All posts by admin

Spell It Out! Sneak Preview! (and last chance to buy before Christmas!)

As many of you may know, I’ve been working on my new ‘word-spelling deck-building’ game: Spell It Out! You may have seen some of the unboxing pics of my production proof copy, such as:

Spell It Out!: What comes in the box!
Spell It Out!: What comes in the box!

This is a quick post to let you know that the production copies will be arriving late this week or early next week, and this is your last chance to purchase for delivery* before Christmas!

Buy it here:

I’ll be starting my designer blog later this month, but I wanted to put out a quick note, as I know there are a few people who said they wanted it to give as a gift. More soon! 🙂

*I can guarantee delivery before Christmas for downtown Toronto. Further than that, we are subject to the whims of Canada Post, but if you really need it fast, we can work something out.

My Grandfather never talked about The War

I never really knew my grandfather[1]. I’m sure some of this is because men[2] of his generation were not expected to interact with children in the same way as they are now, and some of it is because he was extremely old when I was born. Near as I can tell, he was born before the turn of the century in or near Ternopil[3], during the time it was Polish, but occupied.

Sometime during this time, he was conscripted[4] into the Polish army on the side of the allies, which likely means under Russian control.

After the war, he somehow managed to escape to France[5], and perhaps seeing that war was brewing again, he moved to Canada, where he met my grandmother.

My first, and perhaps only memories of him are of him being extremely old, in his late eighties, and seemingly upset with the infirmities that age thrusts upon a person. I regret that I never knew him when he was younger, or ever heard his stories.

My mom said that he never talked about the war, nor apparently much about his time before he moved to Canada. Apparently, he wanted to make a fresh start, and/or there was too much hurt or trauma back there.

As you’re reading this, it will have been 100 years to the day since the Armistice of November 11th, 2018, which is still remembered in Canada as Remembrance Day. This armistice was largely between Germany and the Allies in the West, though. The situation on the Eastern Front was significantly different. The war had taken a turn with the collapse of the Russian Empire, followed by two revolutions and civil war, which raged for four more years after the armistice in the West.

I don’t know what part he played in all of this. I don’t know how he managed to survive all of the chaos of war and revolution and civil war, never mind the subsequent Polish-Russian war. I do know that he worked as an orderly at Sunnybrook later in life, perhaps working with veterans, to what end I’m not sure. I like to think he gained some measure of peace from it.

This spirit of remembrance and peace that we celebrate today is based on a very important moment in history, where the guns fell silent for a time in one part of the world. We should also remember though, that despite this, a related war still raged for years afterwards, not very far away.

[1]My mother’s father.

[2]I have great memories of time with my grandma, interestingly, the most acute ones seem to revolve around food. Her delicious cabbage rolls, fresh-picked strawberries or corn from her backyard garden, fruit (bananas?) and Neapolitan ice cream, she even managed to make boiled peas a fond memory for me.

[3]Interesting things from this article: “In 1544 the Tarnopol Castle was completed and repelled the first Tatar attacks. On 20 January 1548 Tarnopol was granted legal rights by the King of Poland Sigismund I the Old which allowed the town to hold three fairs annually, and the weekly trades on Mondays.” I think we don’t fully understand the extent to which peoples’ lives were regulated, where a town had to be granted to right to hold a fair.

[4]Given what I know of politics in the area and at that time, I think conscripted is the best guess.

[5]I know there must be interesting stories here, some of which I have heard parts of, but they are outside the scope for today.

Japan in Pictures 2012: November 3, Darts, Parks, and Tokyu Hands!

When we last saw their intrepid heroes, they were Out and About Near Shinjuku. They then continued their journey towards Ikebukuro, along the way S captured the Essence of Subway:


The subway stations continued their impressively intricate maps of the subway building and surrounding area[1]:

They had these in all the subway stations.
They had these in all the subway stations.

First stop was a book store, where they found this incredibly useful artifact:

My English Atlas of Tokyo.  A lifesaver in many ways.
My English Atlas of Tokyo. A lifesaver in many ways.

Using this artifact, they successfully navigated around their first destination, ‘Ikebukuro’:

Ikebukuro, our first destination, it will forever have a warm place in my heart.
Ikebukuro, our first destination, it will forever have a warm place in my heart.

If you look closely at the map above, you can see Tokyu Hands (Tokyo HaNSu), and all of the other destinations mentioned in this post. See if you can track our heroes’ travels!

After obtaining navigational aids, our intrepid heroes continued to their excuse for exploring this neighbourhood, one of the female-oriented anime stores on Otome Road, likely Lashinbang.

Not finding exactly what they wanted, they wandered until they found a little park, where they spent a pleasant hour or two wandering and conversing with cats:

A large number of people (and cats!) seemed to be living permanently in the SE end of this park.
A large number of people (and cats!) seemed to be living permanently in the SE end of this park.

