April 2020

Well April was 400 days long wasn’t it. I don’t even remember who I was before this month! Apparently I have been on the ‘Coronacoaster‘ according to Kim. Up one minute, down the next. I’ve had various bursts of energy that has led to a couple of blogposts, some momentum on Sticker Stories and an idea for a (not) podcast – but unfortunately before I can really get going my mood shifts and I barely have the energy to get out of bed.

My diet went to crap for the first month of lockdown and I have barely done any exercise – I’m trying to change that now but it may be too little too late. Also I am drinking a fair bit again – I’ve been ordering from local breweries and a little indie off license to ‘support’ them…such a selfless act.

I have been cooking almost every day and probably eating more veg and balanced meals than anytime since my teens – it was just all the anxiety induced sugar that screwed me up.

Thank god for Essex County Council. Having a job to fill my days has been a real boon – especially with such nice people and with a whole bunch of things to do that really fall into my sweet spot. I’ve been really enjoying it – though six hours a day of video calls is wearing me down and I’m having to find a way to balance gathering intelligence, influencing people, supporting my team and actually finding time to write stuff. It is a real juggling act but a necessary one and it has been a good distraction for the world outside.

I’ve been getting involved with work around web platforms, accessibility, supporting Children’s services, death certificates and a bunch more – as well as working with a new team and planning to bring in new permanent staff. In many ways it is likely my early days at ONS – just via MS Teams. The similarity includes a Digital team (well Service Transformation at Essex) that isn’t the home of the technology offering – exactly as it was at ONS – so once again I am building the bridges between those worlds – hopefully with a lot more empathy and understanding than before.

I really worry that we are sleep walking a bit into a ‘new normal’ that replaces old problems with new ones without taking the time to really think about how to take the best learnings out of these days to build something really new. This has been a crisis response and while individuals and organisations have done some amazing things a lot of it is held together by string and adrenaline.

There are going to be opportunities to work in different ways. I really expect my days on trains and in hotels to be greatly reduced…and inspired by this I am leaning towards getting a shed office in the garden! Though I also wonder whether it would be easier just to rent a high street office space – I suspect a lot will become available after all this!


 

Watched this twice already. Cried both times.

February 2020

2020 is shaping up OK so far it has to be said. February was another good month. I’m feeling mentally sharper than I have in an age. I’m working on stuff I’m interested in, with clients I like and we are busy with more work on the horizon (which does wonders for mitigating my anxiety). I’ve totally got my blogging mojo back and am really having fun with the writing again – which if I am honest I had started to lose a bit last year.

As ever a few things happened this month – including but not limited to;

It was my two year anniversary at Notbinary. I know for many of you this won’t seem like a long time but it is a pretty significant milestone for me. It really has been a learning curve and it feels like a LOT longer. I’ve done so much in a relatively short time. There was definitely a quarter in 2019 that I would like to erase from my personal timeline but other than that it has been a really great couple of years and I look forward to Year Three.

I went to Oslo to do a kick off workshop for a project that I’m starting in a week or so. I’m going to be based in Norway for most of March working with a private sector company to assess their internet-era readiness and digital maturity (buzz word-tastic!) It was a really interesting day and useful for me as it knocked a little rust off and helped build a few relationships and get a feel for the edges of the problem space. I’m quite excited about taking my own particular brand of ‘holistic’ agile and lean software engineering thinking out for a test drive in different terrain. The problems all feel similar so far so I am hopeful the advice is as well!

We are about to start recruiting for permanent staff again – and have also started promoting our own contractor vacancies – so I spent some time rethinking and rewriting our job descriptions. Given my interest in this topic and my occasional rants about bad job descriptions I feel like I have to practice what I preach and make sure we put out sensible, clear English, gender language neutral descriptions and support them with more information about the actual jobs. We aren’t there but this iteration is better than the last and that is a good sign.

