S03E08: Crunch

This week began really well, with a houseparty. It looks like it’s going to be finishing well too. There was a good bit in the middle too. All in all, a bit chuffed. Theme of the week: French


1 Thème de la semaine : On Tuesday I attended my first ever French meetup, and some very nice people told me I had a good French accent. This made me Very Happy, and I strongly suspect influenced my next morning, where I collared Jenny and we talked about existentialism⁰ before I went home feeling grotty. French studies was my undergraduate degree, and I love to speak it. Mind you, I’ve been told before that I’m a different and less pleasant person in French, so I was watching that too. I met some interesting and some less interesting people, but it was a lovely evening and I think I’ll make it a regular fixture. I’ve also been invited to a recurring French lunch of civil servants, so before long I hope to be quite fluent again. I’m improving my Russian at the same time too:

A screenshot that says “I want to know everything” in Russian and English

2 Career things. I went for an interview the other day and I didn’t get the job. I’m okay with that, because the feedback was detailed and immensely valuable as I head into my Future Leaders Scheme interview (link only available to civil servants). I also spoke to a Director about where I’d like to end up and he gave me some really good advice as well as a really interesting comparison — at a large consultancy firm, there are 23 promotions between my equivalent level and boss of the organisation. In my organisation, I’d only need five to get to the same place , which means within those levels there’s going to be huge variation. It makes me feel weirdly better — friends from uni who seem to get promotions every couple of years are actually probably just progressing at the same rate as me. They just get more frequent milestones.¹

Work is otherwise very good. I implemented fika and work-in-progress limits to try to get the team to slow down and do one thing at a time. Both have been moderately successful: we are shipping things and doing it faster, and we are communicating more as a team and learning things about each other. Some of that introduces tension, because there’s always a risk when you get to know someone that they’re going to be quite different from you in a way you weren’t expecting.²

3 I’ve already started to think about my goals for the next year. This is because I like things to aim for. By September next year I am aiming to:

  • have a basic conversational level of Russian
  • have a rank greater than 1200 in both daily (24 hours per move) and rapid (30 minutes per game for each player) chess
  • have a first cut of The Book, which has admittedly slid³ a little recently
  • be (re)starting an MSc

None of these are work things, but I think they’ll make me better at work. I have a number of thoughts like this, so if you’ve got £2.3m and would like to know more about experiments I want to do on my colleagues then get in touch.

4 Time tracking is turning up some interesting results. Inspired by fellow public sector digital hero Dan Barrett I’ve been tracking my time. It’s broad strokes, but here is the approximate time I spent in meetings this week:

A chart showing that on Monday I spent 1hr 35 in meetings, on Tuesday 1hr 51, on Wednesday no time at all, on Thursday 3hr 27 and Friday 15m

Thursday is the outlier, and also the day I came home absolutely wiped and ate an entire blackcurrant crumble.⁴ More than half of my day spent in meetings is too much, and that’s valuable information for me. It’s also deeply concerning, because — well, here’s my friendly deputy-director’s diary:

A screenshot of a diary. There are only 11.5 hours out of 47.5 in that week that don’t have something booked

Now, this is only one week. I need more data to be able to make a more accurate view, but my hypothesis is that anything above about 40% completely exhausts me. It’s also true that I don’t know the ins and outs of this DD’s diary — maybe each slot there represents a unique piece of work, and not a meeting.

5 I listened to a brilliant podcast — BBC Radio 5 presenter Nihal Arthanayake spoke to six people from the three security and intelligence agencies⁵. They were five women and a gay man. There are three reasons this was brilliant:

  1. That sentence would have been completely ridiculous fifty years ago, and I’m so pleased that I can write it now
  2. MI6 is apparently the Slytherin of the SIAs⁶
  3. When GCHQ had a big win they played mini golf in the doughnut, and that is so hilariously human that imagining it is making me laugh and laugh


This weekend I bought chocolate, marshmallows, and squirty cream having been inspired by this excellent looking recipe.

