I come from an earlier age of the internet-era. The web in particular was all a bit new and it felt like everybody was really just making it up as we went along. An age before certifications.
More than anything it was the age of the generalist. So many people I know from 1998-2008 who made/make a living in this thing we call ‘digital’* wouldn’t tidily fit in any box. They did a little dev. Had some design skills. Understood usability. Could turn their hands at a little business analysis at a push. Understood what WebTrends was saying (ask your parents). Might be a demon with a CMS or an expert at writing for the web but generally could muddle through in a number of situations.
Most of us ended up calling ourselves Product Managers 🙂
Over the time things got much more complicated. Fields got deep but narrow. This narrowness became a badge of honour somehow. Take a look at the Government Digital, Data and Technology capability framework. Actually a totally reasonable and not over the top articulation of the ecosystem of roles that you’ll find in most digital teams.
Thing is at some time or another I think I could make a case that I have held 10 of those roles and I don’t even consider myself having that broad a skillset compared to many.
This post was spurred by catching myself talking about ‘multi-hyphenates’ (again) in a pitch yesterday. It is something I refer to a lot. To be honest I wasn’t sure why/when/where the term entered my vocabulary but I suspect it is more to do with pop culture than technology. The idea of a rapper-producer-actor-energy drink salesman is pretty established (not to mention actor-director, singer-songwriter etc) and I find that in my corner of the digital world it is these hyphens I am looking for and leaning on.
My teams are made up of people who wear more than one hat. Product Managers who are experienced delivery managers and understand user research. Business analysts who can code and love agile. Developers who enjoy UX challenges and wrangling data. They are all talented and experienced and driven by curiosity and a desire to do good work not limited by the edges of their ‘role’.
I know the common term for these people is ‘T-shaped‘ but I prefer π (pi) people – they know a few things and are pretty great at a couple (rather than know a lot but be deeply expert in one thing..).
As it happens I still see these ingredients most often in product people which may just be confirmation bias on my side but I think the role attracts people who thrive having a perspective across lots of stuff and the curiosity to identify and fill gaps in their knowledge when it becomes an issue.
The other reason I am writing this is I have just spent the morning writing job descriptions and we are going to be hiring soon. I’m not sure the job descriptions are able to get across the scope of what I am saying here so hopefully this might help anyone wondering about joining us.
*I’ve decided I am continuing to call it digital until you pry it from my cold dead fingers – YMMV
I’m about to start doing a piece of consulting work for a non public service client – which is rare for me. It is however very much a ‘digital transformation’ focus and it has been…Reassuring? Worrying? I don’t know…just how similar it all is to the work I have been doing for the best part of a decade in and around Government.
I mean to some extent why would it be different – software is eating the world not just the public sector and the ‘cloud’ is a transition for any organisation that existed on the ‘information superhighway’ (remember that) before the ‘cloud’.
Just how similar became clear when I was writing up some ideas/hypotheses I wanted to ‘test’ based on initial conversations…now maybe this is just my own bias – to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail…after all but I think maybe it is just that outside of a relatively small number of internet-era native companies everybody is struggling with the same problems give or take.
I’m not even talking about agile, devops etc. I’m talking a couple of levels above that. How do you do what you can to give those ways of working and modern approaches a chance!
Here are some things I came up with (and have done time and time again one way or another..)
A clear vision for the digital transformation programme supported by appropriate additional materials (a public roadmap, communications artefacts, open KPIs etc) will allow the team to better set expectations and build support from the business/organisation
An agreed prioritisation methodology – and the tools to enforce it (i.e. spend controls) – will allow the digital transformation team to focus attention, people and finances on the most valuable projects, reduce noise and optimise for success
Ensuring that the ‘Business’* is fully committed to the projects they ‘sponsor’ – through the provision of dedicated product owners and subject matter expertise – will deliver better outcomes for the entire organisation and help break silos
This post was at least partially inspired by this great Twitter thread –>
*yea I know – I hate it as well.
Earlier this week I indulged in a bit of sub-tweeting;
Inevitably folks read this vague tweet from their own perspective and I got a bunch of varied replies.
Actually I was reacting to reading about the shambles at the Iowa Caucus and how it was being laid at the feet of a failed mobile app. There is a lot of coverage of those issues. Twitter had its say as well. Conspiracy theories emerged.
To be honest I wasn’t that deeply engaged – the idea of a Caucus is weird and everything I know about them I learned from The West Wing (and not even the Sorkin years). The thing that struck me was that it was another bad news technology story – and not even a Big Tech bad news story but a Civic Tech news story and I realised I just couldn’t remember the last time a positive tech story had really broke through into the mainstream news cycle.
