DIT – a look back

(This is a heavily edited version of an internal email sent to the people I worked with in our Digital, Data and Technology team. I’ve tried to make it generally applicable, and nothing personal or ‘official’ should still be in here, but – former colleagues – please let me know if syou spot anything that needs an urgent tweak! There’s also another post coming shortly about *everything else* I got up to in just 2022, because there was no shortage of that either!)

Goodness – nearly four years have flown by. It seems just moments ago that I first arrived at Windsor House to be the first Product Lead for Data Hub – an internal core-CRM platform with a name I never managed to improve. Ironically this was also the project that ended my time at DIT, but it’s fair to say that things changed Quite A Bit since then.

As an Agile/Lean/Product person I was obviously quite keen to understand our work-in-progress. Not least because whenever teams got together to talk about the roadmap everyone seemed really busy, but there didn’t seen to be a ton of meaningful progress being made. To get to the bottom of this I declared a “secret project amnesty” and one of our PMs admitted to 23 side problems he’d been given to look after! As I leave DIT, everyone still feels we’re trying to do too much with too few people – but it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. 

There was also new management to worry about – the person that had hired me was suddenly leaving, and someone called Sian Thomas was apparently taking over as Chief Data Officer. We also found out we had three weeks to present a new vision for Data Hub, to some big senior management committee that neither of us had heard of or understood, even though she’d not even left her job at Food Standards Agency yet.

Thankfully this Sian person turned out to be an amazing colleague and leader – something that’s just been recognised when she was deservedly awarded an MBE for her services to trade, investment and cross-government data standards. I’m feeling like I need to try a bit harder!

I realised my role was just as much a delivery lead as product lead, and together we started to tackle some of the systemic problems we could see, trying to redesign our ceremonies and rituals to encourage the behaviours we thought we needed. We put in fortnightly checkins where we asked about team health – something of a novelty. We introduced a cross-team wallwalk that was focused on knowledge-sharing. We moved to show-and-tells that were about individual teams ‘showing the thing’ rather than contributing to a big slide deck full of progress updates. We got our fortnightly release cycle up off the floor (it was multi-release per day by the time I left DIT). We slowly took the teams on the journey to meaningful OKRs. We got to introduce and celebrate better product practice – even supporting the legendary ‘Flintstone car’ wizard-of-oz service for matching our existing company records Dun&Bradstreet data; this initially ran for an hour a day through a PM’s inbox, who’d then make the API calls by hand, allowing us to really rapidly iterate the frontend to improve effectiveness and success without rebuilding all of the backend every time we made a mistake. Proper product management!

A large whiteboard wall covered with post-it notes and printouts.
The Data Wall – an internally-highly-public roadmap of all our mission teams, their OKRs, what’s shipped, and a now/next/later roadmap for each in columns. Top left is ‘The Vision’, and a big reminder of the weekly ritual – the questions each team was expected to answer before they could get into ‘being busy’.

Everyone did sooooo well changing their ways of working, talking to each other, reducing duplication, and becoming more usefully focused on impact. I was really proud of all the teams. But a civil servant successor had been found, and I spent a few months handing over to her.

I was sent back to the shopfloor of shipping things, to look after two vast and scary services called ‘Check How to Export Goods‘, and ‘Trade with the UK‘. These databases of tariffs and other guidance had previously been provided by the EU, and MVPs had been created in time for one of our potential exit dates – but never launched. My job was to try and understand the real user needs, and get them updated before 31st December (this is when we were expecting to sign our deal with the EU around September, so I’d have ages to process the data).

Of course this was just in time for lockdown, and suddenly – like all of us – I was finding I was creating a roadmap on the last spare bit of wall in the studio!

A roadmap made of different sized postits
How I did brexit.

I’m still amazed at how much everybody achieved during those times of huge challenge and change, with almost vertical learning curves around data and context, and a political environment that wasn’t short on complications. Everyone worked so hard, and supported each other so brilliantly. Kate, Kevin, Nick, Tom, Andrzej, Abigail – thank you all.

We also did properly user-centred policy in places: I was presenting UR findings in trade negotiations, and to the cross-government team that were trying to explain the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The team then did a great alpha for an improved service based on the CHEG data, which I hope will still see the light of day once it’s the right priority given everything else that’s going on. I’ll always be happy to come back and re-explain, of course. But then it was time for me to move on once more.

I’d been asked to take on a role as Head of Product in the last days of our Brexit work, and this became ever more critical as we started to move to a matrix structure. I was really excited by the idea of trying to fix the way we did line management, to try and make sure our people were developing properly and given the right challenges. But on a more practical note, a lot of staff left after EU Exit/the launch of the GREAT ‘learn to export’ platforming, so initially it was just about crewing up. I had to create new product recruitment materials, iterate the cross-government capability framework to reflect the product discovery skills DIT needed (rather than the more old-skool approaches in the big operational departments), and get a ton of new people in – initially mainly contractors. I also had to do quite a lot of juggling what we were even working *on*. It turned out that lots of people had differing ideas about what had been promised, and who got to decide, so making sense of what was going on across the whole of DDaT became almost a full-time job.

Thankfully I had a new partner in crime – Miranda Savage, who’d taken over the Chief Digital Officer role on an interim basis. I’d never even met her before because she’d joined during COVID times, but this unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most fulfilling working relationships I’ve had in my career. Miranda is a natural product leader, but with huge empathy for the people side of the job. There were definitely times when it was like we were separated at birth, give or take twenty years, but we had just enough points of difference that we quickly became soooo much more than the sum of our parts.

Together we got the product community up and running, got the capability framework signed off, collectively tried out techniques like Opportunity Solution Trees, put in quarterly prioritisation processes we needed for the time, and kept on iterating how we planned and scheduled work – and fixed some of the systemic challenges that were repeatedly causing teams to get stuck. We were able to properly sort out line management and L&D. I also got to learn some amazing ways of seeing the organisation as a system from her.

I could do a whole blogpost series just about our work together. Or maybe an album. Or perhaps we’ll get back together in a decade and write a business book about it all.

She also had the incredible ability to track down quite amazing cocktails. Even in Cardiff. One of the very many things I will miss. Thank you Mrs S.

A table full of cocktails and other drinks
This was a London Dry. Miranda’s cucumber-based concoction is just to the right. Astute observers of us as a pair will be unsuprised that we then ordered each other’s drink for our second round. 🙂

Of course ‘fixing recruitment’ also involved replacing myself, and after one failed attempt we were lucky enough to bring in the amazing Matt Jukes to take over in my stead. I know I leave things in really safe hands with him, and I’m really grateful that he applied, stuck with it through the security clearance process, and was so sensitive to my feelings when letting go of my baby. His marking of the “formal handover of the product community” was done with huge care, kindness and respect. Thank you Matt.

(Similarly, huge shout outs to my fellow “Delivery and Product Leadership” colleagues – I’m really going to miss The Best Meeting Of The Week, but I know you’ll all be fine. And you all know where to find me if you need a coffee and chat.)

Finally I ended up back where I started, on a “special project” in case I was needed post-handover, in this case worrying about (once again) what to do with Data Hub and how to reframe it as part of a wider CRM ecosystem. I’ve already written a little bit about that product strategy work elsewhere on this blog.

But now I’m done. It’s the 1st Jan and I’m no longer even under contract.

Once again, thank you everyone at DIT. You’re some of the most dedicated and creative people I’ve worked with, and I’ve learned loads from every one of you. Carry on being amazing.

(And please keep an eye on their jobs page if you want somewhere fascinating to work)

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