It'll be different once we get there: 2019 retrospective

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This year has happened all at once, and hasn’t stopped once all year. It’s been one thing after another, but somehow all got on top of itself. Nonetheless, here’s my attempt to flatten it out into an annual retrospective. It’s a little less procedural than previous years. If you don’t wish to spectate I suggest you scroll to the bottom and read the last sentence. There’s nothing particular there, at least not yet, but you can at pretend to have read everything in between.

This year’s theme seems to have been impermanence. The deaths of two people close to me, the shift from from boat-dwelling to house-dwelling, significant changes at work and a new more challenging role, and the consuming joy in helping a child discover the world. Things have been challenging from time to time. A mantra that I have found particularly useful is “Which part of this can I do?”. It comes via my excellent wife and her yoga practice and is applicable in more situations than you’d think.

Farewell Monstronauticus

This year we said goodbye to the boat that was our home for five years. It brings to an end our relationship not only with a place to live, but a complex web of experience, responsibility, allegiance and identity. The process was heart-wrenching, but led to a much happier place.

I first moved onto a little narrowboat, Dawn, in 2010. Dawn didn’t have much ballast (weights under the floor), which meant that she was rather ‘tender’, or to put it less politely, not very steady on her feet. The lurching of the floor underfoot as someone else stood up was one of her lovable foibles. Not long after I met my wife-to-be we decided to upgrade to a bigger boat. Monstronauticus was not only double the width but much more heavily ballasted. You could barely feel the floor move at all, except when canoes sped past.

Life on a boat isn’t always easy. The water tank needs filling. The toilet needs emptying. Fuel needs lugging aboard for heating and gas bottles for cooking. Every item that is brought in must be carried out. For every comfort there is equal and opposite work to do. In a house, where most of the above is permanently plumbed in, these things can be forgotten most of the time. But in a boat the equilibrium, and any disturbance to it, is keenly and constantly felt.

Even if the day-to-day remains in balance, some parts of the year are easier than others. Winter mornings can be sub-zero if the fire goes out over night. There’s always another maintenance job to do. But summer time, being surrounded by nature, going for cruises and mooring up for the night in the middle of nowhere, brings joy in surplus. More than enough angular momentum to keep the flywheel turning for another year.

For a boat to remain on an even keel it must be both well balanced and well ballasted. Boat living requires a certain amount of mental and spiritual ballast. Enough reserves to smooth out both the daily and annual cycles, providing a base upon which to live a life.

Our experience of having a young child, so far, has followed the same pattern. Keeping the baby happy and healthy can be crushingly hard from time to time. But the supreme and fierce joy (and let’s be honest, small doses of oxytocin) more than makes up for it. As in boat life, plenty of ballast is required. Toward the end of last summer we came to the irrevocable conclusion that we didn’t have enough ballast for boat life, raising a small child, and our careers. The answer to “which part of this can I do?” no longer included the boat.

And so we began the process of swapping the steel for bricks and mortar, finally moving in in January. The irony is that we’d had bricks beneath our feet the whole time. You have to ballast a boat with something.

It’ll be different once we get there

Cyclical change forms a foundation for less predictable change. Whether it’s been the uncertainty of buying of the house, selling of the boat, completion of projects or the illness of someone close, it has been useful to imagine specific points in the future. But it’s a mistake to invest too heavily, or treat goals as anything other than a guide. A goal is a frozen snapshot of a future state, but it’s a mistake to aim for stasis. Life won’t stop changing once we get there. And since goals can only be imagined from the context of the starting point, that context will have changed as soon as we leave it behind.

When I bought my first boat I dreamed of clearing the loan and living a low-cost life. As soon as I’d paid it off, lo and behold, it was time to buy a bigger boat. The same happened with the house. But each goal had set me up for the next bit of life and in the mean time given me eight very happy years. It was a valuable lesson, but I can’t pretend it was easy. I have picked up a second, complementary mantra. “The goal is not the destination”.