I fronted a Show & Tell/Programme Board for one of our projects. There were 30+ people in attendance with five or six Gov Departments represented and there was a fair smattering of pretty senior folks in the room. I don’t think I had been in the hot seat for a session like this since my ONS days. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I enjoyed it but it was nice to know that I still had the chops to stand up to about an hour of pretty sharp questioning – some of which was pretty loaded. I was ably supported by S in our team – she is a Gov newbie but she took some of the load and provided a nice balance to some of my slightly combative answers. Importantly our work held up under the scrutiny and I left the room feeling pretty good about things (albeit was knackered as soon as the adrenalin drained!).

Wednesday I finally visited the GDS Whitechapel HQ. They’ve been there years now but for one reason or another I have never visited. As I joked on Twitter I have literally been to the Canadian Digital Service in Ottawa, the Ontario Digital Service in Toronto, the SF Digital Service in San Francisco and the NZ Innovation Lab in Wellington since the last time I visited GDS! Thanks to Steve for the invite and the chat and it was nice to say hi to Kelv and Lorena albeit it briefly. It did feel a bit strange – I guess in my head GDS will always be the cluttered mess that was Aviation House.


 

This is my 14th blogpost of the month (https://digitalbydefault.com/2020/02/)

My post about digital generalists (https://digitalbydefault.com/2020/02/12/multi-hyphenates/) was the most popular but most of them stirred a bit of conversation on Twitter and/or LinkedIn – heck I even got a couple of comments like it was 2003.

It is funny really – I am obviously a better blogger when it is more off the cuff and less thoughtful. Not only do I enjoy it more but people seem to engage with them more. I think this is why I always struggled to get going with the ‘book’ – I try to write in a different style and it cripples my flow (such as it is.)


 

Our new office is great – I mean at the moment it is pretty much a blank slate but Sean and Sara are in full on interior design mode and they have brilliant plans for the space. It just generally feels like a real base and just the ability to have spur of the moment corridor and cafe catch-ups with Futuregov colleagues is such a benefit.

On the topic of Futuregov they are making some amazing hires at the moment – including a couple of people I couldn’t rate more highly (the fabulous Lily and someone whose move isn’t in the public domain yet) and just the possibility of working with them is a real bonus.


 

Tomorrow I am going to ProductCamp in Bristol – it is my intention to attend a few sessions and just soak in different product perspectives – I think it might be helpful before my trip to Norway. Then next week I am off to Service Design in Government for a couple of days. I’m going on my own time/dime so I can just chill and enjoy it (and blow off sessions if need be) but Sophie has stitched me up by creating an agenda on day one that is back to back brilliant and includes friends and public service internet heroes left, right and centre so I’ll have to actually do a full day!!


 

I really enjoyed Gente-fied on Netflix. It did leave me with a massive craving for Tacos and some guilt about my own tendency to be a neighbourhood tourist that encourages gentrification when I travel.

January 2020

Today marks the end of my second year with Notbinary. Let us just call that the year of the ‘difficult second album’. I won’t dwell but it wasn’t great. I struggled for long stretches and failed horribly as ‘co-CEO’. I learned a lot but I’m not sure the lessons were worth the headaches and sleepless nights.

I’ve started the year/decade in a thoughtful place. After last year I have started to think I have landed a bit betwixt and between career wise. I clearly don’t have the commercial acumen nor the cognitive elasticity to become any more senior in this profession (and am increasingly in awe of those who do). I’m also not really the guy you want running anything day-to-day, hands-on anymore either. I love agile/product but I’m just not an in the trenches person these days. Maybe I could be again with the right opportunity but I’m not feeling it right now. Could I go back in-house as a Head of Product or something? Maybe. I’ve seen some interesting roles in that space but I’m not looking to move on from Nb any time soon – they’ve been good to me (if not always for me!)

So I don’t know. I’ve been asking questions and reading about career coaches – it isn’t something that has ever appealed to me but maybe I need some outside perspective. I have a pretty good handle on where I add value, what I enjoy and where I feel I am weaker but I really can’t form a mental picture of what that looks like as a role anymore.

