S02E11: Part 2

We also served

Go to Bletchley Park. Do it at once. It has had love and money thrown at it in equal measure, and it shines through. There are fifteen separate high-quality exhibits, and I cannot stress enough how very, very brilliant they are.

You will need at least four hours. Really, you should take six.

Go and see the replica Bombe machine. It clacks merrily away in a room full of machines that were used in this quiet corner of Buckinghamshire to win a war. It’s explained by a cheerful old fellow⁰ who patiently explains the Enigma’s encryption process to a room that is split, 75/25, between eagerness that borders on fetishism and polite bemusement.

Seriously, this is extremely cool

That talk happens in a two-storey converted house, and the upstairs contains real former employees talking about their experiences on video scattered through impressive visual displays.

Do get the multimedia guide, because it’s absolutely riveting. A huge amount of research has gone into it, and experiences from veterans who served here have been captured for posterity. My favourite was an extremely upper-class woman: she talked nonchalantly about working alongside these fellows who were very close to genius, but seemed close to homicide when asked what they were like: “very untidy!” was the curt response. It also comes with a pair of natty headphones that give you an immensely jaunty air:

I cannot express how much I look like my dad in this photo. You’ve probably never met my dad, but at least now you’d recognise him in a crowd.

Do not go to the shop if you like both books and a full bank balance: you will leave without one or the other. For me, I chose books.

I chose…wisely

I’ve come away with a spectacular haul of slim puzzle books, a thicker puzzle book, and The Code Book by Simon Singh. I can’t commend it enough: it’s fascinating and completely absorbing. I am entirely hooked, and I offer any one of my readers the opportunity to commune with me via Vigenère cipher.¹ My inbox is open.

Throughout the site are various exhibitions designed to get you to understand how Enigma works. I was about three hours through before I felt reasonably sure I got it — there was an immensely enjoyable 3-D X-Ray rendering of the innards of an Enigma machine and it sparked a lightbulb moment. It feels as though everything is designed with that sense in mind: a feeling on the part of the people who built these exhibits that they themselves could barely believe that this had happened. The massive concentration of brainpower that was unleashed there is really quite something and it’s testament to a principle I cling to today: free up people to do good work and they will stun you with their brilliance.

They will also sometimes hurl coffee cups into the lake rather than return to the canteen, where their thought processes will be interrupted by people talking to them. Accept that as part of the cost of doing business.

There is a reek of privilege everywhere. It really can’t be avoided — as much as it’s played down, the people who were recruited were those privileged few who’d had the opportunity to learn German, Japanese, Italian and so on at school. Daughters of aristocrats were the first called up to support the staff because “We can trust that sort of person to keep secrets”. It’s a sign of the times: today, all three branches of the security and intelligence agencies are making massive progress to recruit more diverse individuals.

Let me close by saying that there’s a restaurant in Hut 4 that serves incredibly tasty, fantastically cheap food to refuel you after the literally tens of kilometres you’ll walk. And if nothing else it’s a lot of fun to walk around and, with hundreds of other people, quietly mutter

Hang on, say that bit again?



⁰ Don’t expect to see many women. Although there are many fascinating exhibits about the Wrens —members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service — there wasn’t anyone presenting that wasn’t a robot or a cheerful old fellow. It was a bit surprising, and something I hope will change soon.

¹ I’m sort of tempted to build a decoder based on the fascinating methods contained in the book, but I fear it has both already been done and would be of interest only to arch-geeks like myself.²

² To be fair, this is also a point in its favour.

S02: E11 Part 1

The National Museum of Fish

On Thursday my partner and I headed to Milton Keynes to spend a long weekend GEEKING OUT. We went to Milton Keynes for its proximity to Bletchley, the historic home of the Codebreakers.

There are two interesting places on the site of Bletchley Park. The first is Bletchley Park, and the second — hidden away at the back — is the National Museum of Computing.

I’ll start with TNMOC, as they like to call themselves. They give you a map at the entrance, and it sums up entirely, in a single image, the entire spirit of the place: earnest, geeky, and lacking in polish.


There is so much that’s glorious and good there. The depth of knowledge the staff have is unparalleled, and they are incredibly willing to share stories and explain complex ideas patiently and, in my case, multiple times. Apparently the following was a key understanding in how to break the complex Lorenz cipher:

A + C = F

F + C = A

but I’m afraid by the fifth time I was too scared to ask how and just nodded sagely. Answers on a postcard please.

But on the other hand, everything is very slapdash. For example: they have a series of wonderful collections of automatic calculating devices that appear to have simply been thrown into a cabinet together. It would have been wonderful to see the evolution of these fascinating machines from slide rules to the modern calculator, but instead it was just a mess of wonderful, unstructured pieces.

