Monthly Archives: October 2018

223 – so what do you actually *do*?

I’ve been pretty lucky for the last five years, in that I’ve not had to apply for jobs.

I mean, I did apply for jobs, it’s just that other people were a better fit. But they were always levelling up on what I was doing. The day-to-day carried on, and slightly more interesting projects appeared for me to do. (Some of them I will describe differently when drunk, but that’s another story) But I always carried a certain amount of history with me, some Tom folklore and reputation.

One of the things I’ve learned in the last day is how easy it is to forget to discuss the absolute basics. I spend a lot of my time thinking about culture and strategy and people and alignment and value – and how to adapt myself to the gaps in the organisation around me. I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about what product management is and should be.

I’m also quite good at what I do, so it’s quite weird to get to the end of a conversation with someone new and have an odd feeling at the end, like they didn’t get quite what they wanted.

And then I remember, oh you wanted me to talk about backlog grooming and user stories and roadmaps…and I didn’t actually say any of those words. Because it’s obvious to me, and one part of a big toolkit of getting the right thing done. However I need to remember to make the implicit knowledge explicit.

This is also much in my mind after a very odd article in The Register today. Unsurprisingly, the thrust was that GDS had run its course and you needed to get grownups in the room who understand backend technology where agile isn’t much use, and here’s a man from IBM who can talk about the mindset of e-commerce not being relevant to government transactions.

The comments were also a joy to behold.

But what it made me realise is how misunderstood Agile and the digital mindset actually is. Because we don’t talk about the implicit knowledge. We don’t talk about technology being a function you delegate a project to, it’s core to the way of doing business – and core to policy. We know that policy is flawed and messy and prone to groupthink, cultural disconnect, a lack of frontline operational awareness and more. We know that our automated testing practices make it easier for a team to support our services and make releases more quickly. We know our user-centred approach around an alpha or MVP will tell us a lot more about a policy intent’s chance of success in the real world than a pilot of the finished system. And that building it with our users mindset from the start will mean they’re far more likely to find and complete a task on their own, without needing an army of in-house people to fix the bad data where the user simply didn’t understand what we wanted for our internal processes.

And because we don’t talk about this, folks think it’s just about wearing jeans and writing user stories and thinking about frontends – not running a Proper Technology Project. When actually we’re thinking about the whole system and making it work for everyone.

As ever, it’s also worth pointing out, how lucky we are to have some air cover to work this way. The folks writing those comments aren’t more stupid than us, they’ve just never had the chance to that this was what good could look like. We should remember to be kind.

Metrics update:
SLIs: all fine, although I could have phoned a recruiter back who sent me her number on LinkedIn.
Health metrics: spent way more than four hours under a laptop, and didn’t get to write any music. Having a deliberately lazier morning tomorrow.

225 – the first day of the rest of (the next bit of) your life

Today I didn’t go into GDS towers. Because I no longer work there.

There was originally a plan that I’d be working somewhere else today, but that fell through last Monday, with four days to go. Which – in summary – was a tad annoying. But I’m choosing to look on the bright side, given that I’d wanted a bit of time off really and it’s a chance to look around and think – yet again – about what I might want to be when I grow up.

I’ve been in this stage before though, after the BBC and ITV, and this time I’m determined to do it a little differently. If you’re like me, basically a massive introvert who’s quite good at faking it in a crisis, there are a few possible routes to go down:

  1. sitting under a laptop pressing refresh on your inbox and social media feed for hours at a time in the hope someone’s come back to you, but being terrified when the phone rings as you’ve not spoken to a real human in five weeks
  2. internalising what happened and buying a ton of books to make up for some gap or other
  3. filling the day with household chores so you don’t have to look the bank balance in the eye
  4. going to the pub for the whole afternoon and thinking solitary thoughts
  5. going to the pub for the whole afternoon with colleagues in a similar boat and drowning your sorrows together
  6. picking up some exciting new/old hobby which is more fun than actually working and throwing yourself into that, while your other half notices that you’ve increasingly neither a) done the washing up, b) got a job

In this case, 2 doesn’t apply – because it was just that my contract at GDS had to end. I’d been their for long enough, and it’s completely appropriate some folks thought it was time for me to move on. Also, at what point do I become an overpaid dysfunctional employee?

5 doesn’t apply either, because I’m the only one who’s had this happen.

So how do I avoid the solitary confinement, domestic displacement activity, pubsitting, or drowning myself in fun?

In short, I’ve written myself some SLOs and SLIs (not SLAs) and some health metrics. The SLOs are based on what I think “normal” should look like from the outside world. Not hitting them isn’t bad per se, but they’re probably an indicator that something else is up and I need to check in on myself. As ever, an SLI should be a reason to have a discussion.

They include things like:

  • An in-hours SMS should get a response within 2h
  • Between 70 and 90% of phonecalls should be answered, even if you think they’re spam

Meanwhile the health metrics include:

  • Spend an hour outside a day
  • Look for work, but don’t do it for more than four hours per day

Based on the list at the top, I’ve also added the health metric

  • close email and only open it at particular times

which led to me revising an SLO

  • email in-hours should be answered in less than four working hours, but more than 30 minutes

That gives me permission to actually do other stuff – including having space for some of the hobbies, domestic chores and recuperation I desperately wanted before starting the gig-that-was-not-to-be.

But once you’ve written these things down you start to notice the cheats. Your workarounds. Your twitches. Ways to deal with the dopamine. Ways to get the phone back into your hand or a browser reopened. So I’ve added one other health metric.

  • LinkedIn alerts and Twitter DMs are to be treated the same way as email.

Put the bloody phone down, Tom. Run outside and play. Run outside and play the ukulele.

238 – breathing out

So I’m (kind of) moving on from GDS at the end of next week. There’s a fair amount of stuff to do between now and then – including a day and a half out of the office at Mind The Product events. But it’s definitely a finite amount of time left here, and a finite number of things I can do.

The first watershed of my departure happened about two weeks ago. I tried to arrange a meeting with another busy person like myself. There was no time within working hours we were both free at the same time between now and when I left. A whole month, but it wasn’t enough time to get an hour together. (NARRATOR: they are going to the pub instead)

At the time I noticed this wryly, but I was too busy with our quarterly planning process and preparing for a talk at our end-of-quarter away day to really take in that this was The Beginning Of The End.

But this morning I looked at the enormous to-do list I started in September of “things I need to do before I go” and realised there weren’t actually very many left. Mainly people-stuff tasks. The civil service loves those.

The other thing I’m getting used to is that I’m now – just at the point where I’m on my way out – only doing my own job, not juggling bits of some other people’s because they aren’t yet part of the team. That’s an odd feeling, only being a Lead Product Manager. It’s very nice, and I would say “I could get used to this”. But I won’t get the chance to.

I’m going to be sad to leave lots of these people, but it has been a very hard journey bringing this thing into being. I learned a lot, but it’s time to move on, and it’s also time to let someone who didn’t go through all that pick it up and make it their own.