myWeek (s4e10)

10 things I learned in 10 weeks

Here is a special edition of #weeknotes to mark my first 10 weeks at mySociety.

[01] Things aren’t that different

I was pretty nervous about taking this job — excited — but nervous. I have almost exclusively been a public servant one way or another throughout my career and while mySociety is undoubtably about the public good it is going at it from a pretty different direction.

Turns out spending almost 20 years doing webby stuff professionally — even in the public sector — means I am pretty comfortable even on the ‘other side of the table’. I’m pretty confident in my instincts when it comes to product management and it turns out all that time as a client means I’m pretty clued up on how to be a decent supplier.


[02] Things are completely different

On the other hand it is completely different. At ONS my team was about 40 people depending on when I counted. I was part of Laura’s team which was double that. We were part of David’s Digital & Technology department that was at least four times that size again. ONS has 3,000ish staff all told. There are more than 400,000 Civil Servants.

mySociety is 27 people (I think).

At ONS I was very much a manager. I majored in meetings. I set direction, hired people smarter than me and provided cover. What I didn’t do as much is actually do things. I had to understand what I was asking people to do but I was rarely the person who did it (apart from the Alpha project where I was much more involved). Now I need to knock off the rust and get my hands dirty all over the place.

[03] Remote working is great

mySociety is a remote organisation. I’ve never really worked this way and I’m enjoying it — but perhaps for different reasons than most. I don’t care for working at home really. I prefer to go to an office — I need the routine, even if the annoyance of the travel can grind me down.

What I love about the remote working is that it means we use tools that work and that I can access from wherever. I may want to work from an office but I still spend time on trains, buses, sat in cafes, conference venues and who knows where else. For the first time in my career I don’t feel cut off. Not feeling like I am losing time in the day/week means I have felt more productive without succumbing to working longer hours which has been my default.

[04] Remote working is really hard

That said remote working is hard. I have spent the last few years of my career very much advocating for a particular approach to product teams and a big part of that was about co-location and the power of in-person collaboration and osmosis. I really do believe in that and it is much harder to tune into a team culture when you are not together.

It takes longer, and is harder, to change approaches and the feedback loops take longer to see if things are working. You need to be much more proactive about seeking information/intelligence about team progress than when it is happening around you. In fact you have to be on the tightrope of slipping into being annoying!

[05] Working on an established product is brilliant

FixMyStreet is 10 years old. It is a platform that is well known and respected and due to its open source nature as well has contributors and collaborators all over the globe as well as the .com version most familiar in the UK.

People use it and trust it. Councils (our main customers) are aware of it. The media know about it.

It is a classic case of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. My job is to build momentum rather than just get things off the mark.

[06] Working on an established product is difficult

However — FixMyStreet is 10 years old. It is a mature codebase and has a well established UI and a relationship with its users that has built up over time. None of these things are easy to change. Especially when the codebase isn’t just .com but is used all over the globe.

Digital products can’t stand still and expect to continue to be a success based on reputation. Yahoo is not a business model to strive for 😉 So we need to find a way to balance continuous improvements, new opportunities and providing a stable, open source platform.

[07] Making sales is a buzz

I’ve never been involved with a product where there was such a clear commercial proposition. As far as metrics go having to go out and get people to buy something rather clarifies the ‘performance indicators’! I’m never going to be a great salesman but I believe in our mission, our product and our team so the makes me a pretty solid evangelist if nothing else. I like it more than I expected.

[08] Making sales is hard work

But god it is hard work. We don’t exactly have the kind of product you just put up a Shopify site for and watch the sales tick along (though I’m not sure that is ever the case!). I am a little more empathetic with all the sales people who used to chase me earlier in my career. A little.

There is a process and it is not quick. It takes months even to close a successful sale. Intellectually I knew this — I was on the other side often enough and I wasn’t shy in making suppliers jump through a few hoops. It is totally worth it though and things like GCloud do improve things but it is going to be the thing that takes me longest to get used to.

[09] The ‘lean start-up’ stuff makes more sense — the agile stuff is harder

All that ‘lean start-up’ stuff I have been reading these last few years makes much more sense now. So do all the 37Signals/Basecamp books. In the past I read and enjoyed them mainly with a certain amount of idle curiousity and a bit of distance. They seemed so far away from my working reality. A few useful approaches and principles but difficult to map to my objectives and environments. Now there are a lot more parallels. Still a bunch of things I’m not sure about and the occasional thing I think is ethically icky but plenty of practical lessons to take and start weaving in to how I work.

The approach I have been taking to agile these last couple of years is feeling a little less of an easy transfer though. Thankfully I am not a follower of any of the popular AGILE frameworks or I would be tearing out my hair (if I had any!). I’ve always had a more holistic belief in agile based on the principles and short feedback loops but I’m still going to need to find an even more ‘minimal viable agile’ to successfully implement it here.

[10] I’m really happy I took the risk on this job and that they took the risk on me!

Fact is I could have gritted my teeth and carried on at Defra. There were plenty of people I liked there and eventually the things that were frustrating me would have been resolved. I also probably could have wrangled myself into a pretty senior role in the Civil Service digital community in a year or two. I had my pension, a solid rep and was on a decent career path. I wouldn’t have been happy though.

mySociety was on my list of places I wanted to work at but I didn’t really know it that well — just superficially and my info was slightly outdated as well. I just had a feeling it was somewhere I might fit.

I have no idea why they picked me. I was a risk I’m sure. I think I am a good product manager and I am pretty well networked but I have been best known for working on big transformation projects rather than with smaller teams and products (though actually I have done more of the latter — it was just less high profile.)

Anyway whatever the reason I am thankful. I am lucky enough to have worked at some great places at great times. I was very happy at times at JISC, Jiva and ONS but I can’t ever remember a time I felt so settled so fast.

More widely I’m glad nobody I know was hurt in the events of Wednesday in Westminster. It was a strange experience seeing somewhere I walked past so often in the last few years being the centre of such a terrible occurrence and the fact I know so many people who work in and around Parliament these days made it hit home pretty hard.

Back to normal next week — I turn 40-f**king-4 on Monday and I am ‘celebrating’ it by speaking at this event. At least hopefully I will manage to see ‘Ghost in the Shell’ sometime though.

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