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.


This week I’ve done DNS training, presented my mentor programme software, and I read the decision that overturns a half-century of legal precedence in the United States. My unqualified opinion is that it’s weak shit. To other queer folk: they’re absolutely coming for us next. It’s not going to stop just because there’s an ocean in the way.

But let’s talk about my week!!!

Read more

I presented my mentor programme software to a group of interested folks from across the public sector. The hard work has mostly wound down now. I think it’s feature complete now, and I’m already working on a neat extension to let users take advantage of notification software like or something AWS-flavoured or whatever the young folks are using these days.

The feedback was generally pretty positive, and I recorded it for folks who couldn’t make it. I’m going to release that on Wednesday – I’d like to do some edits and see if my second performance was any better. Reflecting on the video, I need to be better at telling folks where the software actually lives, but also at demonstrating the power of the software. At the moment I do a run-through, but what that actually looks like is me clicking “Upload files”, some files being uploaded, the system thinking for ten seconds, and then me downloading some files. I might bring back/repurpose the demo grid I made when I was convinced this would be used for the Fast Stream and get people to try to beat the computer, or send round the sample data beforehand and see if anyone can even come up with a solution. I dunno, at the moment it feels like that time when the Queen pulled a lever to start transferring electricity to the National Grid and a clock went ‘dink’. There is so much energy and complex machinery happening underneath, and I want people to get that – but maybe that’s just because I built it.

Thoughts, please.

A role has come up at work. I’m only five weeks in and already I want a new role. Well, not really. I’ve wanted a more senior role for ages and I think I made the wrong decision in taking this one. Well, not really. I made the only call I was going to make, me being me and me being in the situation I was in. All I can do now is review my situation and make the next, best possible, decision.

The worst thing about this is that I really like my team. The work we’re doing is great. The things we’re building are proper complicated with all kinds of technical challenges. And I think if I wanted, I could ask for the things I think I’m lacking at the moment – line management, more stretch, more of the wider view.

But then I’d also like to get paid an appropriate sum to do those things. A friend of mine, a comedian, says that she says no to things, that she sets boundaries, because she can – so that the next person, who doesn’t have that luxury, will nonetheless be protected by those same boundaries. It’s the same thing for me. Just because I can do this work on the cheap, I shouldn’t. It’s not helping my fellow workers, particularly those from under-represented groups.

And so my choices are to just put up with it, and find the joy – because there is joy in lots of things that we’re doing! – or to make the move. And feel crappy about it for a bit.

Yup. Yup, them’s my choices. Damn. I was really hoping another one would present itself as I wrote.

A minor gripe now. I was approached the other day by a recruiter for a large tech company. Their hiring process is basically the same as my current role, but the pay is almost double, and the work is equally challenging. I told the recruiter I was turning it down because of the recruitment process, and that’s mostly true. I’ve been working in the open for almost a decade. I admit I’ve only got one library published on PyPi, and reading through the changelog and readme of any project that’s not your own is boring.

But I’m convinced that the best way to examine my capability, as a developer, is by looking at the things I have built when I’ve had time, and focus, and no distractions. Look at them! This the quality of code you can expect!

Whereas what was being asked was three random coding tasks in 45 minutes. Is that how we work now? Two week timeboxes have been reduced to 45 minutes because of cutbacks? The amount of money this company was willing to gamble on me, and they refused point-blank to look at the actual code I had actually written in actually comparable contexts. I can’t understand it. If you wanted a portrait painted and your assessment process was “Draw me a dog in fifteen minutes” rather than a portfolio review people would rightly think you were completely mad.

Anyway. Please stop asking folks to do whiteboard tests. It’s very silly.

S10E02: Thinking about sticking around

I wear the chain I forged in life! I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will, I wore it!

Jacob Marley

This quote’s on my mind this week, for three reasons.

The first is work. I’m putting together a pitch to do an MSc, inspired in part by my colleague Terence. The approach I’m taking means binding myself to my department for four years minimum: two to do the qualification, and another two because that’s how long the policy says I have to stick around. This isn’t a small amount of time for me. For my parents, who have each spent more than two decades in the same job, it is very much a small amount of time. Nevertheless, it’s a long time for me, and more than that I’m going to be making a conscious choice to commit that much time. I’m going to forge a chain that links me, not just to my current department but to this profession I’ve chosen, and I’ll wear it by my own free will.

Which brings me to forks.


No? Alright, let me convince you.

The cutlery you ate your dinner, lunch, or breakfast – or perhaps all three, if you’re working from home – are probably the tools you use the most often, after perhaps your keyboard and mouse. But you’re not the only person who’ll use them! Your partner(s) will use them, and your family, and your friends, and your lovely neighbours who have nut allergies. Your cutlery has been present at tiny moments of love and shouting matches and late night ice cream binges and every mundane moment in between.

