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Tuesday, October 28

Hanging Out In Hungary

The purpose of my trip to Budapest is to work alongside my team here and see how life works. I want to breathe the air they breathe, drink the same coffee, see how the office environment actually feels and gain a good understanding of what life is like for them here. There appears to be a curious side effect of being away from the UK office, though. I seem to have a real opportunity to get my head down and write some handy computer software. In this case, I'm trying to create some "eyes" through which we can see what our computer system is actually getting up to. It would appear that there are some surprises.

Unfortunately, if I get too preoccupied with challenges like this, I can miss some of the vital things I need to keep an eye on while on this visit. In particular, I'm worried about how quickly the day seems to pass when my clocks say the UK time zone and we're actually an hour later. Although perhaps I should adjust my clocks, the advantage of being in Hungary from an English time point of view is that I actually get to see how badly our days overlap - that hour counts for quite a lot. Plus, as I'll have said in other communications, another nice side-effect of having a clock on UK time is that I have an idea of what the people back home are doing.

So, today seemed to fritter itself away. I worked as hard as I might be expected to. In fact, I worked harder. I also realised, despite being away from apparent distractions in the UK office, that my working day is overshadowed by a lot of meetings. When you coordinate two timezones' lunch hours, this creates a lot of dead time where either you can't be sure people will be in touch, or there are meetings happening. There's a sweet spot for about 2 hours each afternoon. This seems like not enough.

Unfortunately, my concurrency factor went through the roof this afternoon and I didn't get what I wanted to do done. However, I did manage to achieve my goal of being immersed and seeing what life is like. I've watched the local computer systems fail. I've seen how slow the remote systems are. I've heard the regular beepings of people's mobile phones and seen a bored team have a bit of a fight to perk themselves up. All of this is what my team will be encountering from now on when they go into their office. Interesting and useful.

Plus, a bit of time on foreign turf and I've been able to learn more about how my team actually think. We did a retrospective, which is a way of looking back over things done in the past and trying to identify how things felt, vs what happened, vs what we can learn from the whole experience. The hard part, especially when the "facilitator" of the session is also the manager, is to be honest about what you think. Can you say that something was shit? Can you say that you think we're doing it all wrong? I don't know if the result was perfect, but I think we got some useful sharing of ideas across the team and I think it will serve us well going forwards. I did rather pointedly rephrase some of what I was told in order to meet with my own world view, but nobody seemed to object, and I did it for benevolent reasons.

This side of running a software team is interesting. In fact, it is all interesting at the moment. I should probably get away from the computer screen and into Budapest while I still can (my impromptu goal of going to see Queen tonight was totally forgotten). I also want to just treat my hotel room as an artist's garret and just compose my sonnets of computery magic from here instead. It's something of a dilemma. I'll try to make the most of my stay.

However, some of what I've been doing, as I've run into some of the other UK colleagues (it's come to Budapest week), and have shared battle stories with them and the team, is to look back on my history in this company and also my history on programming work for other companies. The bit about programming in hotel room reminds me of another of my stories, which happened just over ten years ago. Queue wobbles on the screen and a harp playing the flashback sound effect.

About 10 years ago, I was in the process of trying to buy the house in Newcastle that I'm currently trying to sell. I had a fiancée at home running round helping sort out the finances, and I was under two demands from work. I had an urgent "oh my god the world is broken" problem with a database application that I had just become the lead programmer on, as the main programmer had just moved to Birmingham in order to have a new life. I also had been sent to demonstrate some software at a lab somewhere.

Picture the scene of today. I'm in a hotel room in Budapest, in plush surroundings with a nice laptop and no distractions. Back then, though, for various reasons, some of which may have been genuine cost constraints, and some of which might have been computer performance, but a lot of which was probably beligerance that I caused, we didn't have laptops. The computer I was using was a desktop computer with a big fat 17" monitor. Back then the hotel room wasn't a plush affair, it was a dingey corner of a Travelodge with catering in the form of a Little Chef across the road and a big ugly A-road running alongside it.

So, away from the home I was trying to create, I hulked and lugged the big computer into the dingey hotel room, crammed it onto a small desk and set about writing some code. It was part of a two week (or so) exercise to fix the problem in the database. I wrote some good code in the end. The technique I was using is the technique that, had I bothered to learn it in my 3rd year at university, would probably have caused me to get the extra mark or so that might have tipped me into a better degree. Instead, I paid off that debt of laziness in the end by learning it off the internet and putting it into commercially sold software.

I had a good session in that remote hotel with the TV on, some distance and mind and machine in harmony.

Then I went to do the demo, which for some reason was in a "wet lab" - where they do chemical stuff. As a lab, the rule was that you needed to have a white coat on to be allowed in. So I had to borrow one. As I was both wearing a suit and about 7 more stones in weight than I'm wearing now (maybe 6), it was a bit awkward. I could not get both my arms forwards. Only one arm at a time could be forward in the tight tight coat. Imagine now, a man taking what looks like a fencing stance - balanced, both arms out to his sides. This was my position as I used the mouse, and then turned so I could use the keyboard with the other hand. What an overweight divvy I must have looked.

I believe that the exact code I wrote then is still for sale, it was certainly around last time I asked about it a year ago. Admittedly, some of what surrounds it has changed, but that hotel-room coding effort lives on. The demo may or may not have resulted in a software sale. The happy customer I most remember is a nice man from Glasgow whom I sent the software to, once I'd fixed it. It had been taking 120 minutes to do a particular operation, and my code made it take about 90 seconds. I remember being on the phone to him as it tried it out for the first time, the promise of a lot of frustration being removed was in the air. He pressed the button, expecting to wait ages, and then the indicator started creeping rapidly across his screen (so I imagine) and I heard him go "ooooooh". That was a good feeling.

Back in the present, I've done some coding that makes me impressed with myself and that'll do for now. I'm creating testing and monitoring software and I think it's changing the face of what we're working with, which is nice.

Back in the non-coding side of the present, I did my day's work, was taken across town to near the Budapest railway station, designed by Eiffel, no less, to go to a shopping centre to buy an adapter for my team to use on some devices with UK plugs. Then I came back on the tram, came to the hotel to check my mail and get ready and then joined a couple of the UK people for dinner. Dinner was very nouvelle cuisine - i.e. nice presentation, small portions. It was enjoyable, but perhaps not as filling as a busy day might make one wish it to be.

This was in stark contrast to lunch, which came with quantity but a totally different service. We ordered from hot buffet - I say "we", in fact my team member ordered and I told him what I wanted - and then took it to the till. My team mate was offering to buy me lunch and so told the man on the till to put it together. I insisted that I could buy it for myself, as I am on subsistence, being away from home. Unfortunately, the man had already rung it through the till and when he was asked if he could take mine off, his answer was, effectively "sod off and sort it out yourselves". So I bought lunch for both of us. Simple answer to the problem. We had a good chat over lunch.

My lunch comprised some battered cheese - huh? Yeah. There you go. Also there was "Rizzy Bizzy" - best way to spell what that sounds like. The "Rizzy" means rice and the "Bizzy" could mean "busy" but just means "sound that rhymes with Rizzy". This was quite busy rice. It had vegetables - peas, spring onion, carrot - and then it also had meat... well, chicken... white and dark pieces... and offal. Chicken livers too. I was going to get all precious about it when I remembered that I have had quite a lot of chicken livers over the years and rather enjoyed them - albeit in paté form.

So, it has been a day of memories, bizarre catering, coding, distractions, and learning about life for a new team. Not a bad result.


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