Four years in one place is a long time for me – even if six months of this was on a career break (one where I was almost always intending to return at the end of things). This is mainly a reminiscence about the tent-pole projects during my time with Notbinary/Foundry4. Alongside this work there was always the DOS submissions, pitches, contractor recruiting, blogpost writing, conference talks, staff line-management, Board meetings, Group politics and other activities that goes along with working in a small consultancy. I learned an enormous amount. Some I wish I could forget 😉
I started working for Notbinary (who would become Foundry4 and are now transitioning to TPXimpact) four years ago this very week.
I was coming off a tough year working at mySociety where despite being passionate about the mission and liking the people I never really clicked with the ways of working. It really damaged my confidence and morale, truth be told. So when an exit was offered I jumped at it despite having previously turned down all offers in the consultancy space.
Some of the founding members of Notbinary were well known to me, they were still a small and scrappy start-up and had won a big opportunity at DVLA in Swansea. It seemed like a good fit for a while and if it didn’t work out it would give me a bit of time to find something else.
Swansea was a mixed bag. I liked the team and got on okay with the clients but I had little to actually do – there was no real product role outside of the client side and while the reporting was onerous in comparison to what I believed was needed it wasn’t really that time consuming.
Within two weeks I was concerned enough to offer to leave – no hard feelings – as I just didn’t see the value beyond some civil service > supplier translations and diplomacy. My offer wasn’t accepted but I did continue to agitate for something more to get my teeth into.
This came along soon enough as I found myself moving from a Swansea AirBnB to a Travelodge in North Acton where I spent the next six months as the interim Product Lead for the BBC Datalab.
I learned loads in this role. It was my first ever interim role and looking back I was a bit more passive than I should have been. Without clear outcomes I was a bit too much a seat-warmer than agenda-pushing on the bigger decisions. That said, I built a strong relationship with the team, helped them find their voice and own their own destiny a bit rather than react to the whims of leadership and encouraged them to collaborate more and be more realistic with what they were taking on.
It was time well spent and I look back on it fondly – it was a great, young team to work alongside. Probably the smartest I have ever met so while I’d handle it differently now I really enjoyed it regardless. Despite spending six months in a Travelodge and one time returning from a week in New Zealand and heading straight from Heathrow to a meeting I was told was urgent…only to be the only person to show up!
From the BBC I moved on to the UK’s Hydrographic Office. This evolved into an engagement that I would really enjoy with a bunch of people I would really like but initially it was awkward and a bit difficult. At the heart of the work it was a politically charged assessment of a major programme I was being asked to look at and my initial findings were – again with hindsight – too blunt. I stand by them but it was a bit much!
One of the reasons it was initially tough going was logistical. In a horrible bit of timing Bristol Parkway was closed – as was part of the line surrounding it – for the initial months of my time there. This led to a brutal commute – even though it was just Taunton – that could last up to four hours a day. It took a toll.
I rather staggered into years end but some drunken escapades at the restaurant at the top of the Shard for our Christmas party was a nice ending – even if some of it was spent trying to land a team for a piece of work we found out about that morning that was to start the first working day of January.
My second year started with a bit of a juggling act. We had won an Alpha with MHCLG where they had requested my direct involvement even though I was still nominally assigned to UKHO.
Some careful Jenga moves later I freed up enough time to work fulltime on the Alpha in the early weeks to get things moving and to maximise my time I found myself back living in a London hotel for January – somewhere nicer than Travelodge this time and in Whitechapel not North Acton so the food options were much improved.
This was the start of our time at WeWork in the old GDS Holborn offices which looking back was a bit of a team cohesion high spot for me.
The Alpha ended up being a difficult project including a failed Alpha assessment (my first ever and I remain bitter about it). I really enjoyed working with the digital and data folks there though – smart, thoughtful and committed to a one.
Throughout all this I continued to support UKHO as they reworked their strategy and reshaped their teams though increasingly I moved to a more overt coaching role with individuals I had built a rapport with.
