Monday Jan 25, 2010


The change is almost upon us and I think it will be good and very much hope to be part of it. I have not been acquired before, but expect it has some similarities to getting married. They say it things won't change much, you end up with more responsibility, less self determination, but are generally happier and better off that if it had not happened.

My time as acting Chair of Aberystwyth Citizens Advice Bureau has also come to an end. I got everything done I wanted to get done (bar 1 item which proved rather messy and beyond my influence), so the Bureau is on a sound footing now and I intend to go back to volunteering at Rhoserchan.

A month or so ago I started a new blog focused on my Bob Graham Round attempt in June, so it just covers running related subjects.

It seems a good time to start an external blog which casts a wider net which I have titled Rural Debugging reflecting my interest in both rural mid-Wales, technology and trying to fix things that are broken.

Wednesday Jan 06, 2010

Disaster day at Aberystwyth University

I was visiting my good friend Dave Price to look at problems he was having with a SunRay server. Dave really does lead the bleeding edge using OpenSolaris for 2 T5120 SunRay servers used for teaching with 50 SunRay seats. Dave really does the bleeding edge and sometime some bleeding happens and I try to help out, but for the most part he is very self sufficient.

I 1st meet Dave when he was teaching my late father BASIC on a Honeywell Mainframe in around 1980, so we go back a long way.

We put together our plan which involved some upgrades and as I was leaving he mentioned that the Computing Services were having a "Disaster Day" the next day (which would have been Tuesday). A years notice is given to the rest of the University that there will be some type of disaster dreamt up by one of the senior staff and the rest of the staff without prior knowledge other than something is going to happen turn up and sort it out. What a great idea. I look forward to finding out what planned disaster occurred. This is the type of activity can expose serious process and risk management flaws. Much depends on how creative and vindictive the originator of the disaster can be. Some sites I have visited, every day is disaster day without having to think up new events, but Aberystwyth is not one of them.

About 4 years ago I was meant to give a demonstration of DTrace to a UK police force and I asked Chris to induce a performance problems on a lab system and I would work out what it was as part of the demonstration. I suggested he could be vindictive as he liked and made it has hard as he liked.

Someone in the police forces region got murdered, so the staff who I was going to demo DTrace to went on standby as part of their major incident routine and the demo got postponed. I asked Chris what he was going to do, his reply was "the most vindictive thing I could think of was to do nothing". With that sort of brain he would be a ideal "disaster generator".

Wednesday Dec 30, 2009

2010 predictions : what rubbish?

Can the future be predicted? As has been noted in past blogs I am not a big fan of futurology. However, in the spirit of experiment, lets put 5 predictions in stone and in a years time lets see how many of those hold up to examination

  • The UK will loose its AAA rating status. This has big implications for any investment strategy and won't be isolated to the UK.
  • Python swallowing a Pig. Oracle will take some time to digest Sun. This is probably not a prediction, but is stating the obvious and is neither good nor bad. I don't have a view as to what will come after the indigestion, but it has the potential to be very powerful and interesting indeed. A good prediction as it is hard to measure.
  • The trend of core IT outsourcing will start to be reversed as it becomes even more obvious that the capital savings are outweighed by the increased business risk and lack of flexibility. Some of the slack will continue to be taken up with computing provided as a utility. Also a good prediction as it is hard to measure.
  • The catch phrase of 2010 will be "Good Governance". One of my new interview questions will be "What is good governance", start preparing here if you like me had no clue what governance really meant 6 months ago.
  • Using bad science to influence will become illegal (might take longer than a year), but there will be concrete recognition of the damaging role that false science plays in silent and not so silent disasters. The media will start to become accountable for the financial and medical advice they print (again will take some time) Dr. Ben Goldacre will be made a saint.
This statement does not constitute advise on what the future may hold. You should consult an IFA to adjust your profile of risk and reward relative to the future if you are unsure of any of the issues covered. It may in fact be complete rubbish, lets see in a year.