Do you know what mundane means? It means of the world. People use it to mean boring, but all of my best experiences have so far been in and of this world, so I think mundane is just brilliant.

So picking a new set of cutlery is a commitment, I think. Or rather – to pick a new set of cutlery with your current partner is one of those small romantic moments. Words are air and float away; flowers bloom and die; but this spoon will be as comfortable in your hand in five years as it is today. Love is flowers and words – as a budding poet I insist on it – but it is also a fork that is chosen together.

I wonder if I should start writing a weeknote at work. It feels like a very me thing to do.

Let’s unpack that pals.

“A very me thing to do” is not the same as “a thing I should do”. This is because the things I am paid to do are only like…50%? Maybe? Of the things that I like to do in a job. But they are fully 90% of the things I am paid to do, and promotion can be a tricky thing to argue when people ask whether I’ve been doing my job.

See, even if the answer is “No, but check out these other things I’ve been doing that have moved a bunch of needles in a bunch of different and better ways,” the business does not care. If the business wanted those needles moved, it reasons, it would pay someone to move them. As it is, now they have to hire someone to move the needles back, which is just further expense.

More to the point, it’s pretty hard to promote someone if they’re only doing half their job. It sucks, but that’s not what I’m arguing right now. I know it sucks. It would be delightful if we could be paid to move the needles we think need to be moved, in the ways we know how. But anyone working in a reasonably hierarchical organisation knows that’s not the case, so here we are: the things I like to do, such as puns about flowers and words, are fundamentally not the things I’m paid to do. And I need to make sure that I’m doing enough of the day job to secure promotion, and that I get enough time to do the other stuff outside work in the meantime.

This bit’s technical: protocols (interfaces) in Python.

My mentee was asking me recently about the factory pattern. Most explanations of the factory pattern talk about interfaces separate to classes, because most programming languages do separate the interface from the class definition. I said, distinctly and clearly, not to worry about this, because Python does not have interfaces: it’s just AbstractClass all the way down.

I am calling myself out here to say I was quite wrong. In actual fact, Python does have a way of defining an interface, and it’s called a Protocol. I’m still not completely clear about where one would use an interface and where an abstract class, but I think that’s going to come in time and after some practice. If you have thoughts on this – gosh, I wonder if programmers have strong feelings on this niche element of computer science – find me in the usual places and tell me.

S10E01: Welcome to the Good Place

I have started to rewatch the Good Place with my partner. I mean, I’ve watched it before. She hasn’t. No spoilers!

New role, new season, new project that I’m not going to talk too much about. I’m going to complain, like a lot, mostly about building infrastructure with Python – there are some genius brains at Amazon – but I won’t be talking too much about what the project is about.

Continue reading

S09E17: On again, off again

This has been a funny old week. I realised on Monday that, given how holidays are falling and so on, I’ve only got about a week left in my current role. I have learned so much, but I also feel guilty because I’ve not delivered anything. At least, I don’t feel like I’ve delivered anything. Maybe I’m underestimating my impact, but also I wonder if there’s value in being a bit selfish. It is a good thing to learn: it is good for me and good for my wider employer.

It just sucks that I feel guilty about being unproductive.

Continue reading

S09E16: The worst curse is to get what you want

This has been a generally good week. I’ve done some strategic work and started to lay out principles for implementation. I heard back about something I’ve been waiting ages for, and I made even more breaking changes to my side-project. I spoke a little bit of Russian and drove for the first time in a long time. I met some of my fellow school governors and saw a real school in action.

However, I’m still no closer to a couple of big decisions I want to take. In fact, I may actually be further away.

Continue reading

S09E14: A weird grab bag of feelings

So last Sunday I saw the most recent (I can’t say latest, it’s been out for so long you can download it legally now) Spider-Man, and something made sense. A few days before, my partner and I were at a station watching a little cluster of teenage men cracking each others backs. The process is that you cross your arms over your chest, fist to opposite shoulder, and your friend stands behind you, grips you at the wrists, and lifts you up. You can feel your vertebrae popping and it makes a fantastic noise.

In Spider-Man – spoilers ahead – one of the spiders-man does it to one of the others. Web-swinging is apparently murder on your middle back. And I was suddenly reminded of these boys, and also of this work by Barbara Kruger, which is burned into my brain:

a black and white collage of men in evening dress. They are in a semi-circle around another man, whom they grasp and tug at. Everyone is smiling and full of joy. Overlaid are the words 'You consutrct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men'

Because it’s true, isn’t it lads? We don’t want to give each other a hug, but you’d crack a back for your bro. Because it’s about proving you’re strong, right, and doing a favour, and not at all about comfort and pressure and feeling held and feeling not alone.

