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Annual review 2023 - 1) Overview

I was recently going back through my blog over the years, and I read through my annual review of 2010. It was quite an enlightening little snapshot into my life at the time. A reflection of all that was important to me in that moment, and where I saw myself going into the new year.

I instantly regretted not sticking with the tradition and keeping a little time capsule for all the years in-between.

This year, I’m committing to writing a comprehensive review, but to do so I’ve structured myself a little template of sections of areas that I think are important to cover. If it works well, then maybe this will be a format for years to come. If it doesn’t, then I’ll iterate into something else next time around. Lord knows, it cant be any worse than the suggestion that ChatGPT came up with.

  1. Best of and memories
  2. Career
  3. Relationships
  4. Health
  5. Personal growth

Best memories

Best Surprise Axe throwing for my birthday

Best Meal Gourmet, fine-dining steak experience in Mexico. The best steak of my life.

Coolest New Experience Swimming through a limestone cave (cenote)

Favourite Weekend Flying into Vancouver for a long weekend and hanging out with some friends, that I dearly miss and should appreciate more

Favourite First Meeting Many new friends at this year’s SwordPunk

Favourite New City Cancun, Mexico. First time in Mexico, first time in Latin America

Favourite Sports Moment Crossing the finish line of this year’s Montreal half marathon

Favourite New Walk What’s old is new again, but walking the North Norfolk Coast around Blakeney with my parents was pretty special

Favourite New Friend Xavier. Placed together to face a near impossible task at work, he quickly became my work wife and more besides. Now if only the kids could stay not sick for one weekend, we’ll have ourselves a nice little place date

Favourite Day Tough one to call. First day of Cancun was pretty special. But best day, I think goes to the first day of SwordPunk. After driving across the country to find a Doug ready with beer and a BBQ surrounded by some picturesque camping. Yeah… that’s hard to beat.

Most Intense Week Maybe this last week just gone. Having a client at work ask you what exactly they’ve spent millions of dollars on is never a great conversation to be had.

On the family front, well we had the week where the little guy had surgery, or the week of atrocities and war being declared in Israel. Definitely not the best week I’ve ever had.

Favourite Artist By Spotify listens, I think Thrice takes it. By actual connection, I’ve kept coming back to the post-rock. Namely, Maybeshewill and Athletics

Favourite Song Lost - Linkin Park. There’s something about hearing a song recorded 20 years ago, by a man, now long dead, and it still sounds like it came out yesterday.

Favourite Concert A good year for gigs. I managed to get to a lot. Some notable highlights were Bullet for my Valentine, Tool, Thrice. But the hands down best was Avenged Sevenfold supported by Alexisonfire.

Favourite Quote Still hard to beat that old Mike Tyson quote

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”

Career

2023 was an uncertain year for me professionally. On most traditional metrics, it was likely a resounding success. I delivered my projects, the clients were happy and I am well liked within my company.

At the same time, I had a bit of existential crisis, was told that I didn’t belong at the company, would never make VP and sort employment elsewhere - ultimately ending with better paying job offers, that I turned down.

The year of efficiency

Net, net, I feel like I’m in a better place than I was last year. At least in terms of headspace, even if not tangibly much further along.

And I believe that was the crux of the problem. I’ve reached an inflection point in my career, where no longer is growth attached to a rocket ship. Instead, things have shifted to more of a refinement process phase. I think this is reflective of myself personally in my journey, the journey of the company but also of the wider economy.

To take those in reverse order. Funding for early stage tech ventures practically evaporated overnight, as venture capital looked decidedly unprofitable in the face of rising interest rates. Meanwhile big tech embraced the year of efficiency by laying off tens of thousands of employees. All in all, it hasn’t been a full-blown tech winter, but we’re far from the boom of a few years ago.

My company too, has reached an inflection point where everything is slowing down, to focus on efficiencies and processes. Ultimately, this is the preparatory stage that is required for the next round of explosive growth in a few years time.