⁰ I talk about existentialism a lot, because it resonates quite strongly with me. You can read a thing I wrote, or watch this good video from the US-ian PBS, or listen to this episode from the BBC if you’d like to know more about it. Someone who read my thing said they liked it on twitter dot com, and as a writer that made birds appear and trumpets sound and, look, I don’t want to tell you what to do but if you enjoyed reading something and you tell the author you’ll make a friend for life so…
¹ slash pay rises
² cf. dating
³ I have never been more convinced that slid is not a word than right now
⁴ hashtag no regrets
⁵ MI5, MI6, and GCHQ
⁶ GCHQ, by the way, definitely all Hufflepuffs

What would you do with a budget of £2.3m?

A response to a question posed at the One Team Gov London breakfast

Someone posed this question at our OTG breakfast, and it’s been stewing in my brain since. I had a lovely walk this morning with Morgan and it’s helped to frame and restructure my thinking, and now I’ve got an answer.

I cannot make bricks without clay!

I’d use a budget of that size to start running experiments. Proper experiments, with control groups and academic rigour and results published in journals. And then I’d use that data to make a case for wider change. Here’s a few examples:

  • Summer hours: what if, for six months of the year, we paid people the same amount for four days as we would normally pay them for five? The ethical implications of this are large — how do we select the team that gets a day off? Is it fair?⁰
  • Does non-work related development improve productivity? I’m imagining giving one team of people £1,000 per year per person to spend on developing themselves in any way they wanted, another team £1,000 per year per person to spend on approved, work-related training, and another group nothing at all.
  • Incentive lottery: we’re in the midst of our annual People Survey. It’s hard to get people to fill it in, so what if we said: for every person who fills it in, we will put £50 into a pot and enter that person into a lottery. Then, after the deadline, we’ll randomly select 10% of the entrants and split the entire pot between them. Would it incentivise people? Or would the one person who really cares get rich?¹

I think a culture of experimentation, in an organisation like ours, would be a cool thing to build. So: who’s got £2.3m going spare…?

⁰ The answer is probably “No, but we might learn something valuable”
¹ Caring is a superpower though, so maybe that’s a good thing

Existence is choosing to exist

Unless you get meaning when you’re born, in which case I got missed out

I am having an existential crisis. Some people have said that we all are; that we’re going through an exotic sprism of wondering what the purpose of everything truly is. We’re reaching for easy answers, and certain people are happy to offer them. Maybe I’m one of them. Let’s see.

Existi-what now?

First — briefly — existentialism.⁰ Suppose that there is no moral law in the universe. There’s no God and no Hell and prophets are just (always) men. When you die, you simply won’t be. You know that place you go to when you’re asleep? That’s where you’ll go forever.¹ The law is not a moral guideline: people have done² terrible things to other people entirely legally.

If that’s true, then we are suddenly, horribly, startlingly alone — not alone before a judge, or the pearly gates, or in prison. Just alone. Nobody can tell you what is a good thing to do. Only you can tell yourself that.

The agony of choice

We are condemned to be free
 — Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

Well, that’s bleak. It’s the anguish at the centre of being: all the time, you have to make a choice. You have to keep making choices forever, until you die. That’s an option too, by the way. In fact, Camus said the only real question in philosophy was:

Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?

The point is that you’ve still got to choose. Unless you don’t: there are other structures out there for meaning. Religion, social justice, ethno-nationalism, the hustle, visiting every tube station in the world. If some of those seem absurd to you, you’re right. All of it’s absurd. Some of them are shitty, and if you find meaning in ethno-nationalism you’re going to find there are plenty of people who find meaning in opposing you.

As long as you’ve chosen it, then you are at least living in good faith by seeking meaning for yourself. Living according to someone else’s morals is bad faith, because then your essence is predicated on someone else’s existence. That’s not healthy. What if they turn out to be a milkshake duck?

Meanings! Get your meanings here!

People do, of course. We all do. I do. I go to work and I work hard and I write code and I do my job, and I do it every day, and I’m starting to wonder if this was a choice I made or one that was made for me and I never noticed.⁴ Hence: existential crisis. Am I living in bad faith?

Now: some people disagree with the foundation of this. Sartre says that existence precedes essence: that you are born, and then you become. But don’t we all have some essence? Something that governs how we’d act, what we would do, given the same situation?

