Chris’s 2020 reflections

I ended 2019 unsure what 2020 would bring, but wanting to continue to build on the big successes I had in finding a new work-life balance and continue to develop my political activism. But then there was a global pandemic and long periods where it’s been illegal to meet other people inside, so that happened.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The pandemic has been (and continues to be) hard. I live by myself and most of my social interaction this year has been virtually, although a changing of the rules half way through the year allowed me to form a social bubble with my parents, allowing me an escape hatch where I moved back home for a month, as well as other extended trips back when I was feeling particularly low. I surprised myself with how much I needed to have social interaction and external stimulation (I’ve missed dancing in a noisy bar more than ever), especially given how I always thought of myself as an introvert (which probably says a lot about the reality of the introvert/extrovert binary).

2020 is ending on a particular low. I’m terrified of the hockey stick growth the coronavirus and how the NHS is becoming overwhelmed, with it seems the controls we do have in place being simultaneously draconian yet not controlling it. There is hope in sight though, with 2 vaccines now approved and rolling out, but I fear 2021 will start worse than any point in 2020 was.

I normally cover travel in this end of year summary, and I did get to travel twice this year! Once in early February, and again in August where in a lull in the pandemic I spent a week at my parent’s holiday home in the Aveyron (south-west France). It was bittersweet to say goodbye to it but after many years of happy memories (and lots of work over the years!) it’s probably also time.

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Au revoir, 3 George Sand

February’s trip was the kind of trip I wanted to make more of this year. Travelling sustainably (by rail) to a European city for a long weekend. This time was visiting Rebecca in Basel, a weekend I thoroughly enjoyed and am glad I got away to appreciate it.

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As the first lockdown hit I took full advantage of the cleared up time to work full-speed ahead on my startup (1500 Cloud, which was intended to be a cloud platform for video production using the object-based techniques I learned and helped develop whilst working at BBC R&D). As lockdown dragged on though, my motivation was quickly sapped and my work building out the platform (specifically the ingress/egress parts of the store) dragged out slower and slower. Working by myself was fine when I had a social life in the evening, but when I didn’t, I spent days with very little social contact of any type.

I was struggling. I would best describe how I felt as untethered and adrift.

This, combined with the growing pressure on making sure I could turn the platform into a sustainable business made to decide to pivot what I was building to something else but shortly after, I was approached by Culture Shift, who had been my biggest client whilst freelancing up to that point to take a permanent role in the team as Head of Development. I quickly accepted this role and am very glad I did — working as part of a team again, especially with some great colleagues has been brilliant for me. I abandoned all my own work on my startup to help them build out their team, as they had recently secured £1,350,000 in venture capital investment as their first raise. I’ve hired some excellent team members who I’m really happy to work with, as well as helped introduce Vimla Appadoo into the business as my counterpart as Head of Experience, and together we’ve built a really effective user-centric product culture.

The first thing I wanted to do after taking the job was to improve the bus factor of the product team from being just me, such that the product team does not solely rely on one individual. I’m fairly confident I’ve achieved that.

It’s also given me some more space to develop my technical and non-technical skills. I’ve learnt how to use React hooks (and like them, mostly) as well as becoming more involved in a leadership role of Culture Shift, giving me valuable insight and experience in contributing to and helping shape company-wide strategy, and the reality of scaling a start-up from the business side. I’ve also managed to put into practice some elements of data-driven product research that I’d always wanted to do at the BBC but was never quite able to do.

As I’ve become more embedded in Culture Shift and worked more closely with customers I’ve really appreciated how effective our software is (Culture Shift’s system allows organisations to receive, manage and analyse reports of bullying, sexual harassment, violence and more to support victims and pro-actively identify trouble areas to help stop future issues even developing). There are now 835,000 staff and college/university students who have access to our system and the support it provides for them, and some of the stories we hear are harrowing, but I’m so glad that I’ve managed to play a part in helping them get access to support and justice, and I genuinely believe almost every medium/large organisation would benefit from what we offer.

My favourite tools of the last year have been Mixpanel and Sentry. I’ve mostly been coding in TypeScript (which I continue to enjoy), but this year I’ve also been using some tools from the start of my career, working with the Center for Human-Compatible AI on a WordPress site (and remembering why I used to like WordPress), also created a side-project in Django and React for a virtual BarCamp (and remembering how much I enjoy working in Django).

I also experimented with learning Rust and WebAssembly for 1500 Cloud at the start of the year and liked what I saw, but didn’t quite use it extensively enough to make a final decision. I would do it again though.