If you read the sign closely, you can see that it is called: “東池袋中央公園”, or “Higashiikebukurochūōkōen”, or “Higashi Ikebukuro Central Park“.

Next up was one of the famous ‘100 Yen’ stores:

In the 100Yen store, there were many examples of cuteness, such as this one.
In the 100Yen store, there were many examples of cuteness, such as this one.
I'll confess that I never discovered if this was true.
I’ll confess that I never discovered if this was true.

Followed up by their first (of many!) arcade visit!

An elaborate racing game in the first (of many) arcade(s) we visited.
An elaborate racing game in the first (of many) arcade(s) we visited.

Here, you can see S proudly showing off her bullseye:

IMG_0113 copy

And with that, it was time to wander again! Our heroes encountered this odd character guarding the entrance to a different arcade. Heeding his warning, they moved on:

We both found this character disturbing.
We both found this character disturbing.

And then it was time for Tokyu Hands! Possibly the most famous (at least to our heroes) of the ‘DePaTo’s (Department Stores), they encountered 6 floors of amazing sights:

Tokyu Hands!  Our new favourite Department Store!
Tokyu Hands! Our new favourite Department Store!
I can't help but think of Monty Python's "The Black Knight" when I see this.
I can’t help but think of Monty Python’s “The Black Knight” when I see this.
I don't know what game this is, but it looks like a classic.
I don’t know what game this is, but it looks like a classic.

(Upon reflection, this seems to be ‘Shogi‘, and is hundreds of years old[2].)

This was our first of many Lego experiences on this trip.
This was our first of many Lego experiences on this trip.
They had such a variety of phone cases at Tokyu Hands, I ended up buying too many of them.
They had such a variety of phone cases at Tokyu Hands, I ended up buying too many of them.
The word 'necomini' makes me think of cat ears, but I don't think that's what these are.
The word ‘necomini’ makes me think of cat ears, but I don’t think that’s what these are.

These were amazingly colourful little educational animal skeletons preserved in what looks like acrylic:


Stay tuned for next time, when our intrepid heroes follow some oddly dressed people into a secret hideout in a park, and discover a fabulous secret!

[1]Where else do you see top view and side view maps in public?

[2]In its current incarnation, Shogi is ~400-500 years old, but its ancestors go back at least a thousand years before that.

Japan 2012 in Pictures: November 3, Out and About near Shinjuku

When we last saw our intrepid heroes, they had just finished looking at various maps in Yoyogi, near Shinjuku. Today, we follow them as they explore small parts of that neighbourhood.

(Note: I found the ‘multiradical’ character finder super-helpful, especially as I seem to have lost my ability to draw kanji.)

First, we see their favourite little store of the day. It seemed to be a textbook store, but it also had a wide selection of little stationary:

This was an amazing little textbook store, with all kinds of stationary.
This was an amazing little textbook store, with all kinds of stationary.

There were various ‘No Smoking’ signs. This one seemed to be expressing itself in a somewhat counterproductive way. Near as I can tell, it says “Walk journey/carry out consume/smoke smoke prohibition stop/halt[1]…Shibuya ward Smoking Rules” (Note that ‘Ru-Ru’ in Katakana transliterates to ‘Rules’.):

This picture is somewhat unconvincing about the uncoolness of smoking.
This picture is somewhat unconvincing about the uncoolness of smoking.

We saw a number of these little signs embedded in the paving stones. This one seems to say ‘electricity‘:

We saw this little sign on the ground.  Near as we can tell, it says 'electricity'.
We saw this little sign on the ground. Near as we can tell, it says ‘electricity’.

This one seems to say ‘weak electricity‘, perhaps suggesting that you should not dig here?[2]:

Another strange sign embedded in the ground.  "Weak Electricity" and an arrow.
Another strange sign embedded in the ground. “Weak Electricity” and an arrow.
I liked the contrasting shapes of these buildings in the distance.
I liked the contrasting shapes of these buildings in the distance.

The warning sign on the arm seems to say:

Large black characters: “Enter mouth“, or “Entrance
(Note that the smaller red characters were difficult to read, this is my best guess):
Smaller red characters:
“Pa/Ba- beam/girderRe SeNSa- ??Middle!!”
Hand Wo(of)?Re?To Fu(Bu/Pu/Wa)Ga?Ri ???Come out

Perhaps something about a bar sensor, and cars may come out? (Or perhaps the standard warning, that the bar may move seemingly of its own accord, and bonk you unexpectedly?)

Note the warning sign on the arm.
Note the warning sign on the arm.

When we were there, there seemed to be some sort of election going on. Here is a selection of various campaign posters:

The one on the top seems to be a person called ‘NaGaTsuMa‘, with “The Democratic Party of Japan“, which apparently has had an interesting recent history.

