Weeknotes S01 E06

The one with Russian

My brain has absolutely melted out of my ears.

Monday was day one of my immersive Russian course. I’m taking it through the Russian Language Centre at Pushkin House, and I have to say it’s incredibly good. There’s no better way to learn anything that to immerse yourself in it, and starting with other absolute beginners permits you to let go of the fear of looking stupid. We all look stupid. Let’s do it together. Looking at my notes I’m genuinely stunned how far I’ve come since this point; on Monday we covered the printed alphabet[1] and by Friday we had conversations that included adjectives, the genitive and locative cases, and numbers. More on that as we get to it.

So that’s A, B, wait B again, half a T, don’t know, E maybe, E again, okay I give up

Tuesday we covered gender, of which there are three. I am curious about how long the concept of gender will last in language — it is problematic and forces a culture where non-binary people don’t exist, because there isn’t language to describe them. You could just call feminine “Type 1” nouns, masculine “Type 2”, neuter “Type 3” and avoid the problem — but considering that these linguistic institutions have been around for a long time, I’m not hopeful.

Today I mastered the ы sound, which Wikipedia reckons is like the i in hit. If so, I recant my previous statement, because mine sounds nothing like that.

I also got to speak to Morgan B, who’s a former Fast Streamer-turned-Product Owner. She’s completely brilliant and gave me a great reading recommendation — Radical Candor by Kim Scott. We’ve set up fortnightly chats where I’m hoping we can support each other — she’s learning to code (also Ruby) and has some cracking insights about leadership. More than anything else it’s valuable to have someone to bounce ideas around with who’s not immediately in your context.

Radical candor is a new concept to me, and I’ve already got some hard truths. Highly recommend.

Wednesday and we’re halfway through the week and a quarter of the way through the course. We talked about what we have and don’t have, which introduced the genitive case: the case you use where (generally) you’d use ‘of’ in English. It’s absolutely brain melty, but two of my classmates — undergrads reading classics — are absolutely in their element. One of them has mentioned that they can’t wait for the locative case.

[This gif may have been stolen from another weeknoter]

On Thursday I found out I got the job that has been the main story arc for this season. With another four episodes to go before I start, there’ll be an “emotional review of the season” episode in the pipeline if I know the writers. Now comes the difficult bit: actually doing the job. There are going to be some huge challenges ahead, and I’m so excited to get started.

I dropped into the office to look at paperwork and negotiate my salary, which I hope will be the last time anyone has to do so in the company. I’ve been inspired by Basecamp and the Fast Stream to offer the same salary to everyone doing the same job. It’ll probably drive away high performers who are totally driven by money, but maybe it’ll open the door to people who don’t like the aggressive approach required in negotiating and are worried they’d be underselling themselves. It’ll be a significant shift. Tune in next season to see how it works out!

Friday and my brain, now entirely fluid, got one last stir before serving. Despite being on leave we had a minor crisis at work, and so I had to take calls before and after class. It’s not ideal, but we’re still so very small that this will happen from time to time. My absolute goal is that it won’t keep happening, and it won’t happen to anyone working for me

That was my week.


[1] Russian handwritten alphabet looks, by turns, exactly the same and then wildly different.

Reading/learning/listening

  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Russian (obviously)
  • The West Wing Weekly podcast — watching along with someone else, even if they’re in your ear, is lovely. Like a bookclub, but for your eyes.

Weeknotes S01 E05

The one where I’m doing way too much

I’m going to try pulling out themes this time, rather than going day by day. Let’s see how it works out.

Jobs: I interviewed for the CTO position at work. The board organised a number of interviews, some of them with significantly more technically savvy people than me. I’ve got my fingers crossed; hopefully I’ll find out in the next couple of weeks. Time’s now running out, because on Friday I got high-level details of my next role in the service if I do stay. I’ve got to hand in my notice in the next two weeks — otherwise I’ll be letting down a department, and I just don’t think that’s fair.

My belief in fairness is what got me into the Civil Service, and it may turn out to be the thing that prevents me ever leaving. I can’t work out if that’s ironic or not.

I also refuse to spend any time arguing about it

Retro: The delivery manager for our dev team returned from a well earned vacation and was thrown immediately into a retro. We had a really good discussion and reflected on what had happened while he’s been away. A couple of important things fell through gaps that we hadn’t noticed he’d been plugging, so we discussed what we’d need to do to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. I talked about organisational change, because I bloody love organisational change, and we agreed a draft timetable for future sprints. The devs will spend more time researching and reflecting and less time actually coding, which I’m hopeful will result in less code being shipped with bugs in it.