New challenges

I joined Crossref in 2013 as a member of the Strategic Initiatives (pronounced “Labs”) group. From day one I have found the job profoundly motivating. The scholarly community with which I mix, and whom we serve, are doing significant and important work. Much of it is around the process of developing and disseminating scientific knowledge. Building scholarly infrastructure, the pipes through which data around the research, publication and discussion flow, can get quite abstract at times. We have to find models that describe the various types of information, and do it at a level that is not too abstract as to be useless but not too specific as to be inflexible. Balancing the needs of the world’s largest publishers with the world’s smallest. It’s a fascinating combination of software design, implementation and community engagement.

Being a central point through which much of this information flows, and where nearly all scholarly articles are registered, can make some people nervous. Crossref is a non-profit trade association, but it does set a barrier to entry which preserves the reliability of data, and makes explicit the responsibilities of members within community. I worked on developing principles upon which we can build our services to make them intrinsically trustworthy, open, and suitable for all comers. I have focussed on how we can build and demonstrate trust, openness and integrity. These principles aren’t only words on paper: they involve some difficult technical trade-offs. It has been a great privilege to be in a position where I am able not only write software to serve the community, but to be able to think, write and talk about it too.

Since before I joined there were two distinct technology groups within Crossref. They both built software for our community, but they were doing complementary things. This in turn informed different technical, management and philosophical approaches. For the longest time the two groups operated more or less independently.

In March, amongst some wider changes in the organisation, the two groups merged. I stepped into a new role, as Head of Software Development for Crossref. I now manage a team of three (based on the opposite side of the Atlantic) with two cross-reports. My remit now includes responsibility for the software through which Crossref has served its members for twenty years. It is my aim to bring the principles of open, community driven software development to the core of to the way we build all Crossref services.

I have gone from being involved in a handful of projects to everything we build and run. “Which part of this can I do” is not only helpful but essential. Not only because I can’t give them all my undivided attention, but because as each project evolves, the way in which they all interact will also evolve.

Shifting goals

The most pragmatic approach to choosing programming languages is flexibility. I’m now going to be overseeing a very large Java codebase, two large Clojure projects (one of which I built), an increasing amount of Python and a dwindling amount of Ruby. And JavaScript, which comes for us all. Though complementary, the diversity of this set of languages can present challenges.

Creative constraints provide counterbalance. High on my list of priorities will be establishing a common approach to writing software, whatever the language or application. These will include approaches to testing and testability, requirements specification, code quality, automating manual work and documentation. Doing this will not only give us more confidence in the code we write, but will provide a strong point of connection with our various stakeholders within the organisation, membership and scholarly community at large.

This won’t be easy. I had the luxury of a blank slate with Event Data. Being able to engage with the community, talk about ideas and incorporate feedback, not only in terms of what it does but how it’s made were of immense value. But the first lines of code that power Crossref were written two decades ago. Back then the goals and context were very different. Guiding and re-framing established practices and expectations is more difficult and it will pose a large share of technical challenges along the way.

We’re heading toward an end-state of building an open, responsive, truly community centred Crossref but it won’t happen overnight. By the time we reach our goal the context will have changed again. We may never get all the way there. But I think it’s going to be the best direction to face as we look toward the next 20 years.

I won’t have as much time as I’d like to get to conferences in the coming year or two. I’ll be sad to be a little less involved in community the short term. But I’m confident that I’ll be best serving the mission in this role. I hope that as the two groups converge and shift onto an even keel, we will arrive at a shared spirit of openness, community centredness and collaboration.

Being a parent

My wife and I are also engaged in the challenge of a lifetime. It is our aim to raise a child of whom we can be proud. So far we are feeling shamefully smug and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I write this a few days after taking him to a festival, Le Son Continu (nee Saint Chartier). This festival has been going since the 1970s, in some form or another, and a group of our friends often meet up there. We spend a long weekend in a forest in the centre of France surrounded by music centred around the French tradition. He has shared in our complete joy at sitting in a forest listening to Auvergnat bourrées à trois temps on the vielle à roue and cornemuse du Centre. This morning he woke up signing that he would like some music, please.

