So here it is… the end of my 3 month sabbatical, today I return to the land of work. It’s been so good to take a break. Of course I’m very fortunate to be able to do it and not worry about the financing but I really believe that everyone should take an extended break like this. If nothing else, just to remind yourself who you are without work. I’ve learnt a lot about myself.
I think it’s only when I noticed how long it was taking me to wind down, that I realised just how tired, stressed, tightly wound and burnt out I really was. Something that I’m very conscious of going back to work, how to truly find a healthy balance between the demands of work and a global role, and not letting it become 90% of my life. How to form the boundaries I need…
I’ve had so many adventures over this last 12 weeks, lots of skiing, lots of outdoors, made tonnes of new friends and I hope, given back by enabling people with disabilities to get onto the mountains and enjoy the speed and freedom that comes with that. It was so refreshing to have such a clear sense of purpose about what I was doing, and I realised recently, to be free from from the usual self doubt and impostor syndrome that are my usual constant companions. I knew I was in the right place and could really help.
I’ve enjoyed meeting all these new people too. Sometimes I feel we can get stuck in our own echo chambers with the same kinds of people around us, so to meet so many people from different backgrounds and parts of the country was really wonderful. Working with a disability charity also puts a lot in perspective, the resilience and positivity of everyone I met was astounding. Hearing stories of their hardships and triumphs made my heart swell. Many lessons to be learned, and I hope to continue to spend time with them all.
I’m hoping that this break will allow me to come back into my role with precious fresh eyes, with some more objectivity and hopefully, once I’ve got used to being back into the routine, some new energy!
Taking time out for yourself may seem like a selfish luxury, but if you can’t be the best version of you for yourself, how can you hope to be that for others? So do it! Thank you ThoughtWorks for such a great opportunity and encouraging me to take this time.
If you’d like to see more of what I got up to on my break see these posts and these videos of my time with Disability Snowsports UK .
DSUK (disability snowsports UK) is a UK based charity whose mission it is to get everyone skiing no matter the mental or physical ability. They are based at dry slopes and snow domes all over the UK offering lessons to people with every kind of disability you can imagine, running local community groups and activity weeks where they take groups of mostly adults out to the mountains in Europe for a week-long skiing holiday.
I started volunteering for DSUK last year when I realised that I wanted to do some adaptive work during my sabbatical. My local group is in Hemel Hempstead, where, when I’ve had time, I’ve shadowed some lessons and often go to the once a month Sunday community group, where anyone who can get around the hill on their equipment on their own all ski together for a couple of hours. It’s normally total chaos and great fun! I’ve skied with people with lower spine injuries, autism, deafness and MS. I decided that the best way I could help them during my sabbatical, whilst still being in the mountains and not confined to Hemel Hempstead, was to go along to their activity weeks as a volunteer/helper. I have signed up for 4, which I think is pretty unusual! I did some adaptive skiing training back when I was learning to be a ski instructor but didn’t have time to renew all my qualifications and go as an instructor. So I was hoping that I could be a bonus person who can help out lots on snow because I have the experience. I think it’s mostly turning out to be true!
The first of the weeks I’m doing was in Niederau, Austria, and it was pretty intense as a helper, amazing… but intense. You get buddied up with one of the adaptive skiers, in my case I was paired with the lovely Bella, who is from Heidelberg, Germany and is completely blind. We hit it off immediately! Both of us had travelled separately from the group (me driving from Switzerland and her making it by train and taxi from Heidelberg), so we snuck in dinner on our own before the rest of the group showed up. I have never spent any time with anyone blind before, but it really was a privilege to get to know her. One thing that was extra special about this week for her was the friendship between her and her roommate Steph who is also blind. This was actually the first time they had physically met, having been friends for a few years via meeting on a Christian chat group, they seemed to have such a fun time together, navigating the slopes and experiencing lots of new things together.