Culture: Tied to my disruptive love of organisational change is my singular belief that people are really all that matters, and that people make culture. So I spent a solid afternoon making our culture more explicit, sticking things on walls, and turning our processes into visual aids to help new starters. And me. I love a map.

This is an inverted Gall-Peters projection map AND I LOVE IT

I’ve also written a job advert that reflects the new culture. All of this is incredibly presumptuous, because I may not actually have the job — but if I don’t, I’m hopeful that whoever comes in next will take it and run with it.

My culture obsession was further fed with a great training session on Friday. Although I felt terrible leaving the office, because it left my boss running the show solo, it did me good. The group and facilitator were great, and we all seemed to come together well: not too much talking over each other, space given to expand on ideas, and short detours into whether UBI means pure communism or capitalism, whether nuclear submarines are more complicated than the Department for Work and Pensions, and how we can make our culture more explicit, especially for people who (for example) get parachuted in for six months and then have to move on. I suggested people started writing a list. Like this one:

Making your culture explicit makes your employees more comfortable and you more accountable. SO JUST DO IT.

Learning:

Intent-based leadership, which requires the team to have technical competence and organisational clarity. Oh, and absolute trust.

Ruby (The Hard Way) in part because it’s the language my company uses, but also because it looks like I’ll be learning Scala in January as part of my MSc. Scala is close enough to Ruby that I think Ruby will help in both work and study. If you want to learn to code get The Hard Way books — they’re free online and the minute I’ve got spare cash I’m throwing it at Zed, because I only know how to code because of him.

The Russian alphabet, ahead of my two-week immersive Russian course. I’ve also learned that when, as a civil servant, you say “I’m doing a Russian immersion course” people will immediately assure you’re a spy. To be clear: I’m not a spy, I’m just a terrible person who’s only just got round to learning his partner’s first language.

So until next week: До скорого !

Weeknotes S01 E04

The one with all the change

This week has been a good one, broadly speaking.

Monday we got the green light from Washington[0] that they were ready to go live with minor tweaks. There were also some great suggestions from all three of the new crop about changes we could make to our “base model”. We loved them and I spent some time watching my colleague make the changes — as she’s leaving at the end of the week I’m doing my best to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Like a sponge.

WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO LIVES IN A PINEAPPLE UNDER THE SEA

I also got a chance to chat agile with a Fast Stream colleague. I’ve got another similar chat lined up next week, and I’m really excited. There might be a line in agile evangelising to the Civil Service’s future leaders!

He asked great questions, and I have to say I’m eager to see how it turns out — his original proposition was that he’d like to talk agile vis-a-vis designing a new railway station!

On Tuesday our man in the United States, my colleague Greg, set us up on Zoho. Replying by email has been our most cost-efficient solution until recently, but as we’ve grown our customer base our system is starting to become fragile. It’s taking some getting used to but I can see it’s going to be a valuable tool, once I work out how to extract all the lovely data from it.

We nipped over to Madison’s offices to talk about a potential new product. We’ve got a very minimum viable product that we think will help them with one of their processes, and so I got the opportunity to pitch it AND to talk about the client commissioning work in Discovery, Alpha, and Beta stages. Less risk and better customer satisfaction is apparently a winner — who knew?

Then it was straight back to the office to have a chat with our biggest client. We’d talked about adapting a part of our software for their need, but after spending a week scratching our heads and putting post-its on walls we’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t realistic. I’m glad we got an answer for them in only a week, but being asked for help and not being able to provide it is the absolute worst feeling for me. Bummer.

On Wednesday I definitely should have been at the #OneTeamGov breakfast but managed to sleep through two alarms. Finally roused from sleep by a cat who seemed determined to snack on me since his bowl was empty I legged it to the office to catch up on emails and office admin. That included adding a number of new Fast Streamers to the Facebook group — a task I’d love to automate but simply don’t have the time to learn how. I also did my usual testing run through of user stories on the preview server — I cannot wait to get my “automate all the things” infrastructure stories into the backlog. What will I do with my free afternoons?

Hopefully meet and interview more excellent potential hires like Felix, who’s replacing me in September. I got to have a great chat with him about the work he’ll be doing and he seems keen and open to trying his best. He also gave me a tour of the extremely cool new offices GDS are inhabiting, and we crossed paths with the DaT programme manager — who reminded me that there’s a strict “no poaching” policy.

They’re egg purists in the Civil Service

In essence if my company poaches me we might not get Felix, or any future Fast Streamers at all. It’s understandable, but it’s somewhat put a fly in the ointment of me staying on. We’ll have to see how that shakes out.

