Think before you write, never write before you think…

Last weekend, Sonja McLaughlan – a reporter for BBC Sport – was hit with a barrage of abuse on Twitter for her interviews following the England-Wales Rugby international – see here and here.  The BBC, and others, rightly defended her and have also pointed out  that ‘abuse for doing your job is not OK’.  This struck a chord with the Badger because last week he was horrified to see many abusive and defamatory comments appear on a social media platform in response to a post applauding Chris Whitty – the UK’s Chief Medical Officer – for his work during the pandemic.  That social media platform was not Facebook.  Nor was it Twitter. It was LinkedIn.

The Badger, who is always careful about what he contributes on social media platforms, decided to conduct an experiment. He posted a comment to the LinkedIn Chris Whitty thread simply pointing out that it was a sad day for society and LinkedIn itself when abusive and defamatory comments are made about a man who is just doing his job!  The comment triggered a response suggesting that the vast majority agreed, but it also triggered a higher ‘rant return’ than the Badger expected!  ‘Welcome to your professional community’ is the strapline on the landing page to login to LinkedIn on the web. The word ‘professional’ implies a community that upholds standards and respect. We should remember this when contributing on this platform if we want to preserve its value.    

Everyone, of course, is entitled to air their opinions, but the Badger this should be done respectfully and never in an abusive or defamatory manner. Social media platforms in general have become part of the personal critical infrastructure of many people, but they cause enormous problems in the realms of proliferating hate, manipulation, misinformation, and so on.   Trolling is everywhere, and, as the Center for Countering Digital Hate has neatly summarised, society faces many challenges in the online world.  Simon Jenkins  recent Guardian article entitled ‘Chris Whitty’s abuse is a symptom of social media out of control’  also makes many points about social media that are hard to disagree with. When it is not okay to abuse footballers on the football field, to abuse a colleague in the workplace, to be discriminatory, to write salacious things that are unlawful in newspapers, why do we tolerate the opposite on social media platforms?  The answer is simple; we shouldn’t.  Free speech – which existed in Western democracies way before the advent of social media platforms – is not an argument for the rampant abuse and the defamation of anyone.

The key word in LinkedIn’s ‘Welcome to your professional community’  is professional. If you cannot express your contributions and opinions respectfully then it rather suggests that you, and possibly the company you represent, are part of the problem. Think before you write, never write before you think!   

Promises of certainty…

One funny moment  in the Badger’s career – and, believe me, there were many – occurred in a highly confrontational business meeting. The prime contractor, a multi-national engineering project management organisation, had summoned senior executives from their supplier to explain the continual delay in delivering key systems and software on the critical path of the prime’s entire programme.  The meeting, led by the prime’s UK General Manager, was attended by ~20 people made up of ~15 from the prime and  5  from the supplier.  The supplier – the Badger’s employer – was represented by their UK Managing Director (MD) and senior leaders, one of whom was the Badger.

From the outset of the session, the prime’s UK General Manager was in transmit mode. The ferocity of their tirade about the supplier’s failings was relentless and uncomfortable. It felt like facing into a hurricane!  After ~20 minutes, the General Manager ended their rant by slapping the table, demanding a guarantee that the supplier would get back on track to meet the overall programme’s dates, and picking up their mug of coffee for a drink.  

The Badger’s MD instantly responded with ‘If you want a guarantee then go see your doctor who will tell you that the only guarantee in life is that one day you will die’. The General Manager shuddered causing the mug of coffee to slip from their hand. Their clumsy attempts to recover only led to the mug spinning through the air spraying its contents over themselves, their papers, and their adjacent colleagues. On the supplier side of the table, we could barely contain our laughter!

 A short timeout was called to sort out the mess, refresh spoiled papers, and recover composure.  When the meeting resumed, the Badger’s MD took the initiative with ‘In programme delivery there are never really any guarantees, and you should know that. There are now two choices; either you persist in demanding guarantees from us – in which case we are leaving and we will see you in court – or we can have a sensible and mutually respectful discussion about solving problems. Which is it?’ Common sense prevailed. 

