This is how I work…give or take

A revisit to my occasional rip-off of the Lifehacker How I Work Series 🙂

Location: Bristol, UK (sometimes Taunton..or London..or Swansea)
Current Gig: Director, Lean Product Management at Notbinary*
Current mobile device: iPhone SE & Nokia 7 Plus
Current computer: Macbook and Pixelbook
One word that best describes how you work: Openly.

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I am very much Bristol born and bred — which anyone who has ever heard me speak can attest to — and I still live in the neighbourhood I grew up in. In fact I can still see my school from my home if I crane my neck a little.

I was pretty good at that school right up until the point it counted and then I lost my way a bit — barely scraping through my GCSEs and then A levels but eventually I did get to a small University to do my degree. At this point the plan was to be a history teacher. At some point though I realised I didn’t like children so that plan was scrapped!

I stumbled into a job at a University library and due to some reverse sexism/ageism there was an assumption I would understand this new fangled thing — the world wide web. I fell in love with it almost immediately and was able to find a way to make it a career despite my lack of real technical knowledge. That was 20 years ago.

Take us through a recent workday.

At the moment it looks something like this →

I get up at 06:00.

Bus to train station. Train to Taunton. 25 minute walk to office. Listen to audio book on the way. Currently ‘Rise Up’ by Stormzy.

Get in work at about 09:00.

Then I basically invite myself to as many meetings, agile ceremonies, workshops or conversations as I can without being too disruptive to the teams I am working with and I maintain a constant stream of thoughts and observations in my Slack channel.

Around this I am working out how to best influence the teams as well as present my findings and proposed plan in a way that will have the best impact locally.

I usually just have a sandwich at my desk for lunch (bad Jukesie! At the BBC recently I tried to eat lunch with the team a few days a week — I should try harder to do this) and I leave around 17:00 spending my train journey back reading through and consolidating my notes of the day. Regularly there is another bid or project that I need to contribute some words or thoughts to so I try to do that on the journey home or as soon after I get in the door as possible as I like to be totally switched off from work by 20:00.

What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

Nothing too original to be honest. Evernote is my repository for anything I find interesting out in the digital world and where I collate all the links for my newsletter. I work for a remote-by-default company so Slack is our office (even if I am usually in someone else’s office on a project), I tend to write mainly in Google Docs these days despite the fact I am not really a fan — it wins out due to convenience (and I love the new shortcut I learned today — go to in the browser and it creates a new doc for you! Same for slides, sheets etc I think!) I used to mainly write in various Markdown editors — iA Writer and Ulysses in particular — but I am doing that less and less now and am more likely to just use the default plain text editor for first drafts.

Spotify is the first app I add to any new phone. I’m pretty reliant on LastPass (I know there are better options but it is the one I like best). I use Matthew’s site most days. I’ve given up on third-party Twitter apps for my phone and now use the dreadful official app (which for all its flaws is just the only one that is reliable for me now).

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

Something I’m trying a bit this time is a version of something the devs at mySociety do on Slack. Basically they all had open x-firstname channels where they would kind of narrate their day, capture ideas, ask themselves questions and just sort of think out loud. It is a useful discipline I find and the benefit of doing it in an open channel is colleagues can drop in, ask questions or just get a feel for what I am up to (it also helps reinforce the feeling of being part of Notbinary and avoiding going too native on these contracts!).

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.

Not sure if it is ‘interesting, unusual, or finicky’ but the discipline with which we approach deciding which opportunities to bid for on DOS and then take that forward into submissions has been a bit of an eye opener for me — especially since David our Bid Manager joined — he literally wrote the book on the topic. I really had no idea and was just wanting to go for anything I found interesting! This more considered approach is really starting to pay dividends as well.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

I use a pretty basic version of the todo.txt format that Gina Trapani introduced. I don’t use any specific app — I just have a plain text file that syncs with Dropbox so it is available on whatever device I am using.

What’s your favourite side project?

My ‘Internet of Public Service Jobs’ newsletter gives me a lot of satisfaction despite it being a bit of a pain in the backside to maintain. The fact that hundreds of people find it (somewhat) useful is an amazing feeling.

I’m also very proud of my small part in the popularisation of ‘weeknotes’ across public service these days.

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

I recently finished It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from Basecamp. There is a lot of great stuff in it about ways of working and avoiding some of the behaviours that seem to be rife in the internet industry. There is also quite a bit I think is poppy-cock but that is the way it goes sometimes 🙂

I’m also working my way through ‘How to Think When You Draw’ in an attempt to just get a little bit better at drawing. I used to be OK at it and occasionally I still have moments but I find it hard to translate the pictures in my head to the page…but the process of doing does quiet my mind like nothing else so I preserver.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

I am horribly nosy so I cannot think of many people I wouldn’t like to see answer them but if I had to pick people how about Richard Pope, Kathy, Tom Steinberg and Kit Collingwood.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Not advice initially but getting the news that I was diabetic — and in a pretty unsympathetic manner — has made a massive difference to me — mind and body. That initial diagnosis led to a lot of follow on advice!

