Problem Solving with James Jefferies.
We were joined by James Jefferies to discuss how he got into tech, his time at Technophobia, setting up Shedcode, working at Rewilding Britain and how to get better at problem solving.
- James Jefferies
- 47 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to Episode 34 of the Make Things Better podcast. Today I'm joined by James Jeffries. Welcome on the show James.
James: Thank you.
Tom: Yeah, thanks for coming on. Do you want to start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and the work that you're doing at the moment? James: Sure. So I'm essentially a technologist working in software and I've been doing that for a long time. I started way back when I was a kid and I was fortunate enough that my dad had a Sinclair ZX821 and I later had a Spectrum so I was able to do a little bit of programming on that. And in those days, ZX821 would have, it was one of the first home computers. It had a kilobyte of memory so you could basically put enough text for like a side of A4, so kind of that much was how the size of memory it had. But even using that you could still write little games like Space Invaders and things like that. So I used to do a bit of that and then I found it more exciting to actually play the games rather than try and write them and things like that. So I sort of paused that for a bit really until I went to university.
When I was at uni I did a maths degree but I did a few computing courses as part of the degree. One of which particularly stuck with me and it's called Programming for Change. And it's one of those things that's probably foundational to me in terms of how I work in that whenever you're looking at something that needs to be done, there's a good chance it's going to have to change at some point. And you can't go completely overboard with it but it's always worth bearing in mind that nothing's ever really written in stone.
So that was really useful for me and something I picked up on. But after that I got a job at Barclays, the High Street Bank, and they had a sort of graduate program where the idea that they had was that you would take someone who knew about business, so maybe you'd done a business MA or something like that, and you trained them to become a computer programmer, an analyst. So the idea being that they already had some domain knowledge about how businesses work and then you could train them to become a programmer.
Now I didn't have an MA in business or any of that but I managed to get a place on that course. And that was a real interesting place because there's probably about 15 of us on the course and it was split about 50-50 men and women, which was unusual. And they basically took us through a lot of fundamentals into teaching us how to, in effect, work on the bank's systems that they used in the branches. So every UK Barclays High Street branch would have our software running in it. But I was also able to do a little, I had a little tiny little secondment working on this little team who did things on the side and was able to do a little bit of work on Barclays.co.uk, the actual website, which was the first UK High Street Bank banking website.
Tom: What year was that?
James: And so the website then was mainly text with a logo and a few pages. And one of the things I did, they wanted to have these little bullet points that were made from little images and they looked like little tiny little marbles. And so I helped do that. It's long gone now, you never see anything like it. So that was the first webpage that I worked on.
But yeah, I think, as I mentioned about the intake course at Barclays, one of the things that really strikes back to me now was for a financial institution, it was pretty inclusive. I had certainly had most of the people I worked for were women. There were lots of technical women working there. There were people who were with different disabilities who were supported. There was a guy who was blind, who had a special braille keyboard and reading things and stuff, which was just amazing to see him work. There was a guy who had a support dog who was hard of hearing. The dog could hear, he couldn't hear. And the dog used to sit under his desk all day at work. And the organisation bent over backwards to support people. I think it's the place I've come to. I've not worked anywhere like it. And it might be completely different now. Again, this was, you know, late 90s. But I think we've lost something of that a lot of places. Not Hive, obviously, but a lot of places have.
Tom: That's interesting to hear because there kind of seems to be a bit of a idea among some people that things with regards to accessibility and sort of inclusion, equity, diversity, things are improving. But what you've just said there would sort of suggest that things, at least in some companies, have actually got perhaps a lot worse.
James: Yeah, I think there's been a real dip. Again, I can talk about Barclays because I've worked there. But if you look at the history for the 60s and 70s, a lot of the leading programmers were women. And I think that's probably tailed off. And you look now and we have real issues about recruitment. Certainly within the more technical areas. So yeah, I think we are sort of getting better. But I think for a long time in the 80s and 90s, actually, probably we were getting worse. So hopefully we turn that around a bit.
But yeah, after Barclays, I moved to Npower, the utility company. Well, it's Yorkshire Electricity, really, in their metering division. So, you know, gas and electricity meters. It was all the software used for handling what happens behind the scenes, in terms of taking that data and passing it on to the suppliers.
