I’m really glad I got nominated for this by Amanda, because I’m on leave this week and so my weeknotes are pretty sparse.
Location: London, at least for the next two or three years. I’d probably swap it for anywhere, as long as the opportunity looked like a challenge.
Current Gig: Software developer for the Government Digital Service, which is part of the Cabinet Office
Current mobile device: OnePlus 5
Current computer: Work machine is a giant, 15 inch Macbook Pro. It is annoyingly heavy and a pain to cart around. My personal laptop is a lightweight Dell XPS running Ubuntu 18.04
One word that best describes how you work: Calmly
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I have an undergraduate degree in French Studies, which at first glance doesn’t look like a strong foundation on which to base a career in software development. It is, but it’s not why I’m where I am now. I started to get interested in digital generally while at university, and when I was elected as the Public Relations person for a society I really got stuck into it — building an entire website and logo rebrand from scratch.
They’re still using the logo, but the website was definitely not worth saving. So when I left university I applied for the Civil Service’s Fast Stream programme, specialising in digital and technology. I was successful, and spent the next two years moving around government departments, doing a huge spread of interesting things while also learning to code in my spare time. I wrote software to try to balance a conference I organised, a prototype web service for the Fast Stream programme, and even mentored someone as they built a way for script writers to extract scenes from their teleplays. I saw an opportunity to be a CTO and seized that: I failed a lot but started to get better at managing people, at seeing the wider scope, and at strategic thinking.
In June of 2018 I rejoined the Civil Service, hoping to build up my technical skills and progress further in the organisation.
Take us through a recent workday.
I tend to be up at 0600 and out of the door by 0730. I catch a train to London Bridge and then walk the rest of the way to the office, because that way I at least do some activity and I get to see London glittering and stirring in morning sun. If it’s a Monday, I’ll buy a Big Issue from Sharon, who’s at the south side of London Bridge.
That puts me in the office for about 0815, and I get straight into my inbox and catch up on Slack. I hate Slack. It’s an all-day meeting that you can’t miss, and so once I’m caught up I’m unlikely to look at it again until lunchtime. Ditto my inbox.
I’ll look over any pull requests I’ve been assigned, and start working through the shortest ones first.⁰ Before I know it it’s standup time — an agile ceremony I facilitate. The point of it is to raise blockers, celebrate successes, and reassess work that seems to be dragging. We’re always done in 15 minutes, which means I can get back to my desk and write code for a couple of hours before lunch.
I try to bring my own lunch and find people to eat it with, thereby forcing them to eat lunch and do it away from their desk. I also get positive affirmation from people looking at my lunch and making admiring/jealous noises, which is really all I can ask for.
The afternoon usually has one or two meetings in it — I might attend a show and tell for the programme, I could be mentoring a colleague, or even just grabbing coffee with my manager to get feedback on how I’m doing and where I can improve. I have a brilliant manager, and they’re definitely a big part of why I’m so excited to work where I do.
At 1500 the team takes a pause to fika: we have a cup of tea and a civilised biscuit and chat about non-work stuff. It’s been really effective at bringing us all a bit closer together, but I still can’t not say it in the voice of Pikachu.
By 1630 I’m out of the door and on the way home, walking back towards the centre of town to catch a train home where I can get back to procrastinating instead of writing my book, like I ought to.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
My pen and a pad of paper
Apps: PyCharm is my software for writing software (how meta!); Twitter is a hellsite but also where many cool people hang out so I use it and try to avoid the nazis. I use Podcast Addict for, well, podcasts, and then on my laptop I’ll use Google Suite avidly. I also use the classic version of budgeting software YNAB, because otherwise I spend money like there’s no tomorrow. Finally, I use the Chess.com chess app to try to get less bad at chess.
So far I have got less good, so there are some questions to be answered there.
Finally, I have the Duolingo app, where I brush up my French and improve my Russian.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
Turn off all your notifications. I get notified on my phone if someone in my urgent contacts list calls, and I get notified on my computer if I have a meeting in five minutes.
It makes me a better developer and a significantly more chilled out person. If someone really needs you they’ll come and find you, or they’ll figure the thing out by themselves.
Alongside this: ask the question in the opening. Don’t send a slack message that says:
Hey, how’s it going?
Because then I’ll respond in two hours saying:
Hey, great thanks! You?
And then you’ll ask your question, and you’ve wasted a load of time. Give the question and as much context as you can in the message, and then I can devote my entire brain to it in one go.
If you’re thinking “But Jonathan, if I have to write a long and complex message detailing the context I wouldn’t use Slack, I’d write an email!”:
Yes. Please do that.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
Here’s how I get my payslips:
- I access the guest account on one of four machines specifically kept for this purpose.
- I log into the VPN using my ID and password
- I open the special link to our HR software
- As this is the guest account, I don’t have Lastpass installed, so I need to dig around in my phone to find the password I’ve used for this.
- I log in
- I view my payslip
- I download it as a PDF
- I log into my Google Suite account, once again painfully typing in a long and complex password.
- I do my second factor approval
- I save the payslip into my Google Drive
- I log off
- I take a long walk, muttering blood curses on the providers of this software to the 14th generation and occasionally screaming
I should point out that it’s getting better. It’s still a righteous pain in the behind, and the worst thing is knowing how much better it could be.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Many To Do lists on many Trello cards on many Trello boards
What’s your favourite side project?
The Book, with which I have a love-hate relationship.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
Just finished Frankenstein in Baghdad
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
I’d like to see any Deputy Directors or above in my organisation answer these, as I’m interested to see how it differs. Oh, and Jenny Vass.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t stand there, mouth agape, waiting for your turn to speak. Listen. Hear me. Understand the depth and experience and history behind these words, because what I’m saying isn’t filler in the film of your life before the monologue that wows the crowd. It’s worth a damn. Act like it.”
⁰ A pull request is a way for someone to add code to your or your team’s repository. They write the code they think should be added, and then notify you that they’d like to add it. You run through it and generally give feedback, and they iterate it until you’re happy. It’s a process that is completely fraught with social anxiety, but it’s also the best way we’ve got to ensure code consistency. Here’s an example of my team giving excellent feedback on one of my pull requests.