2020

OK so here we go, my almost-regular annual roundup. Of 2020. Deep breath.

Right so first things first, obviously 2020 SUCKED. For everyone. Anything I say that's negative is not meant to be "oh poor me I had it worse than anyone" and anything positive is all about focusing on the positives, I hope I don't make anyone feel weird about good shit happening in a horrible year.

So caveats and disclaimers up-front:

  • None of my close circle of friends or family died or was hospitalised with Covid. Yes, friends of friends, family of friends, and some people in my much wider circle of acquaintances and friends. I consider myself extremely lucky.
  • I also got very lucky with how old my kids currently are - old enough to be fairly independent (compared to a baby), young enough that school is not mandatory for them.
  • I'm also very fortunate in my working situation. I've been working remotely for 8 years already, and my company is a) extremely caring about its employees and b) in a financial situation to be able to support them.

How to start?

Personal

2020 was my first full year without Mum. And if there's a year that you really want to be able to call your mum and ask for advice or comfort, it's the year of a pandemic. I've cried so many times over re-remembering, again and again, that she's not here: "I'll just give mum a call. Oh, I can't". Over the year that morphed away from forgetting I can't call her to (mostly) internalising that. Then what happens is I'm restless and need something and something's missing, and I go through my mental list of people to talk to, and none of them quite tick the box. Then later I realise that's because there's still a mum-sized hole in my life.

Anyway enough of that cos I won't be able to write the rest of this if I start crying again.

The upside is that I didn't have to worry about the effects of lockdown or covid on my poor cancer-ridden mother. Not being able to travel to the UK to see my family was a big challenge for me, especially given I was going every other month for the last couple of years so I could see Mum, but on the other hand given the need to do that had passed, it was "good" I didn't have to worry about not being able to go there to see her, and not being able to just hop on a plane "should the worst happen". So many people this year were in a much worse position, I am grateful every day for the opportunity to be there at the end for Mum.

It SUCKS that I haven't seen my Dad in person since this time last year. It SUCKS that I haven't seen my sister or her family in over a year. It sucks that I haven't seen any of my closest friends, who all live in the UK, all year. It sucks that not travelling to conferences or offices means that my major sanity-restorers that compensate for working from home in a city where I don't really mingle or have many friends have been taken away. I didn't realise how much I relied on international travel to give me the social life I lack at home.

The plus side is that I really have had to live in Seville. Not just have a house here and rely on my husband and his family to basically hold me and the family together. I've had to shop locally, in markets and grocers, instead of anonymous supermarkets. I've had to really use my Spanish, and it's helped me to integrate with the neighbourhood.

I've missed going to the gym, I started body pump classes with one of the (British) Mum's from school at the end of 2019 and that was a HUGE mental lift when I needed it the most. Even though I haven't been since February 2020, that investment of time means at least I have a friend (and a group of other British Mums) to at least talk to, if not really hang out much. The eldest isn't going to school any more so I don't have the school run for that social contact either, but we've made the effort to meet up (outside, with masks, socially distanced) when the lockdown rules and our childcare responsibilities have permitted.

Fitness

But yeah, gym. When lockdown hit in March, I started paying for my Les Mills subscription and managed an hour of body pump most days. This was great at first, but after a couple of months I started having problems with my shoulder. I mixed it up with some body balance/combat/attack, and once the lockdown lifted I started running again. Two months of not leaving the house meant my achiles was... not great... once I started up again, but it seems to have sorted itself out over the year. The body pump tapered off after lockdown, not least of all because my shoulder just couldn't take it for most of the rest of the year, but I've just picked it up again slowly and the shoulder seems to be OK now. My body pump fitness is worse than it was, of course, but it's not gone.

The goals for 2020, particularly after the first lockdown lifted, was just to Do Something. Not reach some goal or get faster or stronger, just make sure that I did some activities every week. In September, I treated myself to a running buggy, so there were no more excuses - run every day with the kids. They love it - we go out at breakfast time, they get to eat their sandwiches or whatever, I do 30 ish minutes at whatever pace works for me that day, and we all start the day much happier than we used to. It meant I generally managed about 15km a week, which is fine. It tapered off a bit over Dec, not least because I trapped a nerve in my back and had to take take two weeks off. Then it was cold and the kids were snuggled with me in bed in the mornings and... well if I've learnt one thing from 2020 it's to enjoy the little things, and it's very lovely snuggling in the mornings with two little warm snuggly things.

