S03E04: Into the fire(break)

This has been an intense but very gratifying week. A lot, a lot of things have happened. Here are a few.

1We’ve put a lot of code into production, and the publishing tool that content designers use to make step by step guides looks and handles much better. The changes we’ve made reduce the barriers to entry for new content designers to make the guides. This, in turn, should make it easier to scale the platform up and make more guides that cover huge, cross-government journeys. Things like how to apply for student finance in England and what to do when someone dies. These are important, valuable things and I’ve been so proud to have worked on them.

2I made a decision to stay at my current organisation for a while longer. I was offered a secondment, and although the role seems exciting and useful to develop my career I want to stick at this first. It’s my first paid developer job, and I want to stick at it for longer than four months. I felt really bad turning down the person who offered and I think I was more brusque than I would have liked. I’m not sure how to be better at that. Ask people to offer me things more often?

I only made the decision after speaking to a lot of people about it, and I can’t express how grateful I am to all of them for letting me bounce arguments off them. Every day I’m made more and more forcefully aware than I don’t do this enough, and I’m making a conscious effort to have lunch and meet with people more.

I refuse to bottle stuff up any more.⁰

Someone smashing a bottle with a baseball bat

3I got confirmation that I’m moving to a new program at work. It’s going to be an interesting shift; I’ve already met the team and they seem like very cool people.

In similar work moves, I’ve got confirmation that I’ll be working at the Ministry of Justice during firebreak, which is the one-week gap we have between missions. I’m only there for four days, as I’m attending Map Camp to see swardley on Wednesday, but I’m incredibly, over-the-top-excited to work in a really different context on a fairly green field product. It’s come about at the urging of a friend and colleague² with whom I worked on a conference. We all wrote a lot about that, too. Make things open. It makes people friends.

I see this as living a One Team Gov principle:

In my organisation I’m changing floors and for the next week I’m changing organisation. I’m going to do my best to blog about the work I do, because I think if everyone took one week after every 12 and went to another organisation to offer to do something interesting, we might do more interesting things.

It might even inspire people to wonder what a system where people were free to move across the wider organisation in search of interesting projects might look like…

4Future Leaders Scheme update!

I’ve been nervous all day about it and never heard back. Now I’m nervous and frustrated. Boooooooo!

5It might just be the Piri-Piri spice or the slight end of term feel that comes from the close of the quarter, but I’m feeling more than ever how lucky I am. I earn enough money to rent a place by myself and own a pet; I inherited a chunk of money so I’ll own a property. This isn’t the normal state of affairs for my generation — if I were to start from nothing now and had to save for a deposit I think I’d be 40 before I could purchase.

So I’m writing this to keep myself honest. I have worked hard. Where there have been opportunities I’ve taken them. But if hard work made you rich horses would be millionaires. The avalanche of my success certainly contains a snowflake of hard work, but the rest of that thundering mass of snow is pure dumb luck.

Don’t let me forget that.

⁰ You better believe that despite writing weeknotes I still bottle up a load of shit and struggle to let go of the hero narrative which, let’s be honest, is the mainstay of capitalist societies and (not) incidentally the image boys¹ are given from every angle at all times

¹ and people socialised as boys

² Is it rare for those two words to go together? Why?

S03E03: Manic pixie dream boy

It’s me. I am the manic pixie dream boy

I am doing a lot of things at the moment, and this is a reminder for me and a request for you to prevent me from doing more things. The list as it stands:

  • My job (more on which momentarily)
  • Helping with some technical support for a mentoring program
  • Writing The Book
  • Planning four days with another government department on a high-intensity project that will limit my ability to do other things
  • Creating a workshop around the themes in The Book
  • Supporting a colleague to learn how to code
  • Applying for an MSc, the duration of which I will remain single so as to avoid having an emotional crisis in the middle of exam time⁰
  • Worrying
  • Possibly more corporate objective things

Hum. Alright. Don’t let me sign up for, volunteer for, or apply for anything else. Please tell me off if I do.

