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Friday Philosophy – Work Inside Life August 24, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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I know, the usual phrase is “Life Outside Work” but I like to think that, no matter how much we may like our jobs, our overall life is the key thing.

I was prompted to write today’s Friday Philosophy when I was reading Neil Chandler’s blog a few days ago and saw that he had posted about his up-coming {and now in progress} Banger Rally. He and some mates are doing something very cool in their spare time, taking part in a rally from, basically, Calais in France to Naples in Italy, in a “banger”. This is a UK (and wider?) term for an old, tired, worn out car. The most they could spend on the car was £250 and it has to go over some pretty extreme mountain passes. I presume it also has to carry the set of 4 people involved too, so not a lot of weight there then, Neil :-). You can follow their progress at this blog. I was in a pub in Leeds with Neil when he was considering one car for this rally.

I can’t claim that I do anything as striking as Neil’s current jaunt when not working, but I do like to spend some time doing things that are nothing to do with IT at all. For me, this tends to be physical tasks like cutting down trees with my chainsaw. Or building structures in the garden with wood (OK, half-building them – I constructed the below platform and another out into our pond maybe 18 months ago, both still have no balustrade around them and there is a 45cm gap between the bank and the pond platform – NEXT weekend I’ll maybe finish one. Maybe.)


Another garden task recently was building our wood-fired, mud-constructed pizza oven. My wife and I went on a 1-day course to learn how to make a mud-based pizza oven and then spent, ohhhh, about 10 days over 8 weeks building one! We dug a big hole in the garden to get some clean clay (we live in an area that is on top of clay), stole some straw from the horse that lives at the bottom of our garden (long story), bought some sand (because nicking it from beaches is both illegal and bad form) and mixed up our first batch of clay-sand-straw. Add in some old bricks and we got started. It took about 30 lots of mixture, a few alterations to the ratios as we went, but we ended up with this monster.

If you are wondering what the white stuff on the oven is, some ants decided to build their nest in the oven, between the layers I guess (you build the inner oven first and then add several extra mud layers to give insulation and a larger thermal mass, so that the oven stays warm longer).

Like anything, if we did it a second time we would probably make a much better job of it as we learnt so much from the first attempt. One of them was to invite friends with young children over to see us during the build. Kids love the idea of treading the mud mix and you can get a suprising amount of work out of a single ten-year-old (and very insistent I get the age right) German girl if they are allowed to get very muddy.

I found the whole process very relaxing (but very tiring) as you do not need to use too much brain power, slapping the mud mixture on the outside is deeply cathartic and you end up with something useful. Well, slightly useful.


Having built it we then had to learn how to fire it. As an ex-boy-scout I thought this would be easy. Getting the fire going is not too hard, you need to keep it burning well for about an hour to heat up the oven and, one big tip, don’t use any damp wood or wood that “spits” (like willow). Having a burning log explode and shower your almost-ready pizza with charcoal embers can lead to angry garden scenes and considerable bad language.

We can just about get a 9″ pizza in there. The pizza in this shot is actually about 6″. The oven was designed to take a 12″ pizza but, errm, I forgot to allow enough space to one side to push the fire into as well.

Another major thing to keep in mind? That arch! You can’t put anything in the oven that is larger than that hole. More importantly, you can’t get anything out that won’t easily come back through that hole. Sticking your arm inside to jiggle things about is also tricky as it gets up to around 300C! {for US readers – about a millon F}

As you can see, the results are anything but professional! And, compared to nipping down to the shops to buy a pizza and just slamming it into the kitchen oven, it takes a lot, lot longer. But you can drink beer or enjoy a bottle of win and sit in the garden whilst getting the mud oven fired and hot. Last weekend we had friends over and the ladies made the pizzas, I cooked them and the other gentlemen helped us work through the beer collection and ate. As for taste? Fantastic.

My wife is far more artistic than I and she makes decorative cakes, sews and now even makes hats when not auditing IT systems (Have you ever been involved in an IT audit and the person knows how to make lists and check them – but can’t plug in a PC? Well, Sue was once a DBA and also a Unix Sys Admin, so when she audits you, she finds what you are hiding!). As such, maybe as an industry we should encourage her hat-making

So what, if anything is the point of this Friday Philosophy, other than to show off my pizza oven and my wife’s hats?

Well, I see this outside work activity as important in the workplace as well, especially if you are having to manage people. Firstly, it is important, I feel, for us all to do something we really enjoy to relax and re-energize (and this can be “computers” for IT people, but as I get older I notice more of my friends who were utterly technology-focused in their 20′s are now moving more towards non-IT hobbies).

Secondly, what people do in their spare time can tell you a lot about the person and what keeps them happy. If they have hobbies that are artistic and their IT job is very regimented, it could indicate they would be happier with some more less rigid task in the mix, say some design work. If they have NO outside hobbies, you are probably working the poor dears a little too hard!

Thirdly, and I have seen this for real, you may have a person or a team that is not performing well in the office – but it turns out a lot of them do interesting and challenging things at home. Someone who can motivate themselves to be a part-time fireman or has the dedication to train each day for a sport has skills and energy. Why, as their manager, am I not seeing much of these traits in the office? Because they are not happy and/or motivated. So I have an issue to sort out. I don’t manage people at present, but I still find it interesting what people do and achieve outside the office as it can indicate that they have talents and skills not being seen in the workplace.

I wonder how I can introduce my chain-saw skills into performance tuning?

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