Steve Messer

Reading List Picks of 2018

It’s been a heck of a year. I got to fulfill a teenage dream and start working on an important and much-used website, which got me thinking about product management, people, work and the World Wide Web more than I did last year. Here’s a bunch of articles and blog posts that piqued my interest throughout 2018.

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How to Build a Low-tech Website?

Low-tech Magazine looks at the sustainability of the modern world and its practices. They decided to practice what they preach by making their website run entirely on solar power, using web design techniques to reduce energy consumption and a self-built solar power bank to run it all – no data centres and CDNs in sight. Though it occasionally goes offline when there’s not enough power, the article really got me thinking about the ‘always on’ nature of the Web and how that’s quite wasteful.

Read How to Build a Low-tech Website?

The Bullshit Web

In a similar vein to Low-tech Magazine, Nick Heer wrote about the ballooning bullshit of data on the Web and the wastefulness of filling your 17MB/s internet connection with ads. It’s an essay on what the Web was meant to be, and what it has become; and how the Information Superhighway could benefit from those of us working on it to take more responsibility.

Read The Bullshit Web.

The Cognition Crisis

Waking up and checking your phone. Scrolling through Facebook while the telly’s on. Notifications causing drivers to kill people. Adam Gazzaley argues that ‘our constant engagement with technology interferes with the pursuit of other behaviors critical for maintaining a healthy mind’, and it caused me to turn on Do Not Disturb when at work. We have natural animal minds that are being pushed to the edge by the environment we’ve built around them.

Read The Cognition Crisis.

The principles that make me a better product manager

If there’s one thing that’s central to the practice of product management, it’s a set of principles one can call on in any situation. A good principle can keep everyone on course but also help point the way forward in unfamiliar waters. Ross Ferguson left us with seven principles before he was poached by the Canadians, and they’ve really helped me in my first year at Government Digital Service.

Read The principles that make me a better product manager.

Thinking about SLOs

Working out how to maintain and operate a behemoth like GOV.UK was pretty daunting when I joined Platform Health. Adopting a Service Level Objective and thinking about how we manage technical solutions from a users-first perspective has been massively helpful. I’m really grateful that Emily posted this by Andrew Suffield – one-time Site Reliability Engineer at Google – and for all her work on spreading SLO thinking at GDS.

Read Thinking about SLOs.

Teams from Scratch – Part 1: Psychological Safety

Building a culture where asking questions and admitting gaps in knowledge is OK can be hard, but this piece popped up serendipitously around the time I was doing a lot of thinking on team-building. It turned out that Alex worked at Unruly, an adtech company which shares our office building, and we’ve been meeting for coffee ever since!

Read Teams from Scratch – Part 1: Psychological Safety.

How did privacy come to be enshrined as a human right?

In this year of our Lord, 2018, when the General Data Protection Regulation was enshrined in law, no doubt many of us were thinking Why on earth are we going through all this pain? Preparing for GDPR was a huge undertaking, and despite the boring spreadsheets and confusing issues around compliance, I think it’s largely a Good Thing. This series by Projects by IF traces the history of our right to privacy and the role of regulation.

Read How did privacy come to be enshrined as a human right?.

Microdosing Isn’t a Shortcut to Professional Success

Being employed in Tech, with working weeks called ‘sprints’, can often feel like you’re actually running a race, and open plan offices can dwindle your focus. Some people turn to microdosing – taking small amounts of psychoactive drugs – to find a balance, but Erica Avey argues that perhaps we should change the way we work, not our biology. This article applies to coffee as much as it does to LSD, in my eyes.

Read Microdosing Isn’t a Shortcut to Professional Success.

Weeknotes styles

This year I started writing weeknotes, a weekly reflection on my working week, and I’ve found the practice really beneficial. It’s like a personal retrospective, giving you a chance to package up the week and move on, making improvements. I recommend it to a lot of people I meet, and Sam wrote this piece on the different styles the Web of Weeknotes community uses.

Read Weeknotes styles.

This isn’t for everyone

What surprised me most when I joined GDS was that many of our products didn’t have defined user personas. Nor did we say who we wouldn’t build things for. Not all users are equal. The mindset of building for everyone is helpful in not excluding certain groups, but it can widen the scope of a product too much. The Parliament Data team, and Michael in particular, have been good in acknowledging that.

Read This isn’t for everyone.

Democratic technical debt

Digital government has surged forth leaving improved services in its wake. But how much of the enhancements are only surface-deep? ‘If you don’t consider what the long term impact of how you build something is, you’re accruing democratic technical debt,’ author Alex Blandford says. While also positing that terrific idea, Alex also points out that, well, government has been a bit shit at providing the research it has conducted. A few blog posts ain’t enough.

Read Democratic technical debt.

Building personal resilience (or how to avoid burnout)

This year has been hectic, and it’s possible for work to become all-consuming if you’re not careful. What helped me avoid that was to draw a line between my professional and personal lives: I used weeknotes to package up the week, and I used personal time to replenish my mind and soul. Pippa takes a great perspective on how to do that in this post.

Read Building personal resilience (or how to avoid burnout).

Targeted Advertising Is Ruining the Internet and Breaking the World, and We Should Replace Facebook With Personal Websites

In March, I stopped using Facebook to see whether I’d miss it. It wasn’t a problem at all, in fact there’s not a single feature I longed for, so I deleted my account. That’s mostly been driven by their abysmal record for privacy in recent months and their involvement in the Cambridge Analytica atrocity. I’ve read countless articles on Facebook this year, but these two stand out. One shows us how advertising has been a misplaced driver for social media firms, and the other reminds us how the Web worked before the 2.0 giants took over.

Read Targeted Advertising Is Ruining the Internet and Breaking the World and We Should Replace Facebook With Personal Websites.

This is how we work…give or take

Matt Jukes is a legend of the civic tech space, a dynamo of humble magnificence with a Bristol accent – an honest, friendly, earnest kind of bloke. So of course he wrote an open piece on how he works, which caused people from all across the public sector (and others) to write one too. It’s a fascinating to read.

Read This is how we work…give or take.

Empowered Product Teams

This blog post covers much of Marty Cagan’s talk when he visited us in September. It’s a long read but it’s absolutely essential for organisations scaling up, past the startup mindset. It reminds us that qualities of leadership can be better than management, and that great teams are full of ordinary people.

Read Empowered Product Teams.


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