Things that have happened this week

1I had a really good, really exciting first meeting with the policy person on the product I might be working on during firebreak. I’m hoping to get a blog out of this; it’s a bit of an odd use for firebreak but I’m deliberately targeting it towards some machine learning stuff so that I can get some more experience with that particular branch of statistics. It overran and I was late to a data strategy meetup. It was well run; Kit in her element (on a chair, overseeing) and a lot of people discussing and talking.

What came out of it was — well, if I were being uncharitable I would say it was the same vague nebulous wordcloud of good intentions. The contents page of every data strategy ever. But on the flipside, it did cement that those are the things we’re all thinking about when we write this stuff. That’s worth thinking about, and what was on the periphery might have been more interesting than the core. I’m not sure. I don’t think I got much out of it. I think I was hoping for more focussed ideas. And maps, obviously, because they’re my day and night, moon and stars, waking and sleeping at the moment.

At least it’s got me thinking about how to communicate what I think I know to more people.

2Speaking of, what is it that I know? I swing wildly between confidence and scepticism in my own belief that I can do maps, and maps are useful. The session reinforced the fact that a map can’t tell you what a strategy is, it can only tell you what your strategy possibly ought to be. I might sketch out a rough strategy map for data, if I can find out what the aim of the strategy actually is. Is it to use data better¹? Is it to get companies to use our data to build shit? Is data the point, or is it a supporting element?

Your strategy has to have a point. Even if you’re exploring a new space. Especially if you’re exploring a new space!

All of this is coming out of The Book. I have a half-fleshed out scene where the team has been absolutely taken out in a paintball arena because the other team had a map and they didn’t, because I am nothing if not a hack with a heavy-handedness comparable to André the Giant.

André holding that 12cm tall can looks photoshopped. It’s not. He was amazing.

So it’s progressing. It’s hard, harder than I thought it would be, but it’s such an enjoyable way of spending three evenings a week that it makes it good. Thank you to everyone who’s endured my ranting on this as I try to refine, in real-time and on the fly, what the heck it is I’m talking about.

I’m also writing a workshop on it and I’d love to present. If you’re looking for a semi-interesting away day speaker then I’d love to talk to you or your colleagues. At the moment there are three swears and two Star Wars prequels references. These can be increased/decreased depending on the audience’s view on what’s appropriate for the workplace.

3I may be moving programs to another product GDS delivers. It’s a really exciting shift, from a massive program to a smaller one. It’s going to be a good opportunity to clarify the amount I’m doing and reduce some of the extra-curricular stuff if necessary.² I’m keeping my line manager, which is good because he’s absolutely brilliant. I don’t know if he reads these, but I hope he does. Thanks.

The way it’s been managed has been really good, and a friend who’s been observing some of the ways we do things here seems to be impressed as well. I’m hopeful they’ll take some of the best practice to their next department and get to implement it. Having recently attended a recruitment event for another department, I think there’s a lot of stuff that we should be encouraging colleagues to do around community-building and how powerful it can be.

A succinct summation of my #weeknotes this week

4My corporate objective has very suddenly picked up again. I’m absolutely overjoyed that it’s moving forward again, but I’m frustrated that it wasn’t through anything I’ve been doing. It just seems to have happened out of the blue. Still, I’m excited to see what impact I can make with this.

(Look, I know what I said about picking up other things. Let’s see how it goes and how much of my time it’ll take up. If necessary, I’ll drop something else because this is my baby³)

I thought it had stalled forever, so this is obviously very exciting to me. I’ll need to brush off my talk on automating the hard stuff and review all the amazing work colleagues have done in this space. What comes next? I have a meeting booked that will hopefully result in a plan. Then I expect there’ll be some hard decisions for me about what I need to let go.

