I was nominated for this by Debbie¹. I’ve read a bunch of these now and they are fascinating. Will mine be fascinating? YOU DECIDE.
Location: London, UK. I live in the North East (of London) and I work in Westminster (which is in central London). Current Gig: I am the Head of Data and Search at the UK Parliamentary Digital Service. Current mobile device: An iPhone 6S. Current computer: At work I have a Dell laptop, I’m not sure of the model but it’s fairly new. Previously I had a Dell E6400 for maybe 8 years. At home I have a MacBook Air that I don’t really know how to use but the keyboard is nice, and an ancient Fujitsu Siemens laptop running Microsoft Vista that I use for making music. One word that best describes how you work: Deliberately.
First of all, tell us a little² about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up on the end of the Metropolitan Line. I went to an all-boys grammar school. At 16 my family moved near to Portsmouth and I did my A levels at the local community college, which was a healthy culture shock. Then I went to university in London.
I didn’t apply myself academically from the age of 14 to 21. I regret not making more of my time at university in particular. When I graduated I didn’t know what to do. I was living with my parents and working in a pub. Mum and Dad were frustrated with me, because I was a bum. I did a Pitman course that taught me to touch-type and gave me a certificate that said I could use Microsoft Office. Then I was a temp for a bit.
In the summer of 2000 I wanted to move back to London for a relationship so I needed a job. I saw an advert in The Guardian for something to do with telephones and networks at the Houses of Parliament and applied. The only thing I remember about the interview was claiming that I never made mistakes. Early 2000s Dan was an absolute goon.
Somehow I got the job and have been working there ever since. That first role was roughly³ a UK Civil Service AO grade. I soon realised that working was important to me, and that I wanted to stretch myself and progress. I got promoted a couple of times.
In 2006 I became a project manager. Work to do with computers at Parliament had expanded and consolidated into one department. I got to work on a wide variety of projects in a fairly short space of time and I had some experienced people around me to learn from. In 2008 I moved out of the IT department to work in a small, central office in the House of Commons. This was unusual at the time — people tended to move into IT on secondment from elsewhere but not the other way around. That was an interesting couple of years to apply myself to a different, ‘corporate’ context, and my manager was brilliant.
I moved back to the IT department in 2010. I was working exclusively on in-house software development projects by then, something I had started to get involved in in 2007. Then I became a programme manager, taking responsibility for a programme that was in trouble. I thought I would be able to turn it around, but I couldn’t and that was a valuable lesson. This was when I learned the importance of being honest with stakeholders⁴. That sweet, dispassionate spot between everything is fine it’ll be fine and everything is on fire it is the end.
When the programme ended I became the Head of Software Development, responsible for all the software engineering we did in-house for internal applications and our public-facing websites. This was 2013. People did a double-take because I was the project manager who used to issue the mobile telephones and write the telephone directory. However, at the time the organisation’s software development was in an absolute state and turning it around was primarily a people and management challenge rather than a technical one⁵. Also by this time I’d picked up a fair bit.
I did this for 3 years. I helped to make things better. I helped to save millions of pounds of public money. I helped to build a team of permanent staff. I started to look outside of my organisation more. I slowly started using social media and blogging for work. I stared to think about ‘agile’ beyond the 6 years I’d been using it for software engineering. I worked on the first attempt at an open data service for the UK Parliament and that really broadened my horizons, brought me face to face with users, and gave me a bit of a ‘democratic mission’ for the first time.
Then the Digital Service came into being. I applied for a Director-level position but didn’t get it (although I did fairly well, and it was reassuring at the time to feel that that kind of job wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility). So I pitched being the Head of Data and Search to the new Department Director, based on what I’d learned. Thankfully they thought it was a good idea, but it needed further development and some open competition for it to happen, which it did about six months later in April 2016.
Since then I’ve been responsible for all the data and all the search, and making it better. Also I brought together the best team I’ve ever worked with.
When I tell people new to my organisation how long I’ve worked there they recoil in horror and as the years go by I feel myself slowly morphing into a piece of Pugin furniture. However, I feel an affinity with the mission (rather than the institutions) and up until now I’ve never felt stuck because each new opportunity has been interesting and a stretch.