I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Anyway. I’ve wildly overused both my brain and the word “choose”, so here it is again multiple times. Enjoy this, from Trainspotting, while I go and drink tea and play with the cat. It’s an absurd way to pass the time — but then, of course, so is everything else.

Choose life.
Choose a job.
Choose a career.
Choose a family.
Choose a fucking big television
Choose washing machines, cars,
Compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.
Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance.
Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments.
Choose a starter home.
Choose your friends.
Choose leisure wear and matching luggage.
Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics.
Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning.
Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows
Stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth.
Choose rotting away at the end of it all,
Pishing your last in a miserable home
Nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself.
Choose your future. Choose life

Image result for renton

⁰ As brief as I am capable of being.
¹ Hey, does that mean every time you fall asleep you die? 
² And still do
³ In the case of the more extroverted preachers, literally yelled at you
⁴ There is a danger with this stuff that it sounds like self-help aimed at other, equally privileged people like me. I would like to avoid that. Some choices are bad both ways, and people with more privilege will likely have fewer of those. I don’t think there’s a requirement to be happy with your choice, and I also know that’s little comfort. Sorry.


Relentless positivity

Overarching feeling of the week:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I’ve got a number of choices coming up, and yes to one choice closes all the others off. I am, as ever, hoarding choices: I am collecting safety nets. This implies a paranoia that I’m going to fall.

Have I so little faith in myself?⁰

This presentation is somewhat at odds with my behaviour at work, and to a certain extent who I am. Somewhere between what you’ve read and what you’re about to read, I am.¹


These things happened this week:

1 Stacktech 4; an annual conference of government technologist types. I was made grumpy by a panel of 7 people representing four departments, of which 6 were men.

I was made grumpier by looking around at the room and realising that this was better gender representation than the audience itself.

I then got even grumpier as each department talked about their Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offerings. One department talked about their two distinct PaaS offerings. Luckily, we had a good discussion later, and I came round to a completely different perspective: build as many as you want, as long as they’re lightweight and we all understand that we’re going to trash them within the decade.³ Or we just accept that we’ve already got government-wide PaaS offerings — from the market. We don’t need to build our own if someone else has already built it.

The conference was split into lectures in the morning and unconference sessions in the afternoon. There was a really good, frank discussion about security and the difference between a caveat (such as SENSITIVE) and a classification (OFFICIAL). I learned a few new things, and I’m thinking about whether there’s a need for a talk on this subject for people who still aren’t sure.

It was also a really startling insight into when policy has to be user-centric and could even benefit from user research: government security classification policy was written by people who dealt primarily with SECRET and TOP SECRET information. Such material almost always comes with handling caveats — such as EYES ONLY, which indicates you mustn’t lick it⁴. They assumed that users at lower security levels would understand this as well, and so threw in SENSITIVE as an example. It made sense to them, but not the users, because (all together now):

Image result for you are not your user
A stick figure saying “You are not your user”

2 Interview! I had one, and it was a lot of fun. I love interviewing, because it’s feedback on where I am and how I’m doing. It forces me to be critical and analyse my own strengths and weaknesses. I also get to meet interesting people doing interesting things, and that’s always interesting.

The job itself seems immensely stretching, and an opportunity to get really stuck into something complicated and messy. There is also the possibility that it’ll be a horrible poisoned chalice, because the challenge is steep and the mess is truly messy. Regardless of whether I’m offered the role or not — which will force even more self-reflection and deciding what I’m doing and where I’m going. Hey, that’s a neat segue into the next thing!

A member of the Bluth family, from the sitcom Arrested Development, on a segue

3 Preparation for the Future Leaders Scheme continues apace. Those of us in GDS who are through to the interview stage had a briefing from senior staff, both of whom came from the policy profession. The advice was really valuable on a general front — how to structure interview answers, what to be thinking about before answering, and how to hide things like nerves.⁵

I also talked to Michael, who offered some really valuable and tech-specific advice on how to approach these interviews. Essentially, it boiled down to admitting that you’re ambitious and at least having a good idea of how you’re going to get there. Have you thought about the steps you’ll have to take? Do you know what you’re bad at?⁶

