This is how I work… give or take.

Find out more about #MyPathToTheCivilService and how I work

Sam Villis
Nov 12, 2018 · 8 min read
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Lesley Knope

Amanda has been writing a blog post a day for #NaBloPoMo and she recently published a version of @jukesie’s recent “This is how I work…” post.

She also nominated a few people to write their own version and I was one of those people. So, dutifully, here we go…

Location: London (Work), Hertfordshire (Live)
Current Gig: Senior Technology Advisor at GDS, soon to be Local Collaboration Manager at MHCLG.
Current mobile device: iPhone 8 Plus
Current computer: MacBook Air (work), iPad Pro (home)

One word that best describes how you work: hopefully.

My family are from the west country but I grew up in suburban Bedfordshire.

At school I wasn’t brilliant but I wasn’t awful so the teachers mostly left me alone. I was bullied though and I remember being incredibly unhappy a lot of the time.

My horizons were fairly narrow. I wish someone had pushed me towards a design discipline but my school didn’t really do that kind of thing.

At GCSE I got B grades in everything, which was good considering the amount of revision I did, but it didn’t help to give me any direction. At A-level I chose English Literature, Geography, and French or Art. For no real reasons.

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Flight of the Concords singing in french.

I think I had a vague idea about learning french so I could get a job at Disneyland Paris because that seemed like fun, but couple of weeks in I realised I hated it and I wasn’t allowed to switch.

Every French lesson gave me panic attacks. I was studying with students who went on to Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and I couldn’t keep up. I think the teacher found me exasperating.

If I knew then what I know now I would have dumped French and just done Art anyway.

At some point in school I filled out a careers survey, and I tried to write it to say I should be a journalist because I liked writing and thought it would be cool. But the survey asked lots of social background questions including whether my parents went to uni and what they did for a living. My mum was a nursery nurse at the time. The result came back that I should be a nursery nurse (or maybe a teacher).

I worked weekends in a hotel as a chambermaid for £3.25 per hour and what I earned I spent on going out to a local toilet venue [1] seeing rubbish local bands or buying anything in the “Four for £20” offer at the Virgin Megastore.

I failed French and messed up my English exams, but managed to pull together enough points for a uni place. I chose English with Media Studies at Falmouth College of Arts because I thought it would give me more scope and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.

My mental health became pretty awful at uni because I stayed up late and drank too much too often. But I still managed somehow to get a 2:1.

After uni my work-life looked something like this:

  • Receptionist in a doctors surgery (literally everyone hates doctors surgery receptionists and this did nothing for my self-esteem).
  • Quit the doctors surgery because “…it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I have a degree and want to do something else, mum! Yes I know I’m living here rent free! But I can’t work in a doctors surgery forever!”
  • A very short stint of work experience at a music Press Office in Brixton, getting lots of free records and gig tickets. Writing reviews and interviews (for free) for online and print music magazines. Couldn’t find a paid job in the industry. One cannot live on free records alone.
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Lisa Simpson listening to a record
  • My first proper job[2] was at a small customer publishing agency as Publishing Assistant (read: dogsbody). We published magazines for such diverse clients as the Civil Service and Ladbrokes (yes really).
  • My second job was also as a publishing assistant at a different agency. I did more dogsbodying; couriering things around town, getting coffees, PA-ing, but also got to do some interesting things like picture research, researching articles, and some caption writing here and there. I got made redundant after the 2008 recession hit.
  • I wrote to LOADS of London web, marketing and PR agencies with my CV asking for roles after this, but nothing came of it.
  • Took a job as a web editor and worked at that for a while. I worked two shifts at Waterstones before a contractor role as QA assistant at Capita came in via a friend.
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A gif from Black Books
  • Several months later an agency who had saved my CV called and asked if I wanted to interview for a web project manager role. I spent two years there which were tumultuous but taught me a lot. I wrote a lot of bids and proposals, I worked with a multidisciplinary team for the first time, and I got to see under the hood of an agency. At least two GDS colleagues worked at this agency with me, so it can’t have been too bad, though there are probably some war stories.
  • Then I moved to an eCommerce and marketing agency.
  • Then I moved to an advertising agency which I thought was cool. However ‘Digital’ for that agency at that time was what you added on to the main business of creating TV and print ads, so I made more crappy banners than I would care to admit. But I also got to fill a lot of user experience gaps and create workable user journeys; helping the “creatives” with digital executions. The downside to this was that as a project manager I was not deemed to be creative and I never got any credit. Ideas were currency. I also experienced toxic bullying there which is probably another story for another time.

My work life took a lot of turns, and I never had a clearly defined path, but I grew resilient and I learned loads.

While I was at the advertising agency I fell pregnant, and after having my little one it became clear to me that it would not be a welcoming environment for me to return to.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I asked recruiters about job shares and part-time work in the industry I’d been working in. They were at worst, dismissive, and at best, ineffective.

A friend from school randomly told me that his ex-colleague was recruiting at the Cabinet Office and put me in touch. I would have never considered applying for anything within the Civil Service before that point, but when I asked about part-time working the team weren’t just receptive, they were welcoming, it made a massive difference to my confidence.

I stayed at the Cabinet Office for almost three years working as a Senior Digital Business Partner before moving to GDS in 2018 to work in the Standards Assurance team. I’m shortly moving to a new role at MHCLG.

I hadn’t realised before joining just how varied the roles in the civil service were, and I hadn’t made the connection between being in the civil service and making a real difference to how people live their lives. I wish someone had told me that sooner.

Most days I’m up at 6.30am and I get the train from home into London at 7.20am. I arrive at Blackfriars and either get the train east, to Whitechapel, or west to Westminster depending on the day.

A day might look like:

  • Attending One Team Gov breakfast in Westminster
  • Hanging around Horse Guards Road to check emails, do a bit of work or take a conference call in between meetings.
  • Travel to another department’s office for a meeting, or join a skype call, hangout, conference call.
  • Hang out somewhere (usually a coffee shop) near that office to take a call or work. I’ll often eat in random places depending on where I am. Or if I’m at work I’ll pop and get something but almost always eat at my desk.
  • I might also be doing 1:1s or meeting mentees, or meeting other super cool public sector heroes for coffee (on a good day)

I work some half days now but when I’m working a full day I have to get the train home and often don’t get home till 7pm. I might do some work if I need to make up time or if I’m particularly busy. I might do some One Team Gov work, or I’ll watch TV and do chores till bedtime.

Coloured pens: Stabilo Greenpoint are my favourite, and a plain or dot grid notebook. I always carry a Sharpie, for safety.

I need physical things and I can’t get by with just Trello or other productivity tools. I find it really hard to read on screen so I have to print long documents out. Sorry, that’s just how it is.

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Stabilo Greenpoint

Twitter and the One Team Gov network have become handy places to test out ideas and build on my thoughts.

The whole spend controls process is very interesting but probably too big to go into here (and I’ve already gone on too long).

Lists. Lots of lists. Kanban and I use my email to help me prioritise.

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Mike Wazowski makes lists.

It tends to be whatever one I’m currently working on.

All About Love by bell hooks and How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop.

Lots of people have already done it! You’ll find them neatly collated here:

If I had to choose who I would really like to hear more from it would be Coco, Emeric and Rahma.

That mental illness lies to you.


[1] This is a technical term for a small local venue that lots of emerging bands have to play as a rite of passage. As mentioned in the Muse song Muscle Museum.

[2] Proper because it was in London? Very possibly *eye roll*

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