My first task was to help Bella orient herself around the hotel, guiding her to the elevator, showing her where all the buttons were, describing hazards and milestones along the walk to the room, and then describing and showing her where everything was in the room. Bella was so gracious in helping me learn how I could help, and being as encouraging to me as I was being to her. For the first few days Alina (Steph’s helper) and I would meet the ladies at their room and guide them downstairs, but by the end of the week, they would beat Alina and me everywhere, having managed to get themselves coffee and food often!
From this point on everything became quite an adventure between the four of us. As it was a buffet style breakfast and salad bar in the evenings, Alina and I would load up their plates and describe where everything was on the plate (like a clock I learned!). Bella, Steph and I went on an adventure to the supermarket, pharmacy and bank. We were quite the sight navigating our way around in a small train of a trolley, me, Bella and then Steph. Everyone around us was giving us a nice clear path! I think that my pretty high level of empathy was really helpful, it helped me think about the types of things they might like to know or need and anticipate in advance. I came away from the week with my other senses (apart from sight) quite heightened, especially for sounds. Bella told me about how she and her friends make sound casts, recordings of lots of different sounds, and making a play or music out of it. All week I was listening out for the sounds of the mountains, so I could record them as memories for them or describe them later on. I tried to describe the views, and the houses in the town and the glittering you sometimes get on the snow in the right light.
“Hold on to me and we’ll bump into things together”
I had the best time getting to know Steph, Bella and Alina. There were some really special moments, like accompanying them to this tiny chapel that was at the top of the mountain and getting to watch them explore the place with their hands, how much belief they had in their faith and seeing the joy on their faces as they zoomed down the slopes. I got quite emotional many times just witnessing them getting on with what was totally normal for them, but astounding for me.
One of the first days that Steph and Bella managed to navigate their way from their room down to our table in the restaurant Steph offhandedly mentioned what she’d said to Bella to reassure her; “Hold on to me and we’ll bump into things together”. It blew me away with its poignancy and is a pretty good motto for any relationship I think. The courage of these ladies just astounds me. Not just with the skiing blind, which in itself is quite the remarkable feat, but with their independence, their resilience, and the trust that they are able to put in those around them to be as independent as they are. I’ve really loved learning how to help with VI people, something to think about for the future.
There were 12 adaptive skiers in total, some came with carers or family, some on their own. Many had been coming on this same trip for years and were well known amongst the hotel staff and around town. There was a range of disabilities, visually impaired, cerebral palsy, downs syndrome, epilepsy, learning disabilities…. But each and every one of them was so much fun, alarmingly positive about life and really lovely people. The helpers and ski instructors too, it was great to meet so many people from such different walks of life, all brought together with a love of skiing who want to help others experience that love too.
All the skiers would get either a morning or afternoon ski lesson, and the helpers got rotated around different people during the skiing or keeping an eye on things in the hotel, meaning that we all got to know each other well, more about each of the disabilities and the adaptive equipment and teaching styles that each person needed.
I skied a few days with Bella and her instructor Doug on and off. They kept the VI skiers with the same instructors all week so that they could build up trust and rapport. Bella has actually skied quite a lot, especially when younger but it had been 16 years since her last time on skis. She much preferred being totally independent and not being physically guided, she quickly got back her ski legs. She has a brilliant feel for the snow and the terrain, instinctively knowing when to turn and how sharply given the gradient to slow down. She would pick herself a corridor of 15 meters or so and off she went, doing lots of little turns, testing when to let the skis run and how much room she had, and how much speed she could safely pick up. I was often trailing behind her welling up at how amazing it was to witness. To start with Doug would ski behind her and just shout left or right, but by the end, Doug and I would ski down opposite edges of the run and just shout when Bella got too close to the edge, otherwise, off she skied. Totally amazing. My usual role when it came to the drag lifts was to go up ahead and then give Bella a warning when she was getting to the end and a “1,2,3 let go”. The progression throughout the week was pretty great.