Leadership

Personally, I’ve been flirting with tech leadership and management off and on for what feels like at least 5 years. This was recognized with a promotion last year to a position that most would consider an Engineering Manager (but all orgs call things slightly differently). That was very nice and all but it felt like a stepping stone to the Director title.

My performance review this year decided to not give me the title this year, instead telling me that I needed to smooth off some of those rough edges. At the time, I felt slighted, like a personal attack had cost me my chance.

Bitter, I looked at those around me and tried to tear them down rather than focus on what I could be doing differently.

Now, I’m more philosophical about it. I realize that had I got the title, then or now, the day to day of the job wouldn’t have actually changed I’d still be doing the same thing, with the same folks, the only thing what would have changed is the amount of ego I had as I strutted around. And let’s be honest I’ve got enough ego to spare.

Wins

So what did go well? Fundamentally, the biggest, most tangible win of the year has to be the delivery of an AI solution for promotion pricing to one of Canada’s largest supermarkets. Objectively, within the first few months, our solution was returning something to the tune of $20 million dollars of profit via smarter pricing and reducing waste. It’s pretty hard to deny those numbers. Most projects from the big-boy consulting firms will get green-lit if they see a return-of-investment over 3 years. In fact, a 5 year ROI would be enough to get a project started, just with a couple of difficult questions. We returned the investment in under 4 months. If that’s not a resounding success, I don’t know what is.

A client happy, with noises to the affect of wanting us to hang around is a great success. Heck! A solution they keep using after we leave is a success.

Of course, what everyone forgets is that back in October, there were very real conversations taking place on our side about whether we even thought the project was possible and perhaps we should cut our losses and admit we couldn’t do it. At least that way, we would at least maintain credibility with the client.

Earlier in the year, I was a little worried that my reputation might be outpacing me and become my own undoing. To pull off a miracle once, is lucky. To pull off a second miracle is shocking. But a third miracle is just flat out implausible almost to the point of guaranteed failure.

Mentoring

However, when I reflect back upon the year, the thing of which I’m most proud is the mentoring. Whilst not part of my official job description or responsibilities I’ve found myself spending a lot of time in bringing up the generation behind me.

I remember how hard it was for me when I first took over a team. I did so in an environment where I didn’t have any mentoring, or even any role models to try and copy. No, I spent the early days of my leadership journey frantically reading books, HBR articles and 2x listening through the Manager Tools podcast. And despite all that extra curricula work, it was still a bumpy ride, with a lot of mistakes and unforced errors.

The best I can say, is that it was humbling. It was a struggle, and a reality check, but I’m too stubborn and proud to fail, so I made it work.

Now the tables have turned somewhat, and I find myself in a position where I can see the next of young leaders starting to take their first steps. In my own way, I’m trying to be the support structure for them that I wish I had when I started my own journey.

Am I perfect? Hardly. Will they still make mistakes? Certainly.

But if I can shortcut some of the learnings. Reduce some of the pain. Guide them around some of the more obvious traps, then I think that it will be time well spent.

That’s not to say that I don’t find it fun either. My nature tendencies towards gossip and wanting to be involved in everything are nicely rewarded with coffeeshop trips and an occasional lunchtime beer. Just recently, of the one day a week that I find myself in the office, I’m rarely having lunch outside of the context of an intimate one-on-one.

My mentoring isn’t limited to new team leads either. I’m growing an increasing pool of mid and junior level mentees with infrequent but meaningful depth. Some of these were direct referrals at one point or another, some are former team members that I’ve never really lost, and some I’ve just collected along the way.

I can honestly say, that it is these conversations that keep me at the company.

Relationships

Health

Weight and running

2023 will ultimately be marked down as another year, just like 2022, where I failed to loose the weight I wanted to. I started the year at the 100 kg mark, after a catastrophic December.

In 2022, I had tried pretty hard to get under 90 kg for the sake of my knees whilst doing the half-marathon(s). I figured that every kilo that I lost was another kilo that I didn’t have to drag around with me for twenty-something kilometres. Or to put it a different way, how many ways are there in the world to see an instant 10% performance increase other than losing 10 kg?

