Careers Talk

Somewhere up the lazy river

15 July 2019 Paul Sweeny, Chief Technology Officer, BidFX

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or so the proverb goes. At BidFX we encourage our engineers to be the antithesis of boring. To maintain the sparkle, we believe in getting out of the office into the sunlight to re-charge our complexions, mentally recuperate and enrich wellbeing. We abandon central London and escape to an offsite in the countryside. I arrange such excursions periodically to get a break from routine, to explore ideas for change and improve working practices. It’s best to go somewhere unusual. On this occasion our chosen sanctuary was Oakley Court, a high-end hotel and spa converted from a manor house situated in a beautiful, serene setting on the riverbank. In addition to the usual trappings of a luxury retreat, the property boasted a boathouse and a private riverside mooring. It was an idyllic location in which the team enjoyed a sunny weekend of undisturbed introspection, relaxing in an around landscaped grounds that skirt the slowly flowing waters of the upper Thames.

The former boathouse, long since relinquished of the racks that once stowed racing eights, has been refurbished as a well-equipped conference facility. The space provides an ideal venue for a tech meet up. As well as my obligatory state of the union keynote, we had excellent presentations on Kotlin programming, information security threats and on streamlining client integration. The team explored ideas for improving development processes and optimising common workflows, including the CI pipeline. We used the manicured lawns for breakout groups and held brainstorming sessions under the shade of ancient trees that screen the waterfront.

After an excellent dinner, we retired to the terrace to sample a few refreshments and play team games. Frisbee was popular until sunset. Later we were introduced to the card game “Codenames”, in which rival spy-masters know the secret identities of agents and teams compete to see who can crack the code. I convinced myself the game got simpler the more cocktails I downed. The cheating grew blatant as midnight drew near. The game’s espionage theme gave a nostalgic segue back to a previous offsite at Bletchley Park. That time we raced in groups to break a Lorenz cypher. Coincidentally, our hotel also has a secret wartime connection. Before bedtime, we learnt that Oakley Court was the UK headquarters of the French Resistance during WW2 and that Charles de Gaulle was a frequent guest. They say the general journeyed to the HQ by riverboat for clandestine meetings and disembarked at the mansion after dark to avoid observation.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast, we assembled on the pier for a river excursion of our own. We were mostly all present and correct, except the odd hangover casualty for whom our captain would not wait. Those of us with a stomach for adventure embarked on Dragonfly, a 10-metre charter boat, for a cruise downstream to Windsor. The waters of the upper Thames are calm and tranquil, the weather was hot, and the sights were green and abundant with wildlife. The lazy river meandered past grand houses with well-tended gardens. A mute swan shepherded its cygnets to the shade of a weeping willow while its lifelong mate went dabbing for roots, bodily up-ended in the clear water. We passed pleasure cruisers and day boats, all taking advantage of the summer heat to enjoy time on the water. Rowing teams trained for their next competition. A seriously fit squad pulled their blades powerfully to their coxswain’s cries of “paddle through” and “quick hands away”. The rowers were making better speed than any of the motor vessels. “Check those guys!” one of our crew joked, “reminds me of the time a BBC rowing commentator dropped the best faux pas ever: ‘the Germans have dunked their cox in the water!'”. It’s an old joke, probably an urban legend, but we laughed all the same. 

Midway into the voyage, a weir across the main channel obstructed our progress. The partial dam acts as a throttle to slow the stream and ease downhill navigation. Fortunately, apart from a slight queuing delay, this artificial barrier is easily bypassed by way of Boveney lock. As we waited for the lock keeper to signal our turn of passage, a retired couple approached fast from astern piloting an unwieldy river barge. They seemed to be on a romantic vacation, maybe rekindling memories of the halcyon days of youth. They were undoubtedly oblivious to the danger they posed to our smaller craft ahead. As they neared, our experienced captain called on them to overtake us. They accepted his generous offer with cheery thanks, passed on our starboard side, and so avoided crushing us against the lock gate. Once we were safely tied up within the chamber, the sluices opened, and the water level began to drop, taking our boat down with it. It was fascinating to see the Victorian built hydraulics working seamlessly after a century and more of constant use. The gate mechanism is simplicity in motion. I trust the queue-less streaming technology developed by my team at BidFX will likewise pass the test of time, albeit on a different scale. 

 As we neared the centre of town, Windsor castle loomed large above us. The Royal Standard was flying atop the palace to signal the Queen was in residence. The waterfront thronged with tourists eager for a glimpse of the Sovereign or a lessor family member; perhaps the new one from Suits. The density of waterfowl increased considerably in the presence of local hawkers who peddled small paper bags containing birdfeed to sightseers. A tremendous bevy of swans assaulted a slipway where children risked their fingers to force-feed the greedy little peckers with corn. I imagine Her Majesty looked down briefly between lunch courses from an upstairs loophole to check on her fattening swans and give her subjects a little wave. I wonder if they still serve foie gras at royal banquets. No one seemed to notice us as we piloted our small craft around the marina and headed back upstream to re-join our stragglers. We had caught enough rays and seen ample sights for one day. Besides, we had assignments to complete back at the manor — all in a days’ work.