Oddly, it mentions in the top right corner his birth year (1960) and month.

In the center of the poster, just to the left of his face: “Me, the fight I continue“, or “I continue the fight/I keep fighting.”
In red, it says: “one round/month/perfection in any event, day true second birth

Interestingly, his name is in Hiragana, not the more formal Kanji, I’m assuming so it’s easier to read. At the time of the election, he would have been 52, I’m not sure if that would make him young or old for running for office (as to why he would include his birth month on the poster). Also note the prominent but understated wedding ring.

The next poster down is ‘Hideko Murakami’ (not to be confused with Murakami), who apparently had her face cut/vandalized out of her political poster. It’s difficult to tell what her party was, but the text at the top of her poster says: “East Capital Metropolis/all/everything (Tokyo) deliberation party deliberation leader / Metropolis/all/everything deliberation leader politics/government investigate/mediate/harmonize leader senior

Suggesting she’s the senior leader, or a negotiator/mediator? (I can’t find anything on her in Google, to suggest why she would be a target of such specific vandalism.)

The other two signs seem relatively normal. Tamayo Marakawa seems reasonably famous.

The green sign has ‘DaKaRa oneself people/subjects party/faction“, or perhaps “So what if one’s self makes their own party”, perhaps referring to the party that had split off from the Liberal Democratic Party, and was currently in power.

There seemed to be an election going on.  This is a selection of campaign posters.
There seemed to be an election going on. This is a selection of campaign posters.
Another campaign poster.
Another campaign poster.

“What do you want?” A very bold statement, especially with the English being given equal treatment with the Japanese language. Direct translation: “MiNNaGa Laughing Face DeIRaReRu (of could to be) NiShiTaI (to do)”

The statement in black reads: “Me, I Act

The person seems to by Fumiaki Matsumoto. Note that the person making the poster helpfully spelled out his first name ‘FuMiAKi’, probably to help people vote.

An advertisement for a place to live.  Can't tell if it's a rental or purchase.
An advertisement for a place to live. Can’t tell if it’s a rental or purchase.

Stay tuned for next time, when our intrepid heroes visit the mythical Department Store ‘Tokyu Hands’!

[1]In some ways, these repeated similar words remind me of the words around the ‘Utwig Planetary Engineering Tool’, or Ab’s commentary about the ancient weapon[3]. Also similar to many sci-fi novels’ ‘translations’ of alien languages, putting multiple words to represent one alien word, to show that their concepts are grouped differently than they are in English.

[2]Google seems to agree, for what it’s worth.

[3]It’s written in dozens of different languages, but they all translate to ‘Boom’.

Japan in Pictures 2012: November 3, More Map Reading While Exploring Near Shinjuku by Day

When we last saw our intrepid travelers, they had just finished decoding part of a map inside Shinjuku station. They decided it was time to go out and explore the neighbourhood[1].

As they ventured onto the back streets, away from the bustle of the station, one of the first things they noticed was maps that looked like this:

The first neighbourhood map we documented.
The first neighbourhood map we documented.

As you can see, this is a map showing where various commercial establishments are in the neighbourhood. (The specific neighbourhood seems to be between Minami Shinjuku and Yoyogi Stations.)

The green label on the top looks like it reads “ShiBuYa (ward in Tokyo) YoYoGi (neighbourhood in Shibuya ward) T-38-3 RD7″.

The large green label on the left reads: “MaChi Wo Mi ShiKu!!” or “Town/Neighbourhood (of) Beauty District”.

This would make sense, given the prominent advertisement for ‘Hair & Make & Photo Studio”. There seem to be a number of restaurants, such as the ‘YaKiToRi ToMaRiBa’ (or Yakitoi Haunt)

There are a number of things I can’t decipher, such as: “FuaMiRi- Ma-To”, and “(TeNTeN)”, which might be a cool bar with a difficult-to-search name, or perhaps an eyebrow salon.

“TeRuRuMoBaIRu”, possibly a mobile phone store, but also turned up this in a google search.

There’s also “SaNKuSa YoYoGi …” “Sankusa Yoyogi bundle opening store” But ‘Sankusa’ is in Katakana, meaning it’s a loan word from somewhere, Yoyogi is the neighbourhood, and the last three words seem to be describing it as some sort of store. If we were there, it would probably be easy to find out. 🙂

The last one is in the lower right corner: “DaNSu SuTaJhiO M&S Company”, which sounds like a Dance Studio! 🙂

The previous map and the next map were beside one another on the street, suggesting that they referred to the same or similar neighbourhoods. At the time, we had figured that these maps were some sort of neighbourhood directory, but I had thought that the one above was commercial, and the one below was residential.

A zoomed-in neighbourhood map.
A zoomed-in neighbourhood map.