But also, they had little handheld devices, which they took out. So again, in the 2000s, there were these big, like, bricks with a little screen on it, and you'd charge it up every night, and the charger would have a modem. So the meter reader would go out, put the meter, tell them where to go, do that, and at nighttime, they'd put it in the cradle. It would charge it overnight, and it would phone up, in effect, one of our systems and download all the data. And the thing about that, it was really useful learning about things that need to talk to each other and to synchronise, because that is a real area where you get problems. And so I learnt a lot there. They weren't as progressive, actually, as Barclays were. But again, I did learn a lot about different things. And then from there, I ended up at the ubiquitous technophobia, which, you know, many probably listeners to this podcast will have heard plenty of ex-technophobes. It was very interesting for me to start working for an agency rather than somewhere that maybe was more focused on products as, you know, the other places that I worked. So it was a bit of a shock to the system in some ways, because it wasn't always as kind of professional and the quality that you might expect. And there was a big turnover in different projects. But I did, I learnt a lot about, for then, modern web development. I learnt a lot about, you know, how those sort of projects work. I learnt a lot about user experience for the web, a lot about design. You know, working with Martin Smith, one of your colleagues was a real eye-opener just to understand really what that sort of user experience-led work means. And, you know, I think that I was only there for three years, but it was a significant part of my learning.
Tom: How did the culture compare at Technophobia to at Npower and Barclays?
James: Yeah, so less professional, more monkeying about, I would say. But I think for many people who worked there, it felt it was really special to them. For me, I was probably a bit more like, I really struggled with some of that, because I was more used to, as I said, those sort of bigger companies and how they worked. So it was a learning curve for me. But I think the upshot for me is that I made friends there and with people who I'm still friends with today, and that's the thing. So, yeah, it was a shift. And as I said, I think the culture at Technophobia and what it was, and you see now what's come out of it, you can see that there was a lot of good stuff going on there. And actually, what it really meant was there was actually a lot of good people there. Because I think what you see isn't so much from what Technophobia was, it's the fact that... people, some really good people were brought together in Sheffield who then felt empowered enough to go and do their own thing. And everyone who was there has now gone off to do their own thing in some way.
Tom: And you have as well, so do you want to tell us a bit about Shedcode?
James: Yeah, so towards my end at Technophobia, we started working with Capita, who are obviously a big outsourcing agency. And I started getting pulled into some of the projects on a more consultancy sales basis, so we'd partner with Capita to potentially do a project with X or with Y. And so I ended up getting quite involved in that. But what I naively didn't realise, that it wasn't that we were trying to sell to the client Technophobia and Capita working together. Actually it was more about selling Technophobia to Capita, which is then what happened. And so that came as a bit of a shock. So you know, other people probably did see it coming, I did not. And so I decided, and I'd worked for big companies, and actually one of the things I enjoyed about Technophobia was the size of it. So you know, 70, 80, up to 100 people. You knew everybody, you could build relationships with people, you weren't part of this huge machine, which you end up being when you're working somewhere like Npower or Barclays. And I didn't want to be part of the Capita machine. So I thought I'd give it a bit of time, but really it was just a few months before... I realised it was affecting me quite badly. I was feeling upset at work. I was fearful, and it was like, why am I feeling like this? And it was because I was in the wrong place. And I was very fortunate in that I had some savings, my wife was working full time, and it meant that I could hand in my notice, say goodbye to everybody, without having anything lined up. And that is a luxury to have. But I needed to do that, because I was struggling. And so I set up my own limited company, with the idea that I would do some contracting, and I would do some freelance work. And my skills then were mainly around the Java programming language and that ecosystem. And so that was really where my skills were. And Shedcode came about. The name, it's a railway connection, I'm a big fan of railways, and a shed code is a unique ID for a railway engine shed. But it kind of also works because it's like code. And I was like, that's it, I'm going to do it. So that's where Shedcode came from. And the idea was that I would work on some railway projects, and that hasn't, as it happens, that hasn't happened yet. You never know. Maybe it will. So yeah, so it was time for me to be my own boss.
Tom: How hard a decision was that then? Because you said you were really struggling when Capita first took over.
