The intervention of real life

September 11, 2013 Comments off

A year has passed since my last post.

This was not intentional, but was a reflection of an extremely busy period at work combined with family problems which together used up all my spare time. Both have now come to an end and I have some material in preparation.

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Categories: Personal

East of Bloomsbury, Part 5: Regent and Argyle Squares

August 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the fifth part of a walking tour following a Pevsner Perambulation in part of Bloomsbury, London; the previous part is here. See the introduction for fuller details; page references are to the Pevsner Buildings of England series volume London 4: North.


Regent Square

Regent Square

We start at Regent Square, entering the gardens in the centre.
The large terrace on the south side (Nos 1-17) is the only one remaining from the original development of the square in around 1829. The last three to the left are set slightly forward and are all that remains of the original houses in Sidmouth St (Nos 51-55).

51-55 Sidmouth St

51-55 Sidmouth St


United Reformed Church, Regent Sq

United Reformed Church, Regent Sq

To the right is the United Reformed Church (originally Presbyterian), which now goes by the trendy name of Lumen. The complex occupies the corner with Wakefield Street. This is a outwardly plain brick modern building of 1965 replacing its bomb-damaged Victorian Gothic predecessor; judging from pictures this was a major wartime loss.


Regent Square, NW corner

Regent Square, NW corner

Turning around to view the opposite (north) side of the square we see postwar redevelopment. To the left and in front of us are former LCC flats of c. 1958, and at the right hand end is the more modern St Peter’s Court. As its name suggests it replaced a redundant church of the same name (originally by the Inwoods of 1820s, with Greek portico similar in style to St Pancras by the same builders and damaged during the war). Notices in the square give an account of some of its history and residents.

Regent Square, NE corner

Regent Square, NE corner


Holy Cross church

Holy Cross church, Cromer St

We leave Regent Square by the NW corner between the LCC flats which brings us through to Cromer Street beside Holy Cross church. This brick towerless building was built in the Early English style in 1887 by Joseph Peacock (see p255) and is hard to photograph in summer! I have never found it open except for services.


Cromer Street, White Heather House

Cromer Street, White Heather House

We turn right on Cromer Street and go along as far as necessary to look at the flats on both sides of the road, which show the development of council housing from the thirties to the fifties. The first few blocks on the left hand (North) side are early St Pancras Borough Council housing dating from either side of the war, White Heather House serving as an example. By contrast the right hand side consists of nine blocks of flats placed at right angles to the street built 1949-51 and refurbished 1996 so they look newer than they are. Four more are on the north side.

Cromer Street, S side

Cromer Street, South side


Tankerton Street

Tankerton Street

We now retrace our steps along Cromer Street to look at some earlier public housing erected by the East End Dwellings Company. The streets on the right are each filled by single developments of flats which although cramped must have been a vast improvement on what they replaced. Tankerton Street, of 1893, is an example (2nd street on the Right).


Tonbridge House, Tonbridge Street

Tonbridge House, Tonbridge Street

We continue to Tonbridge St (opposite Holy Cross church) which we turn into. Tonbridge House on the left hand side is slightly newer (1904) and more spacious, having been built by the LCC. The original sign remains.

Tonbridge House sign

Sign on Tonbridge House, Tonbridge Street


Argyle School

Argyle School, Tonbridge Street

Continuing along Tonbridge Street, Argyle School (see p.263) a little further along on the right hand side, a good example of a Board school slightly hidden from the road by a brick wall.


Argyle Street

Argyle Street

We turn right just before the school and cut through the alleyway into Argyle Street. This is the most complete of a block of a few streets centred around Argyle Square developed in the 1820s, in this case from 1826.

We continue straight on in Argyle Square itself on the left, which has terraces on three sides (many of them now hotels) and a small garden and a basketball court in the centre. This was developed slightly later than the surrounding streets, in the 1840s.

Argyle Square

Argyle Square


Crestfield Street

Crestfield Street

The other streets are more mixed, with original terraces interspersed with newer infill. Crestfield Street and Birkenhead Street both date from 1826 extend the long sides of the square the north (the left as we approach) and St Chad’s Street (from 1827 onwards), forms the continuation of the north side.