I didn’t get to ski with Steph directly but we often were around her and her instructor Rosanna. Steph had only previously done a few lessons in Tamworth snowdome, so was more comfortable being guided by her instructor going down in front of her and holding on to the end of her ski poles. The button lift become Steph’s nemesis, often taking a tumble on it, one of the evenings she was as downtrodden as I was after having had a bad ski day the previous week! But she had cracked it by the last day and they gave her a few runs in a sit ski, you could hear the whooping and hollering from the other end of the nursery slopes!
Next up was Julia, she had come along with her sister Kate and their full-time carers. They had both been on this trip a few times and seemed to know the drill. As you can see from the video Julia permanently had a smile plastered on her face, and would often get to the bottom of the slopes exclaiming “didn’t I do well!”. On her first run of the week, at the top, she told us how she was feeling nervous… she skied literally 3 feet before telling us that it was all good now and that she really was quite good. She loved that my middle name was Julia, and talked my ear off non-stop about her house, her family, her friends, her pets. We had one morning where she retold word for word this whole book that she’d had read to her, probably many times, when she was 8 (some 35 years previously!). I could barely remember what I had for breakfast. She loved counting how many runs and turns she’d done and then telling anyone who would listen over dinner.
Her younger sister Kate isn’t as full sentence chatty as Julia, but there are a few things that she really loves. Harry Potter, Tigger and ABBA. My knowledge of Harry Potter was nothing in comparison to Kate. We would ski about yelling “Gryffindor” or “Hermione”. I even put my annoyance at ABBA aside and we went down the whole run playing “Dancing Queen” out loud whilst singing and dancing. She also does the most amazing impression of the Tigger growl (watch the video!), that most of us spent the whole week trying to master but didn’t have much luck. Karen her instructor used ski poles held against Kate’s hips to help her turn when she needed it. It had never dawned on me to manipulate (very gently) someone’s hips like that. Only the slightest pressure and it would make turning much easier for Kate. Genius. Kate is also a total whizz at Jigsaw puzzles.
Edward was one of the three people on the trip with Down’s Syndrome. He is a real gentleman. A really kind, quiet and diligent soul who would listen attentively to his ski instructor and do everything was was suggested. He was parallel skiing and pole planting like a pro by the end of the week. I was sat next to him on the official Apres Ski bar afternoon, and we had a lot of fun dancing. He could always be found relaxing with his book of word searches and exactly where he was meant to be 5 mins early.
Ian is both visually impaired and in a wheelchair, and has a wicked sense of humour, that between him and his ski instructor Ross I would often have to close my delicate(!) ears to as they wound each other up. Ian used a bi-ski, which is a sit ski with two skis underneath, and he and Ross were working on how to get him to the point where he could independently get himself in and out of the sit-ski and around the hill. They also used a headset so that Ross could call turns to him as they were tethering (the things that look like reigns) down the hill. My job as helper was to mostly pack and unpack all the ropes that you need whenever you are going up on a drag lift. You attach the quick release end to the t-bar or button, wrap another layer around the ski instructor behind the sit ski, and then the lift would pull everyone up the hill. When getting to the top the ski instructor then pulls the quick release which lets go of the button and they slide off gracefully. There’s a total technique to putting all the ropes away and setting up the quick release properly, every time we got to the top safely and the quick release actually released I would rejoice that I hadn’t screwed anything up!
Talking of which, I did one session with the same instructor and Alex, a young 21-year-old with cerebral palsy who also used the sit ski. Super into music and also a wicked sense of humour, he’ came along with his Dad on the trip. This was to be the day of my first attempt to take a sit ski up a t-bar with someone in it. I had practised with a sit-ski a few times in Hemel Hempstead when we had some volunteer training session over the summer, but we practised on each other, and it’s hardly a mountain. I was pretty nervous, and Alex was game, we got onto the lift ok, and were maybe 3 feet from the top, when my body reacted before my brain (or the other way around) and I pulled the quick release, meaning we promptly started sliding backwards rather than forwards, thankfully my instinct kicked in and I managed to steer us backwards and sideways to safety fairly quickly, nearly having a heart attack in the process. It was good to know that I could handle the situation safely, and the instructor Ross reassured me. Alex got another run out of it so he was happy, and I had another go and we all made it to the top that time. I needed a large alcoholic beverage afterwards!