At the top, in blue on white, it seems to say “INTa-NeTo”, beside a ‘DoKoNeTo’ ad, suggesting it’s an internet company ad. Beside it is a pointer to a QR code, which I will ignore, because QR codes are silly.

Looking at some random establishments, we see:

– “INSaITo”
– “MaGuNa” (The smaller characters are difficult to read, perhaps SuChiIToANa-?)
– “Yoyogi ZeMiNa-Ru”, “Yoyogi Seminars”? beside:
– “Yoyogi A-To GiyaRaRi-” Which seems to be ‘Yoyogi Art Gallery”
– Beside what looks like a large building titled “BaRo-Ru Yoyogi MaNShiyoN” or “(something) Mansion Yoyogi”, which has such establishments as:
– “TeNMa”
– “HeA-SuTaNO” (Perhaps ‘Suntan’ or spa?)
– …

And many others I can’t make out. How many can you find/translate?

This next map seemed somewhat the worse for wear:

This neighbourhood map seemed a little worse for wear.
This neighbourhood map seemed a little worse for wear.

I can’t make out too many words in this one, perhaps a ‘KuRi-Su’, there’s a JR station on the right side of the map, ‘SaSaNiTaWa-‘, and many others I can decipher even less about.

What can you figure out? I feel like this has helped me with a lot of Katakana practice (and Yoyogi-recognition practice), but I still have a long way to go. It’s also interesting to see how many different neighbourhoods that we had heard of were so accessible to each other, often just by walking at random.

Stay tuned for next time, when our intrepid travelers, now that they’re oriented themselves, start actually experiencing the city!

[1]Some of their explorations from that first day, related to the design of the city and various objects, were captured earlier in ‘Thoughts on Design in Japan‘.

Japan 2012 in Pictures: November 3, Reading the Shinjuku Station Area Map

As part of our preparation for going back to Japan (and now that I’ve finally organized all of my pictures), I’ll be revisiting our first trip there in 2012. Part of the goal is to help me re-learn Japanese, part is the fun memory lane trip.

We rejoin our intrepid travelers in Tokyo, by Shinjuku station. As they prepare to exit the station, they consult the map:

YOU ARE HERE: A closeup of the area around Shinjuku Station, our favourite Tokyo train station.
YOU ARE HERE: A closeup of the area around Shinjuku Station, our favourite Tokyo train station.

Just above the ‘YOU ARE HERE’ (literal translation ‘present located-in ground/earth‘[1]), you can see:

‘E 27’, the Shinjuku Station on the Toei Oedo line.

Note the two kanji which represent ‘Shinjuku‘[2], which would be useful for us to recognize later, which are also present on the next two captions going up:

‘JR Shinjuku Bldg’, literal translation ‘JR Shinjuku BiRu’. Until now, I had no idea that ‘BiRu’ was the transliteration of ‘Building’[3].

Moving on to ‘Shinjuku Southern Terrace’ (literal translation ‘Shinjuku SeZeN TeRaSu'[4], which you get to through the ‘Southern Terrace Entrance’ (‘SeZeN TeRaSu Opening‘). Note that the last character is not the Katakana ‘Ro’, it is instead the Kanji ‘KuChi‘, for opening[5].

Moving clockwise, we see the ‘East Japan Railway Company Head Office’, or ‘JR East Sun origin main company BiRu’.

(Those of you who play Mahjong will likely recognize ‘East’ here. Also note that the second character in ‘Japan’ (‘origin’) takes a different meaning (‘main’) in ‘Company Head Office’.)

Moving along, we see the ‘Yoyogi 2 Post Office’ or ‘For generations old trees 2 Post Office

(I likewise learned ‘2’, or ‘Ni’ in this context from playing Mahjong. Note also that the ‘yoyo’ in ‘Yoyogi’ is an alternate of ‘daidai’, which presumably someone who grew up in Japan would know, but is perhaps non-trivial to someone trying to translate it.)

The ‘Odakyu Southern Tower’ ‘Small Rice Field Hurry SeZeN TaWa-‘ seems to be part of the home of the Odakyu Electric Railway. (I’m not sure of the exact etymology of ‘Odakyu’. My best guess is above.)

Continuing clockwise, we see our first name entirely in Katakana, the ‘Hotel Century Southern Tower’, or ‘HoTeRu SeNChiyuRi- SeZen TaWa’.

We then see an ‘Exit’ sign, or ‘Exit Opening’.

This takes us to one of the places that we stayed in Tokyo, the ‘Hotel Sunroute Plaze Shinjuku’ ‘HoTeRu SeNRu-To PuRaZe Shinjuku’, which shall forever be near and dear to our hearts. 🙂

This is right next to the ‘Shinjuku Maynds Tower’ ‘Shinjuku MaINZu TaWa-‘, which seems to be a 34-story office building.

