Pen Portrait

Someone at work asked me to write a couple of paragraphs about myself, and I’m feeling very silly, so here’s my first draft:

Jonathan looks after the strategic side. He’s part venture capitalist, part market strategist, and part four of a three part trilogy about frogs. He works closely with everyone, trying to identify opportunities and threats arising from the continuously evolving landscape that is unique to government. He focuses on return on investment, value chains, market fit, and other meaningless collections of syllables best left to consultants. 

He has never yet been a consultant, but has previously served as the CTO to an international start-up, the Private Secretary to the Cabinet Office’s Chief Digital and Information Officer, and Assistant Head Bartender at the Copacabana lounge (Aberdeen). He used to write code for a living, having built components for GOV.UK and the Digital Marketplace, and now does it for fun, like a retired boxer headbutting cars. He is tragically knowledgeable about government, having been in or around it his entire professional life, and has a strong network of ex-colleagues, friends, and – dare I say it? – disreputable acquaintances, all of whom he can call upon to achieve the varied and nefarious aims of whichever team he’s currently in.

He is capable of translating between French and English, machine and human, and business to business. He is capable of leading ragtag teams against odds that are overwhelming, underwhelming, and beyond scary. He has been applying Wardley Mapping for about three years and is eager to share his knowledge, because he is both a raging socialist and bored of reading documents that are dressed up as strategies but are really a government edition of madlibs.

He is deeply sorry for the silliness of this portrait, and assures you that you will find him grave, serious, and industrious in real life.

S09E08: There is no such thing as too much documentation

Last week I wrote about how I was going to pick up the work I was doing with the Civil Service LGBTQ+ network. This week I’ve spent many hours reviewing and fixing minor bugs because I didn’t write enough documentation.

I also wasted an hour of a colleague’s time because I wrote an email hastily and left out important context, which meant she did a bunch of work for me that I didn’t need and so was wasted.

So this week’s theme is how writing is important, and how a lack of documentation is actually better than bad documentation.

The way that I write is more or less. That is to say I write poetry or I write emails. Poetry is a delight, because one can write outlandish, abstract phrases like I was doorless when I met you and someone you quite fancy will find you unbelievably sexy and they can make up their own meaning, which means you can never be wrong, unless you’ve written something tremendously awful.

Abstraction and poetry are less well-suited to emails, where one must simply say I don't have a door and I would like you to install one, which admittedly may make someone who is already fond of you more attracted to you but is unlikely to spur advances from a handyman. Even if you accidentally put a xx on the end because you’re absent-minded and texting your mother at the same time.

Documenting code, particularly code that you suspect deep down will only ever be read by you, is therefore a weird place to be. There’s no feedback loop and the only person you can impact is yourself, and so frequently I don’t write enough documentation. Sooner or later this means I abandon the project, because at a certain size it’s too big to start writing documentation and it’s incomprehensible. Not this time. At the very least I know this is something someone relies on, so I’m going to do my utmost to make it better.

It also needs some kind of frontend/graphical user interface, which has not been my strength so far. So plenty of documentation there ensure I can come back to it without wanting to burn it all down and start again.

If you run a mentoring scheme, and you’re technical enough to know your way around the command line, please do try this out and let me know how you get on.

I got support this week from my senior people to run an experiment with a team in my department and GitHub Codespaces. It’s kind of new and kind of old as technology goes. GitHub offers you a virtual computer, hosted in the cloud, that’s charged by the minute. They can offer significantly more computing power than I can afford to buy, so it’s a no-brainer – why not have devs charged by the minute for an awesomely powerful computer?

The reason I say it’s kid of old is because it sort of reminds me of mainframe computing and time-sharing. Which is kind of cool – it means time is cyclical but progress is upward, so we’re all in a beautiful helix of progress.

Not a spiral. I have strong feelings about how spiral has completely taken over the meaning of its more accurate cousin helical.

In any case, with funding sorted, quantitative and qualitative data surveys standing by and the team fairly frothing at the mouth to get started, I’m really excited to kick off my first human experiment.

S09E07: Anyone else keep writing 2021?

Of course you do.

As traditional this first week is when, if you sent “Let’s pick this up in the new year!” emails, you receive “Picking this up in the new year!” emails. It is a tradition as old as the hills, as long as they are very new hills and, if one looks closely, artificial.

