This is how I work…give or take
Location: London, UK.
Current gig: Product Manager, dxw digital
Current mobile device: OnePlus 3T (I deliberately never have a work phone & don’t connect work stuff to my personal phone)
Current computer: MacBook Pro 13" for work. Slightly crummy old chromebook at home.
One word that best describes how you work: communicatively (probably not a word, horrible to say, but still the most accurate single word)
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today
I’m the youngest of 4 (all sisters) across a 10 year age spread, which is relevant here because it’s made me really fortunate in several ways. I’ve always been surrounded by articulate, creative people willing to teach me things, and I’ve had these brilliant role models cutting their own swathe through life in totally different and brilliant ways.
It’s also worth mentioning because it means it’ll make slightly more sense when I say that from the age of 5 I just really wanted to be a forensic scientist. I was an avid Silent Witness fan and would sometimes be ‘unable to sleep’ when it was on, after my bedtime (sorry Mum).
I held onto that for a good few years but meanwhile: books happened, and my memory of most of my early teens is basically just me reading, sat in my favourite chair listening to my sisters’ album collections. I also worked Saturdays in the best job ever: the fruit and veg shop opposite my house. 5 years of Saturdays spent observing 11 o clock coffee & banana and Tea at Three.
I did a weird collection of science and literature subjects in my GCSEs and A Levels and then decided to do an English Literature & Language degree. I didn’t give much thought to how I’d turn that into a job, and at the time had no real sense of how fortunate that made me.
I did a random selection of temp jobs during my degree, including sales at a truck rental depot, data entry and analysis for a primary care trust, and medical secretary to a consultant surgeon.
I learned some cool stuff about the roots of English, a bunch of problematic stuff about ‘postcolonialism’ and that I definitely did not want to be a journalist or a teacher. According to the careers lecture we got in third year, that left publishing, which I decided to give a try.
I managed to land an entry level editorial job and spent 8 years working in publishing (with a brief 10 month foray into compliance to facilitate a move from Oxford, which I hated, to London, which I loved). Publishing taught me a bunch of stuff about communicating with people, managing expectations, working across organisational boundaries, and developing products. It also taught me that some industries still want to pretend the internet is a phase and probably won’t catch on (sorry, publishing, but it’s true). Maybe most importantly, it helped me shape some principles for what I’d like to work on, and how, if I’m fortunate enough to keep getting the choice. Shortly after formulating those principles I left academic publishing. Make what you will of that timeline.
I was struggling to find my way out of publishing — it’s an industry (like many) full of its own accepted norms, job titles and language, and I couldn’t see how the things I’d spent 8 years working on would have any meaning to anyone outside it. I felt pretty trapped and quite low for a while, and then I had a coffee with my friend James.
James seems to quite often provide his floundering friends with helpful career advice, and I hoped he’d do the same for me. We talked about the things I liked doing and the things I was good at, and what was a priority for me. We talked a bit about those principles I’d started to form in my head about work.
He quite quickly suggested Delivery Management, and put me in touch with Emily, who was kind enough to meet me for a coffee and talk me through the Very Helpful Venn Diagram. After lots of chats and some waiting and some interviews, I was really chuffed to be offered a position as a Junior (now ‘Associate’) Delivery Manager at GDS. I’d be working on the data infrastructure programme, and I had absolutely no idea how formative that role would turn out to be.
From that role, I later successfully applied for a Delivery Manager role but spent several months covering both that and the Product Manager role for the brilliant Registers platform team. When that vacancy came up formally, I decided to go for it. Making that decision involved unpicking which bits of my working day were delivery management and which were product management, and having an honest chat with myself about which of those bits I could handle handing over to somebody else. I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to try both roles, and with a team that was super supportive and open, and always had the best memes.
Those roles were formative for me because I got to work on data, which is very interesting and full of problems to solve and smart, passionate people. I also got to work on an infrastructure product, which thrust me into the world of justifying and demonstrating value, picking through legacy technology, and fixing the basics. It was brilliant. That’s fortunate, because it turns out once you’ve dug into data infrastructure you see it everywhere and in every project. I continue to have strong opinions about it regularly.
But, the time was right for me to try new things and get stuck into new challenges. So I joined the lovely folks at dxw digital and have been flying by the seat of my pants ever since, tackling tough problems and meeting more of the smart, committed people that public sector digital work attracts.