I first came to this festival in 2010 (not long before buying my first boat). Now, nearly a decade on, and only having missed last year, we’re all feeling a little less young. The festival lasts from Thursday to Sunday, and runs from 10:00 am to 07:00 am the following day. There’s music and dancing the whole time. Some people go to try out and and buy an instrument. Some people only go for the late night bourrées. Locals come for an evening concert and go home. And, for us, the answer to “which part of this can I do with a baby?” led to a very satisfactory, and much less exhausting festival than previous years. You don’t need to stay up dancing til 3.

The society we’re bringing him into feels like it’s been straining at the edges of late. Political nonsense, at home and abroad, is a never ending turmoil. One recurring impression I have is that a huge amount of emotional immaturity is being brought to the top. The public discourse around Brexit, cultivated by a manipulative print and social media, is despair inducing. And it’s not limited to rightwing politics. The quickness with which contrary views are seen as personal, tribal, attacks shows a society with thinning skin and quick depleting emotional ballast. Tender, you could say.

We are doing our bit to bring into the world the most emotionally literate and secure person we possibly can. Providing him with a calm and supportive inner voice, an understanding of his own emotions and how to engage with them, and when the time comes, other people’s. Helping him to ride out the sudden upsetting memory of an accident, making promises and coming good on them. Acknowledging his requests and, if we can’t help now, telling him either that it isn’t available or that he can have it soon. He’s only 15 months old, but already it seems to be working. When he gets upset we can see him working through the emotion and regaining his balance.

Busy

All of which have meant that this year I have been very busy. That’s not a good thing. Aside from having little spare time to decompress and re-contextualise I have not given my best quality of attention to all of the things I should. I have not participated as fully on committees as I would like. Some friendships have slipped a little.

I’m careful not to fall into the trap of “now all these events have happened it will get simpler” because it won’t. It will take hard work to work out what to concentrate on, and what not to. A few people I have great respect for have said “When you become a manager you learn pretty quickly to prioritise and delegate things”. I am learning.

My year

Enough of the above. What about some of the below?

Autumn

In September the 5:AM Altmetrics conference rolled around, with attendant workshop and do-a-thon. Earlier in the year I had put together five principles that had guided the design of Event Data. I presented these as the opening talk for the altmetrics18 Workshop. I didn’t present at the 5:AM conference this year (except a small poster slot). Instead, Christine Hone (nee Buske), who was the product manager of Event Data, presented. Her talk drew on her own experience as a research scientist and connected with many in the room.

As in the previous year I also co-organised the do-a-thon, an idea evolved from a hack day, alongside Mike Taylor. We threw around ideas, broke out into groups and a room full of people developed ideas around altmetrics and presented back. Our aim was to allow for the broadest possible participation whilst staying true to the idea of a hack-day. On both occasions some great ideas have been teased out of the previous three days’ worth of conference.

This year I joined the programme and organising committee of 6:AM. I’m going to be doing the same thing with the do-a-thon, with a further twist: it’s being held before the conference. It will be an interesting challenge.

Winter

In November my grandmother died. She was 99 and the last of her siblings. I wrote a short post to mark her life. Until her last days her playful approach to language and quick intelligence shone through. Although I didn’t inherit her multilingualism (unless you count programming languages, and I don’t) something of her approach to language did rub off on me. I’ve always felt that, whilst precision in language is absolutely paramount, it’s a shame to confine it only to denotation. Without rhythm, music and metaphor, the joy in the written and spoken word is lost. I owe this to her, and my mother.

Skint festival of international traditional dance came round again. Again, I served on the committee and will again. A welcome dose of community and music just as the year was starting to become bleak.

Around the end of the summer we started house-buying in earnest. As the autumn wore on, paperwork accumulated and accrued. And with it, we started the process of a thousand small detachments from boat life. The winter wasn’t too cold, but I think it did help. Far worse to wave goodbye to a bucolic summer. I wrote a series of eight posts, memories of boat life, to aide the unpicking.