Tuesday Dec 29, 2009

Book reviews : The End of Politics & 50 Marathons in 50 days

I have been reading Chris Dillow's blog for some time. He is a data driven economist and as a bonus appears to know which questions data can't answer. He also writes a column for the Investors Chronicle which is typically examines issues such as the effect of QE on the price of Guilts, shares, bonds, etc or why Christmas is bad for the economy. I bought his book "The End of Politics New Labour and the folly of Managerialism" based on his other writing and started reading it while on holiday in late May, but finishing it a few weeks ago. This should not reflect on the book beyond it is a book that needs some concentration and I had other things to concentrate on which delayed finishing it somewhat.

The style is basically to take a policy, examine the literature relating to that policy and its theoretical unpinning by drawing on philosophy and economics literature, examine what the evidence really says, what would work instead and what open questions remain. We get the feeling that Chris is not a big fan of Tony and Gordon, has thought about their policies long and hard, pulled out the data and applied some critical economic analysis. I am not an economist (think I would rather be an economist rather than an accountant), so I don't know if he only applied selective economic analysis, but the arguments make sense.

So the thread of the book is that New Labour have tried to apply clever policies to manage the trade-offs between conflicting values, in essence replacing politics by management. The evidence he presents is that this approach has failed because a government can not have the knowledge and rationality required to derive and implement effective policies which would for example reduce inequality or improve economic efficiency.

I have seen this play out in the majority of organisations I have been involved in for the 20 years of my working life (those I have not was probably because I was not there long enough). Management typically believe that they can implement better policies which will lead to more efficient operations but typically it does not. The alternative which I am privileged to have been part of twice in my career at Sun has been ideals based and those ideals shared by the groups via unwritten, but a clear understanding of the mission, beliefs and values (in place before I got there). There were also highly effective in their mission from a sharehold/stakeholder point of view. I have also seen the same style of operation be very effective in organisations outside Sun and all the incarnations I have seen it work have been organic. This experience support the assertion Chris makes that managerialism must be replaced by a debate about conflicting ideals, but I suggest it goes much wider than how the Labour party play with our lives.

One of the problems for us poor UK voters in the coming 6 months is that the 3 main alternatives in UK politics (and from my observations the same is basically true in the important minor parties such as Plaid Cymru and The Greens, an informed comment would be very welcome indeed) all by and large follow a managerialist agenda.

Good book, well written and much of the material made my head feel like it was expanding. Don't read it unless you want to be challenged in your thinking.

On a slightly different topic, "50 50 Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 days - and How You Too can Achieve Super Endurance" by Dean Karnazes. From reading the book the author is for sure a great runner, but is either very much up himself or just a genuine bloke. The cynic in me thinks the former, my experience of life suggests that he could also just be a really nice guy who drives himself really hard and is bothered about other people and that it is best not to judge. I raise this as a warning that if you have a cynical side, tuck it into bed with a hot water bottle before you pick up this book.

There is no doubt what so ever that Dean is a great runner with a impressive history of achievements behind him and that running 50 x 26.2 in 50 days is a tremendous achievement. Here at the other end of the endurance running scale there were many useful tips which made sense to pick up from this book (not sure about breathing through a straw for 5 minutes a day) which made it a worthwhile read. It was not a great story and if you are not already wondering how to get yourself to go further faster, it probably won't be of much interest. If you want a running book which is also a interesting read my I recommend Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith, even my wife is a devote non-runner enjoyed reading it.

Monday Dec 21, 2009

Tales of clear skies and driving snow : Bob Graham mid-Winter Round support

One of the best preparations for running round 42 peaks in the Lake District is to support someone who is running round 42 peaks in the Lake District. The 24 hour round of the Lake Districts finest mountains 1st completed by a Keswick gardner and guest house owner in 1932 has had in excess of of 1500 people complete the Round in Summer. Less than 5 people have completed the mid-winter round which gives some idea of the added challenge that cold, wind, ice, snow and 16 hours of darkness brings over and above the serious challenge that is a summer round.

I was very pleased to support Mark Smith, a somewhat more accomplished disciple of Bob Graham (No not this one, but this one. I expect the later ended up living a more enlightened life than the former). Beyond seeing someone else attempt their goal, it also gave me a chance to go over some of the ground I had not been over before, understand the logistic needs and get an understanding of what is involved which is impossible from just the web and talking to people.

