Medium musings

Has there ever been an internet company that has had so many attempts at finding an identity as Medium? In eight years there have been paywalls, memberships, editorial teams publishing Medium ‘magazines’, features teased then half launched before vanishing…for most people but not all and now a set of new features that seems to basically break down as WordPress.com (or maybe Squarespace) behind a Paywall. This is a particular departure as one of the few consistent things about Medium was the minimalist, clean nature of the publishing platform. A kind of Google homepage for blogging.

I published my first post on Medium seven years ago this week. Eventually I moved the majority of my web writing to it for about five years before moving back to WordPress last year when the weird paywall limited peoples free access to more than a handful of stories kicked in. It wasn’t like I was losing readers or anything – I don’t have that many(!) – but it felt like one pivot away from the open web too far.

I still run Web of Weeknotes on the platform and to be honest I don’t think that would have attracted anywhere near as many devotees if it wasn’t for Medium. For all its flaws it is an incredibly frictionless way of getting your words up on the web and it is still the nicest blogging experience as a writer in my experience.

To this day I believe it saved blogging – albeit a new, sanitised version of it – when longer form web writing was becoming rarer online. It gave new people a platform for their voices. Now do I wish that some (many) of them had stayed quiet….well that was always the risk with blogging anyway and new blood to shake up all the ‘veterans’ talking to each other in a cobwebbed corner of the internet was/is fantastic. Many of those new voices moved to their own platforms or newsletters – Medium was a jump-off for many or a tool for the occasional writer who didn’t want the hassle of their own domain.

Sure it had miserable accessibility support for years, the comments feature is still shambolic, week to week you never seemed to know how it would treat images and the aforementioned paywall stuff feels like a desperate attempt to monetize something that is a fundamental foundation of the web – words and links. Plus with millions of link newsletters out there now the curation is also available for free. In general I’ve never been convinced on their whole claim of bringing an audience to writers – I’ve never had a massive ‘hit’ but a few posts got several thousand readers and they seemed to be mainly from my own expanded networks rather than anyone new (apart from slightly spammy folks!). Maybe that only works if you sign-up to their ‘distribution deal’ and basically sign over your words and hide them from the rest of the world? Who knows.

I do wish Medium well with this latest change – selfishly I don’t want to try and unpick Weeknotes(!) but also blogging is my first love online and anything that encourages people to take the leap will always have a certain amount of support from me…even if it is a little grudging.

July 2020

It has been 20 weeks since I got back from Oslo and went into my premature lockdown. Since then I have ventured out further than my local corner shops twice – once to drop some art off to get framed at the beginning of the month and then Monday to the pub for lunch with my friend/colleague Sara (poor woman has known me years and worked with me for multiple employers!). I’ve continued to struggle with the COVID #longhaul issues and while I have had more okay days than bad this month I’ve had very few good days. In fact I wonder if my expectations have dropped as to what even looks okay!

Work it

Work has been a busy, interesting month. I’ve said it a few times I know but this Essex role has been a real tonic. In July I’ve been working on a digital publishing platform proposal, thinking through some digital capabilities work and trying to find a hook for a ‘digital strategy’ that I thought would ‘earn its keep’. My team has delivered a new campaign website, built an alpha of our own digital manual and really impressed with their approach to selling the accessibility message. They also did a show and tell covering all of that which was amazing – it had that conversational, podcast vibe while also just getting over the passion and professionalism of the team. I was genuinely very proud.

We are also recruiting so I’ve done a bit of blogging about the role I am actually doing and have had a bunch of informal chats about it. It is a great role and this team deserves someone great.

Assessing assessments

At the start of the month I enjoyed helping out Cate and Darren with a Service Assessment for Hackney. It was just the second remote one I had done and I really liked the format and the use of Trello to capture things as we went along. It was an interesting project but the shape of it wasn’t an easy fit with the Standards – and I think this is often the case actually. There is an inherent expectation of the scale and scope of ‘services’ for the standard that doesn’t reflect a lot of work and a dogmatic approach can get in the way of otherwise good work. This isn’t a diss for assessments or the standards – I think my feelings about the good they do is well rehearsed at this stage – but I believe there is room for more flexibility within the spirit of the standards.