Shibuya‘ ‘reluctant valley ?’ is surprisingly difficult to translate, as for some reason the handwriting recognition didn’t recognize the third character ‘district

Moving down to the bottom, in red, you will see one of the most important set of words to recognize in Japan: ‘Black UDoN Mountain Food‘. (The operative words here are ‘Udon’ noodles and the Kanji for ‘Food’. 🙂 )

The last one that I want to translate here is in the lower left-hand corner, in red: ‘Shinjuku SeNE- BiRu 1F’ ‘FueSuTei BaRu GoRuFu’ ‘Shinjuku WING Store‘. This seems to say (to me) that there’s something on the first floor of this building, perhaps a bar and grill and store?

Katakana is often difficult to de-transliterate, as you often have no idea which language the words are loaned from. Perhaps someone in the comments can answer!

Next time, our intrepid heroes pause to ponder the immensity of Shinjuku station, where the large number of train tracks is just one part of a huge complex:

The Area around Shinjuku Station, our favourite Tokyo train station.
The Area around Shinjuku Station, our favourite Tokyo train station.

…and then continue on their journey. Stay tuned!

[1]Many thanks to the KanjuVG Project and Ben Bullock: They were able to detect my poor drawings of kanji symbols on the first attempt, and their first suggestion was correct three out of three times (for the third symbol, I had to tell the program to ignore my stroke order)! If you’re going to be working a lot with Kanji, it’s worth learning the rules for stroke order.

[2]Interestingly, ‘Shinjuku’ means ‘New Juku’, or ‘New Lodge‘. Knowing this meaning of ‘Shin’ was to be helpful later.

[3]Not to be confused with ‘Bi-Ru-‘, or ‘Beer’.

[4]In these transliterations, I’m using a Katakana chart, and capitalizing the first letter of each syllable (including the syllable ‘N’, sometimes pronounced ‘M’ by our teacher).

[5]Interestingly, this is one of the few words I remembered from my 8 months of Mandarin back in the day, although only the meaning, not how to pronounce it.

One Way to Run a Hackathon

A place that I used to work ran periodic ‘Hackathons[1]’. After trying to describe them to various people it became clear that there were a number of different definitions of what a ‘Hackathon’ could (or should) be, so here’s my description, with some thoughts as to why structuring it this way might be a good idea.

What is a ‘Hackathon’? It’s a lot of different things to different people. Most definitions I’ve seen see it as an opportunity to spend a day (often 24 hours, or a weekend) building something that they wouldn’t normally build. The thing built is not necessarily a ‘thing’. It could be a website, and app, some other type of computer program, it could even be an organization. The important thing here is that whatever is created/built is taken from the concept stage to working prototype with at least some useful feature(s) by the end of the hackathon.

Why do you want to have a Hackathon? The ones that I’ve been involved with were an opportunity for people in a software organization to try something a little different for a day. Some reasons they did it:
– Learning a new skill or programming language by building something ‘real’
– ‘Scratching that itch’, solving some problem that they never quite get the time or priority to solve in their day-to-day
– Working with people that they don’t normally work with
– Building a full product (instead of working on a tiny piece of a huge system)
– Building a visualization tool
– Doing something totally different

Those involved generally seemed to greatly enjoy the experience, the chance to work on something different, to push themselves in a new and different direction, and perhaps the chance to receive the acclaim of their peers.

How did it work?:

There was a committee formed to organize the Hackathon. They were responsible for:
– Publicity
– Getting buy-in from management (this had already happened, so this part was relatively easy)
– Convincing judges to judge the competition (These were usually senior people in the organization who were not part of a ‘hack’)
– Organizing the various parts of the event
– The ‘pitch’
– The presentations
– The prizes
– The voting for the ‘Audience Choice’
– A/V and some method for telling presenters their time was up (we used a stop light)
– Finding sponsors for any ‘Sponsored Hacks’
– All of the various other small things required to run an event like this
– Buying the pizza for the party after the presentations

How often did they happen?
– The Hackathons happened once per quarter, generally in the middle of the week


During the weeks before:
– Publicity, book rooms, perhaps plan food, plan A/V, location, etc.

A couple of days before:
– Run the ‘Pitch Session’
– Provide a place (usually a wiki page) for people to join groups following the pitches

The first day of the hackathon (The hackathon would run noon to noon, with presentations 3-4pm the following day):
– Start the hackathon, giving any support where necessary

The second day of the hackathon:
– Collect presentations, so they can be presented in a timely manner
– Collect the judges, so they can judge the competition
– Run the presentations
– Run the ‘Audience Choice’ vote
– Count the ‘Audience Choice’ votes
– Distract the people with pizza while the judges are deliberating
– Help the judges present prizes

Some more details:

A ‘Pitch Session’ is:
– Each person gets one minute to talk about their idea, in the hopes that they can attract a group of people to work on it with them. There was a rule that teams had to pitch something if they wanted to win ‘best hack’, to encourage them to participate in the pitches and include others