I know what I’m good at. In fact, I’m wondering if that’s why I’m finding myself drawn to it: facilitating. James kindly allowed me to facilitate the One Team Gov London breakfast this week, and it felt joyful. Facilitating is performative, and I am nothing if not a massive show off.⁷

Harold Ziegler, who is my inspiration

I know that I like to show and to tell, and that I’m reasonably good at seeing people and moving the conversation forward and making sure everyone gets a voice. It’s also an opportunity to force behaviours through social cohesion and acceptance: I asked people to raise their hands before they spoke, and although a couple of people laughed everyone still did it. People don’t want to rock the boat unless it’s important to them, so small requests that don’t (generally) attack the core of someone’s being will be accepted.⁸

4 Public sector digital heroes roll call! Morgan as always forcing me to think more critically about what I want to do. Dan for playing chess and also making me think critically about what I’m doing right now. My director David, who kindly set me up a coffee meeting with someone I’m aiming to be soon. James for his phenomenal bravery. Sam for being thoughtful and generous, and everyone at breakfast who was open and honest and vulnerable. And the motley crew who put together a conference on digital two years ago and are coming up through the Civil Service together; challenging and growing and drinking on Wednesday evenings together.

You are all inspirations to me.

You are my emergency box of kittens

⁰ Evidence so far suggests “Yes”
¹ My favourite thing about english is that “I’m” is a contraction of “I am”, but if that sentence read “Somewhere between what you’ve read, and what you’re about to read, I’m” your brain would fumble around looking for the next word.²
² I hope your day isn’t as ruined as much as mine was when I discovered this. 
³ This did not go down as well as I would have liked
⁴ This is not true. Please do not tell people I told you this
⁵ I will never not be annoyed that nerves are a negative sign, but they are. I don’t get nerves any more, because I did a lot of interviews as practice. If you read these notes, and would like to do some practice interviews, then let’s organise it. It’s painful, but in development we say that if it hurts, do it more often; do it so often it becomes painless.
⁶ Can you think about it without getting sucked into a negative spiral?
⁷ That’s literally true: I am nothing if I’m not showing off
⁸ There is sometimes someone who will get jolly cross about this, and say it’s infantilising and they resent being treated as a child. I don’t yet know how to deal with that kind of reaction
Edited to add a reader suggestion:

S03E06: Settling in

This week has been reasonably quiet as I bed myself into my new team. However, there have been a few developments. Let’s talk about those.

1Something funny first: a startup with the same name as my ex has put adverts on a bus that goes past my office as I leave the building.

If this were a film, the audience would be absolutely livid at the sheer heavy-handedness of the director. Unfortunately this is not a movie; this is real life. Coincidences happen and hearts break and, well, not everything works out in the end.

It’s a funny story though.

Funny, but sad, but funny

2I have a date for an interview. Actually, I’ve got a date for two. The first is the development programme my organisation offers. They ran a session to prep us for the interview, and it was all going well until I asked — half-jokingly — if senior leaders wear jeans.⁰

The reaction was almost visceral: apparently, they don’t. But the worst thing was that the person next to me said, “Oh sure, it would be nice if we could bring our whole selves to work…” and then tailed off.

The heck with that. If I’m going to be a leader, everyone I’m leading gets to bring their whole self to work. I’m torn, though. I can play the stupid game and cosplay as Office Guy™, if that’s what’s required to help them perceive me as a leader. On the other hand, do I lack integrity?

Is it better to do the pragmatic and uncomfortable thing, or the idealistic but (perhaps) less successful thing?¹

The other interview is for a job I applied for ages ago. It’s a level transfer to a different department, doing something completely different. I’m pretty happy where I am, but I’m still going to the interview. I’m trying to work out why. I don’t know what I’d do if someone offered me that job, and that’s annoying as well.²

A man holds a balloon that’s filling with coca-cola. It might not be a balloon.

3My new team is really nice. It’s been going a while though, and so I’m still desperately trying to get up to speed on the acres of work. It’s also in a different language to the one I was working on last week, so it’s taking a little while to get back up to speed and shift my mindset back onto a Pythonic way of doing things.