So yeah. Fitness has been OK, especially for This Year, focusing on just Doing Something has made it easier and more fun. But there's not really much fun in exercising in the body of a 41/42-year-old. Middle age is no joke. I had quad or hamstring injuries in lockdown (I don't remember which now, my middle aged brain just remembers having to skip lunges for two weeks); right Achilles problems and left shoulder problems throughout summer; trapped nerve in the back in winter; and last time I went out for a run my left achiles was trying to get my attention. Getting old sucks. But I guess it just underlines how important it is to keep moving.

Work

Work, well, work went really well this year. That seems crazy, all things said. I've spent many years of my life trying to "work harder" or "achieve more" and this was not one of those years. In lockdown (March/April) with the kids at home, I only had two hours a day for work. This made work really easy - I said "no" to everything I didn't want to do. Turns out, a chunk of stuff I do is stuff I don't want to do but feel I should. Of course, it was easy to say no to anything that involved travel (I cancelled/declined all events that required travel for the whole year back in March/April, to remove all uncertainty and planning). I also said no to anything with hard deadlines or that required talking to people, particularly that required talking to people at very specific times. With the kids (aged 2 and 4 at the time) at home, it was too hard to figure out "a good time", and too hard to multitask. I like podcasts, interviews, and some types of virtual talks, but I felt better not spending the emotional energy on those things. I picked them up after May when things started to ease a bit and the kids could stay with family, but it was surprising to me how much better I felt not doing them - you'd think I needed the external contact with grown up humans, but what I actually enjoyed work-wise in the hardest part of lockdown was actually delivering stuff - time to myself, away from people, to work on screencasts and blog posts. For these, I concentrated on topics I knew well, nothing that needed research or experimentation. Turns out there's a lot of stuff I know really really well about IntelliJ IDEA, so I focused on those topics back in Q2. Those things delivered such good value that for the rest of the year the team has generally used the "is this something that falls under my expertise?" to guide prioritisation. Honestly we have so much to do and so many ideas that this is as good a way as any to prioritise, and does lead to us a) delivering more (less time needed for research and prep) and b) having less stress and a bit more fun when we're working on things.

We were more productive (as in, produced more stuff - videos, blog posts etc) this year than any other year. This is for a number of reasons: 1) Focusing on our strengths, as I just mentioned 2) Not going to conferences 3) Committing to delivering (e.g. one screencast a week for the YouTube channel) 4) actually having any focus at all. I'd like to talk about all of those in more detail but maybe that will be another blog post.

Speaking of the team, what a team I have now! Really this is the highlight of the year for me. At the start of the year, Mala and I, in fact all 20+ members of the JetBrains advocacy team, all reported directly to Hadi. Mala and I had a close working relationship as we were both working on Java advocacy and working closely with the Product Marketing Manager for IntelliJ IDEA, but ultimately we were two individuals making our own decisions and doing individual prioritisation. In January, we had our annual advocacy meeting (the second-to-last trip I took!) and Hadi announced the partitioning of the team into roughly technology-focused areas: Java, Kotlin, .NET, IntelliJ SDK, and "Other" (i.e. everything else), with their own leads. Hadi asked me to lead Java (me and Mala), and to hire another advocate. This was very exciting, this is only the second promotion I've ever had in my life. It's also the first time I've been an actual line manager for anyone, which was a bit terrifying. I honestly think if I'd had these responsibilities back in my late twenties I would have been young enough, and naive enough, to be fine with it all and just get on with it. Now I'm middle-aged and I've been working in industry for over twenty years, I'm much more nervous about repeating some of the errors I've seen others make, much more aware of the impact a manager has on an individual and an organisation, and not always in a good way.

