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?

S01 E07

The one where I start to say goodbye

Another week of Russian, which culminated in a brief handwriting lesson. My handwriting is apparently awful, which is oddly reassuring — although I’ve still some way to go before I get to “Russian doctor” level:

Good luck!

There’s not much to share workwise from this week as I’m still on leave, so this will be a very short weeknotes. However, a couple of things have popped out at me that I want to remember.

Firstly: I’m bad at ignoring work emails. As a consequence people are more likely to contact me, and it becomes a destructive circle. I might need to just uninstall emails on my personal devices while I’m away.

Second: before I go on leave, I have to be better at planning. I’m hoping to get my colleagues and the organisation to a place where I’m less and less needed, but while we’re still finding our way it’s unfair of me to act like we’re not. I’ve got to get better at listening to what colleagues need, because colleagues are users too.


Third: I’ve handed in my notice. As of September 1, I won’t be a Civil Servant any more. That realisation hit me harder than I thought it would. From the age of 19, I’ve been interested in serving in politics — I know I’m not good at running for office. I am a person who does things, and I’m never happier than when I can wrestle with the kind of thorny problems visionary people come up with.

I know I’ll be back. My initial contract is for 2 years, with an option to extend. My end goal is to return to the Civil Service, so whether that’s in 2 years or 5 I guarantee you’ve not seen the last of me. There’s still so much to do to get the Service to a properly user-focussed, agile organisation. I’ll be returning when I’ve got the experience to run a directorate in exactly that way. In the meantime I’ll be following the careers of my fellow Digital and Technology Fast Streamers, luminaries like Kit, and of course all of my fellow #weeknotes writers.

Lastly I’ll answer three questions posed by the One Team Gov team, with an eye on my time in the Service.

What was hard? Learning patience and the realisation that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got. I’ve slipped into the trap of thinking “An idiot wrote this/put this process in place/is directing this programme” many times, because it’s a sop to my ego — “If only everyone were as clever as me!” and turns cultural issues into individual issues. Neither of these things are true: everyone is slogging their guts out and doing the best within their contexts. It’s up to senior leaders to provide the cover for those people to reach across silos or to take up a sledgehammer and get rid of them altogether — a reminder that all difficult problems are cultural.

What was fun? Everything. I’ve got the honour of speaking to the incoming cohort of Fast Streamers in August, and I’ll say now what I’ll say then: this is the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. The people you’ll work with, both Fast Streamers and not, are completely committed to an ideal. That’s hard to find elsewhere. The opportunity to organise a 600-person conference, to explore graphic design and recruit web developers and teach and learn with colleagues who become friends is absolutely awesome. I’ve been behind the scenes at Heathrow Airport; organised an experience day for students that involved a speaker from GCHQ; written submissions about Twitter and watched a hacker demolish something I’d built. This job is a cool job.

What made you proud? Helping other specialisms see the value of user-centric digital services. Building services that people will use. Brokering compromise between absolute security and absolute usability, and keeping everyone excited and committed to the solution. Going to universities up and down the country to talk to students about why they should join. Learning to code. Building things. Building teams. Working with the best people in the world.

Oh, and sometimes your job will involve attaching 800 lanyards to cards. Be okay with that

Weeknotes s01 e02

The difficult second episode

This week I’ve spend more time out of the office than in it, but it’s been fruitful nonetheless. A great thing I’ve seen from other weeknoters is the use of codenames for projects and clients, so I’m going to adopt that convention as well using US Presidents[0].

Monday/Tuesday: a good start to the week, as I packed an overnight bag and headed to Windsor castle to take part in a thought leadership event. This is both deeply flattering and also something my undergraduate self would have sneered at because it’s both uncool and corporate. I appeased that part of myself by ducking out to see a regimental band play a snippet of Clocks by Coldplay, which we can all agree is seriously cool.

If the 10th Doctor digs it, I dig it

Having appeased the sneering teenager that I suspect lives in all of us, I managed to get properly into some fascinating ideas. It was a huge chance to interact with people passionate about using digital and tech to improve democracy (as opposed to government), and I got to meet the Chief Innovation Officer of Estonia. That was cool.

