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?

Weeknotes S01 E06

The one with Russian

My brain has absolutely melted out of my ears.

Monday was day one of my immersive Russian course. I’m taking it through the Russian Language Centre at Pushkin House, and I have to say it’s incredibly good. There’s no better way to learn anything that to immerse yourself in it, and starting with other absolute beginners permits you to let go of the fear of looking stupid. We all look stupid. Let’s do it together. Looking at my notes I’m genuinely stunned how far I’ve come since this point; on Monday we covered the printed alphabet[1] and by Friday we had conversations that included adjectives, the genitive and locative cases, and numbers. More on that as we get to it.

So that’s A, B, wait B again, half a T, don’t know, E maybe, E again, okay I give up

Tuesday we covered gender, of which there are three. I am curious about how long the concept of gender will last in language — it is problematic and forces a culture where non-binary people don’t exist, because there isn’t language to describe them. You could just call feminine “Type 1” nouns, masculine “Type 2”, neuter “Type 3” and avoid the problem — but considering that these linguistic institutions have been around for a long time, I’m not hopeful.

Today I mastered the ы sound, which Wikipedia reckons is like the i in hit. If so, I recant my previous statement, because mine sounds nothing like that.

I also got to speak to Morgan B, who’s a former Fast Streamer-turned-Product Owner. She’s completely brilliant and gave me a great reading recommendation — Radical Candor by Kim Scott. We’ve set up fortnightly chats where I’m hoping we can support each other — she’s learning to code (also Ruby) and has some cracking insights about leadership. More than anything else it’s valuable to have someone to bounce ideas around with who’s not immediately in your context.

Radical candor is a new concept to me, and I’ve already got some hard truths. Highly recommend.

Wednesday and we’re halfway through the week and a quarter of the way through the course. We talked about what we have and don’t have, which introduced the genitive case: the case you use where (generally) you’d use ‘of’ in English. It’s absolutely brain melty, but two of my classmates — undergrads reading classics — are absolutely in their element. One of them has mentioned that they can’t wait for the locative case.

[This gif may have been stolen from another weeknoter]

On Thursday I found out I got the job that has been the main story arc for this season. With another four episodes to go before I start, there’ll be an “emotional review of the season” episode in the pipeline if I know the writers. Now comes the difficult bit: actually doing the job. There are going to be some huge challenges ahead, and I’m so excited to get started.

I dropped into the office to look at paperwork and negotiate my salary, which I hope will be the last time anyone has to do so in the company. I’ve been inspired by Basecamp and the Fast Stream to offer the same salary to everyone doing the same job. It’ll probably drive away high performers who are totally driven by money, but maybe it’ll open the door to people who don’t like the aggressive approach required in negotiating and are worried they’d be underselling themselves. It’ll be a significant shift. Tune in next season to see how it works out!

Friday and my brain, now entirely fluid, got one last stir before serving. Despite being on leave we had a minor crisis at work, and so I had to take calls before and after class. It’s not ideal, but we’re still so very small that this will happen from time to time. My absolute goal is that it won’t keep happening, and it won’t happen to anyone working for me

That was my week.

[1] Russian handwritten alphabet looks, by turns, exactly the same and then wildly different.


  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Russian (obviously)
  • The West Wing Weekly podcast — watching along with someone else, even if they’re in your ear, is lovely. Like a bookclub, but for your eyes.

Weeknotes S01 E04

The one with all the change

This week has been a good one, broadly speaking.

Monday we got the green light from Washington[0] that they were ready to go live with minor tweaks. There were also some great suggestions from all three of the new crop about changes we could make to our “base model”. We loved them and I spent some time watching my colleague make the changes — as she’s leaving at the end of the week I’m doing my best to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Like a sponge.


I also got a chance to chat agile with a Fast Stream colleague. I’ve got another similar chat lined up next week, and I’m really excited. There might be a line in agile evangelising to the Civil Service’s future leaders!

He asked great questions, and I have to say I’m eager to see how it turns out — his original proposition was that he’d like to talk agile vis-a-vis designing a new railway station!

On Tuesday our man in the United States, my colleague Greg, set us up on Zoho. Replying by email has been our most cost-efficient solution until recently, but as we’ve grown our customer base our system is starting to become fragile. It’s taking some getting used to but I can see it’s going to be a valuable tool, once I work out how to extract all the lovely data from it.

We nipped over to Madison’s offices to talk about a potential new product. We’ve got a very minimum viable product that we think will help them with one of their processes, and so I got the opportunity to pitch it AND to talk about the client commissioning work in Discovery, Alpha, and Beta stages. Less risk and better customer satisfaction is apparently a winner — who knew?

Then it was straight back to the office to have a chat with our biggest client. We’d talked about adapting a part of our software for their need, but after spending a week scratching our heads and putting post-its on walls we’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t realistic. I’m glad we got an answer for them in only a week, but being asked for help and not being able to provide it is the absolute worst feeling for me. Bummer.

On Wednesday I definitely should have been at the #OneTeamGov breakfast but managed to sleep through two alarms. Finally roused from sleep by a cat who seemed determined to snack on me since his bowl was empty I legged it to the office to catch up on emails and office admin. That included adding a number of new Fast Streamers to the Facebook group — a task I’d love to automate but simply don’t have the time to learn how. I also did my usual testing run through of user stories on the preview server — I cannot wait to get my “automate all the things” infrastructure stories into the backlog. What will I do with my free afternoons?

Hopefully meet and interview more excellent potential hires like Felix, who’s replacing me in September. I got to have a great chat with him about the work he’ll be doing and he seems keen and open to trying his best. He also gave me a tour of the extremely cool new offices GDS are inhabiting, and we crossed paths with the DaT programme manager — who reminded me that there’s a strict “no poaching” policy.

They’re egg purists in the Civil Service

In essence if my company poaches me we might not get Felix, or any future Fast Streamers at all. It’s understandable, but it’s somewhat put a fly in the ointment of me staying on. We’ll have to see how that shakes out.

Thursday I bounced in and out of the office. I went to the picnic organised in the pilot, and met many cool digital and non-digital LGBTQ* folks. I also left the office at 4 to get to Birkbeck, where I’m going to be doing a part-time MSc in Computer Science. I’d previously wondered about how hard it would be, and I got my answer:

Friday at last, although it meant the last time I’d see my colleague at work. She’s going to go and be awesome somewhere else, but it meant as we closed the week the office felt a little emptier. So I stuck up a poster.

Poster from https://github.com/UKHomeOffice/posters/blob/master/gds/its-ok-to.pdf

This week — having bounced around other people’s offices and spaces — has really underlined to me that culture has a huge impact on the work that you do. To that end I’m going to try to dedicate some thoughts over the next week as to how I — as a quote unquote senior leader — can make that happen.

[0] Client code name, as discussed in episode 2