5Feedback time. I need to find out how I’m doing, so I’m trying to seek feedback. I’m putting more effort in than I ever have before, and asking for feedback on really specific things. In that vein, I’d really like feedback from you readers: specifically, has this blog changed the way you’ve thought about something? How did it do it? Alternatively, if it didn’t, why didn’t it?

That’s all. I’m meeting a friend for a coffee and he’s walked past my desk twice, so I’m going to give chase.

⁰ Reading this back it seems passive-aggressive. It’s not. It’s just a sad.

¹ For some value of “better”, and indeed “data”

² “If”

³ Not my actual baby, as my attitude there is closer to this person’s:


S03E02: Annual leave

Getting all up in the strategy

Some things have happened this week!

My last weeknotes were only on Tuesday, so these will be brief. I say this at the outset, knowing full well that by the time you and I reach the end it could feel like longer.


1I wrote more words than I’ve ever continuously written, and it’s like edging over an enormous canyon. There are so many more words that I could pour into this thing and still never finish it.

I’ve seen a lot of family this week — more on that later — and mentioning that I’m writing a book has been a great opportunity to practice my elevator pitch.

“The second worst book ever written”

is a good hook, but then I need to get into the details and it gets fuzzy, because

“using maps to represent distance along a diffusion curve with a second dimension in terms of customer-facing value, using as metaphor climate and tactics, in order for you to produce a cogent and coherent strategy”

is less accessible. More work to be done. Writing a book is apparently not simply writing a book.

2I’ve started playing chess again, and I am having to learn it properly. There are a number of openings that you’ve just got to learn, although there’s an exciting new form of chess called Chess960 which forces players to be more creative. It looks very interesting; so far I’ve only played one match of that type:


The positions throw you off, but I found it a very enjoyable variant and closer to what I’m trying to learn and put into The Book, which is the idea that context-specific gameplay is more important than copying someone else’s ideas.

The state of the board at the end of the match. Black’s two rooks and King were placed there originally

I started looking at chess again as a way to meet people, but if I’m honest the first club I went to was just a lot of dudes who are very intense about the chess. Maybe I should stick with it.

3A friend of mine flaked at the last minute, which absolutely knocked me for six. I thought I was less emotionally raw, but apparently all it takes for me to question my self-worth is someone turning down an invite to spend time with me poking around in museums. I’m annoyed at myself at how deeply it affected me. On the flip side, though, I’m kind of glad to feel something: I was worried about numbness and drawing back. This is painful but good.

Speaking of friends: hurrah for a bonding moment on a train going through cryptic crossword clues. I picked up a book of cryptics from Bletchley, and they’re just a horrid mess of the very simple⁰ and the absolutely bloody impossible¹. It’s more obvious to me now why people who can do these had the sort of corkscrew minds required to do the work of cracking codes and ciphers.

If you have any ideas, please write in

4I mentioned my referral to someone in my family, and they said: “Oh, sure. We always thought you might be on that spectrum.” They didn’t want to explore it further because they were worried about the stigma.

I feel two slightly contradictory feels about this. The first is gratitude, because if I am, I know for a fact that having that label in school would have got me even more bullied than I was. Kids, or at least kids I went to school with, were nasty and vindictive, and autism has always been something I’ve seen mocked.

The second is annoyance, because if I am then knowing slightly earlier than now might have been helpful because then I could have found tools and coping mechanisms earlier.

In any case, no word yet on the outcome of that referral. The flowchart for treatment has a whole world of “No” in it. They called it a step by step guide though, which fits neatly into my back-to-work thinking as I prepare for work tomorrow.

5Last thing, I promise. I’ve been approached by a couple of people about spending some time on secondment with them. I’m really, really excited about it and I’m going to be speaking to my line manager tomorrow. In other work news, the person I was mentoring on technical things passed their test and will be joining my organisation! Lots of fun and I’m hoping to continue mentoring them on the technical stuff so that we can develop together.