Birkenhead Street

Birkenhead Street


St Chad's Street

St Chad’s Street

We continue along St Chad’s Street to the main road at the end, which is Gray’s Inn Road and where the next section of the tour continues.

A further post will continue the tour.

Thoughts from the beach

June 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently returned from a break of over two weeks off work, which included a 10 day holiday in Barbados. This came at the right time, following a very intense period on my current project which has been full-on since Christmas. I returned to work refreshed, and relieved to find my deputy summarising events by saying “you’ll find a lot of emails about a lot of things, but basically, the last one says, ‘Thanks.'” Naturally as I return my break has given me some fresh perspective and a few observations.

Time to switch off is important; I didn’t realise how stressed I was until I discovered how relaxed I had become. I think it’s important with a stressful job to have a two-week break because it always takes me a couple of days to forget about work including all the things I forgot to do before I left. Then two or three days before going back to work I start to think about it again. By taking over two weeks it meant I forgot about work altogether for at least ten days – a break of just a week means I hardly turn off. I’m sure I’m not alone in being like this (I know others who say the same). On this occasion, immediately before going away we attended a big social event, which really helped to get work out of my system straight away and I started my holiday proper with a clear mind.

As the holiday drew to an end, and on the overnight flight (I can never sleep on planes), my thoughts naturally started to return to the work facing me on my return. When I’m in the middle of the daily routine I normally find I’m so busy dealing with all the immediate tasks in hand that I never have the chance to look beyond the immediate to the longer term. Too often urgent tasks crowd out the important but less important. I don’t spend enough time thinking strategically – what do I need to do now to make things better in 3-6 months? Never mind anything longer term than that. Being away from work allowed me to think about these things, and act on my return to bring some of it about before the moment was lost.

The other thing a period of leave gives me is a chance to reassess my own work. Again, this doesn’t happen enough at work because I’m too busy. Some things I need to do personally – push back more with some of the random requests I get from management. Also I need to offload some more tasks to others as I’m just too busy in general. Luckily I can do that at the moment as I have some capable people who can take some of these things on – which isn’t always the case.

A couple of side notes: firstly I couldn’t believe how many people took laptops on holiday – it’s the last thing I want!

Secondly I noticed that the waiting staff at the hotel restaurant addressed their manager as “Sir”. At the team meeting following my return I suggested this might be something we should consider copying, but the rest of my team were of a different opinion!

Some other views:

The Case for Vacations – Emily Pines, The Energy Project

The Importance of Vacations, for Stress Relief, Productivity and Health – Elizabeth Scott

The Importance of Taking a Vacation – Mary Abbajay

Take Vacation The Journey, April 2011

Testing approach notes

March 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Recently I delivered a project where testing was severely impacted due to the difficulty of setting up test environments in time.

The client has a detailed test policy setting out all the stages of testing that must be undertaken and when. It follows a classic ‘V’ Model, in practice we have four main stages of testing each carried out in its own environment

  • Unit test by developer
  • System Test to prove functionality
  • FAT/UAT with realistic volumes of data
  • Operational Acceptance and Pre-Production testing to prove build and performance in an environment that is supposed to match production

The full set of environments for our main development phase was not provided in time. Eventually the situation stabilised with the FAT/UAT one missing so we had to use the Pre-Production environment for that purpose, as it was the only environment large enough to test with realistic volumes of data copied over from the Live system.

As a result we were never able to do the final set of testing which led to a number of issues on release particularly:

  • the Production environment required some configuration settings that were not needed in any of the test environments
  • stricter permissions on Production meant we couldn’t run some of the migration scripts without modification
  • we couldn’t rehearse the release as it was intended to be run, so instructions had minor errors leading to confusion e.g. where we’d merged test releases into a single production release

One of the key lessons learned from earlier development phases was that having a chance to do a dry run of the release was invaluable in identifying missing, inaccurate or ambiguous steps in the instructions. It was a retrograde step and led to complaints about “Failed Releases” from other client managers in roles like “Service Delivery”, all demanding absolute perfection. Consequently both the client PM and I had to expend too much effort trying to set expectations and dealing with the inevitable political fallout, which was largely out of proportion as in fact all the application code ran perfectly because we had been able to test it adequately.