I had hovered around 92 kg for some time, but after returning to work and then stress at work (and the holidays) saw me flying back up the charts again.

In a smart (or stupid) move, I signed up for the 2023 half-marathon in Montreal very early - so I had a date targeted on the calendar. Come the end of September, my stubbornness would ensure that I’d be standing on the start line. The only question was how much I was going to hurt by the end of it.

Despite good intentions to stay on the treadmill once or twice a week over the winter it didn’t happen. Which meant that I went for my first run of the year under after the snow had safely retreated from the sidewalks. I attempted my first 5k at the end of year at the end of April.

It. Was. Horrific.

5k, with my heart rate red-lining, and I managed a pace that was 1 min/km slower than my race pace.

All I needed to do was quadruple the distance and speed up 20%. Easy!

I figured I would target the same weight too. I know that via BMI, I should have a weight around 85 kg to be considered “normal” and not “obese”, but I’ve only been there once (the crash dieting of Covid lockdowns) since I was 14 - instead I would target getting to 90 kg for race day.

Weights, clubs and bells

In June, an old friend had convinced me to go back to the UK for a weekend in the grassy grounds of a stately home, sword-fighting.

Well not just sword-fighting, but also archery, whip cracking, staff training, axe throwing, feasting and drinking.

Either way, I figured that if I was going to embark on a long weekend of swordplay, I should probably focus all of my regular training on shoulder strength and core work to make sure I could keep going all day long. Therefore I pivoted almost all of my training towards mace and 2-handed club work, and largely ignored the running for 6 to 8 weeks.

Just recently, as the winter has closed in, I’ve decided to come full circle, and double down on kettlebell work. I decided that enough was enough and that it was about time I looked the part. A little more chesty. Add a little bulk to the arms and shoulders. It just seemed a little strange that I’d had this adjustable kettlebell for nearly 3 years now, and I’d never completed getting all of my basic movements up to 32 kg. I had with the standard swing and basic goblet squat, but I’d never pressed it or got my Turkish Getup close.

Around the same time, I thought that three years into the journey, I probably had enough reps to start experimenting with some of the more fun kettlebells movements.

I stripped the adjustable kettlebell all the way back to 12 kg, watched a dozen snatch videos on YouTube and started working on “removing the middle” from my clean and press.

I pretty quickly was able to get some weight back on, but at the cost of destroying my hands and having a pretty nasty blister on the palm of my hand for more than 2 weeks.

It was around this time that I went back to Bells of Steel and bought myself a second adjustable kettlebell, so I could start playing with double kettlebell movements. Maybe not as good for my cross body stabilization and working the support muscles around my spine, but it’s a new coordination problem (because slamming twenty kilos of steel into your knee is generally a bad idea), and it’s a way to absolutely fry your legs.

A twenty kilo kettlebell in each hand, wouldn’t be that much of an ask for me normally for a clean and press - but it forces very strict form, as you can’t cheat my moving your body when there’s another kettlebell in the way. That and, combining the clean and press with a squat, suddenly pushes my squatting up to 40 kilos - which whilst still less than half body weight, is a notable step up from the 32 kg I had been doing previously.

The half-marathon

The Montreal half in September was my second year of running the distance, my third race, and fourth time at the distance (I accidentally did the distance in a training run a month before race day).

It was sort of the perfect conditions for it. Cool and overcast. No risk of sunburn. No worrying about the amount of electrolytes I’m losing to sweat.

I should have learnt my lesson better than now, whilst I’m very glad of a jacket when I leave the house at 6 AM for the start line. As soon as I get to the metro, I’m already too hot, and the bag check this year was an absolute disaster. As I already have a run pack for my water, electrolytes and snacks, I should just suck it up and be cold for 5 minutes when I leave.