In December I presented at the Atypon user conference in London.

January rolled round and brought with it PIDapalooza, the festival of persistent identifiers. This year, Dublin. Persistent Identifiers are the things that allow you to identify articles, research funders, people and all manner of other stuff. I was on the programme committee, but recused myself when reviewing my own submission. I presented on one of the more niche, but most important fiddly details, of Event Data: how we work out the identifier for an article when someone links to it, but doesn’t use that identifier. And, crucially, how we indicate precisely how we did it and how much confidence we have. It’s one of those details that no-one wants to talk about until it doesn’t work.

Spring

In May the structure of the two software development teams was adjusted and I stepped into the role of Head of Software Development.

Shortly after taking up the new role I gave the keynote talk at the *Metrics workshop in Göttingen. The theme of the event was “Metrics in transition”. I talked about the broad transition from what were once cutting-edge practices (and is now considered standard) toward new forms (blogs etc). I outlined the position of scholars in that transition and the corresponding journey that scholarly infrastructure providers are making to support them along their path.

Summer

In May our colleague Christine Hone (nee Buske), who had been suffering from a short illness, died. As my partner-in-crime for Event Data we worked closely. Christine was extraordinarily driven, intelligent and insightful. We were all a bit lost when we heard the news. We put out a blog post, which I contributed to.

Our organisation is more distributed than ever, spanning timezones from the west coast of the US to Europe. Our annual get-together saw most of us meet in Maine where we talked about organisational ethos, the best way to make s’mores and who last saw where the ping-pong ball went. Though we’re spread out most of us talk to others of us every day by video calls. On the whole, I think we do a good job for a team so spread out.

But over the course of just over a year we will have seen the departure of five staff and the death of one. I feel like the fabric of our tribe has suffered a tangible disturbance, especially with the loss of Christine. We are at a real time of flux.

Growing up

Beside this, I am profoundly contented with our own little tribe.

Last year was the year our son came into our lives. This year he really came into his own. Every day brings exciting discoveries, both for him and for us. He finds new ways to surprise us. From starting to spontaneously learn and understand words within minutes of hearing them to warning us about hot stove. And the never ending stream of mysteries. Why is he so fond of eating rocks? Is he getting enough vowels? Where has be put the the back door keys?

Not so long ago he was small and helpless. Now he can run around and walk backwards. A few days ago he was trying to sign something to me but I was looking the other way. He grabbed my chin and turned my head to look at his hands to make sure I could see what he was saying. At the start of the year I used to pick him up and hold him tight. Now he holds onto my shirt so tightly that I could let go (I don’t). The swiftness of life came home to roost as I washed the Duplo bricks that I had last engaged with as a child of his age. They grow up so quick.

Conferences

I spread myself a little too thinly and could probably have served fewer better. I was on the programme committee for PIDapalooza, the programme committee for the Wikimedia Foundation’s slot at the web conference and the programme and organising committee for 6:AM altmetrics conference.

Outside work I was on the Skint and Bagpipe Society committees, and will be next year.

Books

I am not proud to say that with one thing and another I’ve only read one book this year. ‘Theft by Finding’ by David Sedaris. If you like his charming anecdotes about stuffed animals on Radio 4, then his diary of a drug taking, alcohol dependency hand-to-mouth life will provide a welcome counterbalance. Highly recommended.

I have, however, listened to a lot of Podcasts: I recommend, for a variety of reasons: Brexitcast, Beef And Dairy Network, Bunk Bed and Inside the Comedian. All of them a light-hearted interpretation of life through a different lens. None require the precious mental investment of reading.

The year ahead

This year will be one of consolidation and decisions. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by excellent colleagues and I’m very excited about the collaborations in the year ahead. I will need to work out which bits can I do, what can be achieved in the constraints, what can I delegate. The first decision of which being how to end this blog post. What last sentence should be found by those of us who skipped to the end? Something profound? Perhaps something from Joyce or Heaney. I’ll think I’ll delegate.

You decide.

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