I have no photo's to include which would add some interest, but both the legs of the round I supported were in the dark and flash photography in a snow storm tends to be impractical. Some very good photos and links to here can be found for leg 3 here. I was probably still curled up in my sleeping bag when these were taken.

Just before 8pm we assembled at Moot Hall in Keswick. Along with 2 other runners, I was supporting leg 1 over Skidaw, Great Calva and Blencathera. I got Mark's food to carry. Standing around Moot Hall was freezing, even in a extra fleece and down jacket. At about 7.50pm Mark decided he could wait not longer and off we went through a short tunnel on Keswich high street, across the car park, over the bridge and up the path to Skiddaw. This 1st climb is the longest of the round at about 900m. I am not good at remember names at the best of times, and with all that was going on I have forget the names of my two fellow pacers, despite having a very enjoyable walk up Skiddaw chatting with them. It was cold, but once you were moving, I got very hot due in the most part to my aging Buffalo jacket and no wind, you generate a huge amount of heat when walking fast up hill and even a stop for 30 seconds you would start to chill immediately. Even so, it was so cold that water in a water bottle or bladder was freezing, so I put both Mark's water bottle and 4in1 energy drink down the front of my jacket. I managed to drop his 4in1 about on the climb up Blencathra out of my jacket (you clown Clive), so he had my water. The navigation between Skiddaw and the start of the asscent to Blencathra is quite a challenge and a GPS really came into its own. Around the stream between Great Calva and Blencathra we split into 2 groups as 1 other pacer was struggling to keep up. Carrying the food, I then struggled to keep up with Mark on the 1800ft climb up Blencathra, and the other 2 followed behind finishing the leg about 30 minutes behind. I spent the 2nd half of leg one feeling like the Pigsy character from the 1970's TV series monkey carrying a rucksack and struggling to keep up. At one point we turned both torches off for a couple of minutes as we walked up hill and the stars were amazing and your night vision adjusts very quickly. At the top of Blencathra, we stopped for about 30 seconds before starting to descend and at that point the Buffalo jacket which had tried its best to live boil me even with the side flaps open was just about enough to keep the worst of the cold out. The decent went well, we used Doddick Fell and I handed over to the next set of pacers for the runner at Threlkeld well ahead of the schedule. I had been run ragged and without going into detail, I was not that well. Still, mission 1 accomplished with the 1st 14 miles and 5700 ft of ascent out of the way and the next 2 pacers were down about 1/2 an hour later. Back at the hut the water had frozen, so I could get nothing to drink, so I just went to bed.

Myself and 2 other supports had intended to go up to Broad Stand to rope it up. I had been up to look at it on Thursday and it was OK to climb roped. By 5am on Saturday morning I had the BGR pacer version of a hangover and there was no way I could have roped up Broad Stand and I am told conditions had changed to make the route a lot more icy over the 36 hours since I was there, so they used Foxes tarn instead and I went back to bed.

I spent the day drinking tea, washing up and wondering round Keswick market. Mark's expected time of arrival at Honister pass, then end of leg 4 and start if leg 5 was about 4pm. I think he got there about 4.30pm, but I lost track of time. It was snowing, real snow that arrived horizontally. The stop was short and for the final 3 peaks there were 6 pacers. Mark was still climbing really well and made good time up Dale Head, a 400m climb and the last big one of the round. The weather was very unpleasant by this time with driving snow, though the visibility was still OK at about 10m. Mark found the downhill very hard, but persevered. The arrival at the last peak was noted by the comment from Mark of "let just get off here". The decent from Robinson took a while and had some steep rocky sections which slowed things down quite a lot. The snow covered the paths, so navigation for took a bit longer.

