As part of a minor org shuffle this week I will no longer be working directly with Benjy. Benjy isnt a showy man, so wouldn't want a fuss, but he is a brilliant writer and his blog is one we should all keep an eye on. With this in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to write a quick post about what Benjy has taught me in our time working together. It puts me in mind that the recording of our shared history is something that is easy to forget to do in the evolution of a team .
Location – Live in Cardiff and work in Newport
Current role – Chief Publishing Officer for the Office of National Statistics
Current mobile device – Blloc for home, iphone for work
Current computer (work and home) Dell for work (it is very decent) and the classic sticker covered pixelbook for home (Pictured. It is the best device I have ever owned)
One word that best describes how you work – Hopeful
So, one year ago I wrote a post about sharing some, well, open thinking about how I wanted to do some open working and create some open data. This post contains some thoughts on a few things I have noticed whilst actually doing it in the form of developing and launching a public beta of some new functionality on the ONS web site.
Week notes! Get your week notes.
So, this is very unlikely to be a thing, but I have had an unusually logistically smooth week and am on a slow moving train so have given it a go. I've checked out how this is meant to go. Gifs, ‘i went to a meeting’, reflection and humour leads to riches and unicorns.
Anyways, Hi. I am Andy. I am a service manager. I look after some of the digital webby stuff for the UK Office for National Statistics. I tend to say ‘look after’ as it is, as with many things, a complex world and a simple thing. I manage 50 or so editorial, Ux, design, data viz, Dev, product, data and delivery folks (and a rotating set of contractors. Currently we have ten) who are all helping make ONS.gov.uk better for its users. I guess I'm writing that as context, because we will be zipping around some of the smart folks in these teams who actually make things happen in this exciting Week Note™.This is me
Monday! Boom. Weeknote gold. It was a bank holiday. I spent it in London watching my beloved football team losing. Football would be very unlikely to make many appearances in normal Weeknotes, but it gives me a chance to include a picture of Exeter City (aka my teams) former manager, Paul Tisdale. He resigned today after 12 years in charge. True change takes time.
Tuesday is an interesting vibe. It is the Queens birthday (please stand for the national anthem) so many civil servants take it as a day off. Because it suited my particular working patterns this week I was in, as were about a third of the team. I started with my weekly chat with Paul, who is in the guts of data transformation work. It is a tricky role and he does it well. I then had a great meeting with Benjy (UX lead) Ian (Dev Lead) and Laura (my boss and everything lead). We were reviewing some of the recent work Benjy has been deeply involved with to adapt one of our most heavily used page templates. A lot of this work is available for people to have a prod around at over on our prototypes page (we flipping love being open). The meeting with Benjy had been set up as a ‘challenge’ session. I worried about the title and Benjy seemed a little nervous, but it was just a chance for a few of us to get together and take a look at this super important work at an early stage and ask a few questions to help clarify if the direction the team were moving in connected to some wider thinking. It did and this is maybe an example of the kind of light touch (eugh?) governance (ARGH) that we try to use to help keep across the work of many Agile teams. Benjy wrote a lot of things on post-it notes and we will continue to catch up on the progress of this work in the coming weeks.
A lot of the rest of Tuesday was catching up admin. As anyone who knows me is aware, email and I are in an awkward relationship. I tend to be about 300 behind and constantly just deleting and archiving things to ensure I have enough space for new ones to arrive (fun fact, I am only ever one large PowerPoint attachment away from it all falling apart). I nudged a couple of awkward projects on and made some amends to a paper that I am submitting to a board in a couple of weeks to ask permission to start a new Discovery project.
On Tuesday evening I played skittles in a pub. This is added to show what a well rounded human I am. Whilst I was there I saw this lovely blog post from Leigh Dodds. I like it because A - It says nice things about our work, but B - it is a really really important point to make. Change takes a lot of time
On the way in to work I had a good exchange with Jeni on twitter about using response codes for redirecting between APIs and webpages. This in its self is a small thing, but I am writing here because I have just looked and I also had ten different conversations with people across government via twitter DM this week. My use of it as a platform is really starting to shift to be a semi formal back channel for work and much less about my thoughts on Belle & Sebastian.
I started the day by catching up with Data Darren. We covered a big old range of things, but especially focused on two new open data roles we will be advertising in the near future. I am excited by these, but kicking myself for not doing the paperwork to get them advertised sooner, as they will be such a big help to a number of the projects we have on the go. We also talked about data processing pipelines and Darren introduced me to a couple of new (to me) tools.