Take us through a recent workday.
I’m not going to answer this properly because I don’t have a typical workday. If my work has a pattern it’s more of a weekly one than a daily one.
Some days in the office are short due to childcare (usually Mondays or Tuesdays, and alternate Fridays). Some days in the office are long (whatever’s left). I don’t usually start before 10:00, either because I can’t (taking my kids to school), or because that’s my preference. However, I try to get in earlier at least once a week.
I get up anywhere between 06:30 and 08:00. It takes me an hour and half to get out of the house. I travel to work on the Victoria line, usually with my eyes closed and listening to music. It takes about 40 minutes to get to Westminster.
It’s not an exact science, but Monday and Friday tend to be light on meetings, whereas Thursdays in particular I can have them back to back from as soon as I get in. Meetings are varied because my work is varied — from one to ones to standing ceremonial things to larger groups to workshops to formal boards, and with a wide variety of people. I wander around and check in with folks informally too. I also try to see at least one person from outside of my organisation every week.
I bring in my lunch and eat it at my desk, usually after 14:00.
On the longer days, time from 17:00 to 20:00 or so is good for writing and thinking and trying to keep vaguely on top of email.
On the way home I usually walk about half a mile to Pimlico because the station is less busy. If I feel up to it I’ll read a book.
Every day is different, so I get home anywhere between 16:30 and 22:00. I don’t work when I’m at home, apart from my side-hustles. That means I don’t check email when I’m not in the office. If something is up there’s WhatsApp and Slack but there’s not much activity there really.
It works. I like that I can’t put in much beyond my contracted hours (unless I slept in the office, or I could manipulate time itself). I’d like to try working from home once a week because saving on travel time for childcare days would balance other days better. I worry about working from home though because I value the switching off, which is something I didn’t always do in the past.
I should also take an actual lunch break.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Life would be rather different without my phone featuring Twitter and to a lesser extent Slack, WhatsApp, and Medium.
I need a notebook to write in. My favourite is the A5 Rhodia Webnotebook, lined, and in orange. I can also go for the Leuchtturm 1917, as long as it’s orange. For pens I like Berol Handwriting, a Sharpie, and that Pentel one that’s like a Sharpie you could take to the ambassador’s residence for dinner. Those are all black and my favourites, but I write in all manner of colours and I like pencils as well.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
My former boss Emma put it in my head that it was good to have a nap during the day, so I have been trying that out. Not at work (yet). I try to keep it to 35 minutes otherwise I’m properly asleep. It does help my energy levels in the evening.
When I play guitar I wear a hairband on my fretting hand, the idea being that the small amount of resistance makes things easier to play when the hairband isn’t there. This is also a general principle for living (work a bit outside of your comfort zone). I’m not a lifestyle guru though so I won’t pretend that I do that all the time.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
I like the dance of trying to book a room by inviting it to a meeting in Outlook, and having it reject you until you ask it properly.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
A rolling ‘to do’ list follows me around like a pet cloud that only I can see, like in a Miyazaki film. The cloud gets bigger and bigger, obscuring the sun. Occasionally the cloud strikes me with metaphorical lightning when there’s something really urgent or important to do. My notebook is the physical manifestation of the cloud. Every day I fold a page in half and write things to do afresh.
What’s your favourite side project?
I have many side projects. My favourite is probably gathering data about my meetings on a colourful form that I’ve developed over the past couple of years, and recording it all on an open spreadsheet. The form in particular was inspired by Dear Data.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I wrote about 3 books that helped me at work:
3 books that helped me to understand bureaucracy
I went to a talk by Kit Collingwood. It was about a future state of the machinery and people of Government — one that…
Of those, David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Pale King’ sticks with me the most.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think of Alyson Fielding’s ‘Practical Action’ series, and the one that says
Change takes time
A few people have told me that in not so many words over the years.
¹ Thank you!
³ People who work in the administrations at the UK Parliament aren’t civil servants, but it’s very similar
⁴ Today I would say ‘people’, but this is a flashback to 2012
⁵ Today I would say all the challenges are about people not technology but this is a flashback to 2013
⁶ I am the Head of Data and Search