Monday, 22 September 2008

Vegetable Patch 2008

I have a small, standard back garden in a standard house in suburbia in the UK. It is mainly a lawn with a flower border around the edges. About 2 years ago I decided to make one section of the border that was a bit more out of the way into a vegetable patch to experiment with, just to see what growing vegetables was like and what I could achieve. The main vegetable patch is about 2 metres by 1 m, with another smaller one of 1m by 1m, and various pots (probably about 8 in total, one way or another).

This year was a mixed year, as I wanted to grow more than before, both in terms of quantity and variety. Some things worked, but some did not at all, which was a disappointment. So here is the summary for the year.

  • Potato. I grew 2 varieties - Pentland Javelin (a second early) and Desiree (a main crop), and both did well. I grew them in pots (actually bags) and earthed them up as they sprouted. Apart from the earthing up and some watering, I left them to it, and got good crops from both. Of the two Desiree gave a larger crop of larger potatoes, and really impressed me. However we have had to wait until August before we could crop them. While the Pentland Javelin cropped much earlier - June / July.
  • Sweetcorn. A new one for me, but it worked well as an experiment. Used Swift and sowed in starter trays before planting out. Only one corn per plant - about 4 in total - but really, really tasty. It is true what they say about sweetcorn being so much better when freshly picked. Next year I will sow this earlier, and do a lot more of them. They like to be planted in a block or grid, and not a row.
  • Strawberries. I managed to carry over some plants from last year of Cambridge Favourite, and they produced again this year. Again, as for sweetcorn, the taste of it straight from the plant is incredible. I planted some in a hanging basket, and that worked well. I have taken some runners off these, and so have more for next year. I could probably do with another variety too to get some earlier or later crops during the year.
  • Tomato. Another new one for me. I bought a small plant from the garden centre labeled as a tumbler suitable for hanging baskets. It grew well and set lots of fruit, which ripened over time. Really tasty, not bitter at all, but relatively small - more like cherry tomatoes. I will try this again, and I have a packet of Gardeners Delight seed which I will try a few of too next year in the garden itself.

  • Peas. Got some going and they grew and set pods. But I probably should have done a lot more of these, and kept sowing as the year went on. I think I will try a lot more together next year, for greater density and higher crops. Generally everyone eats these straight from the pod, and they never see a dinner plate.
  • Leeks. I've grown these before, and they germinate well from seed and start off nice and straight upright. But for some reason mine never bulk out into the large leeks I see elsewhere. So I still have them in the ground, but they are probably only about finger thickness or so, rather than larger. With autumn now here I do not expect much further growth from them. I think I need to get them into a seed bed earlier in the year, so they get more growth while in the garden. Up to now I transplant them out in July, but I think that is too late for them.

  • Broccoli. This was a disaster in two ways. The seeds germinated well and grew really strongly, putting on lots of leaves. But the heads were quite small, and then most of them bolted and produced heads of yellow flowers. The ones I cut pack to put out side shoots then suffered from caterpillar attack later one, and some had all their leaves eaten. And those I saved from that, bolted and produced heads of yellow flowers too. So while I had plants I never got to harvest any broccoli. Given the space these things occupy with their large leaves, I don't think they are worth it for a small crop.
  • Carrots. Last year I got some medium sized carrots, one way or another. This year, almost all small ones. Too small to do anything with, so they went straight onto the compost heap. I probably got about 10 large ones, which were worth the effort of peeling, cutting and cooking. I had lots of carrots in the ground, with lots of top growth, but very little underneath to show for it. I think I used the wrong varieties, and used the early, quick ones too late in the year. I think next year I will mainly be doing Autumn King everywhere, as this is the one that gave the largest ones I am sure.
  • Lettuce. While this seems to sprout easily, it never gets to a size for me to pick and have a full plate of salad leaves. I generally sow mixtures for loose leaves, rather than the single headed lettuce. This year I got various combinations of no germination from some sowings, initial growth but nothing large, slug attack, and not sowing enough often enough. I think next year I will go for some named varieties, rather than the mixtures, as I will have more control over what I grow and when, and can see individually which ones grow better in my garden.
That's the report on the veg patch this year. We still have lots of potatoes - some in the cupboard, and one more set of Desiree to be dug up in the next couple of weeks (the leaves are still green on it) - but everything else has gone. Either eaten as soon as it could be - strawberries, peas and sweetcorn - or not much of a crop to speak of anyway - carrots, lettuce and broccoli. But I've tried some new things this year, learnt a few more things, and have a few more ideas to try next year. Personally I am looking forward to some more sweetcorn, and tomatoes.