Arrived at Newlands Church, Mark was feed a bit more, his shoes changed and then was pushed, encouraged, etc, etc, over a very icy road, but with 4 miles to run which would have needed sub 8 minute miles, he had been in the game long enough to know he would not complete in sub 24 hours and he started to walk, getting back to Moot Hall in 24 hours and 22 minutes. I think if he had kept the peddle to the metal, he would have finished in about 24.08, but that is not really the point. The difference between 23.59 and 24.08 can be as simple as not eating on an ascent which has a future knock on effect. Whatever the time, it was hell of an achievement for Mark and by far and away the hardest thing I have ever seen anyone do. Some educated guesses suggest that a Summer round burns in excess of 20,000 calories, a winter round may increase that by 50%.

I was expecting Mark to turn into a jelly the second he reached Moot Hall for the 2nd time, but no, he managed to go to the next door pub, have a coffee and then go for a Curry.

I got a lot out of playing my small part as a supporter (1 of around 15) and I enjoyed nearly every minute of it and the 2 minutes of decorating the road side grass were because I had not looked after myself enough as a pacer on leg 1. Struggling to keep up with Mark on the climb up Blencathra I really had serious concerns that I just would not be capable of doing a Summer Round myself this year, but I hear it is not uncommon for pacers to be burned off on the 1st 2 legs.

Just as impressive as Mark's performance was the diverse group of people who turned up to support him, it was my pleasure and privilege to be a small part of it.

Wednesday Dec 16, 2009

In the bleak midwinter

This weekend I have the pleasure, honor and privilege of pacing and generally pandering to nearly every need of a fellow runner, Mark Smith as he attempts a winter Bob Grahman Round. Its hard in summer, a winter round is something else.

I have only meet Mark twice. Once outside some toilets in Church Stretton(not quite how it sounds. I had just taken my 3rd year old for the necessary and was heading out, no really ) and at the Nant Peris Horseshoe where we had a brief chat in the car park before the race.

I am currently down to pace leg 1, to provide rope cover on Broad Stand if it is safe and part of leg 4.

Good luck Mark and lets hope the weather holds.

Monday Dec 14, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 10

The final entry is in summary to set yourself a future exit point.

  • If you are successful by applying your skill, then you may wish to move on to greater challenges which have a deeper impact.
  • If you are happy in the position, you may wish to ensure that is still the case in a years time.
  • If it is not "your thing" and you know that upfront, set a deadline to go back to what is.
  • Its your free time and you want to do something else stupid with your free time such as this

In my mind at least I am on loan to the C.A.B., so I have communicated to various stakeholders that I intend to go back to the previous charity (digging ponds, cutting grass, etc) I volunteered with which is a consumer of C.A.B. services when certain objectives have been meet and Aberystwyth C.A.B. has its future assured. I still have some stuff to get done so if you are staff or a volunteer, you are not getting rid of me quite yet.

If you find yourself in the same position as I did a few months ago, go for it. It is very worthwhile and the fact that you may not be a manager/leader before or all your experience is in I.T. does not precluded you from making a positive difference. I have been hugely lucky in the people I have had around and my rather minor contribution has been to do some listening, hold people together and do a little forward thinking. You also get some insights into yourself, for example, I had it confirmed in spades that I am not a committee animal and also should well stay out of politics.

When you find out what your lesson 11 is, do let me know.

How to run a charity : lesson 9

A summary of lesson 9 is to make the people in your parent organization your friends.

Many locally run charities are part of a larger collective and there is a umbrella organization which is nationally or internationally recognized. The role of the parent organization are as varied as there are charities. Some like the Citizens Advice Bureau set and enforce quality standards, but are governed at a local level. Whatever the nature of the relationship, it is absolutely vital you get to know the people you should interface with. The parent organizations can help in the following ways :-

  • Whatever your problems are, they have probably seen them before and can advise based on experience of what works
  • If they have not seen your problems, they will probably know someone who has
  • They be able to offer various forms of training
  • Put you in touch with potential funders or collaborators to apply for funding
  • Give informed advice on governance, accounting, legal, employment, etc, etc issues

Again Clive was a lucky boy as this relationship was already in place and he would have sunk like a stone with out it. I did go out of my way to attend an evening Anniversary event at the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff to meet some of the other people involved which was a good use of time.

How to run a charity : lesson 8

A summary of lesson 8 is that it is always your fault.