It was listening to a well-known journalist asking for guarantees while interviewing a politician about the COVID-19 pandemic that triggered this memory. There is, of course, a ritual gamesmanship played out between journalists and politicians in interviews, but it seems rather stupid for journalists to flog a dead horse by asking for guarantees when most of the general public can see that no one can provide any promise of certainty in this pandemic. One day a politician might just tell a journalist that if they want a guarantee then they should go see their doctor! Unlikely, but funny if it happened. The lesson from this is, of course, to tread very, very carefully if you are asked if you can guarantee something. Never answer with a clear cut, definitive ‘Yes’!

One in more than 15 million…

Way back in 2006, the Badger and a colleague instigated an annual ‘BAFTA’ style awards evening to recognise the successes of our company’s delivery and technical staff. Making the case for having such an event was straightforward because the sales community already had one, and the delivery and technical community had the biggest number of employees and deserved recognition because they did the real work that generated company profits! The first event, with Richard Hammond from Top Gear as a guest, proved a huge success.   

Those that do things always deserve to have their successes properly recognised. This point was at the forefront of the Badger’s mind as he left an NHS Vaccination Centre last Friday after becoming one of more than fifteen million UK people who have received their first COVID vaccination jab. At 5pm last Thursday, the Badger received an unexpected call from the local Health Centre to schedule an appointment for the jab. The appointment was made for the jab to be administered at a ~1000-seater concert venue serving as a vaccination hub on Friday at 5:15pm, 24 hours later.  

On Friday, the Badger arrived in good time and was immediately impressed. Everything from car parking, temperature checks, registration on arrival, guidance leaflets, socially distanced waiting arrangements, vaccination cubicles, and the monitoring for immediate side effects before leaving, was awesomely simple, well organised, and worked like clockwork. As someone whose career centred on programme and project delivery, the Badger found himself instinctively sensing that this programme is not only well thought through, but also being executed by passionate, professional, and caring people who want to succeed and know what they have to do.    

Musing on the way home afterwards, the Badger decided that this programme warrants delivery and technology ‘BAFTA’ awards like those mentioned above! It is not, after all, politicians, media pundits, or social media influencers who make delivery programmes a success, it’s the good people behind the scenes with no media profile who are doing the real work.  Those doing the planning and tracking, the IT, administration, vaccine manufacturing, logistics, marshalling the car parks, and the army of volunteers, all deserve our thanks and recognition, regardless of whether they work in the NHS or for its suppliers.

The Badgers sure that whatever bumps in the road lay ahead with this vaccination programme, they will be overcome if the politicians keep to its current objectives and approach. The fact that more than 15 million people have had a jab so far also shows that the British people have not lost their mojo, common-sense, or ‘can do, will do’ attitude. When  public organisations, commercial companies, and the British people work together to get things done then they are truly a force to be reckoned with…and long may that continue.

A dot on a magic quadrant…

A friend and ex-colleague Skyped for a chat over a virtual coffee. We touch base regularly to chew the fat, reminisce, and chat about whatever comes to mind in the world of IT.  As soon as we connected, the friend apologised for the background noise from their two children, both under five years old. The Badger chuckled. Working from home may be the new normal, but the presence of young kids does not make it easy! 

Until a year ago, the friend worked for a big corporate. However, they left to join the leadership team in a small, specialist, fast-growing, software company.  One of the topics that came up in our conversation was Gartner’s Magic Quadrant . The topic arose because their company has been debating whether they would benefit from appearing on one of Gartner’s widely used grids.  Gartner,  a research and advisory company founded in 1979, has  annual revenues of over ~$US 4 billion from its consultancy, publication, and conference activities. It is influential across the IT industry, but not without controversy –  see, for example, here. There have been lawsuits from smaller companies – see here, for example – but these have failed because the courts view Gartner’s quadrants as ‘opinion’.

