5 min read

Week Nuclear Force

Week Nuclear Force
What a dream sequence. Premonition? Terminator 2 was always a bit weird about what it actually was

Time continues its inexorable march towards oblivion, but in the meanwhile, I continue to use a relatively simple backlog to track everything I do at work. I have no intention on stopping, and you can't make me!

On reflection I continually come to the same conclusion: using a backlog helps me to be more effective by bringing order to the chaotic world that is my day to day. It creates mental space, so that I can focus more and not worry so much about remembering all the things I need to do.

But just keeping a backlog with a bunch of work in it isn't enough.

I need more.

The Unknown Future Rolls Towards Us

I want to be able to reason about the work that I'm doing at a high level, which means I want some sort of intelligence and metrics on top of my backlog.

Metrics like:

  • Velocity - how much am I getting done each week, on average. This helps to inform how much I can commit to, all other factors being equal
  • Backlog Size - how big is my backlog. This helps to understand if my total body of work is growing or shrinking

I don't actually care what the metrics are at any single point in time, I care whether or not they are trending in the right direction. Am I getting better? Am I getting worse? It's almost impossible to know whether or not the numbers coming out are correct, but you can definitely tell if they are changing.

Beyond week-to-week metrics, I also want to be able to get a sense of my victories and failures over time, without having to look into the details by trawling through hundreds and hundreds of completed tickets. Milestones of a sort, or perhaps even just major landmarks that happen in the execution of my job.

Having access to that sort of high level abstraction is incredibly useful when it comes time to do quarterly check-ins and annual reviews and can stop you from getting lost in the weeds.

If you're even remotely familiar with agile delivery, the desire for metrics and milestones should come as no surprise. It's exactly the sort of stuff that you'd want to know when running a team, so it makes perfect sense to track it at a personal level as well.

Well, it makes perfect sense to me. Your mileage may vary.

But how do I get those precious numbers and abstractions?

So, What's Your Story?

I figure the easiest way to explain that is with a picture.

Mmmmmm spreadsheety goodness. Want a closer look? Click here

I know, I know: it's a spreadsheet. Not exactly rocket science.

There are literally entire software empires built up around solving the problem work and task management, but for me, a spreadsheet is always a great place to start. Low barrier to entry, easy to mutate and you can create pretty charts and graphs from your numbers.

For my specific use case, every week I note down:

  • The goal for the week
  • Whether or not the goal was accomplished
  • How big my backlog was
  • How many things I planned on doing
  • How many I actually did
  • How many were leftover
  • How many I gave up on

Thanks to the magic of time and discipline, you can get all sorts of insights into your own behaviour and find opportunities for improvement. Like being able to answer the question "Am I committing to too much work each week?" or "Am I hitting my high level goals consistently?".

But, as always, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Are We Learning Yet?

For starters, tracking velocity at the ticket level is a rookie mistake, unless you are amazingly good at making sure every single piece of work that you do is approximately the same size.

I am not.

Everything I do is wildly divergent in scope, so when I aggregate it all together on a week-by-week basis it makes it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the data. Like whether or not the velocity is an accurate measure of what I should commit to for the next week.

Don't get me wrong, it's still more useful than having no data, it's just not as good as it could be if I were aggregating some sort of relative size measurement, like story points.

I've poked and prodded at Trello a few times to see what is available to help with this problem, but I haven't really come across anything that was easy to use and did what I wanted it to do. Also, adding a full-on estimation layer to my peronal planning sounds exhausting, so I'm not sure I'm looking that hard either.

The other thing that my hacky little spreadsheet doesn't really help with is measuring the impact of planned vs unplanned work.

At the start of every week, I make some decisions about what I hope to accomplish based on what I think is important and how much time I have to actually do things. But no plan survives contact with the enemy and stuff inevitably comes up that disrupts that plan.

Right now, I don't really have any intelligence on those interruptions. Which means I don't know how confident I should be in my ability to deliver on my plan.

Again, I've poked at Trello a few times in this respect, but nothing stood out at me as being an easy way to solve the problem. The closest I came was a custom field that would let me tag something as unplanned, but it still didn't feel right.

But if I really want to resolve the issues that I've noted above, I should probably look beyond the combination of Trello and a spreadsheet. There are tonnes of other tools on the market that are built to solve exactly these sorts of issues.

No Fate But What We Make For Ourselves

I'm pretty happy with my backlog, my weekly plan and my smattering of metrics that I sometimes look at to see if I'm getting any better.  It doesn't cost me a lot to note down the numbers each week and it sometimes helps me to make decisions or communicate direction with others.

Sure, I know that it could be better, but that seems like a problem for future-me. If I know anything about myself, I'll eventually get tired of its limitations and iterate on it further, but I'm happy enough not worrying about that for now.

It's good enough.

And accepting that something is good enough and walking away from it is a skill that I could definitely use more practice at.

Like how I'm going to walk away from this blog post at the end of this sentence.