Next was a wide ranging chat with Laura (boss). This was part of our semi structured looking ahead process to try and identify where we need to take the division. We both left with actions for further work and thinking of the type that needs me to step away from the office for a few hours and really think about.
Wednesday afternoon was also fairly quiet. I have noticed that I am so conditioned to being in meetings (I routinely attend 30-40 a week) that when I don't have them, I find the lack of pressure on my time slightly disconcerting. I used Wednesday to unblock a contract that was stuck in one of the systems that contracts can get stuck in and catching up on a great doc Rob (Data viz) had shared with me on some thoughts he had for a new project.
On Wednesday evening I did not do much
Thursday is my most stand up heavy day, with three back to back this week (it is normally four, but a discovery team were at some user research this time). The first was a leadership one (just Laura and I) looking at diaries for the next week and swapping key points/info, then a product team one (where I was acting as quasi product and Scrum master). For week note completion I going to try and recall who was there. I think it was Kieron (content design) Rachel (graphic design) Awen (performance analyst) Benjy (Ux) Paula (Ba) Jon (Dev) Ric (Dev) and Ian (Dev Lead). Most of these role types didn't exist two years ago when joined ONS. We have come a long way and all that interviewing is really paying off. I then did a managers stand up. These happen twice a week and allow some of the folks in my teams to get together and share information. We work on editorial rhythms, so things can change fast.
Benjy then did a show and tell on a new geography prototype, which I loved.
I had a call with a board set up to manage some of the dependencies arriving from the 2021 census. This is a huge project in ONS land just now and takes an increasing amount of my time.
In the afternoon we had our monthly SMT meeting. I chair these and find them a bit of a challenge. I want to ensure we (a group of 7 or 8) can have honest conversations about our work and challenges we face. We started with retro for the month, then reviewed, HR metrics, risks, budgets and so on. I left feeling a little flat. Something for me to reflect on is my desire to put out fires and be positive in meetings. I dont have to do it and I think I stifled some important conversations too quickly by trying to turn bad things into good news.
Ian gave an overview of how we we are going to roll out a new set of technical environments. It is a really important bit of work and Ian seemed very calm with how it was going, which was nice.
I was going to finish the day shuffling some grizzly bits of project forward, where my inbox was getting a little lively, I did this and then got distracted by some of the work Eleanor was finishing off around structured data. She very patiently got me up to speed with her work so far and questions she and Rob (product) had outstanding and had pulled together as a, well, pull request. I sent this off to a few old friends who have been very good to us in the past with offering feedback and hope that might help (networks are important. Leave the office and see people. If you have the time to read this, you have the time to buy someone interesting a coffee and ask them about their world).
I asked my friend Bill to come to a team meeting and got home late and feeling like I hadn't put a full stop on the end of the day
Friday I got up early to be at the train station for seven. I caught the train to Titchfield to see Rob (Data viz) and his team. I really enjoy working with them and constantly feel managers guilt for only spending time with them face to face once a month. The train is a good place to triage mails and the comparatively poor connectivity available means I was briefly winning the inbox battle.
I started with my 1:1 with Rob. A really wide ranging chat covering his paper (from up there on Wednesday), feedback from other departments, new kit for the team and a brilliant new map he had built the night before (Rob and I are from different backgrounds, but both absolutely love nerding out over cool maps)
I caught up with his team, including Jure showing me the outputs from his recent work with Henry on using a gif.js library to help with a bunch of workflow issues. It is awesome.
I took a quick call from Richard (service design, ITIL style) about budgets. He made it super easy to engage with so I enjoyed the chat and it shored up an important project front.
I finished the meeting week with a quick chat with Census Tom. We share the same job title and arrived in ONS around the same time. I find chats with Tom incredibly useful because he is very smart and able to take my grumbles and turn them into really practical suggestions and actions for me to take. Peer networks are a good thing and I hope I can offer a little of the same to him.
I then jumped on a train home. It takes three hours and my laptop battery started to die sooner than expected so I wrote these on my phone instead. It is eight in the evening. I am tired, but that was a pretty good week.
