2020 was a bit of a mad year (for obvious reasons), but it was far from my hardest year, and I did actually find some positives throughout it. So here are some reflections on how 2020 was for me, and on what I want 2021 to look like.
Goals and Progress
I'm usually a firm hater of setting new year's resolutions - if someone hasn't found the motivation to do something in the other 11 months, I don't see why it being January will make any difference. While I'm sure resolutions probably do work for some people, I always considered them as being of the type "I'll start doing X daily", which people would do for 3 days and then promptly abandon. But at the start of 2020, I wanted to try doing something along those lines, to see if it would actually work, or if I would also quickly abandon all my dreams. And so, avoiding the "I'll start doing X" format, I instead wrote some year-long goals, with the aim of picking things that would take a few months minimum, and that would have a tangible end.
At the end of 2020, I sat down to review the year's goals and make new ones. My general feeling was that I hadn't done much this year - the time went fast and the only thing I felt that I'd properly continued with all year was the reading. So I was pleasantly surprised that I'd actually done 8/12 of the year's goals - a very respectable number if I do say so myself. What conclusion do I draw from this? If I managed to get this much done during a pandemic then I should have probably been writing yearly goals all these years, and I would have been a productivity guru by now.
It's also interesting to me how off I was on my estimation here - progress is truly so hard to measure, because it's hard to really remember who you were a year ago (at least I find it is), and so having a tangible comparison between the start and end of the year was nice. I try to not be very hard on myself in terms of forcing productivity out of my time (literally why would I want to) and so I suppose this leads towards me feeling that I surely must be being unproductive, even at times when I am getting a lot done.
In light of this, I sat down on the 1st of January this year and wrote future me a nice long letter to open at the end of the year - this is hopefully good motivation to not disappoint past me at the end of the year.
A boring subject of course after 10+ months of living with it, but nevertheless - it is the biggest thing that happened this year, and did have a profound impact on my lifestyle. As someone who spent almost all of their time outside the house (either working or socialising), it was a massive change to suddenly be indoors almost 24/7, and it took a good few months to adjust to the shift in my lifestyle.
I am, of course, extremely privileged to have the sort of job where I can work from home easily, to live in a city where I can get pretty much anything delivered to my door, and to work in an industry that is pretty insulated from economic factors. But I do still miss going outside without having to spend my time giving strangers a wide berth, and I'm very much looking forward to life post-covid, where I will resume my usual habits of wandering around London and going to indie art galleries.
A few months after the pandemic hit the UK, I moved jobs, after spending only 10 months at Deliveroo. As a software engineer, and one fairly early-stage in their career, this was a far from ideal length of time to spend in the role, and I was sad to leave behind so many colleagues that I truly loved working with. Nevertheless, having spent much of my previous years in a perpetual job-hunting cycle, I was well-equipped to jump feet-first into the job search, and I was lucky to have some good leads from reaching out to my network.
Technical interviewing is notoriously a bit of a pain - the skillset of interviewing for a technical role and actually doing the role can often feel like very separate skills, so it does require a bit of a context switch. But I was pleasantly surprised at how fun some of the take-home tasks I did were, and I don't tend to get very nervous when interviewing so the biggest struggle was around making the time to be both working full-time and job-searching at the same time (very much also a full-time job).
In June, I joined the wonderful team at accuRx - a London-based health-tech startup focused on building communication tools for healthcare practitioners. In a lot of ways, this felt like a return to the familiar, having spent my earlier years working in smaller startups, and I enjoyed being thrown head-first into such a fast-paced environment. Like anyone moving from a bigger company to a smaller one, I definitely immediately felt how much more direct impact I could have, and working at accuRx is often quite a heart-warming experience because of how much good feedback we all see daily.
Having interviewed completely remotely, I also wasn't entirely sure what to expect when actually starting the job, but everyone I had spoken to was immensely friendly, and this certainly proved to be true once I joined. Starting a new job remotely was always bound to be a bit weird, but a lot of the rest of my team were also remote, and social activities continued remotely, including Donut calls, cook-along dinners, and countless games of Among Us
In my first few months, I got to delve headfirst into some great projects, and really push myself to grow as an engineer, particularly in terms of doing more backend work, having spent most of the previous year doing exclusively frontend work. I was also pleased to be working on one of the company's patient-facing products, as it meant I got a chance to delve into web accessibility since the user-base was so wide, and I even had the opportunity to speak at a company panel event around Digital Inclusion
Working on Vaccine Delivery Software
In November, the COVID-19 vaccination programme in the UK was announced, and at accuRx, we decided that we wanted to build software to assist in these efforts. Being in the majority of GP practices already (over 99%), we were well-placed to understand GP's software needs, and so we set about building a system to manage the (not inconsiderable) logistics of organising and administering vaccines.
With a massive push, and some long hours, we built a fully-usable booking system in just a few weeks, and we released it to the public in mid-December. It was quite an experience seeing more than 1000 people book in before the end of the first day of the product being out, and seeing the numbers continue to grow every day. In the current over-80's vaccination cohort we've already seen good uptake in people being able to book in themselves rather than someone having to ring them, and it's exciting to think how much of the practice staff's time this will save as the vaccine programme progresses to vaccinating the younger populations, of which even more will be able to use an online booking system.
