Looking back on it, 2016 was an overall success, however 2017 hasn’t been quite so straight forward. There have definitely been some highs, but a number of disappointments too.
Work has completely dominated my life this year, but I’ve managed to find time to travel as well, yet many of my headlines are achievements in my professional rather than personal life.
My work at BBC R&D has been towards building production tools for software-defined TV studios. Traditional TV studios are often constrained based on the need to move and record high quality signals around using SDI cables, and integrating various black box components together to provide a workflow. R&D has been working on a project called IP Studio for several years which aims to take all of those signals and move them around standard computer networks, which then means we can start processing them as software, and treat them less as signals, and at more meaningful levels of abstraction. In parallel, the team I’m in has been looking at what kinds of new experiences we can build when we eliminate the constaints of broadcast, and can instead deliver an individual programme to every viewer. This led to the development of something known as object-based media, based around the idea of delivering individual bits of media as things called “objects” (that is, some meaningful abstraction over the actual signals) as well as the instructions on how to assemble those objects together in a way that makes sense.
At the start of the year, where I project I was involved in launched onto BBC Taster: the Cook Along Kitchen Experience (or CAKE, and I’m happy to accept any blame for badly acronymed projects). This was the latest exemplar of an object-based experience, and has proven to be a big success. It also suffered from the perennial issue of research with people wanting to take it straight to being a product and scaling it, but it wasn’t quite ready for that at that point in time. The next challenge from there was that I was tasked with building a platform to allow production tools to be created for people to create these kind of object-based experiences at scale. This expanded from just me into a larger team that were building the tools as well, but breaking an R&D mindset that has been used to prototypes to thinking about products, platforms and scale has been fraught at times and not something I’ve always managed as smoothly as I could. (You can read more from my colleague Kate Towsey, who spoke about her perspective as a design researcher in a similar team, albeit on another project). In fact I think this failure to smoothly build a team that gets the product/platform mentality and is delivery focussed is probably my biggest failing of the year, and my biggest point to improve on.
In addition to my engineering work, I’ve also managed to co-author an academic paper with the University of York on object-based media, as well as with my colleagues at the TVX conference on CAKE. I was also lead author on and presented a paper at IBC on the platform for production tools. I’m really enjoying the exposure to academic work that working in BBC R&D is giving me, the rigour involved in academic publishing is something I think the wider tech industry can benefit from.
In 2018, I’m taking a step back from the work on object-based media directly (although I’ll be keeping an eye in because I really think it’s got amazing potential!), and instead am starting a new team running a “Trial Platform” — an exemplar deployment of our “IP Studio” technology by building a team that’s loosely analogous to a Site Reliability Engineering team (i.e., similar to a broadcast engineering team, but software and IT based).
This leads me on to my other big professional success in 2017. I was given the opportunity to develop a proposal about how to accelerate software development effort on the IP Studio and proposed bringing in an external software agency to develop new software from a product, not research, background. This was amazingly successful and really showcased how the work the IP Studio team have been doing around applying IT-based architectural patterns to broadcast can lead to rapid development. In a relatively short turnaround, I brought on site a team from the agency Isotoma to develop a piece of software called SOMA (the Single Operator Mixing Application, which also has some tenuous connection to Brave New World that I didn’t fully think through). SOMA is an interface to some of the underlying principles of a software-based studio that IP Studio is trialling out, and we were fortunate enough to use it to produce audience-facing content in a completely software, IP-based way for the Edinburgh Festivals with BBC Arts. I’m pleased I was given the opportunity to develop this proposal and then trusted to deliver it successfully! SOMA is also forming a significant part of this new “Trial Platform”, so fingers crossed that I can deliver that too…
Outside of work, I’ve continued working with a personal trainer and have seen big quantifiable gains with my fitness and strength, which is very rewarding! I’d wish I’d really gotten into fitness effectively earlier in my life, but I’d really encourage more people to take their fitness seriously. Three(ish) times a week, I take an hour out of my life, completely disconnect from the world and just focus on me and an immediate goal (I normally do either strength or HIIT, each of which has fairly short cycles, so getting to the end of each one feels much more achievable than the longer, boring slogs I found other forms of cardio training). With the exception of one session this year which I had to abandon, I’ve never felt bad after a training session and is something I want to continue doing.