Trolls, surveillance, privacy, security, misinformation and AI ‘robots’ are the main topics of the tech pages on the BBC and Guardian websites this morning. I can’t remember a recent time when it wasn’t like this. I mean look at what I am reading;
I remember reading ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ in 2009 full of excitement of the righteous power of the internet, web and social media. How it was going to be the great leveller and change the world. The news was full of stories of wonder at how these ‘new’ services were changing the world. Now not so much.
Tech seems to have replaced the Banks as the baddies du jour. Not really surprising when more and more of the poster boys (and girls) consistently demonstrate a total disregard for democracy, society or really anything except their bottom lines and personal ambitions. The days of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ seem like a long time ago. Even ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ seems kind of quaint now unless the ‘Things’ they wanted to break were democracy and society.
There is of course loads of good work being done in Tech big and small. The Resistance is real. The problem is not many of the Good News stories are breaking through – it is an underground of blogposts, podcasts, meet-ups and Twitter threads. I worry though that this preaches to the converted – an ever smaller network of people who remember the hope of an ‘open web’. The fact I sometimes seem to be only one or degrees of separation from so many of the smartest people in this network suggests its scale isn’t huge!
Will the surge of bad news and bad behaviour create a backlash and push a new generation to seek out alternatives to the dominant narrative? I really hope so. The potential of tech for good remains as great as ever – hopefully that doesn’t get lost in the push back against the personal data driven, surveillance economy we have found ourselves enabling..
Thursday lunchtime I was working at our WeWork in Holborn and had been banished from our little office into the shared space for reasonable reasons. This is something I usually avoid if I can. I don’t much like the atmosphere/vibe and it is always too noisy for me to really concentrate.
Also there are often dogs.
This was one of those occasions. While I was working a dog was wandering around the space exploring as they are prone to do and its owner wasn’t taking much notice. Most people seemed fine with it. I wasn’t and after the second time dog nudged me unexpectedly I tweeted;
..honestly I almost deleted it straight away but I was distracted by finding somewhere dog free to work and so I let it sit.
Despite having been on Twitter for more than 12 years I’ve never really had a ‘viral’ tweet and it would be a stretch to say that was what this was but it certainly went further and faster than I was expecting. I was genuinely worried I was going to get hammered by folks when I saw some of the numbers Thursday evening as I got the train home to Bristol.
As it happened though it seemed to open a floodgate of people who agreed with the sentiment – from CTOs of pretty famous workplace collaboration tools in San Francisco to designers in New Zealand and family members of friends in New York. Far more people were supportive than not and even those people who probably think I am an animal hating sociopath were really reasonable. It was quite weird – like the old Twitter (on the day current Twitter was fully engaged with the small matter of our leaving the EU.)
I did find it interesting that the ratio of ‘likes’ to ‘retweets’ was so extreme – people agreed but didn’t want to risk bringing the wrath of dog lovers down on themselves (or me I hope!)
For the record I really do dislike dogs in offices – I wasn’t just having a bad day. I am always nervous around dogs and no your lovely animal won’t be the one that changes my mind. Big, small, cute or scruffy they all make me uncomfortable. I cross streets to avoid dogs so I don’t know why I’d want to share my work space with them. I know people feel differently about this but I was surprised by how many people felt similar.
Will I ever be tweeting something similar again? That is a solid no.
Do I regret tweeting it this time? Less than I expected.
Eleanor has written this really great post on the problem with being a ‘shit umbrella’. There is a lot in there I recognise from an earlier version of myself – I definitely went through a stage of being both paternalistic and a bit of a martyr (though I did have my own umbrella!) but with some distance and more experience I came to see the error of my approach (not until after I’d burned out!). I didn’t lose faith in the idea of being a shit umbrella though. My understanding of it just evolved.
As I said in a tweet last night I think the thing about an umbrella is it keeps the rain off you for the most part but you still know it is raining and you do get a little wet…that is the goal – stop the team getting drowned but never hide the fact that it is pissing down.
Good, empowered teams should all have a responsibility for watching out for changes in the weather – it effects what can be achieved and things like a shift in strategic priorities, a changing risk appetite or simply new leadership in an organisation can have a real impact in the trenches. That said I do think it is the responsibility of the Product Manager to act as the meteorologist – watching, analysing and communicating what to expect – giving the team enough notice to get under the umbrella when the shit starts falling!
For better or worse that is what ‘be the shit umbrella’ means to me. YMMV.