And I just – I enjoyed it. I liked seeing guys looking out for each other and being brotherly in a movie that is marketed as a nice, fun, non-dramatic movie.

It’s nice to see boys just being boys.

Did you know that in scientific papers the scientific authors will scientifically enumerate the number of mice that they’ve ‘sacrificed’?

It’s a weird word to use for a scientist, I think. I think this in part because I was brought up very Christian and so the word ‘sacrifice’ has, hum, had meaning for me for a long time. The first story in the Bible is about sacrifice, and how God was not hugely pleased with the selection of vegetables that Cain offered up.

I think in modern parlance ‘sacrifice’ has come to mean ‘prioritise’, and I don’t like it, and I especially don’t like it in the context of relationships. Let me tell you how I define a sacrifice, coming as a I do from a Christian background, and then you can either explore other words we could use or ignore my definition entirely.

A sacrifice is a gift, freely given, in the hope that you will in future receive something greater in return but accept you may also not receive anything at all. It is therefore completely necessary to a relationship with God, and fundamentally unsound for a relationship with a person. For what it’s worth, I think the scientists are using this definition: every scientific endeavour is a sacrifice of time and money and sometimes lives in the hope that what will be returned will be worth more.

(Your understanding of ‘worth’ might differ from those scientists, and perhaps your definition is the one we should accept and behave as if it were correct, but for now let’s accept that folks have different meanings for this stuff)

God and I have long since parted ways, though we are still on nodding terms, so let’s talk about this definition of sacrifice in the context of human relationships. There is this phrase, “I sacrificed (thing) for you.” In my experience it does not usually mean that they burned (thing) at an altar with the appropriate prayers and rituals. What they mean is that they prioritised you over (thing), and they feel you should have:

  • noticed and reciprocated by sacrificing (other_thing) of equal value, or
  • given you the return you thought you were due, or
  • told them to prioritise (thing) over you

I firmly believe that this phrase is indicative of a transactional view of relationships (gross) and also cowardice. If you sacrifice a thing and then get mad about it, what you actually wanted was an exchange. Built into the idea of a sacrifice is that sometimes you get nothing. Sometimes you get nothing because what you’ve received is a lack-of-bad-things; that is, through the sacrifice you have avoided a piano falling on your head or avoiding a terrible disease.

Sometimes what you get for your sacrifice is the knowledge that God is “doing keto right now, yeah?”.

So sacrificing something and then becoming resentful that you’ve not received your just reward is such, such a clear sign to me that you don’t know what a sacrifice is. What you’re thinking about is a trade, and love is not governed by the Law of Equivalent Exchange.

What then of cowardice? Cowardice is the outsourcing of your choices to someone else. If you prioritised your partner and their wants and needs over yourself, then that is your decision to own. Why do you now resent them? Is it because, unbeknownst to them, you were not prioritising them: you were sacrificing something, in the full expectation that you would reap its rewards? That’s not a choice, that’s treating your partner like a piggy bank that you can smash open later.

Transactions happen in a relationship, and so do compromises: I make the dinner tonight and you wash the dishes; I will get over my thing about poop and you will accept that my nappy-wrapping won’t be as neat. We are human beings and we can make these exchanges. You can talk to your partner about what you want to trade and compromise on, as long as you can accept that you’re not always going to get your way.

But your partner is not God, nor a force beyond human ken.

They cannot know the sacrifices you make in secret, and they cannot uphold the sacrifices you declare. They can only be themselves. You have to choose, and if you choose wrong you can only choose again.

If you keep prioritising your partner’s wants and needs over your own and they also prioritise their own wants and needs over yours then, friend, talk to me please because I’m not convinced that’s a healthy dynamic.

And none of this, mind you, is to say that there are no sacrifices in a relationship. But I firmly believe that if you make a sacrifice for the sake of the relationship then it should be in the hope that it will be good for the relationship, which is this weird messy complicated thunderstorm of your wants and their wants and your potential future wants and what you imagine they will want, and so on. Bluntly, I would expect a sacrifice to be in the pursuit of some benefit to everyone in the relationship.

This piece still isn’t where I want it to be. I think there’s some wooly thinking here. But we’re getting there.

Let’s have a good weekend all.

S09E13: Scala, conflict, and grasping for control

I realised something this week while doom-scrolling Twitter, browsing Zoopla, and applying for jobs that I don’t really want.

When the world around me doesn’t make sense and seems more chaotic that usual, I try to exert control on it. I can only control my life, and I get the urge to wrench it around to prove that I still can. I’ve walked out of jobs before to prove that I could still control my own actions. To prove to whom? There’s a question.

Continue reading