That said, my training is relatively undirected other than towards a loose goal of “get fit”. I’ve also failed to get my weight under control, with it fluctuating by several kgs during the year and I’ve never quite achieved my goal of being sub-100kg. This is something I want to double my efforts towards in 2018.
My goal of completing my book by my birthday (in July) and then by the end of the year has sailed by. But, I’ve made good progress towards it and my draft is now over 100,000 words long (despite my initial ambition of 50,000). The end is now very much in sight, and I’ve shared a synopsis of what the final shape of it has evolved to be.
I’ve managed to travel a number of times this year, with particular highlights being visiting my girlfriend’s home of Rīga. I also visited San Francisco to attend a friend’s wedding and continue to be taken aback by the huge divide that exists there, with homelessness and mental health clearly a significant issue, but fundamentally unable to be addressed in American political culture. I also have concerns about our political culture right now back in the UK that genuinely scares me for the stability of our nation, but now’s not the place to dive into that…
I’ve also started to be more vocal about my Asperger’s (not that I was ever particularly quiet about it). There is something about being in a relationship that makes you have to deal with some parts of it head on otherwise it can build up and cause rifts within that relationship, which has forced me to reflect more on that side of myself. It’s sometimes very easy to be in a safe space that never challenges you which mostly eliminates the need to address any of the challenges AS gives, but being in a relationship has pushed me out of that, for the better, but has forced me to deal with some of those issues. Work-related stress hasn’t helped either. Other public circumstances have arisen too, such as James Damore’s Google memo, which he then used his AS as an attempt at justifying his views and the way he presented them, and Chris Packham’s excellent exploration of how he experiences AS have been brilliant too, and continues to show me that AS is still not well understood in the wider world. For me, AS is always something that comes under an umbrella of “neurodiversity”, not a disease to be cured, and organisations like Autism Speaks, or treatments like ABA terrify me, and I was fortunate enough to be dealt under a more caring and forgiving system that doesn’t victimise children with autism, but instead gives them genuine tools to deal with difficult situations, rather than forcing them to fit into a “normal” shaped box.
I’ve also had to take a step back from Manchester Tech Nights. We only managed to run 2 events in 2017, a far cry from the 6 we should have done, and it’s an event I truly believe in, so it needs people who give it the love it deserve, rather than me holding it back. I wish all the luck to Mike and the new team who are continuing to run it! Instead, I’ve decided to pick up running BarCamp Manchester, which will be returning for the 8th event in 2018, and I’m working with some rather great people to make it happen!
In 2018, the questions are how can I improve on myself, what are the goals and “resolutions” I can set myself?
First is to get my relationship with food under control. I know what works for me, I just need to stick with it. I will make it under 100kg!
Secondly, I need to continue making more time for me, instead of saying yes to everything at risk of “FOMO”, I need to make sure I make time that I can just decompress and relax, and focus on the things I want to do, such as finishing my book. I also need to try and break up the later half of the year by having more holidays, as I find I struggle a lot at that time of year.
Thirdly, I want to continue cultivating my inter-personal relationships. I have lots of great friends but for some reason I’m scared to organise things outside of work with them (with the exception of house parties), and this is a part of my life I think I need to work on, lest I lose my work-life balance completely towards work, which it has been slipping towards increasingly this year. I want to have more board game nights, dinner parties, etc, and make new friends! One of my closest friends is moving away from Manchester, and it really strikes me how hard it is to meet new people as an adult, and the vast majority of my friends I know through work (with the exception of some YSTV people who I’ve started playing badminton with again!).
And to finish off with, some stats:
- Most listened to band: Public Service Broadcasting (again — and I also managed to see them live, twice!)
- Most popular tweet (by people number of impressions): this reply to former colleague Dan Hett whose brother was a victim of the Manchester attacks
- Users of my Alexa Metrolink skill: 180, making 815 total requests
2017 was the year I turned 30. It’s not been as scary as I thought it would be, let’s hope for a good 2018! 🎉