I didn’t manage to ski with everyone, but it was great sticking to some of the same people so I could see them progress through the week. It was a very intense week with little downtime but very fulfilling getting to work with such great people and being a small part of enabling such joy in a sport that I love too. The inclusivity that no matter what your mental or physical ability, we can all get out and enjoy the feeling of sliding around on snow, is so special. What a lovely, lovely bunch of people and an awesome charity for bringing us all together. Here’s to 3 more activity weeks over the next couple of months.
Once you’ve been at ThoughtWorks for 10years you earn a 12 week paid sabbatical. It’s such an amazing privilege that I’m very grateful for.
There aren’t any specific guidelines about what you should do with those 12 weeks other than to encourage you to do something to enrich the life of yourself and others.
So here we are on my official first day of my sabbatical and I’m really looking forward to refreshing and rejuvenating my mind, and going on some adventures.
Because I’m me… I’ve packed a tonne in! So I’m trying to scale back all the other side hopes I have and just enjoy the time. And of course… it mostly revolves around skiing.
So what’s on the agenda?
I’m currently in St Lucia with the husband, reading, snorkelling, relaxing, trying not to get sunburnt (whoops) !
A week in Verbier at a women’s ski performance camp with my lovely friend Lindsay. We trained to be ski instructors together back in the day.
I’m doing four weeks of volunteering during activity weeks for DSUK Disabled Skiing UK. A lovely group that I’ve been spending time with over the last 6 months. 2 weeks in Neiderau in Austria and 2 weeks in Arinsal in Andorra
Bucket list item #1 – going to watch the World Cup Ski Racing in Kitzbühel
Usual family ski week in Flumserberg
Bucket list item #2 – hopefully getting to see the Northern Lights on a trip Iceland with my mum
Ending with going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the west end!
It’s going to be an adventure for sure! Here’s to switching off from work, resting, rejuvenating and feeding my soul.
Unbelievably, yesterday was the 10 year anniversary of when I joined ThoughtWorks.
It blows my mind that a whole decade has passed since the first day I walked into our London office with Becky and Val, as a recent graduate, as we hid in the kitchen, too nervous to join our new colleagues on the desks.
When I think about it, 23 to 33 is such a formative time in your life. I’ve grown up here. This will sound cheesy but ThoughtWorks has not only taught me how to be a software engineer, a coach, a leader but I think it’s almost definitely taught be how to be a better person. I may not be the biggest social and economic justice activist that I‘m sure our founder Roy would love us all to be. But I proudly call myself a feminist, I understand my privilege, I value diversity, equality and equity for all, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of those socialist liberal values have rubbed off on me too.
My journey with ThoughtWorks has been pretty up and down (especially at the beginning!), and my path has been wonderfully winding. But turns out moving to Canada 6 weeks in gave me life long friends, a pretty awesome husband, chances to work with and become friends with two of my current colleagues (I can’t beleive that Mike and Rebecca you’ve seen me grow up here). Chicago gave me more awesome people and experiences, and coming back to London the same.
A wise ex-colleague of mine Warren said as he was leaving that “as long as you are getting opportunities to grow and learn and do interesting work, stay and enjoy this amazing place”. He was right, and I still am.
I’ve had so many great opportunities and experiences through my time at ThoughtWorks, worked in and travelled to many far flung countries, gotten to speak at conferences and met, learnt from and become friends with amazing people from all kinds of backgrounds. I hope that I’ve left a positive impact on those who I’ve crossed paths with too.
The first time I met ThoughtWorks, I travelled up to London from Devon to attend a graduate open day, when my step dad picked me up from the train on the way home, he asked me what it had been like and my response was “well…. they are all totally crazy, but they are so passionate about what they do, I think I’ll fit in perfectly”. Still so true today, and I’m pretty happy to count myself amount them.