This year, was a little different to previous. First it was widely known at work that I was taking part, so there was an extra layer of accountability - and a few surprise co-runners quietly idled up to me to say that they were taking part too. But this year, I was actually running with somebody. He and I had done a weekly Sunday morning training run together for most of the summer, but his fitness wasn’t quite up to my level, so I used those runs mostly as longer endurance runs rather than fitness building.

When he and I made our way to the start line, he asked if we could just run the race like any of our other training runs. Slow and steady, with a focus on just getting across the line in one piece rather than any specific time.

Given our last couple of training runs, I was expecting a finishing time around the 2h30 mark, pretty leisurely compared with my time the year prior. But I didn’t care too much. I knew I didn’t have the training in me that I did the year before without the parental leave, and a slower pace seemed like just the ticket.

And then the starting gun went off…

He went off like a man possessed. We were running a full minute per km faster than any of our training runs. Clearly the thrill of the crowd, the cheering, the pounding music and being surrounded by thousands of other runners got inside his head.

The way we covered the first 5k, we were on track for a sub 2h time. I was watching my heart rate monitor on my watch spiking into dangerous territory where I knew it would be tough for me to hold out for the whole race.

But the miles tickets by…

Then at 17k, with 4k left to go, I could see that he was clearly hitting a wall. That race pace was turning out to be a bit unsustainable, and now seriously uncomfortable. I pretended not to notice and just kept going at the same pace, making sure to keep him on my shoulder.

In the end, we got around in 2h06. Making it my second fastest finish ever. Pretty impressive really.

What did I learn? I learnt that even with no where near enough training, I could get within 2 minutes of last year’s time, simply because I was too stubborn to get dropped in the first 5k. And I think that’s why I keep running. I think I have transcended the point where I vehemently hate every second of running. I’ve even got past the feeling where the first 10 to 15 minutes of every run I feel like I’m dying.

No, I like running, because it’s transcendent. It’s the closest thing I know to meaningful meditation. Something where I can just turn my brain off and exist in the rhythm of feet touching the ground. Lifting weights makes my body feel better, but running makes my brain feel better.

I like having a big scary race lined up at the end of the summer. Something scary enough, that I can’t just show up. Something that requires preparation and training.

I don’t know if running alone will sustain my interest forever. It certainly does for now with my limited number of hours in the week. But I do feel a certain intellectual curiosity growing.

I like the idea of getting a full marathon done before I’m 40. Although 42 km at 42 years has a nice ring - I’m aware that that goal is a bit too far away to be meaningful in my planning.

A friend from work, competed in a biathlon this summer with a run-bike-run, which feels like an obvious way for me to expand. Of course, that feels like a gateway to a sprint triathlon with a swim (750m) - bike (20 km) - run (5 km).

I like the idea of the Hyrox events, but they seem to be very specialized, and my closest would require a flight to New York. So maybe a Spartan race would make more sense first, as they seem to have a bit more of a local presence.

Either way, I would prefer to get the kids out of diapers before I start putting more hours into training every week.

Final thoughts

As I’ve got a bit older, and I’m not worrying about what I’m going to eat at the end of the month - like I used to in grad school - life has become quite comfortable.

And in this comfort, belies weakness. Softness. Complacency.

These days, I value going out and doing hard things. Scary things. Things I don’t really know if I can even finish.

I find it valuable to go out and push myself. To remind my caveman brain that the world can be hard and brutal, and that the only thing that matters in those moments is the mental resiliency to just not give up and keep going. Even when it hurts. Even when I’m tired.

Personal Growth

Personal growth felt like it took a bit of a bit in 2023. I’m not entirely sure if it entirely declined so much as just stagnated.

I didn’t have the parental leave of 2022, nor did I have much in the way of personal milestones. On the work front, I mostly just bounced between two large, and ongoing, projects. On the fitness front, there was nothing so much new as just continuation of what I’ve already been doing and marginal gains.

At the start of 2023, coming off the back of 2022 the objective was to really reduce my priorities down to only what was essential.

In almost approximate order, the priorities were:

  1. Be a good dad
  2. Don’t mess up at work
  3. Continue exercise
  4. Stay married.

Or more succinctly, dad, boss, exercise, husband.