One of the great things about being the acting chair of a board of trustees is that you become the magnet for all negative emotions and frustrations. The fact that you have only been in place for less time that it takes to drink a cup of tea is irrelevant. Anyway, thats what happens and you need to live with it, so what can you do to get through in tact?

  • Forget about the causal chain. Who caused any past or current mess does not matter. You can only worry about fixing it and avoiding it happening again.
  • A propensity for allocating blame often hides some inner guilt. Sit back and be smug in the knowledge that whoever is currently delivering verbal corporal punishment with the underlying suggestion that you were conceived in the doorway of JJB Sports by parents who did not speak to each other before or after, is probably doing so because they have some past mishap which they would rather stay hidden.
  • Most people will tell you that you are great tomorrow
  • A stray f-word normally comes from a position of frustration of those who are passionate and committed to the cause. Let it go.
  • Getting it in the shorts from an external body for something you have no control over (for example a business plan generated 6 months ago, which you had no part in creating, has some flaws and an other body wants to make a point of it) I found OK.

I found working for Sun to be perfect training for some of this. At the occasional customer events, I still need to accept full responsibility for removing the C compiler from Solaris 2.0. I have been at Sun for 12 years and Solaris 2.1 was released about 6 years before I joined. No matter, it is still somehow my fault.

If you are the sort of person who takes on a role of any kind in a charity, you are probably not ruthless with an elephant hide for skin, so it will be one of the least enjoyable parts. Has been for me.

Thursday Dec 03, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 7

Learn to speak some accounting.

As mentioned in a previous note, the quality of governance effects the ability of the whole organization to do useful work. The quality of accounting effects the ability of the organization to exist and for the trustees to stay out of jail. I kid not.

If a charity (like a business) fails to produce accounts or produces incorrect accounts then the consequences can be very serious for the trustees. As a trustee you can be liable for financial loss if due diligence can't be shown to have been done. If the organization is not incorporated, you can be liable personally for any losses full stop.

Other than having read a book on how to understand company accounts 2 or 3 years ago, I openly admit to be hard of accounting and (yet again) been very lucky that we had 2 accountants on the Board of Trustees. Their perspective goes beyond just figures and into the legal implications of various aspects of company law. They also have vital input into producing useful future business plans which funders will always want to see.

So I have two take aways which are

  • Make sure you have at least one qualified accountant as a trustee (they don't need to do the accounts themselves, just need to be there to audit them and give the bigger picture).
  • Learn to speak some accountant. This is on my todo list. I have learned by immersion to speak very elementary accountant over the last 6 weeks, now need to get a bit more of the background. Working in this environment is a challenge for the hard of accounting.

Wednesday Dec 02, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 6

Lesson 6 is that the whole is greater than sum of your partners

This was new to me. The level of interdependency and cooperation between charities makes the total output of good stuff done greater than the sum of the individual capacity of each charity to do good stuff.

Some examples. The C.A.B. takes referrals from housing charities where the client may have been subject to an illegal eviction and need specific advice. The C.A.B. while helping with the advice aspect may refer a client to a mental health charity who needs specific mental health support. There is also a sister C.A.B. about 40 miles away, but in the same county. Working together makes much sense in terms of both geographic coverage, funding bids and supporting each other. There are many other examples of such cooperation of the charity eco-system and the main take away is get to know your partners, what they do and how to avoid duplicating their core competency.

Beyond recognizing this is very important, I don't have much more to add. This is one of the areas I intend to pay attention to and understand much better in the coming months.

How to run a charity : lesson 5

Lesson 5 is that individual contributors would rather be told nothing, than not be told anything!

By nothing I mean you communicate that either you have nothing to tell them or that you can't tell them what you would like to tell them, but will tell them something as soon as you are in a position to. The worst possible inaction is not to say anything.

Any charity needs its individual contributors. If they are volunteers they have chosen to spend their time helping others, rather than gardening, having morning coffee with their friends, hanging around in street corners or working for an other charity. They are the reason why charities represent such good value for money for funders. They also are motivated for the right reasons. If they are staff, they are probably work in this area out of choice for the work and the postive impact on others, rather than pay and promotion prospects. Again, they are probably there for the right set of reasons. The C.A.B. in Aberystwyth has a volunteer who has been with the Bureau for 24 years, that is real commitment and in my book they deserve to know what is going on as far as practical.