James: Yeah, yeah. What was hard is that step into the unknown. And if you're not, when you're in a place where you're not feeling too good, which I wasn't, and I was surprised to realise that I wasn't feeling too good, it makes it harder. You can kind of almost freeze. But yeah, the support of knowing that we did have a bit of a financial safety blanket helped. And I talked to a few friends who'd gone freelance who were positive to say, look, you'll get some work. You'll definitely get some work. You might end up doing some work back at Technophobia initially, in effect doing a bit for Capita, but you'll still be your own boss, and you'll be able to get a bit of money, and that will get you going. And actually, that is what happened. So I did a bit more work for Capita, but I didn't pay myself at all for the limited company. So I used my savings a bit and just built up a little bit of a war chest, which meant that Shedcode had a bit of money, and that if I didn't have any work for a while, I'd be okay. So yeah, it was just like really cutting back on everything and saying, I'm going to feel much better when I know that I've got that buffer where I'll be okay if I don't have any work for three months because I've got those funds that are there. And so that was really important to me, to be able to be in that place. That was like, okay. feel better about that now.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. And it sounds like Shed Code has gone quite well so far. James: Yeah, so I think the turning point for me was the year after, so I'd been doing a little bit of contracting for Technophobia and I was based at an office down at the site gallery down in Sheffield which is a contemporary art gallery and they were going to run a programme called Happenstance and the idea behind that was that you'd embed a technologist, like me, within an arts organisation and you would see what happens, sort of be able to share ideas and things. So I applied for that and I was really fortunate that I was able to, there were six of us in the UK doing it and I was able to pair up with Leila Johnston who is a really gifted artist, technologist, well she's a bit of a polymath really, she knows lots of different things. So we were able to work together for 12 months and prototype things and experiment with things and work with the people in the gallery. So one of the little projects we did there, we got these little receipt printers like you get in a shop and we set those up so that you could send text messages to them and they'd print out and it would tweet out what you were doing and so we did a number of little experiments with different art projects using those little receipt printers and we did another thing, we had like a drawing machine that would draw onto a whiteboard with a pen and it was a real eye-opener for me and that sort of turned me a bit from being like, I can work on Java based financial systems or whatever to, there's a whole sort of world out there where you can do interesting things and have fun. And that's also when I switched really from being in the Java sort of ecosystem, I learnt Ruby and Ruby on Rails and some of that ecosystem because I could see that a lot of people who were doing that sort of thing were building rapid prototypes and Ruby and Rails particularly gives you those tools to do that. So you're able to try out things a lot quicker and I've really been using Ruby and Rails ever since. When it was very trendy, when I worked at Technophobia it was trendy and we all laughed at it a bit but it's mature now like me. I feel like it's okay, it's not cool but it's rock solid, it works and Ruby the language is optimised for programmer happiness, it's all about making programmers happy, that's how it's been designed. So it's nice to use.
Tom: So big fan of using Ruby and Rails and you've got Shedcode but no railway project yet. No but what would you say has been one of your favourite projects that you've worked on at Shedcode?
James: After Happenstance, I think a lot of my work has come about through word of mouth and building relationships with people. I did an offhand tweet about building an API, so a way for computers to talk to a system to get data about Doctor Who for a bit of fun. I want to build something where I can say get me all the doctors, get me all the episodes. Tom: So you just posted that on Twitter?
James: Posted that on Twitter.
Tom: Did that get much of a response?
James: It got the right response. So someone who had set up Happenstance, Rachel, so she ran an agency called Caper and she said, oh James you should talk to Paul on Twitter. So I did talk to Paul and met up with Paul and Paul at that time was working for BBC and he was working for the research and development bit of it. He'd done this project which was based on Doctor Who and they weren't doing it at the moment, Paul was a big Doctor Who fan, but they were working on something else which was to do with the long running radio for audio drama The Archers, which has been going on since the 1950s. So I went down to London a number of times, we would meet him for a chat and meet some of his colleagues for a chat and just talked about ideas really, thinking it would be nice if something had come from this. And in the end they said we've got a week's worth of cash to pay you, would you like to have a go at some of this Archers data? And so I built this interactive timeline thing from the data that they had. And then that became, after that it sort of became a bigger project. So we were able to get the data from the archers. So a lot of that was originally on card index files. So they had all these drawers with bits of card in there. And then that got moved to an old access database, which was creaking at the seams. So my job was to get that data and turn it into something that was useful. So we built a tool to pull it from the access database and put it into a much nicer structure, a generic structure that works for stories and characters and places. And so we were able to build on that and build interactive timelines for archers stories, an interactive map that you could zoom in and out. And we got some illustrations and it all worked. And it was great, but we never got the nod to make it public, which was a shame. But it was great to work on. And I do like the archers. But from there, probably about a year later, still in touch with them. And they said, actually, we'd like to do some similar thing, but this is for the Radio 4 Drama Homefront, which at that time was starting. So that's 2014. And for that, that's still up. I can give you the URL for the notes for the podcast. And we had an illustrator in for that. And it's a lovely way of looking at that data. And so I'm really pleased with that because you can see it. And then we did one for Peaky Blinders, which had video, which was different again, which is still there, but the videos, they don't work anymore. And then the final version of that, because it was building on it each time, was for the BBC Civilizations documentary. And the thing about that, which is a big tick for me, is that we had a link from the BBC homepage. And I think once you get there, you can't go much more than that. But all that really came from building those relationships and doing that. And actually, I still do some work now with someone who doesn't work for the BBC anymore, but still following on from that. Again, just because word of mouth, people know how you work. And if they like how you work, then hopefully you get some more work. And so building that up as a freelancer has been a common thread, really.