This week I closed off some caretaking I was doing on a small service I was made responsible for. It got me thinking about how best to actually organise this stuff in the department, so I’m now on a mission to come up with some standard ways of organising people into teams, controlling access to the stuff they work on, and then managing how that changes over time. Because it will absolutely change over time, and a system perfectly etched in glass is no use to anyone.

This feeds into some strategic thinking I’m doing around the future of my profession in my department. At the moment I’m thinking about recruitment, retention, software, hardware, and standards. Does that sound about right? What else should I be thinking of when considering the next five years of software development? Thoughts on a postcard/email/Twitter message/by pigeon (you may not get your pigeon back).

As ever the strategic work is not just thinking about the thing, but thinking about how to sell the thing to everyone else in the organisation. If I think we should go in a direction, it’s no good me storming off in that direction because for plenty of folks that’s not a direction they much care about. As a naif I expected the brilliance of my idea to stagger people. It’s good for me to come to the realisation – again – I must do it at least once every six months or so – that I am not the main character in anyone’s story but my own.

My partner and I settled on some goals for this year. My current promotion is only temporary, but I’m enjoying it so much I want to keep working at this level for the foreseeable, so by the end of this year I’d like to have secured a permanent role at my current grade.

We’d also really like to move house: either further into Eine, or somewhere else entirely. Either way we need somewhere bigger: we have a wardrobe that groans with cloaks, knitting needles, board games and the other accoutrements of the modern yuppie lifestyle. We need space for at least two wardrobes. Perhaps even three.

Finally, I want to finish off the work I started with the Civil Service LGBT+ network. I’ve built a script to improve the mentor matching process, but I want to do something with it to make it useful to folks who aren’t as technical as me.

S09E06: Homeward bound

This week I wrote some HTML, updated some tests in Ruby, and started a business case.

This is not the balance I expected from my role, but it’s been exciting.

I also applied for a job that I don’t think I’m going to get, but that I couldn’t not apply to: it was just too perfect an opportunity.

Oh, and it’s Christmas. Merry Christmas!

I’ve been writing small commits as I update content on a site for educators to get support when they’re educating remotely. It’s not the most complex service I’ve worked on, and I honestly think I could further reduce what little complexity it has at the moment. But it is really nice to own something again, and to make the world a very small bit easier for citizens.

It’s also really nice to work closely with the policy person who owns this. I’ve set up the application so that content gets hot-reloaded, so she can see in real time how it will look. It’s more time intensive for both of us, but I think we get better outcomes.

I’m also writing a business case for some digital tools for the wider community. This is a totally different mindset, with long feedback loops and unclear requirements. You can’t do test-driven development with a business case. Instead, you’ve just got to write your most compelling argument and cross your fingers.

I really am so lucky to be able to do both in this job, even if it breaks my brain sometimes. Which brings me to the job I applied to: one where I get to do this permanently, for a department that uses my preferred language Python. I really don’t think I’ve got enough experience doing the job. In an ideal world that wouldn’t be a barrier, because people would look at my previous experience and hopefully recognise my potential – but here in the real world being able to do the job on day 1 and not painfully fuck it up is preferred. And that’s pragmatic and understandable, even if it’s a bit frustrating.

But given that this is the kind of role I want to do, and keep doing, I’m really hopeful that I’ll get an interview. That way I can identify areas I need to grow and be better placed to reapply in the future.

That’s it for this week. I’m enjoying my work, I’d love to do more of it, and I’m not doing it at all for the next four days. See you soon.

S09E05: Title goes here

Three things:

  1. Advent of Code got really difficult, although at least partly because I’m forcing it to be difficult
  2. Work started to slow down, just as I started to get to grips with it
  3. I got some honest feedback that was the brutal reminder I needed to be more considerate

In reverse order:

I am really frustrated with myself that someone had to give me this feedback, because I’ve banged on about this endlessly myself. Senior people, I have written crossly on these very pages, should really think before they speak. They should remember that they’re senior people before they remember that they’re experts.

As with sex and food, good intentions are simply not enough. I fell a long way short of my intentions, stepping into someone else’s domain without proper consideration for the time they’d spent working on a problem. I jumped in already assuming that I knew more than they did, and with a pinch of wanting to prove that I could be valuable. I’m going to cut that out.