What else happened? 

Well someone resigned and then changed their mind (which I really extremely pleased about.) We won a big piece of work that I am very excited about – means there is likely to be a LOT more product management blogging in the weeks/months to come – and maybe a podcast (though I will be the ‘booker’ for that rather than the presenter).

I had my first School Governor meeting in a while (I missed the last one when I was ill). It was a bit weird doing it on Teams but hearing about the steps they were having to take to reopen in September was fascinating and impressive. Given the catchment area the school has had some real challenges throughout lockdown as well and some of that was an eye-opener.

I’m going to be helping them out with a new school website and also a new service to manage their SMS texting – it is the channel with the best success rate but their deal is sooooo expensive – it is like 1990s costs per text!

Still loving messing around with spraypaint in my garden. I’m improving slowly but it’ll be ages before I am not a bit embarrassed by what I am producing. It really does calm me though – even when it is all going pear shaped. 

Listening

This time every year DJ Jazzy Jeff releases his Summertime mixtape – and the summer hits its stride. This year was no different. https://www.mixcloud.com/MICK/dj-jazzy-jeff-mick-summertime-2020/

Also Taylor Swift dropped a surprise album which made me happy. This might seem off brand for me but alongside all the hip-hop, grime and R&B I do love a pop princess and Miss Swift is a perennial favourite!

Watching

Rewatched a lot of sitcoms. New Girl (Jess is consistently terrible but the rest are great), Cougar Town (terrible name. Horrible first season. Good fun otherwise), Wedding Band (gone too soon.)

Loved Old Guard on Netflix. Wanted to love Cursed but was mainly confused as to what it was trying to be. Couldn’t get past the annoying voice over on Warrior Nun. The new Last Chance U is something special – less about (American) Football than it is about how gentrification has changed Oakland and the incredibly hard life some of these young men have.

The Only Way is Essex…Head of Product

I’ve been working with the Essex County Council Service Transformation team as interim Head of Product since April and as ever with these kinds of roles one of my main objectives is to help them replace me. Built in obsolescence 🙂 

As subscribers to my jobs newsletter (you aren’t? Quickly go and fix that!) will know that search for my successor is underway – we are also looking for User Research and Content Design leaders – so I thought I’d draft a quick blogpost to answer some questions potential applicants might have that you can’t really cover in job descriptions. I’m also available for informal chats – just DM me on Twitter or email me at matt@notbinary.co.uk.

The Head of Product Management actually only manages a single other product person at the moment (an ECC ‘veteran’ with a lot of knowledge of how to get things done in the organisation and a fast growing product skill-set) but additionally manages a team that will include a couple of agile delivery managers, a couple of front-end developers and an interactive designer. This is currently a little fluid but it will likely land on something very close to this.

The goal of this team (under me at least – the next person might have a different plan!) is to bring a focus on shipping to the Service Transformation team. This might be prototypes, MVPs or small production projects. The team embraces a lean/agile approach, proving the worth of an iterative approach driven by user research by delivering. We are very passionate about demonstrating modern, attractive web products can also be accessible. 

The role has a wider responsibility to the organisation as well to be an advocate for these modern agile practices with a big streak of pragmatism. This is no place for dogma – it needs a digital diplomat to build a consensus. 

Somewhat unusually Technology and Data are elsewhere in the organisation so an element of this role will be helping maintain those relationships and support a coordinated approach to delivery.

The opportunity is huge. Like so many places COVID-19 accelerated many conversations about digital ways of working and ECC have ambitious plans. The Service Transformation team is really well placed to ride this wave. The team consists of service designers, content designers, user researchers, business designers and continuous improvement practitioners. Ben Unsworth is joining in September to lead the team and there is strong sponsorship from the Exec Director, CEO and on the political side.