With that being said, the display and explanation of the Tunny and Colossus machines were worth the price of admission alone. They are incredible feats of love and dedication. Since they were used by secret organisations, both the machines and their designs were all (supposedly) destroyed at the end of the Second World War. By virtue of sheer determination, a group of hobbyists, amateurs, and former engineers have recreated these remarkable calculating machines.⁰ Colossus in particular is an incredible machine; an early calculator that could do addition of five-bit binary words at an incredible rate for the time.

The guide spoke assertively about the machine, and then gave us all a little slip of paper to translate. For fun, here’s the slip:

Ooooh, mysterious!

It uses the five-bit ITA2 code to encode Roman letters to dots and blanks.

It was a really pleasant way to end the exhibit and a lovely, tiny peek into the work of the machines and — more importantly — the human beings behind them.

The most pertinent example of this allowed for the creation of these incredible machines: a single mistake by a German officer allowed a brilliant mathematician named William Tutte to divine the structure of the encoding machine without ever seeing it.

This is an absurdly impressive intellectual feat. Completely, utterly, mind-bendingly impressive.

It is approximately equivalent in my mind to seeing a single drop of blood and then deducing the entire structure of the circulatory system. Of an alien.

But I digress. TNMOC is a diverting couple of hours and the massive machines are brilliant. But Bletchley Park is far, far superior. So I’m going to dedicate an entire blog to that subject.


⁰ I will be writing more about ciphers and cracking these the moment I actually understand them

S02E10

I have two new colleagues on short term contracts — loaned from the Civil Service. One immediately went on annual leave, while the other has been hard at work. It’s been absolutely eye-opening. As they’ve grown into the project they’re working on, they’ve freed up a huge amount of the mental energy I didn’t even know I was expending on it. That, in turn, has made me so much better at my job.

My point is probably that if you get to the point where you say “I’m too busy to hire someone”, you should hire someone.

So: Monday I had a one-to-one with my colleague. I ask the colleague to come with an agenda and share it with me ahead of time, so I don’t get blind-sided by big questions. So far the approach has been effective; my colleagues are thoughtful and honest, which has helped guide the way I do my job. I’d like to learn more about ways to improve them, so if you have suggestions please throw them at me and I’ll try to collect them.

It was the last week of term and the UCU strike had ended, so I had my last programming class before the exam. It was a valuable session; I’m still getting to grips with Java but made some progress. I am still entirely confident that it is a terrible, horrible, no good language, but it’s helping with the very good Scala course I’m doing. It’s on Coursera and it’s created by l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and if you’re interested in functional programming I recommend it.

In job news, I found out that a position I’d applied to had already been filled — but would I like to meet the director to talk about joining a different team?


Tuesday was backlog grooming, which the aforementioned colleague facilitated, and customer problem solving. Backlog grooming is an opportunity for the business side of the operation to come together and argue priorities and roadmap. It’s really helped to get the new colleagues up to speed and helped me sharpen up the product’s vision, because new colleagues have a tendency to poke holes in assumptions you didn’t realise you had. If you don’t have any new colleagues to hand, you can always borrow some from a neighbour.

I applied for a job that required me to take a situational judgement test. Situational judgement tests ask you to image yourself in a situation and then evaluate four responses to the situation. Apparently you can automate cultural fit now, which I have two conflicting thoughts on:

  1. Tech bros hiring for cultural fit⁰ is a contributing factor to the lack of diversity in our industry. By writing down what your culture is and letting a computer check if people react in the same way as you to the same situation, you can remove some bias you would have for or against that person. But:
  2. Culture is mostly unwritten; the people who commission and input into this software don’t deal with the day to day culture; the idea that you can neatly encapsulate vast, unspoken cultural stuff in 15 questions with four answers is patently absurd.

In any case, the test identified me as a bad fit. It was a novel experience though, and gave me insight into a dystopian world of automated decision-making that can only be just around the corner.

UNACCEPTABLE

Wednesday passed without major incident, and I took advantage of the evening to finish up the work I was doing on my side project to make the algorithm work and the interface usable.

Unfortunately, it takes a long time to process the data, which means if I deploy it anyone who tries to use it is met with this page:

bummer

So: now I’ve got to write something fancy to move the data processing to the server-side while the client-side displays an animation to keep the user interested.

https://gph.is/2vGtaeV

I’m frustrated, but I’m also learning new things that I’m really enjoying. So that’s nice. It also works as long as you only ask for ten data points, so if you promise not to break it you can try it here. If you feel like a fun challenge, print off the data points you get and see if you can get better matches than the system.

(If you spot any horrendous results, please let me know!)

Thursday was my day off and my partner worked from home, so I made some fish with a dill sauce for lunch. Eating together is something we try to do as much as possible because we’re both so busy, and it was really nice to be able to do lunch as we wouldn’t have the chance to eat dinner together.

