2020 in Review

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May you live in interesting times.

– claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse –

Usually I refrain from writing one of those end-of-the-year reviews because they often amount to little more than self-involved navel-gazing (been there, done that …).

However, 2020 was a truly interesting, extraordinary and in many ways remarkable year. So, here goes, navel-gazing and all …

In December 2019 (or thereabouts) what we today know as COVID-19 or the Coronavirus pandemic started to spread causing a global crisis of enormous proportions.

Since about the end of January I felt that things could get interesting, mostly due to the reports by Sebastian Fiebiger (for which I’d like to especially thank him), a friend of mine who works in science journalism. Then, a few weeks later, Tim Ferriss wrote about the “Wuhan coronavirus” and advised his readers to consider taking precautions. As Tim is both very well-informed and not easily scared this was another data point for me to start preparing for what maybe (at that time) was about to come.

These somewhat early warnings and the time they afforded me quite possibly allowed me to get through the first few months of pandemic-induced lockdowns and restrictions a bit more smoothly than other businesses. What also helped of course was the fact that software industry not only wasn’t impacted as much by those restrictions as most other industries but in many ways actually thrived on the new conditions and the changes those brought up or accelerated (more on that below).

Make no mistake, though. The software industry, particularly that part of it which sells bespoke software development, consulting, and training, isn’t disconnected from the economy as a whole. We depend on the continued economic prosperity of our clients, who might be in industries or markets that were hit quite hard by COVID-19. Even if that wasn’t the case the was lots of uncertainty in the beginning and many businesses simply weren’t prepared for this situation at all.

For my business, this meant that roughly from April through June very little business in terms of my up-until-then usual consulting work materialised.

2020 likely has been a difficult year for most people , with a lot of hardship involved. Even those fortunate among us who got through this relatively easily probably wouldn’t want to repeat it.

Still, in times of crises, opportunities abound, too. Regarding pandemics this has been true as early as during the time of the Black Death.

Such extraordinary circumstances shake up the equilibrium. They work as a catalyst for already existing but underestimated innovation or even work as a trigger for entirely new approaches and the adoption of technology. They make it relatively easy to leave your comfort zone.

As Stanford economist Paul Romer once quipped: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste“.

Rather than dwelling on the trials and tribulations 2020 brought about I’d like to focus on the opportunities that surfaced both in general and for me personally this year.

It became evident quite quickly that the COVID-19 pandemic was no exception in that crises tend to work as a trigger and catalyst for innovation. This couldn’t be more pronounced than when it comes to remote work. Although both the technology and the necessary organisational structures for working independently from a specific location, i.e. a place called “the office”, before 2020 organisations adopting remote work, while not exactly outliers, have been the exception rather than the norm.

Since March, however, remote work saw a massive, widespread uptake and the results were almost unanimously positive. Not only did many companies manage the required transition better and faster than was to be reasonably expected but people often were more productive than before. Many were surprised at how well working in a remote, distributed setting works to the point that many businesses either contemplate abandoning the office entirely or at least to reduce their office space.

Apart from its obvious advantages, remote work was beneficial in more subtle ways, too, in that it revealed organisational inefficiencies and deficient processes. The need for asynchronous communication and proper documentation of processes and decisions became particularly apparent.

Digitalisation in general has come into focus much more than before. While the importance of transforming and automating processes has been recognised since long before 2020 it often was about paying lip service rather than actually and wholeheartedly embracing digital technologies and the changes those enable.

Digitalisation is not just nice to have it’s an essential business enabler.

One area where this became particularly obvious is commerce. While brick-and-mortar stores are struggling even more than they already have been in recent years eCommerce businesses prospered during the beginning recession and saw massive growth during 2020, with no end in sight.

This continued development and the demand it’ll create is likely to enormously benefit my business and the software industry as whole in the next few years.

In early March I felt that finally the time had come for the general adoption of remote work I’ve been promoting for years now, which is why I talked to Robin Böhm, founder of workshops.de, about the problems and opportunities that presented themselves to companies when implementing remote work. Together with a few others from the workshops.de trainer community we decided to start a project called RemoteTeamX (later renamed to 6zebras) in order to explore this further. While this project didn’t result in a new business as originally intended and hence was cancelled in September it was by no means a failure: We learned a lot and made new connections during the process. Working on RemoteTeamX opened up new business opportunities. For example, together with Wojtek Gorecki I gave an online workshop on how to leverage remote work for bringing about organisational change. I also reconnected with Frederik Hümmeke of Vantisgo, who helped with promoting this workshop. Furthermore, I’ve started to provide Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) consulting and workshops based on the work done with RemoteTeamX.

In February, I started to more actively and deliberately market my services through Codementor, an on-demand mentorship marketplace for coding and software development expertise. Codementor allows clients to get on-demand help with software development problems through screen sharing via Zoom (probably the most quintessential and even iconic software product of 2020).

In the last few months, I’ve helped quite a few clients via Codementor. So far, among others, I’ve had sessions with clients from New York, London, Cape Town, Sydney, and Tokyo, which is amazing in its own right.

In March, I also had my website redesigned. I had already planned to do so for some time anyway but the looming economic crisis was all the more reason to follow through with this investment. Recessions are the perfect time for investing in one’s business, particularly when it comes to marketing, because this allows you to differentiate from competitors.

The major new project in 2020 for me, however, has been the eBook I’m currently writing. Together with Tom Hombergs and Philip Riecks this past few months I’ve been working on an eBook called “Stratospheric – From Zero to Production with Spring Boot and AWS“. Its goal is to provide you with everything you need to know to get a Spring Boot application into production with AWS from start to finish.

It started with a tweet by Tom calling out for software bloggers to connect. After a couple of online meetings, it became clear that the three of us shared an interest in AWS. We all had some experience with it and wanted to delve into the ins and outs of developing and running an application AWS. Since arguably the best way of learning how to use a tool is to actually use it for solving problems – and then document what you have learned – writing a book about the process only seemed natural, especially since each of us already had previous writing experience.

In a truly agile fashion, we’ve already published the first release of Stratospheric on Leanpub, with more chapters still to come this year and in 2021.

Since this summer I’ve also been working for a client in the mechanical engineering industry, whom I help with the development of a new HMI (human-machine interface) for industrial devices.

Finally, in November I gave an online workshop about using PrimeNG and CSS effectively and consistently.

With on-location live events being largely banned, 2020 was the year of online / virtual events as well. This was true for both live music events (more on that in a later blog post) and professional events such as conferences.

In the past few years, beyond tellerrand and Fronteers have been my go-to conferences. Sadly, but obviously, those didn’t take place this year.

However, the Fronteeers community organised a terrific and well-received online event in April (with more such events to follow later). Faced with not being able to stage any events in 2020, Marc Thiele, the founder of beyond tellerrand, started Stay Curious – the beyond tellerrand Café an ongoing online series of talks about design and design-related subjects and how designers deal with the current situation. Just like the on-location beyond tellerrand events, these virtual events feature fantastic live music by the brilliant Tobi Lessnow.

I think it’s fair to say that resilience has been one of the positive underlying themes of 2020. The event industry probably has been hit the hardest by COVID-19-induced restrictions. These examples show tremendous resilience. Instead of dwelling on adversity these people saw opportunities and made the best of the situation they were facing (which admittedly likely is still dire as far as businesses is concerned).

So, this was my longer-than-expected review of 2020. With the year coming to a close and an end of the pandemic in sight due to the availability of several vaccines here’s to a prosperous and equally interesting (but perhaps in a more positive way this time around …) 2021!

About the author: Bjoern
Independent IT consultant, entrepreneur
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