At the same time, I’m writing up a couple of pages to brief someone on the Secret Project. I’m aiming to get it finished soon; I’m worried I’m wildly overdoing it and should get some feedback on it soon. Part of my problem is not having clearly defined user needs, but I guess that’s why the feedback loop needs to be tighter. The lead time is enormous though, because this senior stakeholder is so incredibly busy. It’s like trying to turn an oil tanker; actions I take now might not feedback to me for weeks.

So I’ve bitten the bullet and sent it. More on this as we get it.

4That’s actually all this week. Since you’re all getting off early, you should go and read these weeknotes because they’re much more interesting:


⁰ They do, because I can see one from where I’m sitting

¹ This question of whether it’s better to be on the inside of the outside is definitely playing on my mind at the moment because of reasons

² More and more as I write this I’m more aware that I’m not as settled in my mind as I’d like to be. I’m still trying to get away from something, but since that’s me, moving around won’t help

S0305: Through the fire(break)

Prototypes! Conferences! Maps! Oh my!

Loads of things happened this week, and they’re big, so let’s get cracking

The firebreak project

I’d like to write a One Team Gov blog about this experience. It was very interesting and I really enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely good reason to do it. All the same, there might be some lessons to share.

The short version is that a friend and colleague asked me to help out, I spent four days with their team, and in that time we built a prototype product with a workflow that crossed different user journeys.

I’m still shaking from presenting it to senior people over Youtube, because we’ve got competing networks and silos. It worked, thank goodness, and feedback has been really good. I’m pleased to turn it over and get started on my new project on Monday.


I like mapping. I think it’s a genuinely transformative tool. I mapped out the Secret Project on the way home from Map Camp and showed it to someone who’s never seen one before. They got it at once, but they are very clever. I’m excited to share it more widely and see if other people get it too.

However: Map Camp itself was very heavy on the chalk and talk⁰. There was almost no opportunity to ask questions or discuss, and very little practical opportunity to try out what we were learning. Maybe that’s a function of it being highly context specific, but all the same by the fourth speaker my butt was asleep.

Static: a visual representation of how my butt felt

James Findlay and Janet Hughes represented for government, and Janet’s talk in particular was really incredible. I also got to chat to former colleague Chris, who’s been doing phenomenally cool things.

Secret project (that will hopefully become less secret really soon, but let’s be honest I’ve got expectations to manage and I really don’t want to fart this up)

Not SECRET in the Civil Service sense, but secret in the ‘let’s not talk too much about this until we’re sure it’s going to happen,’ but: I’m writing strategy documents! I’m making maps! I’ve written too much oh god it’s just reams and reams of paper, a tsunami of word vomit flooding out of my laptop and splashing onto the floor…

I don’t know how to do this, so I’m going to get my policy colleague to repay my firebreak favour and help me write in a way that’s not, y’know. Like this.

More updates as I think it’s appropriate to include them.

It was October 3rd:

Mean girls remains the most important satire of the tendency of revolutionaries to become dictators since Animal Farm, do not @-me thank you

I’m through to the interview stage of the Future Leaders Scheme!

endless screaming as I try to prepare for an interview and convince them I’m not a potato

I’m really excited about this. It’s a bit of a vote of confidence in me and my potential. It’s also the first time I’ve ever actually felt that I agree with this assessment.

Yeah, self-doubt. I have a lot of it.

I have breezed through almost everything I’ve ever done with absolutely zero interest in being particularly good at it, and therefore no idea whether I have potential. This, though, is something else. I think my firebreak work has had a massive impact on this: I’ve had a whole week of positive reinforcement and I feel positively reinforced. I am quite good at this thing that I do. I am also really, really aware of how much better I could be and I care about getting better.

It’s exhilarating.

⁰ Not everyone knows this phrase, so: a chalk and talk is a lecture given by a professorial type in which one sits and tries to listen as they monologue. You watch a bee and by some auditory alchemy the voice transmutes into the sound of the bee, until it’s just a single droning hum that’s slowly filling your head, filling it until it’s heavy, until it’s so heavy it starts to sink onto the desk that feels cool and firm and somehow right, and then you blink, and everyone’s packing up and somehow an hour has passed.¹

¹ Look, it’s a very specific phrase, alright?