On the plus side, I’m so lucky that someone felt comfortable giving me that feedback. It shouldn’t be necessary, but at least I’ve had it, and now I can correct myself. So that’s good.

Work is starting to slow down for everyone, I think, because of the impending festivities. So emails are starting to bounce back from polite but firm out of offices (outs of office?). So out of a desire to write a little code, and to be useful, I’m covering a little information service. So far I’m not writing any backend code, but I am re-familiarising myself with GitHub Actions and the language we use to describe how we deploy code into a production environment. The language is called YAML, which stands for YAML Aint Markup Language. The first YAML stands for YAML Aint Markup Language. The first…

You get the picture. It’s recursive, which is a topic I covered last week and will likely cover again. In fact, it’s come up as I’ve been writing Python in a functional style. The other thing we insist on in functional programming is immutability: that things can’t change or be changed. You can create a copy, but that copy too can’t be changed. It forces you to think about things quite differently.

I’m finding myself applying that thought process to deploying code. The binary package that we deploy should ideally be immutable: nobody, even me as the developer, should be able to poke around inside it. If there’s a problem with it, we should fix the code once at source and then redeploy the binary. This is at odds with the traditional approach, which is caring for servers like they’re pets and jumping into them every so often to mess about with the environment or similar.

“Redeploy” is a weasel word here that actually covers a lot of work. The binary has to be properly tested, and once it’s tested, we want to promote it into a testing environment so people on our team can try their best to break it. From there, we want to promote exactly the same artefact into production. The slower we do this loop, the longer it takes to get changes into the hands of users.

This is why people like me obsess over small changes and automating tests as much as possible. This is what I’ll be working on over Christmas, I think.

Advent of Code got impossible this weekend, and it really killed my enthusiasm. I’m also finding I have less time? less desire? in these very dark evenings. Instead I’m just getting cosy with m’buddy Salem and drinking a lot of tea.

me and my feline buddy Salem having a cuddle

Maybe in January, eh.

S09E02: Making friends and walking the line

I am new in an organisation. As such I’m taking my favourite approach to learning how it works, which is getting stuck into recruitment and procurement. The reason I do this is because I think it’s one way to get a good sense of the organisation’s culture. You get to see what’s prioritised, what people value, what skills the organisation thinks it needs, and what price it values those skills.

Continue reading

S09E01: Secret Santa, apprenticeships, and a new job

I’ve started something new this week: a role at a new department. I’m spending the first week poking my nose into things, meeting people, and getting my hardware/software/note-taking approach sorted.

I’m currently getting stuck into Obsidian, which I use to take notes in Markdown. It’s got a lovely feature whereby it links together ideas, so I can tag notes about #Architecture and then see at a glance who else I’ve spoken to about it. I’m hopeful that this will help me make sense of the whole thing, as well as keeping a good record of what I’m actually doing.

So far I’ve met a lot of people and generated multiple pages of notes. The constellation of my connected thoughts is currently a little haphazard, but I’m looking forward to seeing how that’ll grow over the next couple of weeks.

The constellation of my thoughts: a series of dots connected by lines

My new department is very keen on apprenticeships and so, inspired by Terence, I’m going to sign myself up to something. Before long I’ll have as many letters after my name as are in my name.

Also this week: I wrote a tiny little bit of code and then used Twilio to set up my familial secret Santa. For any rational human being, this is a task achieved through the use of small slips of paper and a hat/bag/inside-out umbrella. My family – my extended family – is closer to a clan, and with the addition of rules such as “No one in your immediate family”, I wondered if perhaps we could get a robot to do it.

Of course we could. Much geekery ahead:

Let’s start with some data:


The parent_names property is useful, because we can use it to identify siblings, children, and parents – so that nobody ends up with someone in their immediate family. This can’t be done purely on family_name, because although Rickard and Arya share the same family_name they’re not in the same immediate family.