Tom: What have been some of your favorite things about running Shedcode? It sounds like the work that you've done has been quite enjoyable. Would you say other projects have been that sort of fun?
James: Yeah, after Happenstance, I think the thing I wanted to do was to do interesting work with interesting people. And there's a scale where you can do interesting work with interesting people and not get paid. Or you can do boring work and get paid. And it's trying to make that balance. And I think what I've tried to do is not go bananas. I don't drive a Ferrari. And I try not to overspend. So it means that with Shedcode, I can turn down work. Or certainly before, I used to say, I don't really want to get involved in that particularly. And try and explore instead doing stuff that I'm more interested in. And a lot of that was with cultural organizations, because they often have interesting data that they can't unlock and do things with. So I did a week with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was just a week. They had their booking system. And their booking system, their sort of back-end system for the orchestra, had info about what things they were playing, who the conductor was, who the soloists were. But that was all locked into this horrible database. So I was able to get the data out of that and build a nice web page where you could explore the history, going back to the 60s and 50s of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where they played, what they played in those places. And it unlocked it for people to use. And I think there's something really exciting when someone says, we've got some data, but it is stuck over here or over there. And you know that with a bit of help and if no one minds, you can make something exciting with it. And that's been a real joy for doing the freelance work I've done with Shedcode.
Tom: Yeah, was there anything else that you wanted to talk about with regards to Shedcode? Or should we get into talking about Rewilding Britain now?
James: I think the final thing was just another project I'm particularly proud of. My favourite author is an author called Iris Murdoch and she died in the late 90s. But I built a website, irismurdoch.info. And it's a lot too long a story now to say how we got there. But basically it contains all the characters from the novels, locations on a map that you can again explore and it's just a great resource for her work. And that felt, that was good because it wasn't quite railways but it was something I was really interested in and I was able to do something exciting with. And again it's like I got a dusty old book without going into too much detail and scanned the whole book to get all the data out of it because that book was printed in the 80s and it's not available digitally anywhere and then with the author I was able to digitise it and get it all there. And again it's that stuff which is locked away, opening it up and making it available to people. It's a real privilege because I've not done all the hard work, I've just brought it out and brought it to life.
Tom: Yeah and do you think over time you've sort of developed certain skills that have enabled you to then think, oh what other ways can I unlock this data?
James: Yeah, yes, so I think a lot of it is around stories. What stories can you tell? And sometimes if you're working on an audio drama there's already stories there. If you're working on something like London Philharmonic booking data there's different sort of stories that you want to pull out. But there's that difference between just having data and actually turning it into information that people can engage with. So I think that the more that you do that the more that you start to think of different ways of doing it. And I'm not a trendsetter or a pace setter, it's not necessarily that I'm doing new things, it's more about seeing what other people have done and thinking actually I can use that in this place and I can do that in this place. So I'm like a magpie. I think that's a good idea, that's a good idea, but if I put them together I can do something different with it.
Tom: Yeah, brilliant. So in addition to your work at Shedcode you're also now working for Rewilding Britain.
James: That's right, yeah.
Tom: Do you want to tell us how that came about?