That’s all. My only Netflix recommendation this week is Daniel Sloss’ two specials, Dark and Jigsaw. I really don’t agree with his overly idealistic ideas about love and romance, but it’s very funny material delivered by a master of the genre.

⁰ Ate three notes (3)

¹ Admit case against top player, we hear (7)


I should be writing something else

Hello again. I’m currently on leave; leave I took with the express purpose of writing The Book. I am, in fact, not writing the book. I’m writing about me. I need a break from characters and plotting.


Things have happened

1Two friends got married, and what’s super-exciting is that they got married to each other. The memories I have are either very clear or super-fuzzy, but here they are: the bride squeezing the groom’s hand and mouthing “Don’t you dare cry,”; an outbreak of snuffling tears from 120 people as an opera singer raised her voice to the rafters; a moment of shared joy at cracking a cryptic crossword clue despite being more than a little hungover. Ice cream. Belly laughs. A flurry of green confetti that flew up with a laugh as the bride grabbed a handful of her dress and whirled. Conversations that paused 3 months ago and picked up again without a phrase missed. Love. Everywhere love; for friends, for family, for lovers.

Oh. And there was a wedding dress with pockets.

2I’ve been referred to our local autism services. I’m still processing this. I’m processing it out loud, and now I’m second-guessing if this is symptomatic or a thing I do; and if there’s overlap. It’s become a weight on my mind and my actions. I don’t like it.⁰

Recent events have certainly made it clear to me that I’m not 100% neurotypical. I don’t know how to deal with it, especially because at the moment I don’t even have a diagnosis. It may not be that. It may be something else. But anyway: I’m now full of anxiety about things that might not happen. This is affecting me in all kinds of ways, ways I suspect I’m not as aware of as other people are.

3I have working code in production. People are using a thing that I built. It’s working. I mean I assume it’s working, I’m on leave and haven’t looked at my emails. This has been an incredibly interesting product to work on, and if I move teams I’ll still have learned loads and I’ll always be able to point at something and say I did this.

4I attended a jobs fair for the Cabinet Office’s Private Office Group. I don’t think I’m cut out for Private Office proper, but there were a couple of really interesting roles in background jobs that I’m strongly considering making my next move. I’ve got an end goal in mind and an idea of the next steps I need to take. We shall see.

I saw my ex there as well. It was…odd. It was odd when someone asked us how we knew each other and we both laughed because we hadn’t thought about how to answer that question. It was odd because we kept an eye on each other and I let them know when I was leaving, except that’s what you’d do if you saw a friend at an event. Except of course we’re not friends. We’re something more, and also something less.

5I’ve written six thousands, two hundred, and seventy-six words of The Book. It is to date the second largest piece of continuous writing I’ve ever done, and will eclipse the first — my undergraduate dissertation, a piece about which I have extremely mixed feelings — by tomorrow. I’m feeling really good about it. I’m writing about 1500 words per day, and it’s absolutely pouring out. That’s not to guarantee quality. In fact it’s almost certainly pish.³ However, at least it’ll be written. Then comes the editing, but at least there’ll be something to edit.

That’s all. It’s been a weird week, and this period of leave is going to be weirder as I find myself on a roll and type til 2am. I couldn’t do that if I had work or a partner, and there’s a weird, fierce, sad sort of joy I’m getting through doing it. I’m not sure it’s healthy. But it feels good.

Here’s a thing I didn’t say at the wedding but had to tell someone, because the couple had sonnet 116 and I love it; I do, but I’m a joyless, cold-hearted suckfest and you have to realise it was read wrongly, the rhymes that should have rhymed did not, and look just listen to Ben Crystal do it with today’s pronunciation and the original and try to tell me it’s not better the way it was, the way it should be.

⁰ Ah but what if that’s symptomatic! A strong preference for order is definitely on the list.¹

¹ On the other hand, plenty of people feel anxiety about impending decisions over which they have no control!²

² Yes, this is indeed the single, looping track my brain has been playing since I got the letter.

³ to urinate under the influence of drink