The Badger was asked his opinion about whether the friend’s small but dynamic  company  would benefit from appearing on one of Gartner’s grids. The Badger’s reply centred on three things. Firstly, that had always been suspicious of companies that crowed about their Gartner Magic Quadrant positioning in their marketing!  Secondly, that Gartner is itself a very big business and not immune to pressures from its clients if it wanted to preserve the scale of its revenues. Many of its clients will also appear in its  Magic Quadrants.  Thirdly, the published grids are – as the courts seem to accept – opinions derived from Gartner’s own methodology. Alternative  opinions from much smaller analysts using different, but equally valid methodologies, exist.

The Badger told his friend that, in his opinion, they should not worry about Gartner grids. Instead, they should continue to concentrate on innovating their software offerings, delivering them on-time and profitably, and achieving high levels of client satisfaction.  After all, the real benefit to the company and the real value to the client lies  in having a reliable delivery engine room, not in being a dot on someone’s ‘opinion’ grid.

The Badger’s friend nodded, thanked him for his opinion, and said their internal discussions were moving in a similar direction, with only the marketing man an outlier. The friend’s three year old then arrived, climbed onto their parent’s knee call, waved at the Badger, and asked if they could have a laptop. Not yet, was the response. The Skype session then ended abruptly because the youngster had hit the power button.  Kids – just one of the perils of working at home!

It’s impossible to live without failing at something…

As the young graduate entered the room, the Badger sensed there was something on wrong. The Badger’s project was the youngster’s second assignment since joining the company after University and they were doing well, showing plenty of potential, and doing their work on time and to a high standard. As they pulled a chair away from the table to sit down, however, their demeanour and body language were broadcasting that there was a problem.  

‘What’s the problem?’, the Badger asked. The youngster was a little emotional and announced that completion of a key task given to them by their team leader would be delayed.  The task was on the critical path and so the whole project would be delayed.  The youngster’s team leader had insisted that they tell the Badger this personally. The Badger gently chuckled, mainly to ease the youngster’s upset, but also to mask his annoyance with the youngster’s team leader! The youngster, who had expected an angry outburst, relaxed, and a sensible discussion ensued during which it emerged that their failure to complete a work task on time coincided with the failure of a relationship in their private life. They were emotional because they felt that their failure would blight their career with the company forever. 

The Badger provided reassurance, told them that everyone fails, and mentioned something that Marilyn Monroe once said – ‘Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything’.  Quite why this quote came to mind remains a mystery to this day! Nevertheless, the youngster left in a better frame of mind, discussions took place with their team leader, and a way was found to keep the project on track. The Badger has seen the youngster a number of times as their career unfolded. Every time they have thanked him for the Marilyn Monroe quote because it made them realise they should never be afraid of failure. The Badger is very pleased to have been some help, especially as the youngster now successfully runs their own company! Their team leader at the time is still a team leader. 

Failure of one kind or another pervades much of what you can read online in today’s shrill, immediate, globally connected world. It would be easy to get depressed about the state of everything, but we should not despair! Instead, we should remember the wise words of the  Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.’    These words are as true for governments, institutions, and corporations as they are for individuals.  Never let failure get you down or become your norm. Failure is something every organisation and every person encounters, and dealing with it makes you stronger and more likely to succeed in the future.   

Safety on ‘Smart’ Motorways is no laughing matter…

The Badger has laughed a lot recently; not due to being stir crazy because of the pandemic, but because nearly everything he read online has shown that the world is fast becoming just a comic book! One item that caused a guffaw, and which illustrates just how ridiculous things are becoming, was a complaint to the BBC about the use of the phrase nitty-gritty’ by their political commentator Laura Kuenssberg. Surely no one’s cause is ever going to be furthered by complaining about the inoffensive use of phrases which our forefathers contributed to any language decades ago?  The complaint was rejected by the BBC.  Hip, hip, hurray! Someone has pushed back in a small way on the stupidities that are pervading society. Err, no offence intended, but the Badger also laughed when he saw that common phrases like ‘blacklist’, ‘master-slave’, ‘uppity’, ‘black mark’, ‘sold down the river’, ‘long time no see’, ‘no can do’ and ‘Hip, hip, hurray’ may also in the sights of the hand-wringing brigade.     

