment it’s not possible to get away so we’ve reverted to make believe adventures and camping in the garden. And somehow it works. Not a substitute for a real night under canvas, but it turns out some of the effects are the same.
As night falls and we hunker down in the sleeping bags, the sounds of the village seem amplified. The owls in the trees down by the old fish ponds sound like they are perched on the guy ropes. At one point in the night I’m convinced there’s a pair of foxes in the porch of the tent. Then in the morning as the dark fades the cacophony of the dawn chorus jolts us awake. We wriggle and turn, then drift back off to sleep in the warming tent.
Over breakfast thoughts turn to some of our favourite camping spots. That one on Barra that overlooks the perfect hebridean beach. The one with the wild horses in the new forest. I remember some of the places I’ve pitched a tent. From the top of alpine climbs to midge infested sites by the lake at Coniston.
There’s something about a night in a tent. No matter how broken the sleep, it slows you down and gives you a different perspective. I only wish we’d chosen a warmer weekend to get started this year.
A late autumn day, and despite the bright sun, the temperature is only a few degrees above freezing. A day for full winter cycling kit. Belgian style merino hat, long bib tights, windstopper jacket. It's a Monday and I've got a few hours free. Plodding along the quiet back roads that zig-zag across this part of Northamptonshire. Single track in places. Almost car free, except for some farm traffic.
I'm not going far, just looping through local villages. They are places I know well, but usually by car and as always you see a different place on the bike. The hills seem steeper (of course) and the red-brown fields on the other side of the hedgerows look heavy. Waterlogged and uninviting.
The rain gets heavier. It's time to head for home, luckily I'm not more than a few miles away from a warm shower and hot drink. I get my head down, peddling in the small ring, almost home.
Heading north again, as we do every summer. Mirroring the paths of the migrating birds who also head for the islands. They travel far more efficiently than we do, laden as we are with tents, stoves and a collection of coats and hats. They soar on the wing, using the motorway thermals and road kill for their own ends. As we trundle north, in a queue near Preston (always Preston), I envy the lightweight ease of the birds overhead.
But the roads do open up and we find ourselves by harbour in Oban, watching the ferry’s come and go. The familiar queue at the seafood shack snaking it’s way along the quayside. It’s become a familiar routine, the slow ferry queue and the dash for essentials that we might not be able to get on the island (food, drink and a haul of books) but the excitement is always the same.
Finally we are away. Despite already being on the road for a couple of days, it’s only now the holiday feels like it’s begun. The ferry slides up the Sound of Mull, past the Lismore lighthouse, which is always a marker for our trips this way. Then beyond Duart Castle and the brief glimpse of Tobermory as we head for open water. We swing away from Mull and a school of dolphin jump in the swell below the boat. The four of us (not to mention the dog) settle down to another few hours on the ferry, broken by expeditions round the deck and fetch provisions from the CalMac cafe.
The boat slows as we find the slightly smoother water and shelter of Castlebay. We shake the tiredness out of our legs and join the cluster of passengers in the afternoon sunshine to watch the castle come into view. Low clouds hang over the little town, and in the distance we get our first glance of the white sand beaches of the Island.
Over the next week those white sand beaches will be our daily destination for a swim or to launch a “sit on top” kayak. Afterwards in the photos the water will look fake, too blue to be real.
All that is yet to come as we dash down to the car deck. Our thoughts turn to the camping gear crammed into the car, and the drive past the beach runway of Barra airport up to the campsite at Scurrival which will be our temporary island home.
That moment when you let go of the saddle and instead of swerving off to the left or right they glide forwards, feet whirring almost in a blur.
When our eldest Vi learned to ride her bike, it was a slow and painful process. I’d bought a heavy old bike off eBay. At that the time we lived at the end of a cul-de-sac. On a Sunday morning we’d go out and try to get her riding on her own, but it usually ended up in both of us getting frustrated. Bike on the floor. Tears. Shouting. She can ride her bike now. We soon got rid of that clunky old bike for something more lightweight and easy to manoeuvre.
