This is how I work

Location: London
Current Gig: Senior Product Manager, GOV.UK, Government Digital Service.
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S8
Current computer: At home: A self-assembled desktop from 2014, optimised for quiet acoustics and now with a 1070 graphics card, or a Asus ZenBook UX305CA laptop. At work: A 13″ Macbook Air.
One word that best describes how you work: Spiritedly

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

Disclaimer: When you’re applying for a job you spin this stuff into a coherent story.  Certainly there are threads you can follow, but the first part of my career was a series of improvisations and desperate expedients. After a few years I’m now in the fortunate position of being in control of where I want to go, and doing a job I love.

When we were around 9 years old, my mum and dad were dead against me and my twin brother getting any sort of games console. We learnt our times tables and got a family computer. (I later found out that they were planning on getting a family computer anyway…) Me and my brother played lots of computer games together. Starcraft, Little Big Adventure 2, Heroes of Might and Magic, Unreal Tournament. This probably trained my brain to be methodical and be confident in understanding systems, and sold me on the merits of shared exploration and adventure as only one person could play at once.

I went out-of-town to a grammar school in leafy Bucks, and was fortunate to learn HTML. I built my first website on freewebs, about Grand Theft Auto 3. The site had neon text on a black background, character skins that I’d customised myself, car mods, a hit counter and way too many popups. I desperately wish I could share it with you but it seems to have been scrubbed from the face of the internet. Beyond computer games I didn’t really have the confidence, knowledge or interest to dive deeper into what computers could do so this thread lay slightly dormant.

Having originally assumed I’d wanted to do a PPE degree, I decided that history was more my thing. It’s varied, has lots of interesting stories, and is all about people living through whatever situation they find themselves in. I tried my hand at economic history, political history, social history and cultural history. Turns out I really enjoy cultural history and medieval history.

In hindsight this degree was exemplary training to be a Product Manager – you have to rapidly master a new topic and communicate clearly and confidently about it. It trains you to be a bit of a renaissance person, interested in diverse things and with a bit of a sense of adventure. I spent hours each day in studious solitude in various libraries, but also spent a couple of hours each day in excellent conversation with other people in my college over lunch or dinner. That ability to dive deeply into someone’s domain of expertise and get to know how it works, what they care about and what they find difficult, was drilled really well by this.

During this time I assumed that I wanted to be a museum curator. I’d done a bunch of volunteering at the London Canal Museum, working on stuff like an audio tour of the walk from Camden Lock to Islington Tunnel, and a series of audio installations in the museum. In the summer before my final year at uni, I remember a chat with the chairman who advised me that there weren’t really any jobs to be had in the sector. I also reflected on the demographics attending museums and thought that I might be able to have a wider impact doing something else. But I wasn’t sure what that was.

This was a useful if poorly-timed rethink. I left uni without a real plan. I applied for lots of things, including being a radio weather reporter. I came within a hair’s breadth of becoming a trainee television creative, coming up with gameshow concepts. (Apparently some of the concepts I pitched were a bit high-brow. An acceptable rejection.) I nearly ended up working in policy in the charity sector, which is what my twin brother does now.

I’d done a fair amount of digital communications for university societies, just as social media was taking off. A meetup with an old teacher of mine, now working in medical education, pointed me in the direction of an opportunity to use these skills on the creation of an online learning community for training doctors. It felt like a break so I packed my bags and moved to Kentfor the contract.

I didn’t know about agile, or about user needs or iterative design at this point, but I gave it my best shot and started learning more and more about how the different parts of digital fit together. I was working on all aspects of the site, alongside a developer, so built my understanding loads. My manager was excellent at helping me understand the politics as well.

From here I did digital projects and digital communications jobs for a while. I remember one early job, finding out that a ‘web editor’ role in practice needed a firm technical understanding of how website backends worked. I got in touch with my friend Andy Jones, and he talked me through everything in a call that same evening. If ever I’ve been generous with someone else in helping them understand something technical, believe me when I say I’m just paying it forward.

I moved around quickly, much of this as result of the financial crash and funding cuts causing difficulties for the charity sector. Admired GDS since 2013 and was delighted to join in 2017.

Take us through a recent workday.

A standard weekday starts with a half-hour checking up on emails and Slack before a standup with the first of my teams at 09:45. We take ten minutes or so to run through work-in-progress, coordinate activities and discuss any blockers. I repeat the process at 10:00 with my other team.

As a Product Manager my job is about making sure that we’re solving the right problems, that we’re adding as much value as possible, and aligning around the right vision. Day-to-day this means that understanding, assessing and communicating purpose is my role. So I’ll be making value judgements on how to approach certain areas of work – whether to gold-plate a feature or do something basic, for example, or which from a set of options to work on – either with my team or solo. I’ll spend most of the day going from meeting to meeting – which sounds ghastly, but actually is a series of interesting chats with intelligent and motivated people, diving deep into interesting problems. I love working with the different specialists in my teams, and it’s a real brain workout. I do sometimes regret that I don’t carve out more time for solitary intellectual activity, diving deep into a puzzly problem, but if I had to choose, I’d take the group approach every time as it feels more dangerous and collaborative.

When I’m at my desk, I’m usually doing some form of written communication with someone not in my team – a user or stakeholder in another government department. There’s an interesting tradeoff here between ruthless prioritisation of your time, and maintaining relationships and being diplomatic. As a Product Manager, lots of people want your input, or for your to do something for them. So you also spend a lot of time politely saying no to things.

We pause our working day at 3:45 for 15 minutes to have fika – a break for coffee, cake and a chat. (Sometimes just the final one). The key thing is that it’s a non-work environment, so we have an actual break and people can get to know each other.

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

I feel at home wherever my desktop computer is set up.

I put a lot of value on having something that can play music.

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

Sometimes not doing a thing is the best approach.

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

I insist that every card on my team’s trello board has a ‘What’ and a ‘Why’in its description, so that anyone can understand the purpose of the work. “Can you get a What and a Why on that?” has become a sort of joke catch phrase but I’m okay with that. It makes sure that everyone in a multi-disciplinary team understands the purpose of everything that is being worked on, and it trains people in communicating beyond their own specialism.

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

Google calendar for solo tasks. Trello cards for things I’m working on with my teams.

I’ve tried the Getting Things Done framework, but when things get busy I’ve found it too brittle.

I take notes of  things to do on post-its and stick them to my laptop. I triage them to something electronic within the hour.

What’s your favourite side project?

My Social Summary. I built it from the ground up (that’s why the front-end looks rubbish ;)) and I learnt loads. It’s now a paid-for product. For £3 a month you get a daily (or twice daily) summary of the best material shared by your twitter network.

I’m also proud of the technical work I did on a creative project with my ex-girlfriend. I set up most of the standard things that a competent developer would do: version control, automated testing, a decent build pipeline, programmatic creation and destruction of review applications. The product idea was a fun and interesting one, and I got to play around with a few different APIs.

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

For work-type reading, I’d recommend “Turn the Ship around” by David Marquet. It’s about intent-based leadership and how you can give people space to do great things. In knowledge work you need to lead this way, not in a command-and-control fashion.

The novels that have impressed me most as an adult are probably Nabokov’s Pale File and Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Some of the Lead Product Managers and Heads of Product at GDS and across government.

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

“Time’s short, your life’s your own. And in the end we are just dust and bones.”

“Work smarter not harder”

“Love is letting go of fear”

“Just Fucking Do It”