I went on to university in the afternoon. Information systems got a bit heated as we discussed ethics in computer science. There’s a whole thesis to be written on whether our industry ought to be regulated in some way, and now’s probably not the time.¹ There are also theses already written about the actions of Snowden and Manning, and the recent whistleblowing about the stunningly shifty activities at Cambridge Analytica². People have Strong Feelings about this stuff. It’s a good start.

Computer Systems was a blur of confusion. I’m going to be spending my (now free) Thursdays before the exam reading the textbook from cover to cover.

Thank goodness for student loans

Friday everything was on fire.


Customer issues came in from left right and centre. A client was accidentally missed off a mailer a couple of weeks ago and found out today from someone else in their industry. I’m really frustrated that we dropped the ball, particularly because this client has a unique insight into upcoming work that we really value. It also makes us look unprofessional and I really, really hate that.

I had to crunch through some tests for another client, and because computers can smell your fear that was the moment my laptop decided it was time to do updates.

COME OOOOOOOOOOOOOON

Matters were made worse by the fact that the afternoon was given over to the retrospective. Some tough conversations happened, as they should do, but I came away from it wondering how valuable my input was. I felt as if I’d done nothing but complain, and I don’t like that. There’s plenty of good to celebrate, but I felt like I was playing the bad guy. I’m going to keep an eye on this and see if it resurfaces in a fortnight.

Next week

Incredibly short week, so work will be crunchy as I bring everyone back up to speed. On the other hand, bank holidays are good and mini-breaks with your cool and awesome partner to Bletchley Park AND the National Museum of Computing are the absolute best. Next week’s weeknotes will feature many pictures of my immensely excited face.


⁰ Cultural fit is a phrase which here means “Are they, too, a tech bro?”

¹ Since you ask: pilots flying planes today rely heavily on software. Despite this, pilots are highly regulated and rightly so. But the person writing the software — who’s regulating them? As far as I know: nobody. And if that’s the case, it makes me nervous.

² This year’s favourites in the boat race against Oxford Analytica

Jobhunting

I’m going to preface this blog by saying: I’m really lucky I can write this blog. I know most people can’t. This is also mostly a way for me to frame what I’m thinking, because writing it down helps me and maybe it’ll help someone else.

This will probably span several posts. Sorry.

I am looking for a job.⁰ I’ve managed to save enough that I don’t need to take the first position I’m offered, and I’ve got enough time to think about what I want to do.

At the moment, it’s something of a mess. It means I’ve taken a slightly scattergun approach to job applications. I’ve nosed out interesting things and applied to the best of my ability, and then had valuable conversations with people who turned me down.

(I did have one conversation with a recruiter that I can only apologise for, because in the middle of a cracking answer about how I’d supported a member of staff to write their own web service an idiot in a low-clearance vehicle got stuck on a speed bump outside the cafe I was sitting in. And then revved his engine. And then I yelled ‘I can’t hear you, I’ll call you back’, which probably threw you a bit. And then I realised you’d called from a private number, so I couldn’t call you back.

The whole thing was a farce. I’m really sorry.)

Other people have taken me up on applications. Those conversations have been enlightening too. I spoke to a startup founder who admitted that at one point in the last week he’d been awake for 44 hours.

https://gph.is/2aAbLbU

Another is looking for a CTO to do the technical stuff and eventually manage a department. For the moment, the founder’s brother had promised to lend a hand. I asked what Twitter thought of this.

Then of course there’s the other end of the chaotic-lawful axis: a return to the Civil Service. It was always my plan, but in the year I’ve been away I have apparently forgotten how to write competency statements. I fear this is because competency-based questions are just a horrible way of trying to work out if someone is competent¹.

These two environments are wildly different, and yet I find myself drawn to both. The desire to build a culture from scratch because I believe I know best has more than a whiff of both despotism and arrogance. At the same time, I don’t think I’d do it if I didn’t think I was right.² That desire clearly steers me away from the Civil Service, where the organisations are too big to start a new culture unless you have serious clout and unlimited patience.

On the other hand: I know the Civil Service, and they are working on incredible stuff. It’s an incredible time, with genuine transformation going on all over the place. At the same time, all of the infrastructure — the HR systems, expenses, etc — are horrendous. On the other hand, there must be teams working to improve that stuff, and I really like finding problems and solving them.

And then of course there’s other stuff. More established start-ups transitioning to SME status; consultancies that aren’t the soulless Big Four; local governments, national governments; and odd corners of the business world that are suddenly transforming. And within those there’s such a depth of possibility: from apprenticeships to to Chief [sprinkling of letters] Officer.

I’m going to write up something else where I’m going to start thinking about those paths. I know I want to always be learning; to have a culture that reflects stuff I care about; to be creative; and to solve interesting problems. Let’s see if I can find that stuff anywhere.


⁰ If you’re thinking about a vacancy that I might be good at, I’d love to hear from you.

¹ Ironic, right?

² So said every despot ever