From a logistical point of view the team is all remote at the moment but I do suspect down the line there will be at least some occasional requirements to be in Chelmsford. It is a Microsoft house so Teams is your home.

The culture is supportive with a strong focus on staff well being that I’ve been impressed with. It is local government though – any candidate is going to need to come prepared to navigate a bureaucracy and have some patience at times.

All in all it is a lovely team and a great opportunity. I think it suits a digital generalist who has some experience leading delivery teams and working with senior leadership.

Like I said earlier give me a shout if you want to talk about it off the record. I’m here to help.

Initial findings from jobs descriptions survey

257 people responded to my survey about what job seekers are looking for from job desscriptions/ads. There is a lot to dig into properly and I intend to do some follow up interviews – and then share a bunch of the raw data (maybe not the free text? Will have a think.)

Here are a few initial highlights / thoughts though –>

If/when you are job hunting where do you look for job ads?

LinkedIn was the most popular choice here which was a little bit of a surprise. None of the other job board type options came close but employers own jobs pages was a close second (with personal networks third but a little way back).

I do find LinkedIn a really good source for vacancies to feature in my newsletter but it definitely has flaws – a lot of other jobs boards featuring closed roles that link to their boards not the advertised roles is a personal bug bear. I know it is popular with recruitment teams but I wonder how many people prepare LinkedIn native job descriptions that makes the most of their format?

The importance of organisation jobs pages suggest that they need a LOT more focus and investment. They are consistently bad in my experience. Poor usability, accessibility and content is the norm.

If/when you search for jobs which search terms do you start with?

Almost 62% of people said they search for specific job titles…so I’vesaid it before and I’ll say it again..STOP MAKING UP JOB TITLES! Be consistent with what people call roles rather than trying to be clever or unique.

Do you include location in your search terms? /
How important is it to you to see more roles offered as ‘remote’ (1 least important to 5 most important)

Interestingly more than half of people still search by location but 60% people rate ‘remote’ working as one of the most important things. I guess as much as anything this reflects what a weird time we are living through!

Do you use salary as a filter (when available) in your searches? /
On a scale of 0 -10 (10 being most likely) how important is the availability of a salary band to your decision to consider applying for a role?

Seriously people – JUST ADD SALARIES. It is so important to people who are applying and you are limiting your potential candidates by refusing to. There is just so much evidence of the importance of doing this so the fact it was important to respondents here is no surprise.

What is the most important content for you in a job description?

This one made me smile. 60% of people selected ‘specific information about the role’. Only 4% chose ‘details about the employer’. Seems obvious and yet about 75% of job descriptions I encounter you have to scroll past 100s of (generic) words about the organisation before you get to the details on the job. It always annoys me and is clearly backwards and yet it is the norm.

What information is most useful to you in describing the role?

Lots to unpick in this one (it was free text) but something that shines through is people want practical descriptions of what they will do. Day in the life stuff, prefereably written in consultation by someone doing the job. They want to understand the objectives of the job not a generic list of skills.

What the person will be doing when they start – what challenges are up first. Where they think a person could add value to the wider team.

Day to day actual requirements to do the job

the actual activities you are expected to do

what the day to day job will be like

Overview of responsibilities, a bit of detail on day to day tasks or current initiatives, a bit of context about org or team (a link to the strategy for example).

I mean what they most want is salary details but after that..

If a role has a long list of ‘essential requirements’ what percentage match would you need to feel comfortable applying?

65% in the more than 75% category which seems reasonable – especially given some of the shopping lists of requirements out there – 43 people (16.7%) would need to match 100% to apply though! This really needs resolving one way or another – there are great candidates not applying. 4 people were in the less than 50% category, which is….interesting!

If you fit all or almost all of the ‘essentials’ but not many of the ‘desirables’, would you still feel encouraged to apply?

61.5% (158) were yes and 32.7% (84) folks were a maybe…honestly what I take from this is this classic split of essentials and desireables is pretty useless – ask for what you need and interview for value add.

If a role interests you do you do additional research into the organisation or team (i.e. seek out blogposts, talks, videos etc)?

