My Alpha Alpha

Today is the six year anniversary of launching the ‘ONS Alpha’ into the wild. It is also the ninth birthday of GDS and it feels appropriate that they share a day as one wouldn’t have existed without the other.

Working on the Alpha (ONS have done many Alphas since – many more complex and better run – but our Alpha was the Alpha Alpha and so like Alphagov at GDS for me it will always be the ONS Alpha) changed my career – mainly for the better but with a few side effects – and was genuinely the most fun I’ve ever had working on a single project – despite the pressure and the attention.

It was a project born out of a crisis – as so many radical things are – a burning platform was running out of anything to burn and it didn’t spring fully formed either – we’d worked with both cxpartners and the ODI to explore new approaches and Jonathan, our user researcher, was already out doing the rounds to better understand user needs and Pure Usability had helped us understand our users more. There was no formal Discovery that people would recognise today. Instead there was years of user feedback and research documented but not actioned. There were newspaper articles in the FT and elsewhere exposing the problems with the website. There was an episode of the radio show ‘More or Less’ dedicated to our failings.

So with the support – but not involvement – of GDS (especially Mr Loosemore – thanks boss!) and the cover of my riot shield of a boss Laura we decided to go all-in with an open Alpha reimagining the whole site inspired by Alphagov. I mean in hindsight what the hell were we thinking.

We were independent of GDS and the GOV.UK consolidation programme so they were a brilliant sounding board – and helpful at every stage – but it was on us to get this done. Thank god for all that early openness!

We brought in a ‘squad’ via a supplier to handle the Alpha build (via GCloud rather than the new DOS option which was already naughty even then!) and this is one of those moments that change your life that you don’t see at the time. We negotiated the deal with James and Sacha (later founders of Notbinary/F4 and my current bosses), I worked with David Biden to agree the team they landed (he is now CEO of our sister company Human+ who are about to join F4) and David Carboni joined as the Tech Lead – these days he is the Chief Engineer at F4 and we’ve worked together on and off for the last 3 years as well as 2 years at ONS.

The project was 10 weeks of agile intensity – pushing the limits of our own skills, the bureaucracy and the infrastructure. There wasn’t even really wifi when we started for the team to use. I set up the first Github organisation account (it was still blocked on the main network) and paid for the Heroku account on my credit card throughout. Agile wasn’t unknown to ONS but we were really diving into it head first. We did weekly user research and daily deploys. We blogged throughout. It was exhausting but fun. The dev team lived in weird AirBnBs together and had their share of tales to keep things entertaining.

From the start we were clear this was a ‘real’ Alpha – it was about learning and testing hypotheses and was 100% disposable at the end. We made a bunch of mistakes – not enough thought to content design, or accessibility or internal users – that all became Beta Debt (and part of the reason the Beta was H-A-R-D!) but learned an enormous amount – some of our bets paid off. Others not so much. For three months I worked on it seven days a week, every waking hour and don’t regret a minute of it.

We volunteered for a GDS Alpha assessment so the week before Christmas four of us got the train to London, went to Aviation House (me in a Christmas jumper with a tin of Quality Street!) and experienced our interrogation. I’ll alway be thankful to Mark Sheldon – lead assessor – coming to find us after in Wagamamas downstairs to tell us we had passed. I was doing my best to seem confident in front of the team but I was sooooo stressed – we had so much riding on it. I drank too much bourbon, got the train home and started planning the Beta the next day.

So here we are six years later and today I have a meeting about an Alpha I am going to lead on starting in January. Things have changed a lot but I’m still having the same conversations to set expectations about what an Alpha delivers. I’m still easing people in to working agile. Working in the open still scares people. Finding the balance between user research and build is still a juggling act. Getting the right people and roles in the team is still more art than science.

There is still nothing I’d rather do though.

There are so many people I owe for that Alpha experience but in particular Laura, Rob, Jonathan, Carbs, Tom plus the support from the Board at the time who really did buy in to it despite not totally being sure what they’d signed up to!

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