Having said that, setting high expectations about the ease of implementing a release is a good thing. In previous roles I have been the gatekeeper – it is hard enough keeping production systems running uninterruptedly just due to the vagaries of hardware and operating system software. Past experience tells everyone that introducing application software upgrades almost never runs smoothly. As well as the application in question, there are impacts on shared infrastructure or dependent systems to consider. It is not surprising that the default position of the people running the infrastructure is to deny any change and accept it only when absolutely necessary. This is especially true when there has been a past history of failure.

The benefits of this approach are clear – to minimise the risk of any system downtime, either due to a botched release or subsequent poor performance bringing the system (or others) to a halt.

On the other hand, setting a very high bar for every system change in all systems is expensive incurring additional costs by

  • providing infrastructure for additional test environments and managing it – which gets ever more expensive as the production specification is reproduced more closely.
  • carrying out an extra round of testing, setting up the environment and the data, and testing the installation process and carrying out a regression test as a minimum. This environment might only be used for one week every three months.
  • lengthening the project duration to fit this extra step in.

Is it worth it? The impact of system outage needs to be assessed.

Some applications demand high availability, where any downtime has an immediate and measurable cost to the business e.g. banking systems or online retailers. There is also the cost to a company’s reputation if a service is unavailable or perceived as unreliable.

For less critical systems, the case is less clear cut; it may actually be more cost-effective to dispense with the final round of testing and then deal with any subsequent issues as they arise. In our case, the system is business-critical but in fact t needs to be fully available only once per week – on any other day the business can cope with a half day outage or more once the main processing overnight has completed. Knowing this, we always schedule releases for the day after to give us time to deal with any issues before the next week-end – by then issues remaining are likely to be irritants rather than critical. It is much cheaper for a support analyst to spend half a day with a developer to fix any odd issues with the release as they arise. From a commercial perspective this is even more so if the developer’s time is covered by a Fixed Price contract and paid for anyway.

All this needs to be considered at the start of the project when the test strategy is being agreed; in my experience this isn’t done often enough.

Categories: Work Tags: ,

East of Bloomsbury, Part 4

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the fourth part of a walking tour following a Pevsner Perambulation in part of Bloomsbury, London; the previous part is here. See the introduction for fuller details; page references are to the Pevsner Buildings of England series volume London 4: North.

St George's Gardens

St George's Gardens

This part of the tour starts on the corner of Cartwright Gardens and Hastings Street and covers a section where some of the original early 19the Century development has survived amid later apartment blocks. We turn left into Hastings Street and immediately right into Sandwich Street. In the centre on the left hand side is the Lutheran Church and hostel.

Sandwich Street, Lutheran Hostel

Sandwich Street, Lutheran Hostel

The church is in the basement; if it were not for the cross outside the door it would not be apparent that this is a place of worship.

German Lutheran Church, Sandwich Street

German Lutheran Church, Sandwich Street


Sandwich Street

Sandwich Street

An original 4-storey terrace (nos 1 to 9) is immediately beyond the church on the same side.


Leigh Street

Leigh Street

We continue to the end to Leigh Street. Facing us is another significant terrace (nos 1 to 19), mostly with shops on the ground floor.

We turn left into Leigh Street, where just beyond the corner of Thanet Street and contrasting with the original houses opposite is Medway Court of 1949-55, which is better seen from this side rather than from Judd St where Pevsner mentions it.

Medway Court

Medway Court


Thanet Street

Thanet Street

We now enter Thanet Street, where we find another original terrace (nos 8 to 17), this time (unusually) with only two storeys.


87-103 Judd Street

87-103 Judd Street

At the end we turn right (into Hastings Street again) and then immediately right again into Judd Street. Around here, although not especially noticed by Pevsner, are several large red brick Edwardian mansion blocks. Another long original terrace (nos 87 to 103) is on the right hand side. Number 95 is one of a handful in this area with an original shop front.

