Culture @ONSdigital

There is a lot of recruitment going on here at the moment (look over here) and I wanted to write something that gave some insight in to what it is actually like working here – specifically in the team(s) I am responsible for but also more widely in ONS Digital.

As I often do I started this post by tweeting the idea and asking for comments – particularly about what sort of things people would be interested in reading if they were looking for a job. As usual I got some great responses;

@jukesie @ONSdigital I’d suggest things like: work ethos, atmosphere, getting your views heard/implemented, medium-term plans, flexibility
— Giuseppe Sollazzo (@puntofisso) September 18, 2015

@jukesie the big one for me is that the org “gets it” and I wouldn’t have to spend my life arguing for change, I could get on and do it.
— Alex (@blangry) September 18, 2015

@jukesie thats nice, but I want to know what the challenges are, where things are broken + how its being addressed 🙂
— Bonny Colville-Hyde (@almostexact) September 18, 2015

@jukesie @ONSdigital being able to learn and keep on top of new developments, some autonomy, respect for skills of all kinds, openness…
— Libby Miller (@libbymiller) September 18, 2015

@jukesie Good stuff. Additionally: How you collaborate, how you’re managed, whether there’s flexible working; culture, culture, culture.
— Alex Jegtnes (@jegtnes) September 18, 2015

I am going to split this on to two posts – the first focusing in on ‘culture’ and then a second more post about some of the practicalities of working in the team.

So where shall I start?

How about a bit of context.

The teams I am responsible for at ONS are part of the wider ‘Digital, Technology and Methodology’ directorate which is led by David Best, who has recently joined us from Ministry of Justice Digital Services and prior to that was at the Government Digital Service. Above David we have Heather Savory as Director General for Data Capability. Heather previously chaired the Government’s Open Data User Group and is a major advocate of working in a smart, digital first, data driven manner. If, as Mike Bracken recently wrote, you need to ‘hire the head and the body will follow’ then we are in a good position. There is no longer any doubt about the importance of taking a digital approach at ONS – that battle has been fought and won. Change will not happen overnight but if, as Alex mentioned in his tweet, there is a question about the mandate for that change there shouldn’t be. It is happening. Fast.

I read something recently where GDS were (rather dismissively I thought) described as “culturally a web development agency” and to all intents and purposes I think that is probably the best way to describe the activities my team(s) are responsible for. On the one hand we are responsible for building the new ONS website which includes everything from arranging the hosting, sorting the Docker registries, building a publishing platform, developing a pattern library, analysing web analytics, running user research, migrating the content from the current site to working out a plan for archiving. There is a longer term roadmap that outlines some of our ambitions beyond ‘just’ launching the new website.

Elsewhere we have a team primarily responsible for Visual.ONS responsible for turning statistics in to stories, data visualisation, graphic/information design and managing and evalulating our social media – including our great ‘tweeting statisticians’.

Lets get down to to it. Culture. For the team and organisation.

Culture is always a difficult thing to articulate I find – it is a classic case of ‘you had to be there’ but I’ll try. Day to day I sit in what Spotify would call a squad I guess. We are a mix of developers, designers, analysts, user researchers, publishers, delivery managers and me acting as the Product Manager basically. I see my role as two fold – I am the final decision maker when it comes to ‘product’ decisions (but I never make them in isolation) and I (try to) protect the rest of the team from wider distractions from within the organisation and beyond. In turn Laura, my boss and our Chief Publishing Officer (though I think Product would be more appropriate than Publishing) spends a lot of her time trying to protect me from an even wider set of distractions and demands on my cognitive capacity.

Responsibility is shared though and in a team this small everybody has a voice. The technologists in the group are trusted to provide appropriate responses to the challenges that have been identified – either through user research or architectural requirements. That isn’t to say we except everything on faith and there is certainly a culture of pushing each other. We are always looking for ‘boring’ solutions to complicated problems and if you are looking for a place to play with the latest hot technologies we probably are not it – that isn’t to say we don’t appreciate the latest Javascript framework as much as the next team – we just aren’t going to use it…yet.

The team has set itself high standards and pretty much self regulates to maintain them. This can lead to sometimes people pushing themselves a little too hard but we are getting better at spotting that and reacting appropriately. We believe the work we do is important but team well-being is more so. Just to be clear though there is plenty of laughter, cake (and fruit) and, on one occasion, break-dancing in the stand-up so we do strive to maintain a balance.

There is (genuine) flexi-time in place and while the preference is that as much as possible the team is co-located in our Newport office there is no issue with working from home when the situation requires it. I am, for instance, writing this in the comfort (and quiet) of my living room.

What we don’t do well enough yet but do acknowledge is creating more space/time for developers to work in uninterrupted chunks. I’ve always been a believer in Paul Graham’s ‘Maker’s Schedule. Manager’s Schedule’ idea but sometimes it takes discipline to implement. We will get better.

The whole organisation has a pretty healthy attitude to ‘learning’ and we try to follow suit – we encourage things like pair programming, shadowing colleagues in other organisations, attending GDS courses and we try to identify appropriate conferences for the team to attend (I lean towards slightly smaller, specialist events where there are more t-shirts and fewer suits). We also try to sponsor and contribute to a few unconferences, hackdays and meetups where possible to get involved with the wider community.

It is always important though to remember this is taking place in the context of a wider civil service organisation culture. Many, many staff at ONS have been there a decade or more and work alongside family members and old school friends – this does create a rather unique environment. While change is happening it isn’t always embraced by every corner of the organisation sometimes for very understandable reasons – even if you don’t agree with them. Many of the existing processes, procedures and policies are as bureaucratic and clumsy as anywhere I have ever worked. Traditionally there has also been a real aversion to risk as well – again not surprisingly due to the profile of many of our statistics – but this can make attempts at innovation difficult and frustrating at times.

Things really are changing though – I am not sure even a year ago I would have felt comfortable about writing something to encourage people to join me at ONS but increasingly I feel like a true advocate.

If you are looking for an opportunity to be involved in a GDS inspired, digital transformation project I honestly think we are a strong option – even more so if you are interested in things like open data and data visualisation. There is a lot going on – see the recent post from the eQ team and the Census Transformation team is doing really interesting work down in Titchfield. I’m not going to pretend it is all plain sailing and you aren’t going to get the free lunches, beer in the fridge, street art on the walls environment you might get at a start-up or a big internet company but you will get to do interesting, important work and be part of changing an organisation founded by Winston Churchill (depending on what you read!).

In the follow-up post I’ll talk a bit about how we work; our approach to agile, dev/ops, user research, hardware etc – any questions please do ask either in the comments or Twitter (my DMs are open.)

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