When it was determined that it was possible that the Bureau was going to shut at the end of December 2009, I called an all hands meeting of the volunteers and staff. It was quite comical as I turned up to the meeting and was asked who I had an appointment to see as none of the individual contributors knew who I was. At that point I had been a Trustee for 4 weeks and Chair for 3 days. I told them what the situation was and why (legal duty, etc), what plans we(Trustees) had to find funding to remain open and answered questions. One of the positive side effects I did not expect was a level of innovation to go out and raise the public profile through pestering local politicians, obtaining letters of support (over 400) and writing to the local paper. More important was that they kept on doing what they were doing in terms of seeing clients in need and giving good quality, timely advice.

Ideally, I would have liked to communicated on a more frequent basis. Working with uncertainty is never productive (sound familiar ???), but the need to cross i's and dot t's means I had to keep some information back for longer than I wouild have liked and also to be less committal and use more caveats than I would have preferred. The Board of Trustee's also practice collective decision making and as new kids in the chair(even if the chair was potentially not going ot be there in 6 weeks time) I was keen not to overstep the mark in delegated decision making which may not have been delegated.

This is probably one area where no having direct management experience was an advantage or at least no disadvantage. I can just about manage myself, my two under 6 terrorists and the dog. Given my role in Sun, management(or is it really facilitation??) of customer situations has become 2nd nature. I also do the weekend duty manager role every 6 or so weeks which can be entertaining, but I don't and never have (and have no intention ever) to manage people in a direct reporting sense. So what do you do? You draw on

  • The type of communication you would like to have
  • Model the instances (and there have been many in my 12 years at Sun) where communication was effective and appropriate
  • Avoid the instances where communications has been a joke (has happened at Sun, but I drew more on external experience)
and add a bit of your own style which in my case is a mix of Rational Process and NLP. I have not had to use my plausible denial face yet which is a bonus, but I have been practicing.

There is always a "loose canon" concern where an individual driven by their passion for the cause makes public comment which is awkward or embarrassing in some way. It is a risk, but I took the view that most people know the boundaries and that if they are trusted to deal with potentially vunerable people, they can be trusted to act responsibly with information about the future of a organization they care about. We did suggest that it should be left to the Bureau Manager, our fine regional councillor or myself to make any statements about the Bureau future to the press, but volunteers and staff were free to write letters to the editor in a personal capacity. So far my experince has been that a strategy of telling the staff and volunteers what you can, when you can, has been optimal.

Apologies for use of I.T. industry terms such as individual contributor or all hands, makes it sound a bit inhuman.

Tuesday Dec 01, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 4

Lesson 4 can be summarized as Governance is God.

About 6 months ago I wrote about the connection between a lack of proper IT governance and a missing value in /etc/system here. For a UK charity good Governance is the goal of the charity. Like me you probably thought it was to help people. Nope, this would be a positive side effect from the point of view of a trustee. If effective administrative and financial governance is not in place the rest of the function of the organization goes south as a consequence. The important people(staff and volunteers) depend on a solid foundation of organizational governance to be able to deliver real value to clients.

As an individual I am quite good at writing a process and getting my head round where process has gone wrong, but the anarchist in me struggles to follow process unless it has some scope for creativity/innovation (probably explains why I get on with Kepner Tregoe Rational Process). This means I can often determine what has wrong and put it right, but don't ask me to enforce the standards in the 1st place. Myers-Briggs gets me off the hook, but means you don't want someone like me as your accountant. In C.A.B. terms this is OK we have an excellent manager and a number of trustee's who has some of the opposite character traits.