*totally made this job title up for this post but I have Moo cards now so it must be real!

The what and why of NaBloPoMo..

NaBloPoMo = National Blog Post Month apparently. As far as I can tell it was something the BlogHer community started a few years ago inspired by the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and amongst other things is more international than national and seems to be less focused on a single month than it used to be…but…doing one post a day in November appears to have been the original goal of the thing and given it was Terence Eden who inspired me to do this that is what I am going to try!

I do tend to blog in bursts anyway — it is one of the reasons I do the #weeknotes to try and keep a regular posting cadence during the fallow periods — but this is pretty challenging. Even taking into account Terence’s advice to schedule a few posts in advance!

In an effort to take a little bit more pressure off I have brainstormed a list of topics for posts in advance as well → — one of my personal goals is to write a few non work type posts. To be honest nobody ever reads them when I do that but I thought it might be fun for a change. I’m also going to take requests if anybody has an idea for something for me to write about?

The ‘rules’ are pretty broad so there might be a few photo or sketch posts — maybe even a links post or two — not to mention I am counting my jobs newsletter as well!

Anyway — this in post numero uno.


The why of weeknotes

A little research suggests the first time I came across a #weeknote was August 5th, 2009. It was written by Matt Webb and I think it was probably on the Schulze & Webb website before they became BERG (thanks, I seem to remember, to a conversation with Warren Ellis about the ‘British Experimental Rocket Group’ from the Quatermass show. Or something.)

Anyway I found these seemingly simple updates a fascinating peak behind the curtain of a design studio that were generally just doing really interesting things but also being open as to the how and why of it all. They regularly (at least early on) were more than status updates and instead provided an interesting narrative. It was a geek serial.

It caught on with teams for a while — I even seem to remember a #weeknotes aggregator at some point (ahhhh — it was but has long since vanished).

Early in 2010 I was flailing a bit in my return to Jisc and a side effect was I was struggling with my blogging. I decided to start personal weeknotes — at the time I am not sure if anyone else was doing them as an individual — I can’t remember — Doug certainly started a few months later and I remember it was popular in the EdTech community for a while. I didn’t have any grand plans other than to force myself to write every week and to get a streak going.

Like anything blogging benefits from practice and I just wanted the discipline of a weekly commitment. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to read them — they were / are a very selfish format of writing — introspective to a fault. When everyone else has been about the ‘quantified self’ I was more about ‘qualitative self’ 🙂

I am on my fourth run of doing these personal style week notes now (though I also contributed to a long team focused run at ONS) and a few things have emerged from the practice for me over that time;

  • most obviously they are an amazing aide memoir — my memory sucks so having a searchable archive of my comings, goings and ideas is regularly useful.
  • they are a good canary check as to my state of mind and happiness in a role. When I start to struggle to write them or find myself self censoring a lot I usually need to take a breath and have a good look at things.
  • writing in this way is a great test of your organisations commitment to being open! In new roles I often find some new stealth readers in leadership or HR type roles 🙂
  • a problem shared is…well a problem shared. The handful of people who read these notes are incredibly generous with their support and advice. More than one sticky moment has been resolved by the right person reading about it.
  • it is a great conversation starter. My professional network feel like they know me better and are thus more likely to strike up a conversation or get in touch. This is huge for me as I am a total introvert if left to my own devices — I never initiate conversations (it is the same reason I give talks — means people come up to me after!).

Humans are a curious bunch — I think #weeknotes and things like Lifehacker’s ‘How I work’ interviews (which I also shamelessly rip off) appeal to the same part of the brain as reality TV and celebrity bios — we like to peak in the windows of other peoples lives!

Over time my ambitions for the notes have changed a bit. I am slowly broadening the format and getting away from the day by day diary style and instead being a little more inspired by far, far better writers than me like Warren Ellis and Dan Hon. Their newsletters are nerdy as all get out but suck me in.

The importance for me at least is increasingly about the cadence itself and being as open as possible. The themes week by week might change but the principles are there throughout hopefully.

Recently a few other people have joined in — Simon, Sophie, Dan and Ben have all been publishing #weeknotes this year — I can’t begin to speak for them as to why but I certainly enjoy their approaches and look forward to reading their adventures each week. Like I said before — geek serials 🙂

Why not give it a go — I often talk to people who say they want to blog but aren’t sure about what — well there is no easier topics than your week! It takes two minutes to set up a Medium blog (other platforms are available!) and away you go. Join the movement (well the five of us!)…

myWeek (s4e05)


Ended the week in Manchester..

I had quite the week really — it was full of inspiring talks, mundane work and a couple of days when I was sick as a dog. Highs and lows.

Work wise I got a fair bit done — I have returned to using a slightly modified version of to-do.txt to keep me on track. It is just a simple plain text file with some basic formatting rules (loosely based on Gina Trapani’s original approach) and synched via Dropbox. Try as I might I just don’t get on with any of the to-do apps out there — they always seem heavy handed and while I quite like Evernote for them even that seems a bit much. My preference remains scribbled notes around my desk but its not as easy in a co-working place as when you have a desk nest! So a plain text file that follows my about is the next best thing.