84% of peope said yes and yet hardly any job ads I see proactively point to this kind of supporting material – or even include it in their campaigns. I’ve been encouraging it for years and this just confirms why it is important in making potential employers stand out. Make the time!

When you are job seeking what feels like reasonable investment of time per week?

Dumb question – regret asking it!

What is the most off putting thing you find with job descriptions?

Another free text question and another massive shout out regarding lack of salary details.

Beyond that a tendency towards jargon and vagueness was called out

Use of company jargon or empty phrases.

Generic phrase bingo (‘Fast-paced environment’ etc.)

Vague descriptions

Not actually telling me what the job is (titles can be variable)

Buzzword soup written by people who clearly do not understand the discipline.

very long jargon filled list of things

Tons of waffle, generic copy and paste text about an organisation

Management jargon and vagueness

We really need to start bringing in content designers to work with the people who actually do the roles (and their immediate managers probably) to get away from this. So many ads are written by people without a deep understanding of the role and without the context of their work so the vagueness and jargon is designed to cover this.

Is there any company or organisation you think does a good job with job ads and descriptions?

Citizens Advice Customer Journey team got some love. As did Snook, Monzo and the FT. There was a bit of a mixed reaction to Gov jobs generally – they seem to be Marmite. I wonder if they are a bit opaque to ‘outsiders’? There were a bunch of recommendations for smaller agencies that I will be taking a look at and this quote was really great –>

Shopify – purely because of this text: “If your experience is *this* close to what we’re looking for, please consider applying. Experience comes in many forms – skills are transferable, and passion goes a long way. We know that diversity makes for the best problem-solving and creative thinking, which is why we’re dedicated to adding new perspectives to the team and encourage everyone to apply.”


This is just a quick initial reaction – there is a lot more to pick through – especially in the free text sections but the main theme is that the majority of job descriptions are failing to meet user needs and that there is a real opportunity to do these things better.

mismanaging my #midlifecrisis

I have realised I am definitely in the midst of a midlife crisis – albeit a very me version of it. No sports cars, motorbikes or inappropriately young women but no less of a cliche in my own way. The closer I get to 50 (I am 47) the more these thoughts preoccupy me.

I think the whole lockdown and catching COVID has accelerated things but I am certainly spiralling. Between the constant new Adidas purchases, all the bloody Hiut jeans, overwhelming amounts of new art and the latest enormous box of spray-paint I am now basically living like an unsupervised teen me with a little disposable income.

I’m also massively questioning my career choices – it isn’t that I’m unhappy but I look back on all the things I could have done if I’d been braver (turning down jobs in London a couple of times at big moments, opportunities to move to the US and New Zealand for instance) or had stuck it out at some places (Jisc and ONS maybe). Would I have made it to CDO somewhere, could I have made a life somewhere other than Bristol or would I have avoided all the anxiety if I just stuck with an organisation?

There are currently soooooo many tabs open in this browser about working while travelling…if the world ever gets even semi back to normal I want to take a sabbatical next year – this has been on my mind for a while now but it feels pretty midlife crisis-y in context. The plan was to spend some time in NYC (like weeks instead of days) and use it as a jumping off point to tick off some other places I wanted to visit (Boston, Chicago, Nashville…amongst others) but given COVID, #BLM and just Trump in general I’ve started imagining other places (Toronto, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Georgetown…being me the local street art and street food is more important than beaches etc!). Not living/working in a different country is one of my biggest regrets but also something that maybe I could still manage. Do that ‘nomad’ working thing for a while – it is clear that all I really need to do my job is a laptop, broadband and a headset so in theory it should be doable…but again am I brave enough?

My regular dalliances with writing a book are part of this as well – that definitely became more pronounced in my 40s. I really should come to terms with the fact I’m never going to do it!

Aaaarrrggghhhh – who knows. I am writing this to just get some of this out of my head – given the state of the world at the moment it isn’t like anything is going to change any time soon.

Now which tab has those new Superstars…