Friday, 5 September 2008

My Job Manifesto

I need to change my job from my current employer to another one for a variety of reasons, mainly around the lack of viability of the company itself, its senior management and their strategic direction. On the one hand this means that I need to find another job somewhere else as quickly as I can, but on the other hand I have been through enough jobs and employers by now to know that many of them are the same and very few better than the others. So this time I really want to get it right, even if it ends up taking longer, because I don't want to have to change job again in the future. I'm not saying I won't end up changing job again, because nothing is ever guaranteed or fixed forever in this world. But I want a really significant chance that this next job could last a long time, and that the company is a 'good' one and a strong one. And that means being clear on my part what I want from an 'ideal' job and employer. Hence my job manifesto, that I am listing here.

No large corporations

Large companies suffer from all kinds of inherent problems, as far as I am concerned. The main ones being that they only exist to funnel money up into the pockets of the senior management and the president and vice-president, while the real workers only ever receive fixed, standard wages, and they become very inflexible with many highly organised levels of management (really just an overhead imposed on the workers) with associated rules and processes and procedures and job titles and grading systems.

Preferably a small focussed company

Following on from what I have said about company size and what it does, I think a company of about 100 or less people is the ideal size. There is a rule of thumb that you can know, work and directly communicate with about 100 people. Beyond that magic size the company will fragment into separate departments, which only communicate directly within themselves. It is then left up to management to communicate across the groups. People end up with a smaller view of the company rather than a complete view. I am not saying that all companies should be this small. But there can be advantages to being a small focussed company in terms of internal efficiencies.

Short, small and knowledgeable management chains

Good companies keep the management chains short and the hierarchy flat. And the management should know and understand what the company does, its products and what each employee does. The worst situation is when the managers spend most of their time managing each other in group meetings, and reporting up to their managers and following company procedures.

A manager who understands what I do or no manager at all

Okay, maybe I cannot avoid having a manager at all, as that is just the way companies run themselves. But if the manager does not truly understand what it is that I do, then I cannot ever have a meaningful discussion with them, and they cannot make sensible decisions. Generic career managers add little or no value to the employee as far as I am concerned. How can they review situations and priorities and make valid decisions when they lack knowledge about exactly what their employees are doing each day? I have been in this situation and I literally ended up with nothing to say to my line manager, as he could never understand the points I raised about the work I was doing. I ended up trying to ignore and avoid him as much as I could, as he just could not add any value for me in any way.

Measure me by results not by effort (time)

I'm sick and tired of companies measuring me by time in the office, as if it correlates to the results achieved in any way. Tell me what you want done, then let me get on with it. To put this another way – if you measure me by time in the office then my productivity will drop like a stone because you have made it clear that productivity is not relevant and you don't measure it, and as a result everything I do will take as long as possible because it makes no difference to me either way. I'll be spending the same amount of time in the office and be paid the same either way.

Not 9 to 5, but achievements

And on the same basis, why constrain me to 9 to 5? If you want good results let me come in early and leave early – say 8 to 4. Or do 8 to 6 for 4 days and take each Friday off. If the results I achieve are the same, why does it matter that they were done between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Friday? If anything, the freedom to manage the work myself, and go home early if I finish the work early will actually serve to motivate me. Forcing me to only work between 9 and 5 provides no motivation whatsoever to produce either better quality work, or be more productive and finish sooner. Either way I will still go home at 5pm and be back in the office tomorrow at 9am.

Be able to work from home and not always the office

I am not against offices – if they are done properly they should foster a place and environment where people can work together productively and be able to achieve things that they could not achieve elsewhere. But if the specific work I need to do tomorrow can all be done from home, whether that involves a computer or not, why do I need to drag myself into the office in the morning and then travel back home again at the end of the day? If the net result achieved is the same either way, why should I be wasting my time travelling into the office on an unnecessary journey?

I don't want to work from home every day, but I do want the flexibility to be able to do it, if it was the right thing to be doing for the next piece of work that had to be done. Why are so few companies interested in doing this, and so improving employee morale and productivity as a result?

Adding direct value, and not just a revenue stream

I want to be recognised and needed by my employer for the work I do and the technical expertise I bring and use for them. I do not want to be employed simply because I am an income stream for them, either charged out on a daily basis or having things like sales targets to achieve. Once you cross this line you suddenly find that the amount of the revenue you bring in to the company is more important than your technical knowledge, expertise or quality of work. And the company will always want more, money that is, from its customers, and not better work or knowledge from you.