95 Judd St

95 Judd St


Medical Centre, Hunter Street

Medical Centre, Hunter Street

We continue on past Medway House as Judd Street becomes Hunter Street, heading back towards the Brunswick Centre. On the corner with Handel Street is the Health Centre. This is best viewed from the steps of the Brunswick Centre, as are the late Georgian houses at 3-4 Hunter Street on the same side.

3-4 Hunter Street

3-4 Hunter Street


Handel Street

Handel Street

We cross over into Handel Street where nos 4-7 are on the right hand side, sandwiched between Edwardian mansion blocks.


A short deviation now from the tour as given to take in St George’s Gardens (see p. 263), which we enter through the gateway at the end of Handel Street.

St George's Gardens

St George's Gardens

This is one of several similar small gardens in this part of London, laid out in what were originally overflow cemeteries for neighbouring parish churches, an early attempt to solve the problem of lack of space inside overcrowded churchyards. A line of stone slabs along the centre marks the boundary between the former burial grounds for the parishes of St George, Bloomsbury and St George the Martyr, Holborn. At the time it was created (1713) it lay outside the built-up area. Although unpopular at first, it soon filled up and eventually became gardens in 1882. The gardens are landscaped around the large remaining 18th Century chest tombs and obelisk.

St George's Gardens Lodge and Chapel

St George's Gardens Lodge and Chapel

Just on the right inside the gate as we enter are the early 19th Century former mortuary chapel and the Lodge beside it.

Immediately in front of us as we enter is the statue of Euterpe removed from the Apollo Inn, Tottenham Court Road when it was demolished in 1961.

Euterpe, St George's Gardens

Euterpe

The earliest notable memorial is to Robert Nelson of 1715, who was one of the promoters of the cemetery and who by being buried here himself made it more acceptable. It is easily identified by the urn on top, on the right hand side.

Nelson Memorial

Robert Nelson Memorial

We pass out through the exit at the far left hand corner into Regent Square, where the tour continues.

Lessons Learned from a successful catch-up

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I previously noted some lessons learned from issues encountered during releases on my last project. To redress the balance I am now going to make some observations of an aspect that went well – a managed data catch-up following implementation.

The project included setting up a service to collect and collate customer usage data, before passing it on to my client’s billing system. The usage data was to be supplied by each customer on a daily basis via an agreed interface, but before go-live each customer had technical or data collection problems which meant that none was ready in time. Rather than postpone the start altogether, we agreed to let the customers to collect their data and store locally for a couple of months and submit it late in a controlled way. This managed catch-up was planned and executed very well.

Contingencies and scenarios. Once the possibility of a delayed start arose, we held a planning session to identify all the combinations of factors that had to be considered. For example, what if each of three separate systems involved was not available in time? What if it spanned more than one financial period? How long a delay could we absorb before catching up became unfeasible?

Clear steps. Once the likely scenario became clear, we defined a set of very clear steps to follow, including anticipated error scenarios. This was important as processing depended on everything running in the correct sequence. We verified the steps on a test environment – the chance to rehearse is something I am keen on to improve the chances of success. We minimised the risk to the production system by starting with a small volume of and gradually building up the volumes after that once we were confident everything was running smoothly.

Active Monitoring. As well as running the manual steps, every day we actively checked that automatic processes had completed successfully by querying the data rather than relying on error logging (in case of bugs).

Daily progress call. There were five separate groups of people involved – the business, development project, customers’ IT technical teams and two support teams (one for each main application). Each day we held a conference call with all parties to confirm progress, resolve any issues and to agree next steps.

Dedicated co-ordinator. One of the team took responsibility to oversee the process and make sure everything happened as planned. He was also the single point of contact for any issues, leading to clear communication. While activities were being carried out he made sure all interested parties were kept in the loop via email.

Management status updates. Senior management were kept informed of significant progress via email, usually following the conference call, and when to expect the next update. The project was high profile and this proactivity reassured management that everything was under control.

Overall the catchup worked very well – the sole error was when the regular person in one team was on holiday and his replacement didn’t follow the steps correctly. Otherwise, everything ran smoothly, all issues encountered had been foreseen and we caught up ahead of plan.

East of Bloomsbury Part 3: Around Cartwright Gardens

December 1, 2011 2 comments

This is the third part of a walking tour following a Pevsner Perambulation in part of Bloomsbury, London; the previous part is here. See the introduction for fuller details; page references are to the Pevsner Buildings of England series volume London 4: North.

