Overarching feeling of the week:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I’ve got a number of choices coming up, and yes to one choice closes all the others off. I am, as ever, hoarding choices: I am collecting safety nets. This implies a paranoia that I’m going to fall.
Have I so little faith in myself?⁰
This presentation is somewhat at odds with my behaviour at work, and to a certain extent who I am. Somewhere between what you’ve read and what you’re about to read, I am.¹
These things happened this week:
1 Stacktech 4; an annual conference of government technologist types. I was made grumpy by a panel of 7 people representing four departments, of which 6 were men.
I was made grumpier by looking around at the room and realising that this was better gender representation than the audience itself.
I then got even grumpier as each department talked about their Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offerings. One department talked about their two distinct PaaS offerings. Luckily, we had a good discussion later, and I came round to a completely different perspective: build as many as you want, as long as they’re lightweight and we all understand that we’re going to trash them within the decade.³ Or we just accept that we’ve already got government-wide PaaS offerings — from the market. We don’t need to build our own if someone else has already built it.
The conference was split into lectures in the morning and unconference sessions in the afternoon. There was a really good, frank discussion about security and the difference between a caveat (such as SENSITIVE) and a classification (OFFICIAL). I learned a few new things, and I’m thinking about whether there’s a need for a talk on this subject for people who still aren’t sure.
It was also a really startling insight into when policy has to be user-centric and could even benefit from user research: government security classification policy was written by people who dealt primarily with SECRET and TOP SECRET information. Such material almost always comes with handling caveats — such as EYES ONLY, which indicates you mustn’t lick it⁴. They assumed that users at lower security levels would understand this as well, and so threw in SENSITIVE as an example. It made sense to them, but not the users, because (all together now):
2 Interview! I had one, and it was a lot of fun. I love interviewing, because it’s feedback on where I am and how I’m doing. It forces me to be critical and analyse my own strengths and weaknesses. I also get to meet interesting people doing interesting things, and that’s always interesting.
The job itself seems immensely stretching, and an opportunity to get really stuck into something complicated and messy. There is also the possibility that it’ll be a horrible poisoned chalice, because the challenge is steep and the mess is truly messy. Regardless of whether I’m offered the role or not — which will force even more self-reflection and deciding what I’m doing and where I’m going. Hey, that’s a neat segue into the next thing!
3 Preparation for the Future Leaders Scheme continues apace. Those of us in GDS who are through to the interview stage had a briefing from senior staff, both of whom came from the policy profession. The advice was really valuable on a general front — how to structure interview answers, what to be thinking about before answering, and how to hide things like nerves.⁵
I also talked to Michael, who offered some really valuable and tech-specific advice on how to approach these interviews. Essentially, it boiled down to admitting that you’re ambitious and at least having a good idea of how you’re going to get there. Have you thought about the steps you’ll have to take? Do you know what you’re bad at?⁶
I know what I’m good at. In fact, I’m wondering if that’s why I’m finding myself drawn to it: facilitating. James kindly allowed me to facilitate the One Team Gov London breakfast this week, and it felt joyful. Facilitating is performative, and I am nothing if not a massive show off.⁷
I know that I like to show and to tell, and that I’m reasonably good at seeing people and moving the conversation forward and making sure everyone gets a voice. It’s also an opportunity to force behaviours through social cohesion and acceptance: I asked people to raise their hands before they spoke, and although a couple of people laughed everyone still did it. People don’t want to rock the boat unless it’s important to them, so small requests that don’t (generally) attack the core of someone’s being will be accepted.⁸
4 Public sector digital heroes roll call! Morgan as always forcing me to think more critically about what I want to do. Dan for playing chess and also making me think critically about what I’m doing right now. My director David, who kindly set me up a coffee meeting with someone I’m aiming to be soon. James for his phenomenal bravery. Sam for being thoughtful and generous, and everyone at breakfast who was open and honest and vulnerable. And the motley crew who put together a conference on digital two years ago and are coming up through the Civil Service together; challenging and growing and drinking on Wednesday evenings together.
You are all inspirations to me.
⁰ Evidence so far suggests “Yes”
¹ My favourite thing about english is that “I’m” is a contraction of “I am”, but if that sentence read “Somewhere between what you’ve read, and what you’re about to read, I’m” your brain would fumble around looking for the next word.²
² I hope your day isn’t as ruined as much as mine was when I discovered this.
³ This did not go down as well as I would have liked
⁴ This is not true. Please do not tell people I told you this
⁵ I will never not be annoyed that nerves are a negative sign, but they are. I don’t get nerves any more, because I did a lot of interviews as practice. If you read these notes, and would like to do some practice interviews, then let’s organise it. It’s painful, but in development we say that if it hurts, do it more often; do it so often it becomes painless.
⁶ Can you think about it without getting sucked into a negative spiral?
⁷ That’s literally true: I am nothing if I’m not showing off
⁸ There is sometimes someone who will get jolly cross about this, and say it’s infantilising and they resent being treated as a child. I don’t yet know how to deal with that kind of reaction
Edited to add a reader suggestion:
The response to people who think being polite is "infantilising" is "fuck off", tbh. But then I'm probably too willing to die on this hill because I get overly aggressive (probably not the right word) when I see people being spoken over.
— aptyoung (@aptyoung) October 19, 2018