No travel other than getting to the office

Why would I want to spend a significant amount of time each day travelling to different places, possibly even staying away from home for several nights? Some people might want to do this, but I don't. I have a life outside of work, and want to be able to get on with it at every opportunity I can. I work because I have to in order to get money, because that is the only legal way I can, and not because I want to. So I will always seek to minimise the travel I have to do each day. If a job involves travel then I will be losing more than I am gaining as far as I am concerned.

Not in a large city centre

I live about 30 miles from London, and there are many, many jobs to be had in London. I could commute there each day, but the thought fills me with dread. Not the travel itself, but either doing it on congested roads or on packed public transport (buses, trains and underground railways) every day as hundreds of thousands of other people do the same journey. The train is the easiest and best option for London in many respects, but this still involves a number of changes between bus, train and underground to complete the journey, each of which will be packed full with many other people all shoulder to shoulder with each other. Travelling like sardines like this every day would be soul destroying to me. So no jobs in the middle of city centres please.

Good Holiday

When I want it. Almost no job is so critical that they cannot do without you for a while. I do not work in a factory or a production line or something similar. What would they do if I left, and what about before I joined them? Answer – they got by. So they can get by without me for a few days. I'm not asking to be paid more for doing less – just let me have unpaid holiday when I want it.

Not Consultancy or Sales

I have two main reasons for not wanting to work in these areas, even though jobs of these types exist like spades in the IT industry. One is because I am not particularly good at them. I can do them, but I would be much better at another type of role. So it seems silly to do a job that relies on my weakest attributes rather than my strongest ones, regardless of how much someone else says the job is 'good' and I should consider it. The other reason is that I do not want a job where I am measured by the quantity of money brought into the company and not by the quality of the work I do. And both of these jobs exist solely to bring money into the company – they are both about getting a customer to pay the company for something. Sure, some companies will need these kind of roles. But I am not interested in doing either of them.

Clarity of Purpose

Whoever the next employer is for me, it must be clear to everyone what it is they do. So that both the customers and I are clear on this. If I or any customer need to spend any time asking exactly what the company does, then it probably does not have a clear enough focus. And from knowing what the company does, it should also be clear where I fit in, what I do, and how I add value to the company. No woolliness or vagueness here please.

Not too diverse

On the one hand diversifying can help a company grow, and help it through turbulent times, such as when one product goes through a transition and its sales drop. On the other hand a company can diversify too far, and the product set become too varied. I have seen several companies fragment as a result of this, with stove piped departments that never shared anything with each other and always did their own thing. The worst thing was when customers would ask for information about the product set, and the company had to arrange a full day of different presenters to explain it all. Even the company itself could not come up with a single, coherent description of all the things it did.

No Microsoft systems or applications

This could be a book in its own right about all the many problems with the software Microsoft design, make and sell. But the bottom line is that Microsoft is not the way for me, and never will be. Their software is very poor, at best, for a number of reasons including its design, security, scalability, non-standard, heavily proprietary and closed (as opposed to open). My background is UNIX and Oracle, and they are far superior at what they do. So I've no interest in 'converting' and learning all the Microsoft development tools whatsoever. I'll leave the Microsoft software to other people to deal with, if they want to, and I'll stick to what I know.

No Human Resources

A personal thing, but I loathe and detest Human Resources and struggle to find any reason to have them in a company. What is it HR do that the line managers should not or could not be doing by themselves? I do not want HR sticking their nose into what I do for the company. If there is an issue I expect my manager to be able to deal with it, or their manager above them and so on. There should be no need to go sideways to another department. I have never seen any situation or company get better after the HR department got involved. In fact I have seen the morale in a company go steadily down as the result of the actions of HR and the new policies and procedures they have introduced.

Not driven by profit growth or share price

All companies need to make a profit, without exception. After costs have been deducted from the incoming revenue there must be something left over, otherwise the company is making a loss and it will simply go bust eventually. But once you are making a profit, does the amount of the profit really matter? I mean, yes, it needs to be a 'reasonable amount', whatever that is. But does a company need to be so focussed on year on year revenue and profit growth as so many are? Nothing can continue to grow forever, ad-infinitum! Surely it would be better to grow to a certain size, and then be a stable sized company continuing to make a healthy profit each year? The drive to make ever larger profits seems detrimental somehow to me. At some point this single mindedness tends to backfire, one way or another, with the company over stretching itself.

I don't really expect any of this, but I can dream, can't I?