Here’s some code to match people together:

def score(person_one: dict, person_two: dict):
  """Good scores are low, bad scores are high"""
  if person_one.get("parent_names") == person_two.get("parent_names") 
  # these would be siblings or partners - for the purposes of this
  # code partners were modelled as siblings
  # hence my use of Game of Thrones as an example...
  or in person_two.parent_names or in person_one.parent_names:
  # these are parent-child or child-parent relationships
    return 1
    return 0

and here’s some code to calculate how every person matches with every other person:

import csv
import munkres
import itertools
import math

with open(family_data.csv) as the_clan:
  everyone = [score(*pairing) for pairing in itertools.product(csv.DictReader(the_clan), repeat=2)]
  square_size = math.sqrt(len(everyone))
  matrix = [lst[i:i + square_size] for i in range(0, len(everyone), square_size)]
  matches = munkres.Matrix(matrix).solve()
  # this returns pairings that match the ids in the table above
  return matches

I used this basic guide from Twilio to help write my function to send the messages.

# Download the helper library from
import os
from import Client

def send(recipient_number: str, gifter_name: str, giftee_name: str):
    account_sid = os.environ['TWILIO_ACCOUNT_SID']
    auth_token = os.environ['TWILIO_AUTH_TOKEN']
    client = Client(account_sid, auth_token)
    message_body = f"Dear {gifter_name}, you're going to be buying a present for {giftee_name} this year. " \
                   f"Don't forget to put some ideas in the WhatsApp group for your secret Santa! Lots of love, Santa"

    message = client.messages \


One cool feature of Twilio is that, if you chuck them £20 for an “upgraded” account, you can send texts where the “from” field can be a string, rather than a number. The upshot of this is that I could send messages that seemed to come from Santa!

S08E05: what value my words?

So. The last one of these sparked a bit of a conversation. I discovered that an automated aggregator was wholesale copying my blog (and presumably the blogs of everyone else there) from the Web Of Weeknotes site, and it didn’t sit well with me. I reacted badly to it, and I’m grateful to folks who were patient in explaining why and how it had happened.

I’ve been struggling to write this post since. I’ve been struggling because I reacted very strongly. I find it best to look at that reaction for a little while and work out where it’s come from.

I didn’t think I was possessive about my words until this week. I write professionally. I write code and I write letters and I write speeches, and all of them are regularly critiqued and re-written. Sometimes for the better, oftentimes not – but I have nonetheless sat happily by, punched my card at the end of the day, and not thought of it again.

I write a lot on the internet. I’ve got an email sign-up box, which means people I’ve never met can read my words on their devices, wherever they are. I don’t charge for them and I don’t run ads, so I’m not even missing out on potential income.

I also know for a fact that my writing is quite good – a strong 8 out of 10, if I were to self-assess – and that it has on occasion helped other people to discover or realise or come to terms with something. That’s something to be celebrated, and insisting on keeping my words specifically where they are – when it costs me nothing but clout and ego to let them go! – indicates uncomfortably what my “even over” is.

The last thing to say is that everything I have to say is embroidery on the edge of a tapestry that has been shaped by many other hands. My autism results in me reading something like 2 or 3 times more than most people, and consequently I’ve read more good and bad writing in my 30 years than I think some people will in entire lifetimes. My autism counts beats and knows the rhythms of the right phrase. It is my skilled and invisible dance partner. It is not a skill I have long-laboured for.

And even those skills that I have long-laboured over: I earn more than I need from them. When people tell the story of Picasso doodling for five seconds on a napkin and charging $30,000 because it “took a lifetime” I think, no it didn’t. It took five seconds – or it took a village of lifetimes. Whence that napkin, Picasso? Did you make it yourself? And that coffee? And that pencil? Yeah, it took you a lifetime of learning – a lifetime you could spend learning because other people were making sure you had napkins, and pencils, and coffee. And providing blood for your art, you contemptible twat.

This might sound somewhat communist and suspicious to you, and I can offer the following response: yes.

And yet.

There is something deep down in me that rebels against someone just wholesale re-posting something I’ve written. Once upon a time I’d have seized the opportunity to get that kind of free exposure. A terrible, terrible poem I wrote to score an internship was reprinted in Private Eye with a comment that was gently scathing. I was absolutely thrilled – though as I write this, I wonder who it was in that particular PR firm who leaked it to that esteemed organ.

My first reaction was fundamentally quite wrong, I think. I didn’t start writing my weeknotes to build a brand. If people get something from my writing, that is a Good Thing. If people seek me out for more writing, that would be a Nice Thing. But I would rather what I said was out there, even over being named.

So from here on in, everything I write here is licensed under Creative Commons. Help yourself.

After all, you helped me write it in the first place.

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