A few years on and it’s Hazel’s turn. Full of gung-ho enthusiasm to emulate her sister. We don’t live on the ‘banjo’ anymore, instead there’s a few quiet village roads which have served as good training. Hazel wobbling along with me running alongside. Grabbing the saddle as she veers towards the curb. Almost there, but not quite.
Easter time and we are away on holiday, staying on the old Stanegate. There’s some traffic during the day to the Roman fort of Vindolanda, but after closing time there’s no traffic at all. After a few test runs she’s racing up and down the Roman road.
Over the next few days we find a few different routes. A disused railway in Kielder Forest and a dedicated trail at Wallington. But it's the deserted Roman Road each evening that's the favourite.
It's taken me a while to come to this realisation, but I've spent a huge chunk of my life trying to achieve things with teams. Sports teams, software teams, bands, orchestras, actors and product teams. To be fair not all of these notional teams have been successful - but when they work well, teams are awesome.
It's a cliche to say that "being a team player" is important at work. Most of the time this is just a platitude for people who don't rock the boat. A way of saying that the person in question is no trouble. I don't always buy into this team of mates dynamic.
To continue the cricketing viewpoint, Mike Brierley, arguably the greatest exponent of captaincy and understanding the psychology of teams sums it up nicely "If individualists are too powerful, too divisive and too selfish, the team suffers. If they run riot, the notion of team scarcely exists. At the other extreme, some teams can become flat, conformist and dull. Far from running riot, individuality is suppressed."
It's not always easy to identify the right group dynamic from the inside, never mind on the outside. In my experience it's one of the reasons why agencies often struggle with consistently casting high performance teams. Even if resourcing is operating beyond the principle of "availability as a skillset", the people making the decisions when pulling together new project teams are on the outside, and from there the signals of a genuinely good team are almost impossible to detect. In an agency it can sometimes feels like the approach is "We've got this project team performing really well. Now we've delivered everything we should break the team up and make sure this group of individuals never work together again".
More people doesn't have to mean your people. As the number of integrations, partners and vendors increase the time cost of managing, motivating and co-ordinating all these different folks can have a significant impact. A small team that has many thrd-party integrations doesn't just have a scope challenge, it also has team management challenge as well.
Perhaps this is the ultimate team challenge - when the team in question isn't just your team, but other teams as well.
It often starts with a sigh. Away from work you hear the obvious sound of frustration when an app or service doesn’t work as expected or crashes at a critical moment. As more and more of our lives are mediated through different glass rectangles, the expectations and importance of delivering brilliant, scalable and reliable experiences on those devices grows.
Which means in practice that the numbers of people involved in creating and engineering the apps and services that people rely on are inevitably large. One of the challenges for people like myself responsible for delivering the software to make all this happen is that with so many people involved how do you create an environment that delivers high quality software and services.
It’s a bit of a management speak truism that everyone on a project is “on the same team”, but in practice that’s not really possible. For some of the global projects I’m working on at Huge, there’s often over 100 folks involved, with a large percentage of these made up of engineers in variety of locations. We have a common objective but in practice we are many teams.
Where location does play a factor is often around balancing time zone coverage so that there’s enough people in each location to ensure effective collaboration. There’s no point adding a single developer with almost no time overlap with anyone else on the project.
However, in practice the amount of overlap doesn’t always have the positive effect people might think. Complex engineering problems require deep focus and an environment that reduces interruption in addition to cross discipline collaboration. The reality of a distributed team is that at some point of the day there are times when there’s fewer people online. Which correlates with fewer interruptions.
Would I choose to have the engineering teams scattered across the planet if it was possible to have everyone in one building. Probably not, but the reality of the work is that this isn’t really possibly, and in practice it’s not the most important piece of the puzzle.