That didn’t actually leave much time for anything else.

Work

In my annual performance review, I essentially received a “good start” / “rough around the edges” response. As a result, I’ve worked upon turning my usual brazen approach into something more akin to a tool. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still far from a surgical instrument, but I feel that there has been clear improvement.

I’ve been a lot more careful with confidentiality and not naming names. Or in fact skipping implications and relying upon hypotheticals a lot more.

In my prior years, in retrospect, I was probably using my gossip network as a flex to try and show off how much I knew. I think I’m developing more of a taste for the subtlety in nudges.

I feel this year, I’ve had my first glorious moments of inception, where I’ve planted a seed in someone’s head only for them to come back to me sometime later thinking that they’ve had some form of breakthrough.

Previously, I would’ve found this frustrating that a bake-in period was required, and of course there’s little glory to be had when it’s not overtly your doing. But the buy in from someone when they are presenting you their idea is unconscionably stronger.

Maybe this just reflects an evolution on my thinking too. Perhaps before I’ve been too easy to assume that those in power are idiots and unless you’re slamming wins in their face, then they are not going to notice. However, I’m evolving my thinking such that perhaps my track record is worth more. If everything I touch turns to gold. If nothing around me is drama. If those that I work with are always happy, then perhaps my reputation speaks for itself.

Increasingly, I’ve noted in one or two venues well respected people in the organization have told third parties to “go talk to Morgan, that’s the sort of thing he’s good at”.

Family

As has become somewhat of a tradition, in September the parents in law arrived on their latest Canadian pilgrimage, with a view to staying some 4 months or so. However, this time around, due to previous burning of bridges and logistical timing, there was not going to be a way for them to have their own place nearby. Instead, they would be staying with us indefinitely.

Until very recently this would be nothing short of a living nightmare, but I have been pleasantly surprised by it all. Not that there aren’t moments of frustration.

It’s annoying to have the dinner table in a foreign language. It’s annoying that as time goes by, they increasingly become too comfortable, reverting back to cultural stereotypes or the individuals they were 20 years ago with all of the shouting that entails.

However, I’m more stoic about it all. I don’t get as angry about it as I could. As perhaps I should. I realize that some people just don’t want to change. I set my expectations on the floor and therefore I’m rarely disappointed.

I think it’s actually been made easier with them not having their own apartment to escape to as I don’t have the frustration associated with “why are you here?” all the time. This is just where they live.

I even advocated with the wife that we should just acknowledge that I don’t have an office and we should set up the room as an actual guest room, with a bed and the like instead of a fold-out couch. We got as far as getting to Ikea before realizing that if it’s going to be a room for them, maybe they should be the ones picking the mattress.

It’s a small shift, but I’ve accepted that they will be with us for 6 months every year until one of them dies. And depending upon which one it is, means that we might suddenly have a permanent live-in guest.

French

I’ve written pretty extensively across the year about the fallout of Bill 96 and the continued franconization of Quebec and specifically Montreal. Whether the results are real or imagined, it has served to make me feel decidedly second-class in my country and workplace.

For a while, my inherent stubbornness kicked in resisting anything that was being imposed upon me. But the pious righteousness could only be maintained for so long. As fall lingered on and the work front quieted down somewhat, the excuses grew tired and the realization was that there was one obvious way to solve my malcontent. Shut up and learn French.

Taking it seriously this time and pushing through the discomfort of speaking a new language and taking some real courses with some human beings.

From the time that we knew that we were coming to Montreal and through lockdown I racked up a 750 day Duolingo streak, which allowed me a reasonable vocabulary and an ability to read improbable sentences but little else.

In November, I signed up with Babbel and begin taking online group classes at a frequency of around 5 hours per week. The acceleration was palpable and I quickly achieved my A2 certificate - meaning that I’m officially no longer a beginner but an intermediate.

Unfortunately, a lot of that good work has fallen apart over the Xmas break and New Year’s. But it needs to restart soon.