James: So Rewilding Britain is a charity, it's been going for about five years or so. And I actually saw the advert, it was advertised on Sheffield Digital's Slack. So big props to Sheffield Digital there. And I thought that was quite interesting, but I'm not quite sure what the role entails, but I'll apply and I'll find out more. So the role was advertised as data engineer, but I knew that it was also going to involve things around data security and information management and things like that, part time, three days a week. So I did the application, I was invited to interview and was successful with that interview and they wanted to bring me on. So I thought, well, okay, they seem like nice people, let's give it a go. So the role that I have is three parts. There's a part around the general systems that we use, so Google Workspace and Trello and how people use those effectively. Information management, so where do we keep our information and data and how do we make sure that's well organized and the sort of data engineer role itself, which is gathering information from our rewilding projects and then being able to report on them. So it's juggling those three, which is a challenge for me. But I probably should say a little bit about what rewilding is as well, because some of your listeners and viewers may know, but some may not. So rewilding is essentially letting nature take control of some landscape. And that might be someone's field behind the back garden, from that scale. It might be their garden. It might be a whole shooting estate or some moorland or something like that. And we generally, as a charity, work more closely with the larger ones, but we have – and we don't run any rewilding projects ourselves, but we have what's called the rewilding network, which means that if you're doing your own rewilding project, then you can join our network for support and for getting advice and information and being together. So part of the data engineer role is getting the data from there. And in terms of what rewilding looks like on the ground, it can really vary. So our nearest from Sheffield is Burbage, so Burbage Edge, you're heading up Ringinglow Road and the eastern moors. That is within our rewilding network. And if you've visited there over the last few years, you'll have seen – there used to be a big tree plantation there, which was these horrible trees. A lot of that has gone and there's been planting of new native trees. There used to be a lot of sheep there. You generally don't see the sheep anymore because the sheep nibble the baby trees. Instead you see cows because the cows can churn things up a bit and allow new things to grow. And so with a rewilding area, if you leave it, it will very slowly, nature will take control. But what our projects generally do is we have to do some interventions to help nature because we've trashed so much of the landscape. So that might be bringing back cows and getting rid of sheep, getting rid of deer. It might be bringing in fell ponies and pigs because they really turn over the ground and let new things grow. It's often planting new trees because again, we can't rely on nature necessarily to do that quick enough. We're in a climate emergency, right? So we don't have the luxury of waiting a thousand years for things to improve. We need to help speed things up. And because we don't have apex predators at the top, so we don't have lynx or bears or... we're low on our birds of prey, it might be that we need to help that as well. So there are projects that are looking in Scotland to reintroduce lynx, big cats that live in forests. They take out deer, which is good because we've got way too many deer. And they make a real difference to the ecosystem. So we can help support that in lots of ways. And it's exciting to look at the data because the number of rewilding projects is increasing. We've probably, in our network, I think we've doubled since 2000. And communities are getting involved. That's one of our principles. But also there's an economic benefit. So we are seeing an increasing number of jobs provided by rewilding areas and rewilding projects. And also volunteers. A lot of people volunteer. So it can make a huge difference to an area and to a place. And it's really exciting to see how things are changing at the moment.
Tom: Do you know roughly how many rewilding projects there are in Britain at the moment?
James: So in our network, the large and medium ones, that's over 100 hectares, so they're a fair size. We've got about 120 in our network, and that's increasing all the time. And the rate of increase is increasing. So the chart where you can see how it's going up is going up, which again is really exciting. And I think that people are finding themselves able to reconnect more with nature and what is going on.
Tom: What can people do if there's any listeners out there who want to get involved in rewilding? What can people do?
James: Well, our website, rewildingbritain.org.uk, has an index of all the projects that are in our network. So you can find one that is near you. And a lot of those have open days and things like that, where you can tour and look around and learn more about rewilding and about how that's being done in that particular project. And a lot of them love people to volunteer. So if you fancy spending a sunny afternoon planting trees or helping clear stuff and things like that, then you can get stuck in. There's also, you can support us as a charity financially. You can become a supporter of Rewilding Britain. We recently took part in the Big Give campaign, and we generally do that every year. But there's details on the website about becoming a supporter as well and knowing that you're making a difference. And that can be at a personal level or a corporate level as well. Tom: Yeah, brilliant. And then sort of your answer to this one will probably involve a lot of the work maybe and experience at Shedcode and your previous experience as well at Barclays, Npower, Technophobia, and then maybe something from Rewilding Britain as well. But what would you say software developers can do to sort of improve their problem-solving skills?
