Steve Messer

The Comfort of Company

Weeknotes S02E04

People were the best this week. Chats about life and around work, conversations on what we’re doing, and generally making and seeing friends. That doesn’t mean I’ve had much time spare, it’s been a busy week, but Philippa’s post on resilience (check the Reading section) has framed it all rather well. It’s not about burning the candle at both ends, it’s about realising that rest takes different forms.

Four Things That Happened

We did more things than this

One

Monday was unremarkable if not for proving that marking out time in your calendar for recurrent tasks is worthwhile. There were lots of meetings, a few with our performance analysts and data scientists which was cool, but the main success of the day was getting the next sprint planned. I’ve protected my Monday mornings for sprint planning and it paid off for the rest of the week. So that’s a win.

Two

Wednesday was absolutely back-to-back with team stuff, as it always is. Everyone seemed to vibe with the cards I’d brought into sprint, which was good, but I was rushing from meeting to meeting – and it was pretty draining. Meeting people for fun wasn’t draining though, and I was grateful of my regular catch-up with Alex and a lunch jaunt to Sub Cult with Elliot.

Alex is incredibly intelligent, articulate and friendly, and I sincerely hope he gets as much out of our chats as I do from him! When speaking, I tend to waffle and flit from thought to thought, a wholly different approach to my writing which can be pared down to something…comprehensible. Nevertheless, it’s great to talk to someone outside the building about teams, leadership, platforms and the odd joke here and there.

Our check-in with the programme team was all right, I was a bit pooped from a busy day, which meant that I didn’t understand a question from our lead technical architect, Tim. This gave me a good opportunity to ask for a chat with him, which I’d thought about in the bath that morning, as we kind of need some direction from him – or his involvement in our mission, would be better – in our infrastructure work.

Three

It was another good year for JAM Conference. I first went last year and found it really inspirational, and the events this time around didn’t disappoint. It’s always good to have an excuse to spend time with Mike too!

Star of the show was Steve Kato-Spyrou, who not only put forward good reasoning for striving for collaboration instead of conflict with stakeholders but was also fucking hilarious. Hugo and Lindsey from Monzo gave a good talk about the people and practice behind good products, and answered my question about the principles they hold dear which make them better product managers. Unsurprisingly for a Government Digital Service (GDS) alumnus, Lindsey spoke often about good principles driving one’s practice, and I largely believe that little mantras can sometimes carry you further forward than action alone.

It was fun to see Femke talk, as someone I’ve followed on Twitter for a while, and she’s really humble – it was a great talk on working in international markets as a Western company. But then again, that would require humility, so it’s nice to someone at Uber thinking that way – they’re not all as bad as Travis Kalanick. Femke’s talk book-ended a talk from Charlotte at Wikimedia, talking about how they used Jobs-to-be-Done to draw parallels between users in both high-use and emerging markets. Basically: what is the common need between users in the USA and India? (Turns out it’s synced reading lists.) I really liked this talk because it was about making a widespread information platform work for everyone: a problem that pervades my thinking every day. People asked questions about ensuring authenticity and credibility in a distributed system too, which is at the forefront of my mind after MozFest.

Given that there was so much chat about stuff we’ve already done at GDS though, I think we need to be out there talking at these events as an organisation. GDS used to be on the frontline of product thinking and we’re just not that prevalent any more, and that’s sad. I’m going to ask around and see who fancies chatting.

Four

Friday kicked off with a new way to think about our goals as a team. Our delivery manager has put forward a new idea, that we could meet each Monday midway through a sprint and quickly run through our goals for this sprint, next sprint and how those tie into our goals for the quarter. Another essential component will be talking about team health too, and whether we’ve had any major blockers recently. It’s not designed to replace retrospectives, stand-up or sprint planning, but it is an opportunity for everyone on the team to step back, take a higher level view at what we’re doing, and make recommendations for where to go next. I’m really excited about this as more collaboration is definitely my product management style – I’m facilitator, not decision-maker.

Dan popped in for a coffee and it was truly excellent to catch up. I loved meeting him at the Delib/Weeknotes event, his cerebral conversation is quite engaging. We spoke about the nature of services, who could provide them, distributed design and the Web model, and the challenges of working in the public sector. Lots of laughs too. Looking forward to seeing him again.

The other main achievement of the day was a lunch chat with our lead technical architect, too. Because our work touches up against the long-run strategy for GOV.UK, it felt sensible to get him in on our ideas. All the problems we’re coming up against can be optimised in the short-term, but that won’t last and will need some planning to solve one day. There’s no time for us to fix those though. So we can dial down the long-run improvement work and dial up the discovery: of where problems lie, why they exist, the data points we use to measure those, and spending a little more thinking power on viewing this pipeline holistically. We’ve done some of that already, but the stress-testing work will help keep this moving.

Reflections

What I Learned

Learning is better than knowing. But you needn’t enact that learning immediately. Strategy is an important part of platform development, whereas you can forge ahead when building new products – because new products are more about disruption rather than development. So don’t be afraid to move more slowly on established products, because there’s many more factors to think about.

What I Could Do Better

I’ve been getting in at 8 a.m. and leaving around 6 p.m. most days, so could be better at sticking to my hours. The extra hour and a half isn’t draining though, and I do have a lot on: looking after 46 interconnected applications plus moving them all to a new hosting provider, the support queue for a busy licensing product, our product management community and a big team. You do need a few more minutes to keep on top of all that.

Reading