There is still so much to be done to help in the vaccine delivery efforts, but I'm so proud to have worked on something that has been a genuine help to practice staff, most of whom are already stretched very thin without having to handle mass vaccinations at very little notice. There have been some long days while we pushed to get our system out for users and add new features as people requested them, but it's also been the most fulfilling work I've ever done, and as we come into the new year I'm excited to continue working on the product as the vaccination programme evolves over time.
We had a great round-up at the end of the year of the overwhelming amount of growth and impact that accuRx has had in 2020, and when the CEO starts crying while talking about it and half the team starts crying too, it really highlights just how much everyone cares about each other and the work they do.
Doing hobbies and things
With a vast increase in indoor time, and the inability to do any of my usual past-times (namely eating out and going to the theatre) I had a lot more time to do some conventional hobbies. One of these was the already in-progress reading - which continued quite easily over lockdowns, although the loss of a commute did mean that I had to actively set time aside a bit more. I was also part of a lockdown book club (which continues to this day), which was a nice way to make me (usually) read the book in time so I could discuss it with others.
In a fun project, I submitted a proposal for a new emoji (a rubber duck) to the Unicode Consortium - which had to be weirdly detailed to be considered. This was ultimately rejected (to be fair, I did kind of expect this) but it was an interesting exercise and I found that there's a whole community of people who spend their time submitting emoji proposals, many of which are successful and go on to be incorporated into the standard Emoji list. I also started an Etsy shop, something which I had been planning for a while but being in lockdown helped to expedite this a fair bit. While I can't quite quit my day job yet, it's fun to have an excuse to bust out my (arguably quite poor) design skills and regularly put new products into the shop, so a nice therapeutic form of passive income for me.
In the effort to have some concentrated non-screen time, I took up embroidery, which I had dabbled with a bit in 2019 because I had wanted to embroider a gift for someone. Having made the gift (a nice 200-hour long A2-size piece), I realised that there's something quite therapeutic about doing a bit of embroidery while listening to an audiobook, and I have continued embroidering bits this year. The plan this year is to stop making random bits of artwork and move towards doing some more modern embroidery on clothing, I think it will be fun to wear some custom pieces that I've made myself.
Even though I actually did get a lot done this year (especially considering there was a global pandemic throughout most of it), there were a bunch of things I'd put into my 2020 goals that completely failed to manifest. One of these was doing some consistent writing, i.e. posting regularly to my personal blog. I never even got around to building my blog, let alone posting anything up there, so this year I'm hoping to get into the habit of posting things here, with the focus very much being consistency over quality. I did start doing morning journalling daily though, and maybe that just used up all my writing, but I'm hoping the two will tie together into one beautiful regular writing habit.
I also wanted to start a newsletter - one destined to never be read by anyone, but more as a nice weekly roundup for myself of interesting things that I consumed on various platforms. I always enjoy seeing my Timehop posts from previous years, and so I think the newsletter will join the list of things I fondly look back on. The starting of a newsletter was delayed by one simple fact - I thought I would make my own email template (I do largely spend my days working on web things after all), and so signed up for Buttondown with the plan to build my own template. It turned out that I grossly underestimated how weird HTML emails are, and so this year I'm committed to either figuring it out by the end of January or just resigning myself to having a basic 1-column Markdown layout (may as well have just used Substack amirite). Since I don't plan on ever particularly trying to grow this newsletter, it will only ever really be read by future me, and I will just have to suck it up and live with the ugly design.
At the very start of the year, I spent a fair amount of time trawling around eBay/Gumtree and buying second-hand audio recording equipment, with the plan that my sister and I would make some long-form audio recordings that we could look back on in later years. Despite living in the same house for the entire year, we literally recorded things twice and then never touched the equipment again. Hopefully this year, and with yet another lockdown in force, we'll get back onto this, as I actually found it really interesting to just pick a topic and have us riff about it for an hour - I guess this is why people make podcasts.
Making Goals for 2021
Now that I have some vague faith in the power of making goals (famous last words), I have written up some 2021 goals as well. Most of these are just the rollover ones that I didn't get to last year, but I also have a few new ones around improving my health and general quality of life. This year's goals are a bit different from last year, in that they are a lot more perpetual, i.e. don't particularly have an end. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this, but as I now consider myself a fully-grown adult, I've decided it's time to start building some good habits that will last me into the rest of my life - things like stretching properly and not eating takeaway for every meal.
About halfway through 2020, I watched this video and it inspired me to have a bit of think about some longer-term plans, and so I wrote out some vague 5-year goals and then promptly ignored most of them for the rest of the year. But this year I've fleshed this out into a more tangible plan, and I've set the yearly goals more in-line with these longer goals, so hopefully, this will inspire me to do some of the things that require consistency such as writing regularly, without expecting to have a pay-off particularly quickly.
Of course, 2020 became an entirely unprecedented year, so who knows what will happen with 2021 really, but perhaps I will find myself reading my end of year letter in a COVID-free world.