Outside my career, there are two things I’ve invested in that’s made a significant different to my life. An improved video conferencing setup (in the form of a ring light and a Røde NT-USB microphone) has served me well, but my best purchase, fortuitously, was a new TV. It’s an LG C9 OLED TV which is UHD (4K) and supports HDR (high dynamic range). I can’t overstate how amazing it is to watch HDR content on it, I’m completely blown away by the colour quality of HDR, and I completely understand my former colleagues’ mantra of “better pixels, not more pixels” as the future of TV.

The other noticeable change in my life has been my continued development of my political activism. In contrast to the rest of my life, this has been noticeably improved by the pandemic. This time last year I was a paper-only candidate for the Miles Platting and Newton Heath ward, but after the May elections were delayed a year, Joe Lynch, one of the candidates for our higher priority seats stepped down and I put myself forward, and was then selected as, the candidate for Piccadilly, just across the road from me in the city centre.

It’s been hard work, especially when combined with supporting our other city centre candidates in their campaigning, but given a series of interesting decisions by Manchester council this year (suspending planning committee in favour of giving control to council officers with very little democratic oversight, the botching of Great Ancoats Street improvement works, choosing to accelerate development of much-used green space over brownfield surface car parks, and a lack of action over the climate emergency best epitomised in how the council failed to bid for any significant active travel alternatives in the pandemic), I’m very happy to be fighting the good fight and become a constructively critical voice for residents on the council, unlike the culture of the incumbent Labour councillors which is seemingly complacency and on the side of the council rather than residents.

We’ll see in May how I do.

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Myself, John and Alan — the May 2021 city centre Liberal Democrat candidates delivering Christmas cards

Running an unconference in 2020 was pretty different from running one in 2019. But, along with Claire and Luce we successfully managed to capture the event as well as we thought we could and brought it online, using Discord combined with a custom grid webapp I wrote. We had positive reactions from the first event and decided to run a Winter BarCamp on 9th January (tickets still available!).

The other less fun thing in my personal life has been the cladding scandal that’s been unfolding as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire. Although our building’s cladding is not flammable like Grenfell’s, the cladding system as a whole, and the insulation beneath it, is dangerous and has the potential to cause a serious, rapid spread of fire. As a director of our building’s management company I’ve been part of the people helping co-ordinate getting this resolved, and communicating it with other leaseholders in the building. At the moment I’m having to pay significant monthly bills in the hope that either our long-standing claim against an insurance company that’s now folded under the weight of its liabilities, or the government’s Building Safety Fund. It’s a long drawn out process which has left me in an unsellable, unsafe flat. Fortunately, the campaign group the Cladiators (which I’m a member of) have been leading a great fight and as the scale of this scandal ever grows I hope for a resolution in 2021.

The final thing to call out in 2020 is that I managed to keep up physical exercise. When the gyms shut, I was scared that I’d lose the rhythm of regularly going, but I started going running during lockdown and even managed to run an (extremely slow) half marathon by myself. As restrictions started to lift again, I managed to see my personal trainer outside weekly and continued to work on my strength and fitness. I’ve not made any gains or hit any personal bests, but I did continue to regularly work out and that’s been enough for me, and I’ve felt good after every session.

I also want to thank my friends who’ve been there regularly for me during this, especially Niall and the weekly pub quiz Zoom call he invited me to, and the Manchester Werewolves crowd, with twice-monthly online Werewolf at werewolv.es.

So much else has happened during 2020 that I can’t even begin to cover, but as this is a personal retrospective I won’t dwell on them too much. I am deeply saddened that there are only a few hours left (as I write this) in the freedom of movement between us an continental Europe, as well as watching the continual erosion of the rights of trans people unfold in our discourse. But I’m also heartened to see the Black Lives Matter movement has continued to make racial justice an issue and I hope we continue to see positive movement in that space.

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Manchester’s Black Lives Matter protest, where I was in attendance

It seems foolish to make any predictions for 2021. I’m hoping I’ll be able to travel at some point during the year, and we see the pandemic finally brought under control. I’m cautiously optimistic about my chances in May, but at the same time even if I don’t win, I will have learnt absolutely loads about campaigning and then be able to carry that onwards into 2022’s elections.

One big change I know will come is that I’ve booked myself in for LASIK laser eye surgery in January. I’m looking forward to being able to wear a mask without my glasses flogging up, but it also feels I will have new opportunities as my looks will become very different without glasses dominating my face (which I think is one of my defining features) and I’m thinking of changing my style up a bit, or experimenting a bit more.

And now I’m off to end 2020 in the most 2020 way possible — first by having a Zoom pub quiz, and then having a Zoom call with the friends I would normally be seeing in Ian’s flat.

Here’s to a happy new year, and a better 2021 🥳

A technologist wanting to share knowledge and iterate towards a better world.

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