James: Yeah, so problem-solving, I think if you're working in technology, you're problem-solving all the time in different fields. And some of that is problem-solving, I've got this technical problem I need to fix. Some of it is more organizational, how as an organization, if this isn't working quite right as an organization, what could we do about that? And that can be whatever level you are within the organization because you're always affected by how things work. And I think that... because you have all those different areas you can do things, there's lots of scope there for trying out your problem-solving skills. And I think that, I was thinking about this before because I think I'm okay at problem-solving. I was thinking, why am I okay at problem-solving? And I think part of that is from, you know, doing puzzles and stuff when I was a kid and liking that. But then I remembered this book, and I'm going to show it to the camera here. It's called Eating Problems for Breakfast by a guy called Tim Hansel. And it was probably, it was written a long time ago, 1988 it was written. This guy, Tim Hansel, his background, he's a Christian. He ran this sort of wild adventure sort of courses and he would take people out into the wilderness. This is in the States. But he had an accident whilst he was abseiling and knackered his back. And his books really all have this kind of like, you know, this has happened to me, but I'm going to plough on. I'm going to carry on. And Eating Problems for Breakfast, when I was thinking about this talk, I thought, have I still even got the book? And I had. And I looked through it and thought, yeah, there's a lot of stuff still in there that I think still counts. And I'll just pick out a few of them. I think that's useful. So because, you know, any of us can end up in situations where we've got to solve problems with a group of people or whatever. So challenge assumptions. Someone's come to meetings and someone will say, yeah, this is the problem and these are the options. And sometimes it's like, what about this? Have you thought about that? And just to feel confident enough in the way that you phrase it, that you can do that without, because you can make people feel a bit threatened. And people make maybe feel a bit defensive. But it's really sort of saying, you know, I'm new to this, but I wonder why you've not thought about doing that or whatever. Keeping a broad perspective. You know, we talk about thinking outside the box. It is a bit of that, but it's also thinking, you know, going back to your experience about other things that you might have tried in other places. Don't get hooked. That's, you know, where you end up being too focused on one part of the problem. I like this one. Look for the second right answer. Quite often you're trying to solve something, you're thinking of something and you think, all right, this will fix it. Sometimes it's worth just stopping for a minute and thinking, but do we have any other solutions? Because the one you think often everyone's under pressure to sort of fix this thing, but sometimes there's another way of doing it that's actually better. So don't just stop when you think you've found the right thing. Ask dumb questions. I do that all the time. You know, make it fun. And I think that's something as well. So often when we're looking at problems and situations, it's unlocking some of the creativity in your head. And thinking beyond just, oh my God, we've got to fix this kind of thing. It's like, okay, let's do that. There's this book, you know, it has like exercises and things like that and different principles.
Tom: Would you recommend getting this book then?
James: Well, I think the thing for me, I don't even know if it's still available because as I said it was like 1988. It might not be. You can get in touch with me and I can always tell you more about it. But I think the thing is, what I didn't realise is a lot of this stuff sort of ended up sinking into my head. I read it and I took it on board. And that's where I've ended up now. And I think it's practicing. So for me, whether that was puzzles or whatever, it's like I am going to get involved in this problem. And something that I used to do, it probably used to drive my colleagues nuts, but I'd get involved in things that were none of my business. Because I'd like to see and learn how other people solve problems as well. So, you know, at Technophobia I sat near some of the guys doing server admin and things like that. And sometimes something they'd say to me, it just pricked my ear. And I would just sort of saunter over, grab a biscuit and ask some stupid questions and learn a bit more about what they were doing. Not necessarily because it directly affected what I was doing, but because I'd learn new stuff. And sometimes, this didn't happen very often, but sometimes I could make a contribution that they'd think, oh yeah, maybe that would work or that would help. And I think as an organisation, as a company, you need to create space for your employees, for your team members to do a bit more. than what is their normal job, to be able to experience a bit more than just what you are doing. So if you're a developer, spend some time with the designers. If you're a designer, spend some time with some of the testers. Spend some time with the people who are doing the design analysis over here. Maybe spend some time with the people who end up doing some of the admin, because all these things you can contribute to and you can learn from. By creating a culture where that's okay to do it, organisations, in my experience, generally benefit and grow. And they grow good people from doing that.