Africa by weezer, on repeat
5 Dysfunctions of a team. It is like Douglas Coupland writing a serious self help book. I kinda like it
Disclaimer. Next week I have three hours of unallocated work time. I don't think that offers me headspace to write nearly 2000 words, but I have enjoyed using this to reflect and share. Does that make this self indulgent? Possibly. I would be interested in knowing of a more lightweight structure exists.
I've been thinking about trust and trusting working relationships a lot recently. People trusting me to do things and me trusting others to do things. I've been thinking about it as it is something I am not very good at and something I am actively trying to improve.
I found this as a draft from August. I thought I might as well publish it. Oddly, some still stands and some is very very out of date. Curious thing, agile and that.
So. As was covered in Series 1 (aka. The Jukesie era) Beta is an important part of building a government thing. When I joined ONS a year and a bit ago, the idea of this discovery -alpha - beta loop all seemed a bit waterfall to me. Doing a thing for a definite length of time so that you can unlock another level seemed like you might be able to put it in its Sunday best and call it a milestone.
We are now three sprints into our Beta and I thought I would give a bit of a take on that. (Matt has been running his excellent tales as sprint notes, so that will get you into the detail.)
Firstly, I think I am starting to see what a Beta might mean. The main point is that the team are making real things that will see the light of day and will be used by a lot of people. This obviously has an impact compared to the more disposable culture we used in the previous Alpha phase, where things could have much more smoke and mirrors.
We have started the Beta by identifying what an end to end system needs to look like and running towards the bits that looked hardest. The idea being to build a collection of features that could act as a working system. Once that is in place, we can look at where the gaps in the system are and what additional functionality is needed. The key here being to build end to end quickly, but not in such a way that creates any technical debt. Features, not hacks.
To try and build this, we have expanded our internal team with a service one. In this instance, a service team being a fully formed Agile team that can work on premises to help expand productivity.
One of the things we have been keen on is ensuring we don't just bring an external team in building all the new fun stuff and have a staff team dealing with ‘just' bug fixes on our current site. It didn't seem like this would help build a good work environment, but also would create a handover challenge at the end of a project.
So, we have split into three Agile teams (we were one), called them A, B and C (catchy) and striped the internal and external resource across them. The ons staff have been set a rough goal of 50/50 business as usual to Beta time in sprints and the service team 100% on the Beta, but we have wrapped all the sprint tasks together. We are using a single trello board, with a lot of columns to give a signal view of the three backlogs and in sprint activity.
Communication of a Beta has really been on my mind. We are doing end of sprint show and tells, but they are quite insular and act as a way of sharing work across the three teams and some immediate top priority stakeholders (I am referring to myself in the third person here). We have also added a dedicated show and tell to internal users most impacted by the work and bigger, more carefully crafted updates for the wider business that can be booked via staff on eventbrite.
Our user research is another key component of communication. We have an ambitious target of undertaking some in each sprint. This project broadly has three big groups. Internal data production, internal data publishing and external users of the system.
For our external users we are attempting a shift with how we approach the testing. Instead of treating a statistical user as a generic type, we are trying to ensure if we, say, test with experts in economic statistics that they are shown real economic data. This helps to avoid statements like ‘if I was a user of this data, I expect I would click here’ and turns it into something more realistic. In these early stages, this is hard to do as the UI is pretty much click through, but it is within our play book (the play book is also mainly in a few people's heads, hence writing this post and others like it in the future)
Our internal users are just as important, but are obviously easier to get hold of (shouting ‘who has an opinion on the ons website’ whilst stood in our staff coffee shop would create quite the response)
To try and get the best turn around on our user research the reporting overhead is as low as we can get it. A Google doc (which is pure gold) and a quick show and tell to the team. Our Ux team and frontend developers sit in the same Agile team so we can achieve a sketch - html mockup - real journey many times in very rapid cycles
One of the things that has really jumped out here is that having a TV, a bunch of things to plug it into and some stools is vital. Even just making sure we are really disciplined in having the right cables always available makes a world of difference
Obviously we use Slack as well (obviously) and this tends to be the usual whirl of gifs, automated info and genuine back channel for any remote workers
I was going to cover Cadence and planning here but I can hear Mr Jukes from series 1 saying ‘the thing is mate, any over 1000 words is a book’ and will take that as a time to pause and treat that as a whole new post.
Doing things for the love of it is something I cherish in humans. I don't care if you’re obsessed with a football team, watch trains, answer the phone to people who need a chat or swim in the sea, I just find it exciting to see people giddy about things.