How are teams formed?
– Teams can be of any number of people, but we never saw a team of more than 12 people or fewer than 1 person[2].
– To encourage different parts of the organization to work together, each team would be awarded points for each group represented in the team. Including someone from ‘Customer Experience’ or ‘Marketing’ would be worth three points, while including people from Engineering (the expected default for a hackday) would be worth 1 point
– Teams, once formed are added to the hackday webpage, for posterity, and so people can coordinate (and so the organizers can coordinate collecting all of the presentations)

What happened during the 24-hour Hackathon period?
– During the 24 hours of ‘hacking’, people generally put their project work aside and work on their hacks. Some people were given more or less time to do so, depending on their particular management chain and the urgency of their specific work at hand. Of course, if a production issue cropped up in the middle of the day, that would have priority.

How did presentations work?
– Each team was given 3 minutes to present. Luckily, we had a traffic light that was repurposed to give an easily visible signal to presenters when they were running short of time.
– There was generally an audience, of the other people hacking, the judges, and whoever else wanted pizza later

How were they judged?
– ‘Best Pitch’ (a friend of mine routinely won this part, due to his uniquely hilarious presentation style)
– This was generally awarded based on presentation originality and style
– ‘Most Productizeable’ (Which hack was easiest to productize for customers, either internal or external?)
– ‘Best Hack’ (this is the ‘best overall’ category)
– Not necessarily the one that won any other category, but the best overall
– ‘Best Presentation’
– Similar to ‘Best Pitch’, but generally a higher level of polish (and humour) is expected
– ‘Best Sponsored Hack’
– This is like ‘Best Hack’, but restricted to the specific sponsored category
– Hacks would be graded on the criteria above by the judges, IIRC on a 1-10 scale. (There may have been other criteria which were then rolled up into the categories above. That would be up to any event organizers, should someone wish to take these instructions and run with them.)

How did ‘Sponsored Hack’ work?
– This was a later innovation after some people saw the power of the various hacks that had taken place.
– A person or persons within the company would put up money for prize(s) for the best hack that would fulfill certain criteria. There was one hack to link a system to a particular enterprise solution, and one hack to use a new internal API that had been developed
– There was generally only one ‘Sponsored Hack’ per hackathon, and it was a bidding contest to determine which one would be the official ‘Sponsored Hack
– We found that having super-clear criteria about what constituted a ‘successful hack’ was extra important when the prize money for ‘Sponsored Hack’ greatly outweighed the prize money for ‘Best Hack’

What were the prizes?
– Generally gift cards of some type, glory, and a trophy
– The gift cards would be in the $50-100 range for first place. The glory was the really important part.
– Part of the trophy process was the expectation that each group would modify the trophy in some way before presenting it to the next team at the next hackaton
– We had some issues with one of the sponsored hacks when the prize money reached into the hundreds of dollars, because we had not clearly defined ‘When is a hack good enough to be considered a successful hack?’, and the difficulty of the particular hack

What types of ‘hacks’ did you see?
– There were a number of visualizations of various parts of the system
– There were a number of creative front-end interfaces for various parts of the system
– There was a one-line fix to a bug, in a effort to win ‘most productizeable’ by already being in production
– There was a musical number
– Once, the entire team of interns worked together on a hack
– We had an issue with not being able to tell whether our non-bookable meeting rooms were occupied, so one group made some lights with door sensors to quickly communicate down the hall that a room was occupied or not
– And many others…

Pleaes drop me a line if you want to run one of these. They’re a lot of fun, and can really help people get to know others and build an ‘esprit do corps’ in an organization.

[1]Unrelated: ‘Stupid Hackathons‘, which have a *totally* different ethos…

[2]Even the ‘Automated PowerPoint Presentation’ hack required someone to give the presentation.

How do you Run A Good Retrospective Meeting?

I’ve written before about some techniques that I think help to run a good meeting[1].

Recently, I made the decision to delegate[2] the running of most of our team meetings to my reports. Typically, we have daily five[3]-minute standups, bi-weekly Sprint Planning, the occasional brainstorm, and a weekly meeting with stakeholders.

We now do a rotation, with each member of the team (including the interns) running the daily standups and bi-weekly Sprint Planning meetings in turn.

I’ve had to learn some things about delegating, but that’s a story for another post.

For today, I wanted to talk about some of my observations about how to run (what I think is) a good retrospective.

Normally, our retrospective is sandwiched in the middle of our Sprint Planning meeting thus:

1) Adjust any tickets which have changed status since the daily standup[4]
2) Close the Sprint
3) Retrospective
4) Choose a name for the new Sprint (Generally the most difficult[5] part)
5) Add items to the new sprint, prioritizing and estimating as we go[6]

It wasn’t until I watched others running a Retrospective that I understood a lot of the small things that I do that make a difference.