Tom: Yeah, I love that. And I'd say one thing that was prevalent across a lot of the tips there is having some space, whether that's space away from the problem that you're working on immediately there, or just space in your mind as well, to get into that flow state and be a bit more creative and not just be caught up in the thinking mind too much. So maybe going around the same possible solutions without considering alternatives which are created through space.
James: I'll tell you a quick story about that. When I worked at Barclays, we had a real problem with the software that we pushed out to the branches, a performance problem. So a customer would be waiting in the branch and the software was taking a long time to do things. And they had an emergency room bigger than this with a big table and the big cheeses would come in there. And I was yoinked in as a technical person. It was like, "what are you going to do about this, James?" "I don't know." I said "Okay, right, well, we'll meet again tomorrow." And the next morning I was having my morning shower and I suddenly went, oh, why don't we try doing that? And I went into the meeting and I said, right, I've had this idea in the shower. I think we should try this. And it was like, okay, right, okay, go and make it happen, sort it out. And they laughed a bit about the fact it was in the shower. But by switching off and going away, obviously my brain was still doing a bit of work in the background, and in the shower there's no distractions. And my brain did the thing. It doesn't happen very often, but it can also be walking home. The number of times I've stayed late at work trying to fix something and then I've gone, I've thought, right, I need to go home. And then halfway home, I think, oh, I know what it is.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely.
James: And it's that discipline of saying, I'm going to stop thrashing and banging my head against the wall. And actually, maybe the end of my day is five o'clock, but I'm at 4.30, I'm really struggling here, I'm actually going to go home now. And again, that's being in an organisation that says, yeah, you do that. Because the chances are you won't make a mistake and the next day you'll be able to fix it.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's so valuable. And me and my mum had a similar conversation recently. And yeah, she said that often when she would go into work, she'd be quite caught up and then all her best ideas would come on a cycle home from work. So that's it.
James: And then you're on your bike trying to write them down.
Tom: Yeah, or in the shower trying to write them down even worse.
James: Yeah, waterproof pencil. And I think the thing around that as well is being, and this is hard, but it's having the confidence to fail as well. Because if that idea that come out of the shower didn't work, fine. By trying something and failing, you've ruled something out, you're a step nearer to solving the problem. And it's difficult when you're under commercial pressure or time pressure to do things, but it's having that confidence that actually we will get there. We might go in some wrong directions along the way, but we'll get there in the end.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. So we'll move on to the final question now. What can people do to make things better? And you can interpret this however you like.
James: So when I was thinking about this, the thing for me, which I think I've tried to do as part of my life, and it doesn't always work, but it's about having empathy. So being empathetic to people. So for me, it's as simple as putting myself in someone else's shoes. That could be at work, it can be at home, it can be in any situation you come across. When I was dropping my kids off at school once, there was someone who was reversing down the road and there were kids in the way and I felt I needed to stop them and I tapped the side of the car and he jumped out and he was in a right rage with me. And in the one sense it's like, hey, chill out. But he could have had an absolute nightmare that morning and had some terrible news or whatever. And just sometimes just stopping and thinking, okay, I'll put myself in their position. There's stuff that I don't know about that's going on here. And so that's what I should be thinking about. I don't get it right all the time, in fact I often don't get it right at all, but it's something I try and do and try and put myself in other people's shoes. And I think that's a really healthy thing to be able to do for work life, home life, love life, whatever. And I think that as a nation we'd be in a better place if we could put ourselves in other people's shoes.
Tom: Yeah, that's a really nice way to end this podcast. And obviously I totally agree.
Tom: Where can people find you, James, on social media?
James: Yeah, okay, so shedcode.co.uk is my website for work. It's not very exciting. I also have jamesjefferies.com, which is also not very exciting. I do have an account on Twitter, which is @jamesjefferies and there's one @shedcode, but I'm not really using Twitter at the moment. I'm on mastodon, @firstname.lastname@example.org, where I am more active. And they are the best places to find me. And you can email me at email@example.com. You can find more about Rewilding Britain at rewildingbritain.org.uk. But yeah, if someone wants to get in touch with a follow-up question or know a bit more about the book or any of that, then just drop me a line.
Tom: Yeah, perfect. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast.
James: Thanks for having me.
Tom: Yeah, cheers. Really enjoyed chatting with you. And yeah, thanks to anyone watching, listening, or reading. Go and check out James and Shedcode. And I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.
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