Take us through a recent workday
I really dislike rushing in the morning, so I usually get up at around 6:30 and potter about, but often don’t get to the office until 9.30. On the days when I manage to persuade myself to the gym before work I’m up and out much earlier, and get to the office by 8.30.
When I get to the office I try to spend the first hour or so checking in with the team on Slack and seeing if anything is waiting for my input, making sure that any emergent bits of work are getting properly surfaced and prioritised so we aren’t getting lost in rabbit holes.
I’ll have a look at what’s coming up next and make sure it’s ready to be picked up by someone on the team by making sure there’s a clear user story or problem to be solved, and that we’ve been explicit about including or ignoring any edge cases we know about.
At the moment I’m working on a project where part of my role is to help build product management capability at the client’s organisation, so if I identify anything stuck or any stories that need refining I’ll chat to my pair PM about them and we’ll decide what to do.
I usually have a meeting or two with stakeholders in the organisation, making sure that they know what we’re working on and why we’ve prioritised those things. These are really valuable conversations for anticipating any complexities or dependencies, as these stakeholders are also subject matter experts. I hate to sit on things and always prefer to work as openly as possible, so these meetings are a valuable way of talking about unknowns, or things we’re worried about, before they become critical.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Something to stay in touch with my people — my closest friends and family are scattered around the country (and beyond) and I like to be able to drop them a message when I’m thinking about them. That’s usually WhatsApp, but I could live without that if I had another way of achieving the same outcome.
I also love Pocket — it’s tricky to find a decent long read article when you need one (for me this is usually when the Piccadilly Line is broken) and I follow lots of people on twitter who share good things to read, so I love being able to squirrel them away in my phone to dip into when I need a read or flash of inspiration.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
Google Docs instead of meetings. Not always the right thing to do, but since someone in a previous team introduced me to this concept I must have saved hours of those painful meetings where it takes 45 minutes just to realise that everyone understands a different part of the situation, or the same part in different ways. I also like that this takes away that calendar pressure of getting everyone in the same place at once (although that is often the right and important thing to do, too), and makes it easier for everyone to contribute.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work
Inspired by Architecture Decision Records, I’ve taken to recording Product Decision Records alongside the code in our projects, in Github. I like the idea of a record of a decision that includes the context it was made in, and gives teams the ability to review and version their decisions as contexts change or they learn more. I’ve also found it’s a good way of communicating decisions widely and openly, even in complex organisations.
Deciding which decisions should be recorded like this so that they enable the team rather than hampering them with extra process is a bit of a judgement call, but we typically discuss and arrive at these decisions as a team and agree which ones need recording like this. We also make sure at least one other member of the team reviews them before they’re published. We give them a status so it’s clear whether they’re something we’re proposing, or something we think has been approved by everyone it needs to be.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
An ever growing array of trello boards, plus a daily checklist in my notebook of stuff to do today. It helps me prioritise to write down the top things, and I get the satisfaction of ticking them off. It also helps me to feel less anxious to know that I’ve written something down and have somewhere I can check when my focus starts to drift in the mid-afternoon. If something very time sensitive crops up, I write it on a post-it (pink or lime green, blue sharpie, do not @ me) and get to crumple it up when I’ve done it.
What’s your favourite side project?
My favourite side project is not having a side project. I like my job, but I also like seeing my mates and chatting to my boyfriend, reading books, watching cookery shows I should have stopped watching several series ago (looking at you, Great British Menu), cooking nice meals and generally Not Working.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I am currently reading a selection of books from the library (I definitely recommend using your local library). I just finished The Wasp Factory which was very good, and I’m about 3 pages into The Fat Years. I also got 1985 and Oracle Night this time around. I’m enjoying science fiction and magic realism at the moment. I’ve mostly read China Mieville, Paul Auster, Ursula K Le Guin and Margaret Atwood this year.
I also love reading articles when I don’t have a long enough uninterrupted period to get stuck into a book. I use Pocket, and I love true crime, interviews with interesting people, accounts of historical events, and articles about the kind of work I do (although I’m fussiest about those). You can see things I recommend on Pocket.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Back yourself. I needed and loved this advice so much I dropped a billion hints for a sticker after I received it. This advice was part of some broader feedback that made me more aware of when I’m seeking input from others because I really need their expertise, and when I’m seeking input from others because I’m not confident in my decision. It’s helped me to recognise when I’m genuinely collaborating and when I’m seeking reassurance, and that’s helped me be more honest and genuine in my working habits, and also to *back myself* when I’m really just seeking a bit of reassurance. (Thanks, Ed)