In the meantime actually January has been hectic, interesting and fun so far – though it feels like it has been a lot longer than 31 days. I’m working on a couple of projects – they are both very webby in nature so that is nicely in my comfort zone and allows me to revisit some favourite themes around things like discoverability and information architecture. I also completed a project that was hanging on from before Christmas. This was much more data-y in nature and was hard work at times but I learned loads.

I’m also planning some upcoming work that is going to have me based in Oslo full-time for most of March. This is a bit of an outlier of a project even beyond the geography. It is a non public service client which should be interesting though my suspicion so far as it is not that different – many of the issues of digital are the same no matter the ‘industry’.

As ever Govcamp was a highlight. It was lovely to see everyone and I had fun with my little sticker session (the winning stickers will debut soon). My new ‘weirdo’ stickers were a hit.

I wrote a few blogposts that a few people read. This was nice as I was struggling to blog last year. Even got quoted in the New Scientist which was a first.

I sent a tweet about hating dogs in offices…


 

On the well-being front I’ve managed to kick sugar again. I’ve also stopped drinking on weeknights and stopped drinking beer entirely. I’m back to walking my steps each day and generally trying to be a little bit healthier across the board.

I’ve booked proper, non-work related, holidays in June and November with additional days in Scotland in March (where I am also visiting Service Design in Gov) and Berlin in September catching up with friends.

I massively recommend ‘This is how you lose the time war‘ –  a truly beautiful novel.

Like everybody else I watched ‘Cheer‘ willing Morgan to get on the mat!

Halsey released a stunning new album.

 

October

Man down.

October did me in. Totally. I’ve been pushing myself a bit hard as I try to find a balance in my (not so) new role and it has lead me down a path I promised myself I wouldn’t go down again. The road to burn-out.

I think I have just managed to hit the brakes before I totally crash over the cliff but it was close. I look a state – skin of a greasy teenager and the beard of a mountain man. Chest infection means I am wheezing like I smoke 60 a day. I’ve had the same cold for weeks so my nose looks like Rudolph. Plus I’m tired. So very, very tired. My diet has definitely gone to pot and I’m in danger of ruining all my post-Diabetes diagnosis hard work. Which I totally refuse to allow to happen.

So November has basically started with me being forced to take some time off and get my shit together basically. Rest and recuperation is the order of the day.

But this is about October and interesting things did happen.

I spent the much of the month working in earnest with a client – it is an interesting if not entirely straightforward piece of tech consultancy at a time of a lot of wider change at the organisation in question. It was a short and sharp piece that probably had too many dependencies on other internal activities to be entirely smooth sailing given the timescales. That said we landed a great team and I’ve enjoyed working with the client team as well.

The biggest problem was it is in a part of London that is a total pain to get to from my new pad out in the Mild, Mild West and that hasn’t helped my health I suspect. Still it has been nice to get my ‘hands dirty’ as it were. Unfortunately it did lead to me spending a Sunday writing a draft report as the previous week had gotten away from me.

As part of this project Lana has also joined Notbinary – she literally had her induction the morning of our first day on the client site. I worked with Lana at the BBC and she is a brilliant signing for us. She has real technical and product insights and being a Bulgarian with time spent in France and California before the UK means she brings a different perspective to our Slack nonsense (and work!)

There has been a LOT going on with The Panoply in the last few weeks including some tough – but useful – conversations. I continue to find elements of the Group PLC befuddling but I am tuning in more and more. It does require a cognitive switch though from much of my other activity and I sometimes don’t give it the space it needs. Due to some calendar weirdness we also had two Board meetings in October – they are not massively onerous but neither are they trivial.

There is also loads going on with us and Futuregov as we get our heads around our particular Venn diagram of clients and activities. I’m enjoying this to be honest – I’ve spent a big chunk of my career in the same orbit as Dom and FG and am really enthusiastic about how this partnership can be something special. Again though it doesn’t just happen by thinking and wishing!