Mala was the best direct report I could have practiced on: she's endlessly patient, she's autonomous, extremely competent, and can be trusted to hit deadlines. We both wanted to have clear objectives to work towards this year (autonomy is a blessing and a curse) and we set ourselves individual and team objectives. Not "deliver x many screencasts", but "improve confidence in..." and "focus more on...". These are fluffy, non-SMART, objectives, but they are helpful to guide priorities: when you have 10 things you could work on this month, which 3 most closely match what you wanted to achieve this year? We also tried to set ourselves "themes", so we could have less context switching and gain more from reuse. This helped us a LOT in Q2 (lockdown) where we needed to delivery a new screencast every Wednesday. Which we did. Over the year I think we only missed 2 weeks, maybe. Honestly if you'd told me "the team" (which was just two of us at the start of the year) would deliver a new video every week this year, I would have laughed at you. And then probably quit. But we did it, and not by working harder but by working much, much smarter. And working "happier", if that's a thing.

After Jan I was hunting for my new team member. I spoke to a bunch of people, with different backgrounds and levels of experience. Honestly I wanted to hire all of them - advocacy is a job where there are so many things to do that when you can see someone's strengths you can put them to work in areas that work for them and everyone benefits. In the end I hired Helen - over lockdown and early summer we had been working together with O'Reilly on early drafts for a couple of books, and although those specific books didn't work out for various reasons, Helen and I gelled so well in this kind of work that I just knew I needed her on my team. She's new to advocacy, but she's performing at a level where people are constantly surprised that she's been doing it for less than six months. She's also So Fast - she doesn't realise it because she's comparing herself to people who've been doing this sort of thing professionally for years, and she has no idea I used to do, like, one screencast a month or one blog post in two weeks. It took me six years to ramp up to this level of productivity.

The team was working nicely with the three of us, and Helen was very quickly coming up to speed, when an unplanned opportunity came our way and we were in a position to hire Dalia for the Java team. Dalia plugs the gaps in our team that I was alternately trying to plug myself and then ignoring when I couldn't. Dalia is also the only one of the four of us who prefers to learn via videos rather than blogs / written content. We are already benefiting greatly from her insights.

The balance of the team is so importantly, much more so than the specific technologies we have experience of. Developers are always learning new technologies, that's a skill we master. The vibe of the team, the way we talk to each other, the way we learn off each other, the way we support each other, the way we deal with our inevitable mistakes or mis-steps, these are the most important things. Advocacy is lots of fun, it's like teaching but with students who want to learn, and without having to teach the same things again and again. But it can be challenging putting yourself out there, building a brand for yourself, opening yourself up to those inevitable "But Java Sucks" Twitter comments, it takes a lot of energy and you need that energy replenishing, you need a team who can help grow your confidence when it takes hits. That's what I want from this team.

We're all able to learn off each other too, for example Helen and Dalia have much more team leading experience than me, and they have both given me great advice and help, in a non-judgemental way. It can be hard to manage people who are more experienced than you!

So yeah. In short: I became a manager, doubled my team size, the team delivered videos every week enormously increasing our YouTube subscriptions, achieved more views for each of our videos (not sure if the videos are better or if the YT algorithms like us better). I continued "presenting" at virtual conferences, started working on three different books, have another three ideas in the pipeline, oh yes and 97 Things Every Java Programmer Should Know was published. Holy hell it was a productive year.

One last thing: conferences. I was already signed up for only two conferences (I think, maybe three) for 2020 so the cancellation of all events actually didn't affect me much. Moving to virtual conferences meant I presented to many more people than I had planned to, with far less time/effort required than a real conference. I also believe I've been able to reach a different audience, as free online conferences are more accessible than real-life ones. However, by the end of 2020 I was just burnt out on virtual conferences - as a speaker you have most of the down-sides of presenting and very few of the upsides of conferences. At conferences:

  • I meet and speak to real developers. Not only is this a vital part of my job as a developer advocate, it just keeps me sane to speak to Real Grown Up Humans.
  • I meet and hang out with friends. Some fellow advocates and speakers were friends before I started this job (i.e. via the London Java Community), some became friends as I met and hung out with them a bunch. Regardless, for the last seven years or so my closest work "colleagues" were fellow advocates and speakers and conferences was where I connected with them.
  • I get much better feedback (or any feedback) on my talk. The questions you get, the faces as you're speaking, the people who grab you in the lunch queue to talk about your talk, these things are all inputs into how to improve the talk, or ideas for new talks or material. This year I've only given talks I already had prepared, largely because I didn't have time to create new material, I've been focused on IntelliJ IDEA screencasts. But it's also possible that without this extra input I just haven't been inspired to come up with anything new.

And the downsides of presenting:

  • You get nervous
  • You have to spend time practicing the talk even if you've done it a million times before
  • You put a lot of your energy, yourself, into the talk.

This last one, I get that energy back "in real life" when I can see how people react to the talk, or when they talk to me afterwards. With virtual events, even with a virtual Q&A after, you just don't get that energy back. I mean, granted, you don't have to queue in airports or spend 23 hours getting to California just to give a one hour talk (true story), but in that latter case I set up a bunch of meetings with friends in the area, and I did learn a LOT from talking to the attendees of my one hour talk.

Anyway. I don't think I want to do any more virtual conferences. At least for a bit.

I have retreated a bunch from online life though, not sure if it's because I've invested my energy elsewhere (the team, my own content, and my family) or if it's an unhealthy retreat. Whatever it is, I've deleted Twitter from my phone (I am DONE with Doom Scrolling and honestly, I haven't missed Twitter At All, I just use it on the laptop for work now), and installed a block-site app on my phone so I can no longer even visit news sites or facebook on my phone. It's just better to be more present.

Other stuff

Kids are great. Honestly I did get so lucky. They're old enough to play with each other, they're old enough to play without me, so during lockdown (and still sometimes now if I get to it) I can work out for an hour on the terrace and the kids can play together. Yes, I do have to stop the workout from time to time to manage a child on the potty, or to break up an argument, but that's a small price to pay,

I'm also lucky because we potty trained the little one last Christmas, and that one never had a dummy/pacifier, so we have been baby-accessory-free (nappies etc) for the whole year. The kids were 2 and 4 for most of the year, they just both incremented in November. The big one was at school until March. She did not go back in Sept because we decided the choice was she either went to school or saw her grandmother, and given they're only down to one grandparent here and one in the UK, their non-mandatory education (they only need to go to school at 6) can be paused for a bit. The little one should have started school in Sept (here they start the year they turn 3), she even has a place there, but same thing, we opted to keep them both off to protect abuela. Honestly I second guess that decision most weeks, but there's only so much emotional energy I can give to these decisions. This whole generation is going to grow up differently to us, so I guess it's not just my kids who may be messed up by this messed up year.

The kids miss planes, they miss their grandad and their cousins, but they're better at using Zoom than most grown ups. The big one has occasional Hangouts with her teacher (the rest of the class is in school so there's no official homeschooling here), and she's significantly better at using the computer to communicate than he is! The little one is obsessed with "hanging up" and many of my video calls are rather abruptly finished if she's in the room at the time.

But again, I just feel lucky that my kids can still see their grandad, their aunt, their cousins, and their adopted "aunties", in some way. I remember when my Dad's brother lived in New Zealand in the 80s, and I don't think Dad even spoke to him once a year - technology, costs and timezones made it pretty much impossible.

The eldest is now old enough to competently play XBox. Five years ago I was breastfeeding her while playing on my new XBox One. Now I'm letting her do most of the key stuff that needs doing on Lego Avengers (thank goodness I was obsessed with all the Lego games and have them all, they are perfect for playing with young kids). I think my five-year-old might be my best friend these days, and I'm not sure whether to be worried about that or not.

