A jelly looking for a mould?

An attempt at honesty about my mental health and working life.

It’s the turn of 2019 and here I am contemplating a big shift in my career.
After two-and-a-half marvellous years at Cogapp I’m off again with a spring in my step to seek my fortune.

This post is going to be a bit more candid about where I’m at: it’s about work/life and what happens next. As such, it’s going to be written by this go-getting, future-facing, reflexive but positive voice that has always been a huge part of me. But I’m also going to attempt, for the first time, to be more open about the emotional gremlins that are less comfortable to expose and harder to put on a CV.

At Cogapp, I joined as a developer, all set to build my l33t h4xor skillz in HTML, Drupal, JavaScript, Solr, Python… you get it. That was after a 3-month intensive course at General Assembly and I pretty much couldn’t believe my luck: I got to build digital stuff for GLAMs with a team that are among the best in the business. What could possibly go wrong?

I had got to the point where I could (can!) fix bugs, write small programs or pages and so on. I could (can!) also see the broad architecture of a project — the bigger picture, the core problems and how to shape solutions. Frustrations came when connecting all the pieces, and building stuff from scratch. My colleagues would race ahead with an incredibly lucid conception of all the moving parts — load balancers, search indexes, multiple internal APIs… They could see a project and build the right engine in their heads, whether it was a turbocharged V8 or a 50cc 2-stroke. I felt like I was limited to tuning the parts when they were already in front of me, or discussing the driver’s benefits.

The team were amazing about it, and luckily appreciated that my background in museums, heritage and academia meant I could step into other gaps in the workflow: research, analytics, user experience, data processing. But these aren’t the core of Cogapp’s offer and only some projects demand such work. When those projects were no longer on the books, it was time to say goodbye. I learned a huge amount at a great company — just not what I expected to. Leaving is the right call for Cogapp and for me.

Job identity | Personal title

Web developer, E-communications assistant, Wikipedian-in-Residence, Doctoral candidate in public archaeology, Archaeological fieldwork technician, Heritage/Media startup director. I only have to go back as far as my undergraduate degree to confuse myself with the diversity of my job titles. Add in the fact that I was pursuing professional photography before my Archaeology BSc and from a flattering angle I look like some sort of polymath.

What do you put on your business cards? Twitter bio? Conference badges? LinkedIn? I’ve tried to sassily/self-deprecatingly summarise the ping-pong journey between jobs with stuff like: “Web Developer | Museum Geek”, “Museum and Heritage brain-for-hire” and currently “Cultural comms and digital bod”.

The connective tissue between my jobs seems to be about presenting old stuff — archaeology, art, heritage, collections — through various channels — digital, visual, stories, exhibits. The passion for it is consistent: I get pissed off when I think it’s being done badly. I have a hunger to improve it, to help organisations build dialogue between their collections and their audiences.

Several people have suggested I cast my net further: that my mishmash of skills could benefit any creative, interpretive, digital-focussed team. The obvious initial candidates are digital agencies: Brighton has plenty of them and they apply many of the creative tools that I love to unleash on a problem.

A case history…

Parental deaths are common. Quitting academia is common. Mental health issues are common. We should all share about these more. This is easy for me to say in the abstract. I can even try to remember that one common symptom of depression is a sense that one’s own story is invalid and pathetic. I’m not trying to add to the discourse — there are plenty of people with more insight and far worse situations. I’m not remotely going to expose my whole story, but this openness about the connection between mental health and work is new.

The team at Cogapp couldn’t have been better about it — support, compassionate leave, flexibility and openness — an exemplary way to support staff with mental health/invisible health issues. My departure was coincidental but unrelated.

Elsewhere in working life, most people have a healthy distaste for meetings. But the good ones? They’re pretty much my favourite thing. Bouncy, creative, round-table meetings with lots of energy, ideas, biscuits and possibilities. Taking problems apart, unravelling everyone’s issues, hunting for the underlying causes, establishing testable ways forward. Academic conferences and seminars could be good for these, Cogapp was better — including some of the workshops I went to and ran.

So what the hell happens next?

Yesterday I went to Culture24’s marvellous Let’s Get Real conference.

It was great to reconnect with creative, like-minded and forward-thinking people. People who want to make museums work as forces for good and make positive spaces online and off. It deepened my hunger to make a difference to the sector and gave some sense I have done my ‘10,000 hours’ here, even if I never set out to do them.

The familiar frustrations I heard expressed led to a bigger mix of feelings. On the one hand: a sense that the lessons I’d learned at Cogapp and across my career put me in a great spot to help tackle these problems. Want to get agile? Want to do better social media? Bring design thinking on board? Harness creativity? Connect with communities? Analyse audience data? I can help with all of these and a bunch of other things. If I can’t help, I’ll tell you who can.

Brooklyn, Derby, Bristol, Santa Cruz. They have their problems, but these museum teams seem to be making great strides in the right direction and thriving. It is more than possible. From what I’ve seen, fostering staff initiative and talent has been crucial to their success. If you want your team to look more like that, I would love to be involved.

At Let’s Get Real yesterday, we finished with a great ‘Agony Aunt and Uncle’ session with Anra Kennedy, Ross Parry, Dan Martin, Steph Fuller and cliff manning. The panel unpacked great practical questions submitted by museum staff ‘at the coal face’. I took a different tack, so my (understandably unanswered) provocation was:

It’s 2029. How many UK museums have a Creative Director?

A quick google shows very few 2019 museum teams have this role, especially outside North America. But surely modern museum teams have to be as creative as advertising agencies? TV production companies? Fashion houses?

So. Here’s my hubristic voice saying I would like to be one of the people with that title by that year. That’s the mould I think I’d fit best.

If you got this far, thanks for reading. I hope it wasn’t too awkward or self-indulgent. Please get in touch with projects, ideas, comments or chances to collaborate.

pat [at] pathadley.net or PatHadley on Twitter

Cultural comms and digital bod. (On a partial mental health break) Poorly preserved archaeologist remains. Formerly @cogapp @YorkMuseumTrust