We start at the south end of Cartwright Gardens, which forms a crescent on the left with gardens in the centre, but first we look at right hand (straight) side, which is filled by three uninspiring University of London Halls of Residence (see pp. 281), collectively known as the Garden Halls.

Commonwealth Hall

Commonwealth Hall, Cartwright Gardens, London WC1

Commonwealth Hall of 1960-3 (planned 1947) is the first block on the right on the corner of Leigh St.

Hughes Parry Hall

Hughes Parry Hall, Cartwright Gardens

Hughes Parry Hall of 1967-9 is furthest on the corner of Sandwich Street. Between the two and not noticed by Pevsner is Canterbury Hall, of 1937 according to its website, which is no less worthy of notice than it neighbours and has some interesting period detail at least around the entrance.

Canterbury Hall

Canterbury Hall, Cartwright Gardens


John Cartwright statue

John Cartwright statue

Opposite in centre of the east (straight) side is a statue of John Cartwright, after whom the Crescent is named. The gardens are dominated by tennis courts and are not normally open.


The main crescent is formed of two sets of substantial original (c1820) terraces. In Trollope‘s day, this was known as Burton Crescent and he used it as the setting for the boarding house where Johnny Eames lodged while in London, in his Barset Chronicle The Small House at Allington. The boarding houses of Trollope’s day have now become hotels in the south quadrant, and the bulk of the north quadrant, which was refurbished during 2008, looks like it is University accommodation.

Cartwright Gardens, northern quadrant

Cartwright Gardens, northern quadrant


4-7 Burton Place

4-7 Burton Place

In the centre between the two parts of the crescent is Burton Place, which we enter. Nos 4-7 are on the right (North side) and were built as four houses disguised as one.


Burton Street, rear of BMA building

Burton Street, rear of BMA building

Burton Place leads into Burton Street. Immediately in front and stretching northwards is the rear of British Medical Association building (1911-25, see p 265-6) of which the prominent part is Lutyens’s’ great hall. The rest is more recent and plainer.

Original terraces are to the left, which is a cul-de-sac, so there is no need to go in that direction.

Burton Street, London WC1

Burton Street


We turn right along Burton Street along the length of the BMA building, then left at the end. Almost immediately in front are Woburn Walk and Duke’s Road.

Woburn Walk

Woburn Walk


Woburn Walk is to the left with the original (1822) bay-fronted shops on both sides, Duke’s Road is to the right with similar buildings on one side only (the one facing us). They form quite a picturesque group and can occasionally be seen as a backdrop in period TV dramas or films.

Duke's Rd

Duke's Rd


Dukes's Rd, The Place

Duke's Rd, The Place

Opposite in Duke’s Road is the former Drill Hall (“The Place”) of 1888-9. This is now used by a Dance School, more modern buildings stretching out of sight behind it. It is used as a café and retains its original terracotta embellishments revealing its original identity for the Middlesex (Artists’) Rifle Volunteers.

Duke's Rd, The Place, terracotta

Terracotta decoration on The Place, Dukes's Rd


Flaxman Terrace, lodge

Flaxman Terrace, lodge

We retrace our steps back to Flaxman Terrace. The right hand side consists of an early (1907-8) public housing development by St Pancras Borough Council. Immediately on the corner is the caretaker’s lodge, and behind it on the right are the flats of 1908. Note the iron railings in front which include the St Pancras coat of arms.

Flaxman Terrace

Flaxman Terrace


Hamilton House

Hamilton House, Mabledon Place

We continue to the end of Flaxman Terrace to Mabledon Place. The Headquarters of the National Union of Teachers, Hamilton House occupies the block opposite and to the right, between Bidborough Street and Hastings Street. This is one of many current or former Trade Union Headquarters buildings, which have congregated up and down the Euston Road because of the good rail links to the rest of the country.

Hamilton House, doorway

Hamilton House, doorway

At the right hand corner of Hamilton House we find ourselves at the North end of Cartwright Gardens once again and we turn left into Hastings Street where the next section of the tour continues.