So many memories, so many laughs and quite a lot of gin later I often think that ThoughtWorks years are like dog years, 1 year here is like 3 somewhere else, and I’m feeling all those years. So…. here’s to us ThoughtWorks and all the wondberfullly crazy people I’ve met along the way, may we look forward to a few more.
This is a format that we used when I was working with my Leadership Coach Stacey Sargent. I use it often and have found that it normally leads to an insightful, constructive discussion, and it’s so much more interesting than “what did I do well and what can I do better”.
Strengths based feedback:
(a) what do I do really well that I should capitalise on more, and never stop doing?
(b) If I shift one thing, that would be the biggest leverage point, what would I focus on?
I’ve found that in part (a), people often come up with things that you take for granted and “just do without thinking”, but actually, these are your super powers, you should embrace them and build on them. You might also find that people point out reasons that they value you that you wouldn’t have even noticed or realised.
Part (b) is about what can you focus on to grow. I like the word “leverage”, to me it implies that sometimes the smallest adjustment can have the biggest difference. What is that one thing? Maybe it’s some new behaviour that you haven’t shown before, maybe its building on something that you are already strong in, but taking it to the next level. Notice also that it doesn’t use the word ‘change’, but instead “shift”, which seems like a much more reasonable ask.
The other thing I love about this is it is written in the style of a conversation. Rather than writing feedback in a way for others to consume, it is written to the person you are giving feedback to. I feel it changes the tone of the feedback and becomes much easier to write and to consume.
Love to hear if you’ve used a format like this before and how you got on?
Often at ThoughtWorks we will be asked to help train and up-skill the client’s team members whilst we co-deliver projects. We call this enablement. These are some lessons that I learnt whilst being an agile coach and from having 1:1 coaching sessions with clients, that are worth thinking about if find yourself on the “consulting” or “coaching” side of a relationship.
Tip #1: Understand the expectations from the start
What kind of engagement is it?
Think about what kind of situation you are in. Are you there to “just deliver x”? Are you working closely with a client team? Are you there in more of a coaching or consulting capability? It could be something anywhere along that spectrum. Wherever you land on that spectrum there will always be some degree of influencing, education and support of the client needed. You will need to bring people along with you, whether it’s a single stakeholder or a team of developers, this to me, is enablement.
Pick technologies and techniques that the client can support
More often than not, we will be leaving behind some software or hardware that we are expecting the client to be able to maintain or support to some degree. Really think about this when picking technologies, designing your software, and evolving your process. How different is this to what the client has done before? What are their core skills in, and what’s reasonable progress from that? Often the newest, coolest techniques are not going to be easily learnable in the time that we have with them. Think about your choices and don’t leave them with something they won’t be able to look after. Do the right thing by the client.
Talk about it often
At an account level, make sure you talk about what degree of enablement you are expecting, ensure that it’s planned in from the start, and check that you are progressing, revisit decisions and assumptions regularly.
Tip #2: Put yourself in their shoes
Work on courage and confidence
People’s confidence can often take a huge hit when they are transitioning to a new skill set. For example between waterfall and agile or from one technology to another. Until the person can work out how to adapt their current skills to meet the needed skills, they can often feel like they have no skills at all, they might feel they no longer have anything to bring the table and that they are the only ones feeling like this. Multiply this phenomenon by the fact that it’s not just one new thing thing they are experiencing, it could be their whole working environment, how they collaborate, how they contribute, the people round them and it can spiral quickly. It is really hard to stay confident and courageous with all this going on. At the beginning focus on doing everything you can to help people grow in confidence and courage, so that they can throw themselves into learning.