I did a bunch of content work — converting a long Word file into a Google Doc so that I could use a plug-in to convert it to Markdown before I tidied the Markdown up in iAWriter and then slice it all up into the ‘chunks’ it was stored as in Github (because developers still think Github is an appropriate content management system). There was some swearing but actually it was all pretty smooth. Steve took the real pain by copying it all over to Github and checking the diffs.

I spent some time planning and arranging our first team meeting for Wednesday — I’ve produced quite a tight agenda — probably more structured than I would usually go with but it is easier to loosen things up than tighten them in my experience. I’m really looking forward to it — I have even bought a bunch of new Post-Its and dusted off the Sharpies.

The team launched the lovely looking new version of the MapIt site. Not only does it look great but it is much easier to sign up for now and (I think) easier to grasp the opportunities it offers. Apart from writing a blogpost (that will go live Monday morning) and some involvement in some conversations I had very little to do with this but it is the first big change since I showed up and in theory is in the Better Cities practice.

There were a few calls — including an especially interesting one with a much more data centric start-up than us but with similar principles and interest in ‘better cities’. We are looking to do something a bit more joined up in the future. I also spent a bit of time converting some of our pitch slide decks into something more generic to save time in future.

Wednesday was an especially good day (despite me feeling pretty rough) as we had an office full — Rachel, Stu, Sam, Steve, myself and later Tony were all in at Desklodge which is pretty rare for a remote organisation.

The week was punctuated though with a bunch of events I attended. Tuesday I popped over to the Watershed to listen to Steven Johnson talk about his new book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. I always enjoy his perspective and have seen him talk a couple of times before — again it was interesting and fun but the format (the Inside the Actors Studio approach!) didn’t really work. A nice way to spend a lunch hour though and plenty to ponder.

Friday I attended ‘The Story’. I haven’t been for a few years — it is not at all work related and basically plays into my path not traveled, alternate universe version of myself where my dreams of being a writer came true. It was a fascinating and inspiring day — it is never really fair to pick out particular talks when they are all so amazing but on the long train ride up to Manchester that evening I found myself returning to the talks from Ingrid Burrington on luxury, survivalists bunkers and things being terrifyingly mundane, David Conn on his work around Hillsborough (I was pretty choked up be this — it is one of my primary memories from my childhood and always effects me), Ewen Spencer talking about youth sub-culture and how now people know who Stormzy is it is all over for grime (though given most of the audience seemed not to have heard of him I think it might be ok!) and the amazing work of Clara Westaway Gaggero at Special Projects — seriously just watch this video — it is soooooo brilliant.

Saturday I was in Manchester for ‘World Information Architecture Day’. At the start of my career I often described myself as a budding IA — I had come to the web via librarianship and it seemed the most likely path for me — it didn’t quite work out that way but I will forever have a soft spot for the profession.

Jonathan came up and for I think the first time we did a talk about the ONS website project as a double hander — usually I just take credit for his work! The talk seemed to go down well which was nice — it was a positive way to end that chapter I think. The site launched a year ago and I’ve been gone almost six months so it is time for me to stop talking & writing about that project now. It will always be something I’m massively proud of — mainly for how we did it and who I did it with to be honest but “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” and the future (of all that) belongs to Andy, Ian and their team.

The whole event was great and the opener by Stuart Curran about comics and IA was a cracker (I might have been the perfect audience for it!) and Cennydd Bowles closed it down with an incredibly thoughtful treatise on Ethics in the AI Age which is something that (a) I find fascinating and (b) struggle with the theory so it was good to get the brain in gear.

Thanks to Barry and Rick for the invite.

So here I am — home but knackered. Tired but pretty inspired 🙂

Another busy one next week — a couple of client meetings, speaking at BathHacked (come along!), the first birthday of the ONS website and OpenDataCamp. Phew!

Product for the People: the book

One of my long held ambitions is to write a book. I’ve blogged about it before and floated a few ideas but they never really amounted to anything and I lacked the discipline to see things through anyway.

I’ve decided 2017 is going to be different. I, like Baldrick before me, have a cunning plan. Well not that cunning really. Not much of a plan either if you want to get down to brass tacks but it is better than nothing.

So here is what I am going to do. I am going to take everything I learned during my time at ONS and since, all the blogposts I wrote, all the advice I got from folk smarter than myself, all the mistakes I made and all triumphs I observed and I am going to write one chapter/essay a month (on here) in the order below before wrapping it all up into a tidy ebook. I’m also going to make each chapter available on Google Docs for comment.

Some of it will be recycling and remixing things I’ve written or spoken about before. Some of it will be new. All of it will lack originality. Still when has that ever stopped anybody.

This is my proposed chapter list — what do you think?

1. Making the (business) case 
2. Procurement vs Commissioning
3. Hiring 
4. Team culture (including working with suppliers)
5. Being agile vs Doing Agile
6. Placating the powers that be (i.e. governance)
7. Product propaganda vs Making things open
8. Discovery is for life not just for Christmas
9. The Art of Alphas
10. Building Betas Better
11. Launch is day one
12. Tl;dr