It is quite important to understand why Governance is sooooo important and that organization like the Charity Commission exist. If you have got here, you can use Google, so searching for "charity" and "corruption" makes the primary reason quite obvious. There is also a secondary reason where charities are often run by very well meaning people who are very capable in their area of expertise, but many not have sufficient administration and organizational skills to run the charity effectively. A set of standards and processes such as an external audit of the accounts and annual reports is there to help such people. and yes, it does add significant overhead and there is a lot of arse covering. There is also a need for funding bodies be able to prove that their money is being spent as was agreed in the funding application. The C.A.B. has an additional level of supervision where each case is checked by an experienced supervisor and I suggest this is one of the major strength of the implementation of the C.A.B. model.

At a high level the Governance needs of a Charity are similar to that of a Pension Fund Trustee which are very well documented and enforced you will be pleased to hear.

Monday Nov 30, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 3

Lesson 3 is to get a diverse set of capable trustee's behind you.

Again I was a lucky boy in that a dream team of trustee's were already in place

  • Retired HR manager
  • Retired professor of social policy
  • Law professor
  • 2 qualified accountants
  • 2 interoperable councilors
  • Experience mental health worker
  • One I have yet to meet who has not turned up for any meetings

What is probably missing is someone with fund raising experience and some volunteer representation. None had been a trustee for more than 18 months. Indeed the 2 retired trustee's had been working full time-ish[ for which the CAB version of the Order of Lenin should be awarded ] for a year to make up for the lack of a Bureau Manager (in effect acting in that role) which meant they had reduced bandwidth for their role as trustee's and take the long view. This is an important point in that a trustee needs to be such and not act as an additional volunteer management. This has been addressed by the appointment of a very capable indeed manager.

So lesson 3 in summary boils down to

  • Get a trustee board of capable, diverse and appropriate trustees
  • If possible avoid trustee's being drawn into the management of the charity, they loose the oversight function. This is not a rule as sometime it is right to bridge the gap, but aim to make it short term.
  • Have a trustee who is experienced and motivated in the area of fund raising.
  • Ensure they are interoperable
  • If a trustee is any good, they will be already busy and allow for that
  • Need to think about the future and have a pipeline/succession plan in place (which I don't yet).

How to run a charity : lesson 2

Following on from the 1st note, the second lesson I learned was that the press don't have consequences for getting it wrong.

The possibility of closure of a voluntary service such as the Citizens Advice Bureau will be news worthy to local papers who's distribution may cover a county and is measured in 1000's. The Editor is motivated by filling the paper with stories and not missing significant stories, for example they would be embarrassed if a story is run in a regional paper and they missed it.

A story may be incorrect, incomplete, misleading, damage the chances of the charity being funded by potentially embarrassing the funders when negotiations are underway. The press have no consequences for the above and will publish material that they know has gaps.

You all know this, I knew this and working for Sun (not The Sun) and not being press trained, it is drummed into you that you don't talk to the press unless you are trained. There is good reason for this and you need to be aware of it. Even the best meaning reporters can be selective because of space constraints and change the overall meaning of a otherwise well thought out communication. In our case no damage was done, but it could have been.

On the positive side, we did have a local Councilor who was press savvy and had existing connections with the local media.

Also on the very positive side the local paper mounted a very positive campaign, published letters and ran very positive articles, so I can't in any significant way be critical of the local paper in this case, just extract some lessons from the experience.

However, the overall lesson is to get press trained or use a media savvy individual to do all the press communication and be mindful of what motivates a local paper. They can be a very powerful positive force.

Sunday Nov 29, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 1

For reasons which are not that interesting, I found myself as the acting chair of the Aberystwyth Branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau a month after becoming a trustee. This means I know very little about what the C.A.B. does at an operational level (i.e. giving advice). At the same meeting it was also determined that the Bureau did not have sufficient money to carry on and would close at the end of December 2009. I am pleased to say that won't happen and I am going to document the main lessons I have learned through either my

  • good luck
  • poor judgement and subsequent reflection
  • lack of knowledge and subsequent reflection
  • observation of how other behave, either rationally or irrationally

Why? So if you happen to have a similar opportunity, it might be an easier ride and you may be able to make more of it.