Thursday I bounced in and out of the office. I went to the picnic organised in the pilot, and met many cool digital and non-digital LGBTQ* folks. I also left the office at 4 to get to Birkbeck, where I’m going to be doing a part-time MSc in Computer Science. I’d previously wondered about how hard it would be, and I got my answer:

Friday at last, although it meant the last time I’d see my colleague at work. She’s going to go and be awesome somewhere else, but it meant as we closed the week the office felt a little emptier. So I stuck up a poster.

Poster from https://github.com/UKHomeOffice/posters/blob/master/gds/its-ok-to.pdf

This week — having bounced around other people’s offices and spaces — has really underlined to me that culture has a huge impact on the work that you do. To that end I’m going to try to dedicate some thoughts over the next week as to how I — as a quote unquote senior leader — can make that happen.


[0] Client code name, as discussed in episode 2

Weeknotes S01 E03

The One With The Plot Twist

Welp, things have taken a bit of a turn.

Monday I finished writing up my strategy and business planning document and presented it to the two directors of my organisation. One of the recommendations is to hire a full-time CTO, to take on some of the technical strategy while the CEO focusses on building out the business and steering the ship.

At the time they seemed quite enthusiastic, and I was pleased to get it out of the way and to get some feedback quickly — one of the more frustrating sides to writing policy in the Civil Service is the length of feedback loops.

I also got a chance to talk one of our clients through a new feature. It should cut down the time it takes to onboard new users — and everyone could do with a bit more time!

Listen the day I can not make a thyme/time joke y’all can put me to bed with a shovel

It would have been a good day if it had ended there. However, shortly after this I found out that my colleague was officially leaving the organisation. This is a terrible blow, because I know she’s going to do awesome things: she’s clever, well-organised and picks things up remarkably quickly.

The only selfish silver lining here is that I’ll get to write a job description and do some interviewing, which is a valuable skillset to pick up. All the same, I’d rather have gotten than experience in expanding the organisation.

Tuesday I spoke to our cloud hosting company. We’re moving to Infrastructure-as-a-Service, or IaaS, and they’re giving us really valuable help and insight into how to make it work. This is all part of a move to DevOps culture, although Simon Wardley’s dire predictions about that particular idea are making me very nervous indeed.

I had a great meeting with our sister company/client — it appears we inadvertently copied Amazon in this approach. By providing SaaS to our sister company we get incredibly timely, valuable data about our service — whether that comes as weekly meetings or as someone in the next office yelling at their computer.

Obligatory IT Crowd meme

I also answered a number of questions our devs had added to tickets that were in flight. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to create an environment where they feel they can do this; it means we’re more likely to deliver the right thing — albeit slightly slower — than the wrong thing quickly.

Wednesday was an early start for #OneTeamGov breakfast at the Treasury. Although I haven’t been keeping a tally of breakfasts across government, my friend and colleague Jenny has and she’s compelled me to include this:

The meeting was incredible. There was huge amounts of energy, passion, and bacon: it’s a heady mix that gave me real hope that we can get together and start delivering a Civil Service that works with the user at the centre. There was also a 50–50 split to the group, and while it’s stupid that it’s noteworthy it’s also great to see: starting as we mean to go on.

I was also astonished to find that my most radical inner though was one shared by other people: that departments as they stand aren’t really fit for purpose, and that we should look at other models for delivering our services. The next breakfast is on Wednesday, and I’m excited to attend — if they’ll let me.

Thursday brought the twist I mentioned earlier. The directors came back to me and asked if I’d like to do the CTO job — the one I mentioned earlier. I’m almost certainly going to take it — there’s still some paperwork to sign — but I don’t think an opportunity like this comes around often.

EDIT: In later episodes I talk about how we reflected on this and interviewed more widely for this role. I was eventually successful.

If I take it, I get to spend the next five years working to build valuable tools for colleagues in local government. I can drive forward digital understanding and, for myself, I’ll be able to learn about how to do the logistics involved in running a business — financial projections and management, recruitment, strategy and procurement. And then I can come back, back into a #OneTeamGov, and hopefully bring some of that experience to bear.

It’s a huge chance, and one I don’t want to turn down. But I’ll be leaving behind a community of brilliant civil servants; of cross-government chats; of planning better ways to deliver services to the public. I’m going to miss it terribly, so I’ll continue following all of these incredible people on twitter and dropping in for breakfasts.

Even if the fried bread isn’t as good as 2MS.

Weeknotes s01 e02

The difficult second episode

This week I’ve spend more time out of the office than in it, but it’s been fruitful nonetheless. A great thing I’ve seen from other weeknoters is the use of codenames for projects and clients, so I’m going to adopt that convention as well using US Presidents[0].