The (way I see) steps to a Retrospective are as follows:

1) The Facilitator draws the visualization[7] to start people thinking:

The facilitator writes something akin[8] to the following diagram on the board:

  Went Well       Not So Well
|               |                |
|               |                |  In Our Control
|               |                |
|               |                |
|               |                |  Not In Our Control
|               |                |

The point of this is to help the group think about and distinguish things that are in their direct control and out of their direct control. Many groups will come up with a definition for this after their first argument, often placing the line of ‘direct control’ at the edge of the group in the meeting/team in question. There are also many ways to write ‘Not So Well’, which I won’t get into, except to say that I prefer the hopeful phrasing. 🙂

Overall, you can think of your group process as bringing issues from ‘Not So Well/Not In Our Control’ to ‘In Our Control’, then ‘Went Well’, then noting new issues and starting the cycle again. We had one retrospective a while back where basically everything was ‘Went Well/In Our Control’, or ‘Not So Well/Not In Our Control’, so we ended up brainstorming ways to get things under our control, or at least influence, so we could fix them.

It’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world if most items are in the ‘Went Well/In Our Control’ category, but this may also mean that there are underlying issues that you may need to ferret out in your one-on-ones (You *are* having one-on-ones with your team, right?). One such issue came up recently in a one-on-one, and when it was brought up in the Retro., I hijacked the meeting for half an hour to have a specific brainstorm on that topic, to make sure it was covered in depth.

2) The facilitator asks the team to write things went well or did not go well on sticky notes and to put them on the board:

Each member of the team writes happenings from the past two weeks on sticky notes and posts them on the diagram. We use standard-sized sticky notes, and sharpies, so that the notes can be (mostly) read from across the room. My understanding of why this is done with sticky notes is so that people feel some measure of safety and anonymity, and therefore are more likely to express what they really think.

When running this part, I ask people to think along process lines. It’s helpful (and sometimes nice!) to talk about the fact that a particular project went well or poorly, but it’s often more helpful to talk about the parts of our process or other teams’ process that affected the outcome. Identifying process issues and fixing them is what really makes the difference here.

3) The facilitator clarifies each of the posts:

In some order, the facilitator goes through each (group of) post(s) and invites the author to clarify anything ambiguous, such that the whole group understands what each post means (often caused by my handwriting… :/ ). This should only take a few minutes. As they go, the facilitator will often do step 4). Along the way, some problems may be resolved simply by bringing them up, but some may require more thought/brainstorming. Those conversations are shelved until a later step by the facilitator.

As far as ordering, we generally talk about what went well first, probably for psychological safety reasons.

4) The facilitator de-duplicates the posts:

This is more of an art than a science. In some serious brainstorms, the facilitator will call a break at this stage, because it is non-trivial to get correct, while being quite important.

The goal is to group the posts into groups that are likely to have similar solutions. I don’t have good advice here, but it is often a good call for the facilitator to ask the group if two things go together, if they seem to sound similar. More insight on this will come with experience[9].

5) The facilitator decides whether to continue:

The facilitator decides whether any of the posts require a more in-depth conversation. This will likely have become obvious in step 3). You can always check in with the group, if you’re unsure.

6) The facilitator invites dot voting to determine the order for further discussion:

If there are multiple items to address, the facilitator invites the team to come up and ‘dot vote'[10] on which items they think are most important. A good number to choose seems to be 1/3 to 1/2 the number of items to be voted on. If people complain about the number of dots, you can change this, or remind/tell them that they can put multiple dots on items.

7) The facilitator counts the dots and orders the items in dot priority order from highest to lowest

8) The facilitator brainstorms solutions in descending priority order:

Starting with the item which had the most dots:
a) Make sure everyone understands what the issue is. If this is really unclear, you can brainstorm a list of ideas to try to get to the root cause[11].
b) Brainstorm solutions. Some of these will have obvious actions and owners. For things which are not so obvious, you may want to dot vote again.
c) Make sure you clearly write down (and perhaps make into tickets) any actions which arise.

d) Continue until no items with dot votes are left, you run out of time, or your group becomes unengaged.

That’s it! You’ve now run your first Retrospective. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

[1]Wow, I write a *lot* about meetings…

[2]Stay tuned for a post about ‘Power to the Edge’!

[3]Our daily standups are trending to the long side these days, perhaps up to 10 minutes, but people seem to find them useful, specifically the conversations to solve problems that can more easily be initiated when you know people are already interrupted.

[4]It’s always nice when people update their tickets as they’re doing things, but it’s not necessary. We’ve had success with doing it in our daily standup.

[5]I am not joking. Try it with your team and see for yourself. I went to an auction at a gaming convention during my youth, and the item which went for the largest amount of money was a book to assist people in making character names. Making good names is *difficult*.