Another thing that made the Badger laugh was the kerfuffle around the language used in the 1971 ‘Dad’s Army’ film, some of its TV series episodes, and even old TV favourites of ‘Little Britain’ and John Cleese’s ‘Fawlty Towers’. The biggest laugh, however, happened on seeing that eBay banned the sale of an old Dad’s Army board game for inciting racial hatred.  The world has gone truly mad! The Badger also laughed at Google threatening to withdraw its search engine from Australia. For all Google’s bombast about liberty and freedom, this fracas shows that the company has no respect for the democratic processes and interests of nations.  Good on you Australia, give them both barrels!

There was one topic, however, that stopped the Badger’s laughter in its tracks, namely that of safety on Smart Motorways. A coroner’s finding that Smart Motorways pose an ongoing risk of future deaths  and a Police Chief’s view that Smart Motorways are inherently unsafe mean that drivers should be worried. The UK’s first motorways opened between 1958 and the early 1960s when there were ~5 million cars on UK roads. They were built with a hard-shoulder lane to act as a refuge for broken-down vehicles and to assist emergency vehicles in getting to the scene of an accident. Today there are ~33 million cars on UK roads, which begs just one obvious question.  If a hard shoulder lane was required for safety reasons with 5 million cars,  why isn’t it required for safety reasons with today’s 33 million?

Road deaths have progressively declined since the 1960s primarily due to things like better education, speed limits, car design (better reliability, seat belts, ABS, and air bags etc), improved barrier technology, and so on. Smart Motorways have not contributed to the lowering death rate, so without a hard shoulder lane they must be considered unsafe and addressing the issue with even more ‘smart’ technology is not the answer.   This is most definitely not a laughing matter.

‘Finger trouble’…

Some days, no matter how hard you try, your fingers just don’t seem to do the right thing when interacting with a computer. Other days they accurately do the right thing every time. Most days for normal people, however, your fingers do a mixture of the two.  The Badger experiences the same phenomenon when playing his electric guitar, although in this case you can hear the finger trouble!   

When news broke last week, see here for example, that records in the UK Police National Computer (PNC) database had been wrongly deleted, the Badger, conditioned by decades in the IT industry, immediately suspected that ‘finger trouble’ would have played a part. It nearly always does somewhere along the line when operational services have issues. It was, therefore, no surprise that the UK policing minister said ‘…down to human error, some defective code was introduced as part of that routine maintenance earlier this week and that’s resulted in a deletion of some records …’.

The minister’s words trigger many questions about what happened and why, and why recovering deleted records is more difficult than one might anticipate.  The Badger was  immediately drawn to three things – possible complacency in routine maintenance, testing, and mechanisms for backup and recovery.  The media has concentrated on political points and ‘woe is me’ about the impact on arrests and prosecutions, but the uncomfortable truth is that events like the PNC will occasionally happen. The IT that is behind every facet of daily life is complex, handles huge amounts of data, and has been built and it is maintained by highly skilled and professional people, but there is no such thing as a guarantee of perfection. There is no immunity to finger trouble, and neither is there a crystal ball to predict ‘defective code’. The Badger therefore feels some sympathy for whoever pushed the button that deleted the PNC records.  

We’ve all had finger trouble and accidentally deleted things from our computers.  When it happens, it often provides a reminder that you should have backups!  In today’s world the amount of data created every day is staggering and the whole concept of backup and recovery for major IT systems, and the legal rules for retaining data, is very different to that of the Badger’s formative years in IT. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that deleted PNC records cannot simply be restored from a good old-fashioned, off-site, backup tape!

Nevertheless, the PNC issue should be a reminder for each of us to take regular backups of information that you never want to lose. These days it’s cheap to do and one day you might be relieved that you did. After all, the heavenly alignment of finger trouble, defective software, and/or defective hardware can align to cause a problem at any time.  

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.