I've had quite a lot more responsibility for the kids this year than normal, and that's not just because of lockdown etc. My husband is now working on not one but two startups, because if you can do one, you can do two, right? Honestly, I think we rub off on each other the wrong way - he was supposed to help me take life less seriously, work less, enjoy more. Instead, I think I turned him into a workaholic. Anyway, the two ebb and flow in opposite directions depending upon the current covid restrictions - one is all about physically meeting up to play board games, and so needs to be paused when restrictions are high, and the other is about home delivery, and so there's always more to do when movement is more restricted. He works a lot of hours and it's challenging, especially when I don't see a lot of grown ups in real life these days (I always had sympathy for stay at home mums but this year has really ramped that up - how do they do it?), but it's really nice to see how motivated and, it seems, fulfilled he is working on these things. It also feels like we're doing something positive - Deli Deli in particular has the potential to really help local businesses and people, and it aims not to be the cheapest but to be an ethical choice - e.g. the delivery people are employed, not gig-workers.

I really wish I'd been blogging all year, then I wouldn't have to write so much here.

Hobbies

Oh right yeah. Not only did I try to make sure I exercised every day, not only did I try to keep Friday afternoons, if not "free" then at least "relaxed", not only did I uninstall a bunch of apps from my phone and try to step back from online life, I also picked up knitting. This might be a flash in the pan because I've only been doing it for December. But I'm enjoying doing it while we watch the Avengers movies for the millionth time (yes, OK, that's not quite age appropriate for my children but I honestly can't watch Frozen 2 again) instead of pissing around on my phone. I have discovered I can't write while not-really-watching-telly but I can poke my website (hence I finished the migration of my various blogs to my new site - my FOURTH blog platform and apparently I had never actually properly migrated any of the first two, I just did an automated copy and hoped for the best). And I can knit. I'm chewing over some ideas about knitting-is-like-programming, but it's a bit tenuous. But I have discovered some great sites for knitting patterns and learning new techniques, and this is just like developer advocacy. It's given me some ideas, but honestly, it's not supposed to be for that! It's for disconnecting and doing something different. Also I can knit and let both kids play on the Xbox, and I can jump in where needed. Seems like a good way to combat the peaks and troughs of boredom.

I also cooked a LOT more this year. This is good, cos it's more healthy, but also I like cooking. The littlest one loves it too, and she only burnt herself twice, sigh. She hasn't fallen off the helper steps yet though.

The downside is it makes me want to buy a house or flat with a bigger kitchen. Almost anywhere would have a bigger kitchen than this, but I want one the family can actually sit in. In the centre of Seville. Yeah, dream on...

Summary

Yes, 2020 sucked for everyone. But... actually I got a lot of good things out of it:

  • I have a great team
  • I have grown personally and professionally
  • I have produced more content than ever before. Like, ever.
  • I am now a published author
  • I finally have a proper website of my own
  • I am closer to my kids than ever
  • I actually live in Seville. I can function here. I am known in the neighbourhood and I feel like a member of that neighbourhood
  • My Spanish is improving. I still don't use it enough but I get by. I can certainly get what I want when I go shopping, and I can communicate with medical professionals, without my husband.
  • I'm no longer kept awake by Brexit. I mean I will never stop being angry about it. But I had already done everything in my power by the end of last year, and even without the Pandemic I was just really over having worries about it ruining my life. It helps that the Spanish government appear to be doing everything in their power to make people like me feel safe, which is more than That Other Government is doing for, well, anyone.
  • I started playing XBox again, I have a routine for exercise that is more or less working, I have some new hobbies, and although me-time is still very much in short supply, I'm making progress towards some more sustainable habits, rather than relying on plane flights and work travel to get some time to myself.

Holy crap. What a year. All it took was a pandemic and no travel to force me to reset my priorities into a direction that made me happier.

Acknowledgments

As well as family, friends, work colleagues, etc who helped me get through this year, I have to credit my coach, Ryan Cox. Talking things through with him gave me a great deal more clarity over where I am, what I do NOT want to be doing, which helped me to create a vision for where I want to be. I hired him to help me prioritise my crazy life, and he has helped me to see that what I really wanted was permission to de-prioritise stuff. He presents a mirror to me so I can see where I really am, which helps to get off the hamster wheel/treadmill with its sensation of movement, and move onto the road where we really get somewhere.

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