Monday/Tuesday: a good start to the week, as I packed an overnight bag and headed to Windsor castle to take part in a thought leadership event. This is both deeply flattering and also something my undergraduate self would have sneered at because it’s both uncool and corporate. I appeased that part of myself by ducking out to see a regimental band play a snippet of Clocks by Coldplay, which we can all agree is seriously cool.

If the 10th Doctor digs it, I dig it

Having appeased the sneering teenager that I suspect lives in all of us, I managed to get properly into some fascinating ideas. It was a huge chance to interact with people passionate about using digital and tech to improve democracy (as opposed to government), and I got to meet the Chief Innovation Officer of Estonia. That was cool.

It was also yet another reminder that Government tech is cool, and we’re doing awesome things, and I can’t wait to get back into it.

Wednesday was spent at the Amazon Web Services Summit, and it did not start as well. Getting 6000 people into a building at once is difficult — although at one point it seemed that the tech failed, which must have been a nightmare situation.

Still, once in I got to experience my first sales conference, and it was about 20% valuable. There were one or two products that look like they might add value and that I’ll certainly be trying to apply to things I’m building and owning at the moment. There was naturally a lot of nerd swag, including this beautiful t-shirt:

MongoDB know their audience, is all I’m saying

I left just after a thought-provoking talk from Jonno Southam about hiring, and while his “ABC: Always Be Hiring” probably requires deeper pockets than my current organisation has, it’s a really interesting way of expanding. By hiring brilliant people and giving them autonomy, trusting that they’ll work within your company’s vision, you get creative and exciting new products. It drives its own expansion.

On my way home I dropped into the DaT picnic to give my new Digital and Technology colleagues the benefit of my experience[1]. I also crossed paths with Jenny, who’s definitely a rising star in the DaT world — she’s been busy organising #OneTeamGov with other Government Twitter superstars like Kit and Lorena. Keep your eyes on them, and definitely check out Andrew’s write-up of what a future Perm Sec might look like.

Thursday and I was back in the office, getting a debrief from our remote working colleague about training they’d done with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Everything went well and we’ve learned some lessons for our next new set of clients.

I also showed my strategic plan to our CEO. He’s given me a lot of comments and we had a frank discussion about it. It’s been strange to work with someone who’s absolutely willing to disagree and debate with passion — strange, but great. That attitude, combined with an Amazon phrase — “Disagree and commit” — are two things I’d love to bring back into the Civil Service. That and this:

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.

It’s got more value in the private sector, of course, because your competitor will happily move with less information — as the cost of failure increases, the willingness to make that jump decreases. And in the Service the consequences of failure are absolutely terrifying.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move though; it means we need to look at other ways we can reduce risk.

Friday meant the weekend, and an opportunity to catch up with conference buddies.

The best goddamn team in the world

Every other Friday is the deadline for items for the Fast Streama Forum update, an internal newsletter I write for the entirety of the Fast Stream, so there was a flurry of last-minute items for inclusion. My goal is to be able to publish it publicly: I think there’s value in letting potential recruits see what our culture is like. We should be explicit about the kind of workplace we are: it helps to attract the kind of people who wouldn’t have considered it before, who might think they wouldn’t fit in.

There are good counter-arguments to that proposal, and the discussions I’m having are properly useful in shaping how I think about our culture.

I managed to spend a couple of hours answering questions from our developers on tickets in our backlog — as I’ve mentioned before, they’re remote, so we can’t do synchronous questioning[2]. I actually find this kind of asynchronous process more valuable: I can manage my time better, and being able to work on something creative for hours actually has huge benefits.[3] And because the items are in the backlog there’s no development time lost unless I get lazy and don’t get to it in time — and as a PO you only do that once, because it’s the most frustrating thing in the world to see a sprint start without a feature you know is important in it.

Having polished the backlog I headed to see the aforementioned conference buddies and, quite by accident, found Hannah at the same gathering. I mentored Hannah onto the Fast Stream last year, and I’m pleased that my digital wisdom[4] has rubbed off on her: we talked about how we could start standardising and digitising the collection of information from her stakeholders. I’ve promised any help I can give: I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to achieve something minimal before the end of her post.

Wandering home, my partner and I stopped off at Pizza Express to celebrate payday and the weekend. And there’s nothing nicer to end a week than that.


[0] If we get over 45 clients before the end of August, I’ll start on Vice-Presidents. After that I’ll continue down the line of succession, in the hope that I’ll learn even more about that nation’s political history.

[1] Dubious

[2] Yelling across a room

[3] Case in point: I’ve taken 90 minutes cloistered away to get these thoughts into order

[4] Near continual evangelising/complaining