Consider learning agility
Learning Agility, the ability to learn, adapt, and apply ourselves in constantly morphing conditions, is something that as consultants, is a required skill. In some larger, more traditional environments, this is not something that employees have a chance to practice and develop often, so their learning agility levels might be quite low. This doesn’t mean they can’t learn, but that the process might be a lot slower that someone who is more practiced. It’s quite a different mindset, so think about how reasonable it is that we expect someone with lower learning agility to “just pick up” tens of new tools and practices at a fast pace. Really think about how patient you are being, slow down, cover basics and practice fundamentals often. It takes time to develop the skills of learning, but helping people build these skills can make such a radical difference in the future.
Show your vulnerability
It can be very intimidating to learn from an “expert”, someone might feel like this “expert” can do no wrong, that they never make mistakes, that they are always confident, that you don’t have anything to add. Try sharing stories of times that you have struggled to pick things up, or situations you have felt scared in. We all feel unconfident at times, admit that to them, you’ll see a massive difference. Make sure to ASK for their input don’t just expect them to speak up without encouragement.
Make sure you cover the basics
Don’t forget to cover the basics, explain the dynamics and responsibilities when pairing, cover basic TDD and red, green, refactor, go into the finer details of how to write stories and plan work. Always remember to explain WHY. Keep repeating this basics, when you are new to anything it takes a lot of mileage and repetition until you start to understand the nuances.
Tip #3: Get to know the people you are working with
Rapport is one of the most important things when coaching. There needs to be trust and respect between both parties. You might want to ask how they got into what they do, what their experience is at the company, find out what they do for fun, look for common ground.
Talk about goals and aspirations
Take time to ask and listen about what their goals and aspirations are, you are more likely to find you have a motivated pair if you can help find them opportunities that they would enjoy. One idea that someone had which I thought was great, at the start of pairing or at the start of the day the pair should talk about what learning or knowledge they want to gain out of the activity. This will help you work out when to take more time over particular concepts, and when it’s ok to go at a higher level of understanding.
Value them and their skills
It doesn’t matter what experience or background people have, everyone has skills to offer, everyone will bring different perspectives. Your clients will have the best domain knowledge, and they know their own systems better than anyone. They are software professionals, probably with a lot of experience. Value and embrace this diversity in thinking.
Open the feedback conversation
It’s important to create an environment where feedback is encouraged and accepted. This might not be something that currently exists, it is our job to create that space. Make it a place where they are comfortable enough to be able to feedback to you about how they learn and what helps them.
I hope that you have been able to take away some tips that you can apply in your next enablement situation. Please reach out to those around you and ask for help, and make sure the team is talking about enablement and how it is progressing. Developing the empathetic skills I’ve talked about above will make a huge difference in creating a successful enablement situation.
Most of that year was spent commuting back and forth to Glasgow from London each week for ThoughtWorks. I was working with a client up there from late April 2014 to early March this year, first as a developer and then as an Agile Coach, leading the enablement stream on a transformation programme. It was the most amazing experience being a full time coach again and has given me lots of fodder to share my learnings and ideas around. Scotland is beautiful and I made some great new friends and colleagues. Stay tuned.
I’m now back based in London, and have taken on a new role, working in a supporting role to the senior techie groups at ThoughtWorks and our CTO. So far it’s been fascinating, and am looking forward to getting into that more. One of the things that I have just put together in that role is this, the ThoughtWorks Technology Radar! More about that at some point.
I’ve been back for another round of amazing leadership coaching from Stacey Sargent of Connect Growth and Development, it was my last session today, and really made me realise that I should get back to writing. So will be working on a round up of my learnings soon.
Oh, I’ve been in a book! My good friend and colleague wrote a book called “Talking with Tech Leads” which is a bunch of interviews and insights from tech leads on various stages of their journeys. One of them is me!
I’ve been on some fun trips, we spent Christmas with the Canadian half of our family, got lots of skiing in, had weekends up in Scotland, sunny weekends in Devon, hung out in Munch and Venice last autumn, friend’s weddings, and just got back from my first time to South America, I spent a week working in São Paulo, Brazil.
I ran my first 10K race and even spent and evening learning Curling (it was amazing, do it!)…
So, here’s to making the space to returning to blogging!