I spent the spring on a bit of a Busman’s holiday – meeting up with digital gov folks in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and SF/Oakland. This was an AMAZING opportunity and Notbinary supported it fully. I met so many great people, had so many inspiring conversations and just learned loads. Probably a once in a lifetime trip.
Upon my return I entered into a spell of poor decision making. First I accepted the opportunity to be Interim co-CEO of Notbinary. In my heart I knew this was a bad idea but my ego took over and I dived in. It was a painful experience for me and the company. The market was particularly tough that quarter, a couple of our foundational clients had moved on and I just did not have the business development chops to help us weather that storm.
This led to my taking on a piece of work that really we should have walked away from as it was something we simply did not believe was the right direction for the client but they had already dismissed our earlier concerns.
I ended up having some health challenges during this work as well returning after a couple of weeks to find the client had rejected our report leading to my spending the run up to Christmas staying in a hotel that is part of a massive London shopping mall as I reworked the report to get it over the line.
The Year two Christmas was a long way from the Shard – albeit not geographically – and people drifted off over the course of the afternoon/evening and it was all a bit subdued.
I then got into a big row with some blokes on the train back to Bristol who didn’t like my ‘Fuck Boris’ tee. Ooops.
Christ what a year.
It started off happily enough. An Alpha at BEIS with me taking a slightly weird hybrid adviser/product role. It was a nice team with a decent client with an interesting problem that needed investigating. It was nice to stretch some of those product strategy muscles again – albeit others in the team did the heavy lifting 🙂 As ever I was most useful for my network.
This is where things got interesting though. I’d agreed to support one of the other companies in the Group with some work they were doing with a client in Oslo. This had been off and on for months and then suddenly it was ON and I was being asked to head to Oslo for a month or two.
So for reasons that somewhat escape me now I said yes…and moved into an AirBnB in Oslo…season ticket for the Oslo train purchased…space at client office arranged…and within a week I was scrambling to get out of the country as the severity of Covid became clear.
The project was finished off via panicked Zooms in those early days of bad connections, lack of child care and general chaos. Apart from the whole Covidness of it all the big learning was just how familiar all the ‘digital transformation’ challenges and opportunities were for a big, publicly traded, shipping company as all the stuff I had done before.
I moved from PGS to six months as interim Head of Product at Essex County Council. Alongside the BBC this has probably been my favourite engagement over my time in the company. Another lovely, smart team who were a little inexperienced in places but were passionate and committed and desperate to do good work. Most of my time spent at ECC was spent trying to create the right environment and the right opportunities for the team to show what they could do – with shipping ‘stuff’ a priority. It was genuinely fun.
There were challenges though – I caught Covid pretty badly, pretty early on and had some brutal lingering issues. I spent months suffering from fatigue and brain fog. Getting through each working day basically sent me to bed by about 6 until it was time to go again.
Despite this it was a genuinely positive experience and as we successfully hired for my perm replacement it felt like a good time to step away and my health was just starting to turn a corner a little.
Within days of finishing at Essex I was hit by a fucking car.
It was three months before I could walk again and that pretty much finished off Year Three!
I started Year Four still on crutches and honestly the ‘black dog’ had me. I was really struggling. However I found myself leading the Alpha stage of our new work with a part of the Welsh Government and it was a real tonic. Once again we’d managed to put together a lovely, talented team and the client was one of the best I’ve ever worked with. Pragmatic and passionate she was a joy to work with.
It was a bit of a sticking plaster though – I started to slowly unravel (until it was anything but slow) over the next couple of projects despite finding them interesting and then the announcement of the mega-merger that was to create TPXimpact ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. I totally crumbled – even worse than my previous burnout at ONS. Within weeks I was on a career break and starting the slow process of putting myself back together again.
Basically I just disappeared from work overnight. Apart from a guest appearance at the TPXimpact launch party in September.
It was my intention to return to the new TPXimpact – phoenix from the flames style – but circumstances mean that isn’t going to happen so this is goodbye.
Thanks to everybody I worked with in Nb and F4 – especially to James and Sacha for hiring me in the first place.
Like the man once said.