I gave a couple of talks and wrote a blogpost about my emerging idea of the ‘Grumpy Agile Club‘ – increasingly I find I am trying to articulate something that is both less and more than many of the Agile frameworks. I’m looking for something more holistic – broader but shallower maybe – that brings together the bits of agile, product, service design and lean that I find useful as some kind of (non dogmatic) framework for team working. I suspect this is going to be my life’s work!

As ever there has been a background hum of proposals prepared, won and lost plus account management for clients. I only went on one pitch in October – I have pretty much benched myself after the losing streak in September (though actually that one was a W).


 

Other things happened.

I went to the Mozilla Festival Science Fair and mainly chatted to BBC folks and a couple of friends from Creative Commons (well they were once upon a time). I attended the MCM Comic Con out at Excel. Too busy but the cosplay was spectacular and I met George Perez.

England got to the Rugby World Cup final after playing the best I’ve see against New Zealand in the semi. Unfortunately they were rubbish in the final!

I read ‘Hell is round the corner‘ – Tricky’s autobiography. I laughed and then I cried.

I watched ‘Rhythm and Flow‘ on Netflix – which is the only ‘talent show’ format show I’ve ever watched – it was cheesy but I really liked the winning rapper –>

 

 

 

 

February [month note]

February has been the classic ‘game of two halves’. Basically before and after we started the Beta in earnest.

The first week was dominated by a trip up to Durham for a really interesting and useful meeting with the team at Nomis – one of the ONS satellite sites that supports ‘small area data’ (which is local statistics to novices like me!). They are an interesting team that have been running the service for a couple of decades with virtually no staff turnover and a working methodology that was ‘agile’ before ‘agile’. Useful as it was it is a long way to go on a train – I’d forgotten.

Got pretty deep in to procurement and recruitment mode – the procurement stuff actually went pretty smoothly (thanks to G-Cloud and our team locally – thanks Amy) but still seemed more stressful than it could have been and we ended up scrambling a bit to get the team in when I needed them.

Recruitment is a whole other thing. I’ve become a bit obsessed with the whole requirement to build a sustainably in-house capability. There really aren’t any easy answers but I think it is incredibly important. I can’t see any way to make this digital by default revolution stick unless the skills are in-house. The GDS skills matrix stuff published yesterday is a start but only that.

I got my blogging mojo back but maybe got a bit carried away – blogging a lot here and a couple of times over on the work blog. It is also starting to rub off on some of my team!

On the 16th the team from Methods Digital started and the Beta journey really kicked off. I’m really pleased with the team – it is a nice mix of skill sets and personalities and they have really embraced the challenge from the start. It is a much longer project this time compared to the Alpha so I am trying to build a ‘one team’ culture from the start – not an ‘us and them’ vibe you often get with contractors.

The early focus is on our publishing platform, Florence. We are taking a similar approach to GDS by not using an off the shelf CMS (despite my well established love of WordPress) but I am challenging hard as we go along to make sure we aren’t doing it for the wrong reasons.

The progress is already really significant and once again we are going to get code deployed immediately and test with users as soon as we possibly can.

As I’m on the topic of user research I gave a talk at the MySociety meet-up in Cardiff about our approach to ‘user driven development’. I was a last minute stand-in and I tried to give a different perspective on my usual talk as it was a more technical audience. Seemed to go OK – always hard to tell but there were some great questions. MySociety really are an organisation I admire and I always enjoy meeting their staff. If I was to leave the civil service (which isn’t something on my mind actually) I think I’d like to work for them one day.

I’ve been spending a bit more time helping our social media team out as I’ve been slow to sort out a replacement for the Social Media Lead since he moved to Innovate UK. It has been quite eye opening – there are a lot of moving parts and while I guess I knew that intellectually it is different seeing it first hand. I like to think I have an instinctive feel for what works in social media – especially Twitter – but I think too much exposure to a corporate account could damage my love of the medium!

March is a big month as I am off to speak at SXSW in Austin and also I become the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’ (I turn 42) so that might be a bumper edition.