Lesson 1 : Ensure that you have a local elected representative (councilor, etc) who is committed because it is the right thing to do and they believe in the charity. This was the good luck bit on my part, 2 just arrived by magic about the same time I became a trustee. Even better, though from 2 different political parties, they are fully interoperable. They just know how the funding system works and who and how to influence. They have a wide network in the local area and probably an existing press relationship. I suspect there is a flip side here I have not seen where you get an elected representative who has an agenda which is not compatible with that of the charity.

If you don't have a star elected representative on your side, my 1st action would be to find at least one, but no more than 2, making sure they are interoperable.

Stay tuned for further installments.

Monday Nov 23, 2009

Beautiful Security book review

As noted here, I have been reading two books for a couple of months and not made much progress in recent times. My progress through books under consideration tend to be directly proportional to the amount of time spent traveling on trains or plains and I have not been doing that much of either for the last few month, hence the slow progress. A bit more focus and a train trip means I finished one of them last week.

Beautiful Security is a collection of 16 chapters written by 16 different people(s) with 16 different perspectives on 16 different aspects of security. This means there is no common thread other than it is about computer security. In my view this is no bad thing.

I think my favorite chapter was "The evolution of PGP's web of trust" by Phil Zimmermann and Jon Callas. The history and insight into the design decisions was really interesting. I also enjoyed the 1st chapter by Peiter Zatko on "Psychological Security Traps".

My interest in Computer Security got triggered about 6 months ago when I got cornered into helping 2 farmers run their PC and laptop. The virus and malware problems were just stunning. Work also had a few triggers (if you work for Sun ask me about the "find" incident) and this book has been very good at giving a informed view on 16 different areas of computer security.

After a couple of months off races, I am really looking forward to the Cardington Cracker in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday Nov 18, 2009

2nd Year Computer Science Interview Skills Weekend at Gregynog

Gregynog is a Country house near Newtown which was left to the University of Wales. For the last 13 years it has hosted a weekend of interview skills for 2nd Year Computer Science students from Aberystwyth University, of which I have managed to miss 2.

This year Paul Humphreys and myself ran objective setting sessions. A bit like life coaching, but without the 100 quid an hour overhead.

So good luck to those who's objectives included

  • Propose to his girl friends (maybe I should have pointed him to the Kepner Tregoe process for decision analysis)
  • Eat a baby dolphin
  • Stop smoking (not sure what, best not to ask)
  • Get an industrial year which involves Android
  • Finish their assignment by an appropriate date
  • Write code to do xxxxx in C,C++, Haskal, Perl, Python, etc and put to on their blog.

it takes all sorts to make a world. Many of the outcomes could have been tighter and better clarified, but it was an exercise in "How"

Both Paul and I also set out our list of 10 each, so I am off to finish my 2 books I have been reading since March and Paul will have dug manure into his allotment if it ever stops raining.

Friday Nov 06, 2009

Evening run up Blorange

I spent the last 2 days at a customer site in the south east of England. On my way home last night I decided to explore a route up a mountain called The Blorenge. I did not take any pictures, though I am sure the view would have been great if it was light. Being Novemeber the 5th, I felt the youff of Abergaveny let me down somewhat with few fireworks going off.

The Blorenge from the north is just over 500 meters of ascent, some of which is up a old mine works incline and some on open hill side. Nearly all of it is steep, so until the top plateau there was little I was able to run. Still a great hill training venue which is quite reasonable to do at night. Indeed, I was quite surprised to see an other set of lights out running who clearly knew an easier/better way down than straight back down the north face. I really missed my Mudclaws for the 1st 100m of descent.

Many thanks to Martin Beal and his blog for the idea. I have passed 100's of time to my shame, but never though of using it as a training ground and an excuse to break the drive home up. So if Martin at the top of end of the sport can do the ascent in 21.5 minutes, those of us at the other end might find 30 minutes a good target. Last night the ascent took about 45 minutes to the plateau, but some of that was spent reading the route description and looking for the track in the dark.

Wednesday Oct 14, 2009

Cader Idris in October

Spent part of my day off doing 2 reps of Cader Idris getting in just over 6000ft of ascent and 11 miles. Pictures are not great as I used a phone, choosing to leave the camera behind to save weight. The view from the top was hazzy, so did not bother to take any more. Still, very nice morning out for mid October.




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