It was also yet another reminder that Government tech is cool, and we’re doing awesome things, and I can’t wait to get back into it.

Wednesday was spent at the Amazon Web Services Summit, and it did not start as well. Getting 6000 people into a building at once is difficult — although at one point it seemed that the tech failed, which must have been a nightmare situation.

Still, once in I got to experience my first sales conference, and it was about 20% valuable. There were one or two products that look like they might add value and that I’ll certainly be trying to apply to things I’m building and owning at the moment. There was naturally a lot of nerd swag, including this beautiful t-shirt:

MongoDB know their audience, is all I’m saying

I left just after a thought-provoking talk from Jonno Southam about hiring, and while his “ABC: Always Be Hiring” probably requires deeper pockets than my current organisation has, it’s a really interesting way of expanding. By hiring brilliant people and giving them autonomy, trusting that they’ll work within your company’s vision, you get creative and exciting new products. It drives its own expansion.

On my way home I dropped into the DaT picnic to give my new Digital and Technology colleagues the benefit of my experience[1]. I also crossed paths with Jenny, who’s definitely a rising star in the DaT world — she’s been busy organising #OneTeamGov with other Government Twitter superstars like Kit and Lorena. Keep your eyes on them, and definitely check out Andrew’s write-up of what a future Perm Sec might look like.

Thursday and I was back in the office, getting a debrief from our remote working colleague about training they’d done with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Everything went well and we’ve learned some lessons for our next new set of clients.

I also showed my strategic plan to our CEO. He’s given me a lot of comments and we had a frank discussion about it. It’s been strange to work with someone who’s absolutely willing to disagree and debate with passion — strange, but great. That attitude, combined with an Amazon phrase — “Disagree and commit” — are two things I’d love to bring back into the Civil Service. That and this:

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.

It’s got more value in the private sector, of course, because your competitor will happily move with less information — as the cost of failure increases, the willingness to make that jump decreases. And in the Service the consequences of failure are absolutely terrifying.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move though; it means we need to look at other ways we can reduce risk.

Friday meant the weekend, and an opportunity to catch up with conference buddies.

The best goddamn team in the world

Every other Friday is the deadline for items for the Fast Streama Forum update, an internal newsletter I write for the entirety of the Fast Stream, so there was a flurry of last-minute items for inclusion. My goal is to be able to publish it publicly: I think there’s value in letting potential recruits see what our culture is like. We should be explicit about the kind of workplace we are: it helps to attract the kind of people who wouldn’t have considered it before, who might think they wouldn’t fit in.

There are good counter-arguments to that proposal, and the discussions I’m having are properly useful in shaping how I think about our culture.

I managed to spend a couple of hours answering questions from our developers on tickets in our backlog — as I’ve mentioned before, they’re remote, so we can’t do synchronous questioning[2]. I actually find this kind of asynchronous process more valuable: I can manage my time better, and being able to work on something creative for hours actually has huge benefits.[3] And because the items are in the backlog there’s no development time lost unless I get lazy and don’t get to it in time — and as a PO you only do that once, because it’s the most frustrating thing in the world to see a sprint start without a feature you know is important in it.

Having polished the backlog I headed to see the aforementioned conference buddies and, quite by accident, found Hannah at the same gathering. I mentored Hannah onto the Fast Stream last year, and I’m pleased that my digital wisdom[4] has rubbed off on her: we talked about how we could start standardising and digitising the collection of information from her stakeholders. I’ve promised any help I can give: I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to achieve something minimal before the end of her post.

Wandering home, my partner and I stopped off at Pizza Express to celebrate payday and the weekend. And there’s nothing nicer to end a week than that.

[0] If we get over 45 clients before the end of August, I’ll start on Vice-Presidents. After that I’ll continue down the line of succession, in the hope that I’ll learn even more about that nation’s political history.

[1] Dubious

[2] Yelling across a room

[3] Case in point: I’ve taken 90 minutes cloistered away to get these thoughts into order

[4] Near continual evangelising/complaining