Steve Messer

This is how I work…give or take

Dan wanted to see how I work, so here’s what I do, based on Jukesie’s rip-off of the Lifehacker ‘How I Work’ series. Other public service folk have written about how they work too.

Location: London, UK.
Current gig: Associate product manager, Government Digital Service.
Current mobile device: Samsung J5 for work, iPhone 8 for percy.
Current computer: MacBook Air 13” for work. Mac Mini at home. Some hobby Raspberry Pis and a PC too.
One word that best describes how you work: Metered.

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

Liked books and computers growing up. Spent a huge portion of my teenage years in my bedroom, tinkering on the Web or with computers. But I also enjoyed writing stories. Aged 16, I decided to focus on my Literature studies instead of Information Technology. It seemed to have…more prestige.

Did my A-levels, went to Bath Spa Uni to study Creative Writing. Bought a Mac to stop me playing video games. It worked, and I had a lot of fun. The course was excellent with great teachers – check out some of the authors who’ve also studied at Bath Spa – and I had my sights set on a career in publishing.

Graduated. Spent the next year continuing cheffing, then quit to get some work experience and make the most of my degree. Spent two weeks as a managing editorial assistant at Vintage Publishing (part of Random House) and was asked back for another week. A few months later, there’s an open position as an editorial assistant and they ask me to apply. Incredibly, I get it and dive into the literary publishing world.

Do that for 9 months. Move on to Jonathan Cape, attend a Booker Prize ceremony in my first week. It’s quite glitzy, maybe too glitzy, especially for a working class boy from Wolverhampton. I get the chance to work with some of the most eminent, prolific literary authors in the world. They even let me commission a book of short stories. But I feel massively out of my depth and haven’t been to Oxbridge, like most others at my level. Self-doubt sets in. Work is naught but toil. I grow tired of the sausage factory. I quit.

And so I have a breakdown.

The clouds pass after 6 months and I get a job at NOW TV, which was just starting out. See Agile and software development in action. Turns out that’s quite glitzy too, except I didn’t know that at school. IT is kind of cool now. Hmm, maybe I could do tech after all. After some time in Operations, they initiate a TUPE process for an entire department and I need to find other work. Porism has an opening for someone.

First, I focus on increasing engagement and use of LG Inform Plus, then get the chance to redesign and launch a new version of eCasework. We spent a year on that before it went live. Take-up wasn’t good. I wrestled with marketing techniques, sales, developing some features and trying to talk to the few users we had. Wasn’t really sure what I was doing. It was…enjoyable, but also like banging my head against a brick wall. Repeatedly. Every day. Because I’m leading myself blind. (However, I also learn some cool stuff about open data, local government and generally learn tons from Mike.)

Explaining my anguish to a friend, he suggests that I’m kind of doing product management. I read a few blogs, try out the techniques, and they work. Hmm, maybe I could do tech after all. Attending the product management course at General Assembly gives me new skills. We start to grow eCasework and its user base. We develop features that people love. But I’m a bit hungry for more.

Apply for a job working on GOV.UK. They offer it to me. I’m overjoyed.

And now I’m just really, really happy. I’m at home. I’m back in my bedroom, tinkering on the Web and with computers, on a piece of the national infrastructure.

Take us through a recent workday

There’s a T-shaped structure to my week which I try to stick to. Mornings are for product thinking, writing cards or catching up on important emails, except on Wednesdays when I’ll meet Alex for coffee. Then it’s a catch-up with Delivery Manager and Tech Lead, followed by stand-up with the team.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the rest of the day is either meetings, team ceremonies or community meet-ups with other product managers.

Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays are a bit lighter: product thinking, analysing data and trends, and chats with other specialists, often dappled with the odd meeting here and there.

The details of what actually happens can be found in my weeknotes.

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

Slack Reminders, my philosopher’s stone at work. With simple commands, I can remind myself or a colleague to do something. Need I say more? Since I have the app on my iPhone too, I can capture those work-related thoughts that spring up in the shower, at dinner or when I’m on holiday. It gets things out of my head, and only brings them back when needed.

Recently I’ve been using Pocket a fair amount to save blogs to read. Medium’s Reading List also comes in handy, but I’m trying to move away from the platform.

But Twitter, too. It’s the app I use most. To both fill time productively and waste it. My Social Summary is great for catching up on Twitter without needing to scroll through Twitter. It looks for the most engaging tweets from lists you’ve built and sends you a daily digest. Definitely worth £3 a month.

I’ve really taken to Post-it notes as a to-do list. I tried Trello but you’re not always able to add cards in meetings or ceremonies. Post-its are always at hand in GDS, so I can quickly capture sudden thoughts.

Here’s some stuff I’ve used at work before.

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

If you have to do something three times, automate it. If you can’t automate it, find a way to reduce the toil. You’ll immediately create more time to spend on things that really need it.

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

If you forget your work pass, you can’t get through many of the (mostly glass) doors. You end up staring forlornly at the people on the other side, who don’t know whether to let you in sans ID. Sometimes several people walk past before you’re permitted to exit your dimension of uselessness.

I haven’t worked out how to capitalise on this yet. It’s a bit like a cigarette break.

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

Like I said earlier, Slack Reminders and Post-it notes.

What’s your favourite side project?

I’m currently playing with Jekyll to refresh my website and move blog posts away from Medium. But I’m also running out of kimchi so will have to make some more of that soon.

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

I’m reading Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff for non-fiction, and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar for fiction.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Mike, Ellie, Alex, John, Emily and Femke.

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

‘You can do whatever you want in life, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.’ Oh, and: ‘Work is just a way to pay the bills, but it helps if you enjoy it.’ Both from my dad.