[6]’Just-in-time’ planning. This also feels like a separate topic for a post.

[7]This is a whole topic. I like this particular visualization, but you could see that many others could work just as well. The following [8] is another.

[8]There are a number of ways to draw this. It’s sometimes good to change it up, to help people think about things differently. Another popular diagram is a ‘speedboat’ diagram, with wind, anchors, obstacles, and goals as the four categories. It’s not an exact mapping to the above, which has it benefits and drawbacks.

[9]I should write about this, too.

[10]’Dot Voting’ is where you give each person a number of ‘dots’ that they can place on the things they’re voting on. In this context, we use it to choose which thing(s) to talk about next. Some people insist on only one dot from each person per topic, some are more flexible.

[11]’Getting to the root’ in a Brainstorm is a really interesting topic. It’s non-trivial, and deserves its own write-up.

What is the Goal of Management?

Earlier, I talked a couple of times about some possible deconvolutions and separations of a number of traditional management roles.

Today, I want to talk about the goal of management. What are the principles underlying how we support and direct our teams? What are we trying to accomplish?

We want to look at some of the various goals we might have as managers, and then see how those may map onto different roles that might be allocated to different team members.

I like to say that I have two goals as a manager: 1) Support each of the people on my team to develop themselves as best they can, and 2) Achieve results for the larger organization that we are part of.

Sometimes these goals are in conflict, but I put them in this order deliberately, to show[1] that helping your people is often the best way to help your organization, that in general, these goals are in alignment.

But I digress. What are the goals of a team?

1) Support and develop each of the team members
– Help each of the people figure out how they want to develop
– Help each of the people develop themselves
– Help them remove internal[2] obstacles in the way of their development
– Help them remove external[2] obstacles in the way of their development
– Give feedback and suggestions for improvement
– Have difficult conversations with more pointed suggestions for improvement
2) Achieve results for the larger organization
– Provide guidance (estimates, progress reports, and risk levels) to the rest of the organization[3]
– Estimate the amount of time/effort[4] required for a task
– Perform tasks (may include investigations to better define tasks)
– Perform prioritization of project work
– Perform prioritization of triage tasks/incoming requests
– Firefighting of emergencies
– Define & subdivide tasks
– Work with other teams on projects/tasks
– Unblock and remove obstacles for other team members

Next time, we’ll see how these tasks are divided, in traditional management, and in typical Scrum/Agile. We’ll also start looking at how you can use this more granular list of management roles to start training up your management bench. Stay tuned!

[1] At least through repeated assertion…

[2]You can interpret the concept of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ obstacles in a number of different ways. In this context, I’m thinking about ‘internal’ as ‘inside your own head’, but ‘internal’ could just as easily mean ‘in your team’, or ‘in your organization’. This duality could easily be split into multiple roles. I separate out ‘inside your head’ because I see ‘Inner Game‘ issues as requiring a different approach than talking to people other than the one with the obstacle.

[3]I had originally written this as ‘up the hierarchy’, but this information is also useful to other parts of any organization, and I’m trying to generalize this to less hierarchical organizations.

[4]Perhaps wall-clock time vs. % of a two-week sprint, for example.

Weather Only A Druid Could Love II

He walked down the street, skipping between the puddles and weaving between the umbrellas. It was one of those days where he wasn’t exactly sure where he wanted to go for lunch, but he was pretty sure it was going to be one of the local takeout places. He felt himself gravitating towards the little hole-in-the-wall ‘BBQ’ place, where he had oddly never seen a barbecue, nor any food that was barbecued. Walking in, he ordered his usual, enjoying the fact that they now left the onions off his salad without asking, and even remembered his dressing choices (balsamic).

Stepping outside, he walked through the geometric tree garden. That probably wasn’t its name, but he didn’t know how to refer to it. There were little (to him) trees inside half-toroidal bollards. Normally, when he walked this way, there would be people sitting on the bollards, sometimes two people conversing, sometimes people taking a brief moment of solitude and recharge from whatever emotional labour their ‘normal’ daily life entailed.

Today, there were a few stalwarts, sitting huddled on the bollards, each of them inside their own bubble. It reminded of what a woman had told him about her experience living in London, that ‘each person was their own country.’

Some of them were smoking cigarettes, most were on their phones, hunched over the screens to keep them dry, hoarding the few minutes they had to themselves all day, resentful of the rain for robbing of some of the little joy they ever felt.

He gave this whole montage a wide berth. It felt rude to intrude, and once again, he was still enjoying his walk too much to want to, even by trying to share a smile or nod.

The rain continued its gentle mist, he continued his walk. When he was growing up, he had always seen himself as a wind-lover, based on how much he loved the summer breezes and winds, especially when they whispered through the trees, but it seems that his love was actually for the outdoors, whatever its weather might bring. He was looking forward to what it might bring next, whatever that may be, as long as he was outside.