I've spent a year working in tech, this is what I've learned...

by Claire Brown - Central team member - communications

A year ago, I had my first conversation with our ceo Ben over the phone, it went something like this:

Ben: [Tells me he wants to bring local people and refugees together to cook and eat meals all over the UK].

Me: ‘Ok, cool, so you’re looking for funding for a bunch of regional coordinators to run them?’

Ben: ‘Not exactly, we’re going to design technology to make it self sustaining and scalable.’

Me: ‘Oh.’

I’d worked with tech before, project managing websites, running online campaigns etc, but never in tech. In tech felt to me like the scene in the Matrix when Neo sees the screen with all the green letters and numbers for the first time. Confusing and incomprehensible.

Nevertheless, after a *gruelling* interview over a sausage roll in a pub in Nottingham, Ben asked me to be part of the team. (Note: We’ve tightened up procedures since, Local Welcome interviews now include two rounds of sausage rolls).

He was after a ‘words-y’ person and this I am. I do the words that ask funders to give us money and the words that get people to do a thing - some people call this marketing. I’ve been doing this for quite a while, mainly for charities and education. I managed six months in business once *shudders*.

Back in those carefree days of December 2017, agile meant being able to navigate a party with a GnT in one hand and a clutch of savoury eggs in the other, lean was something that tower in Pisa did, stand-up was a lyric in a Bob Marley song and a sprint was something to be done in extreme circumstances only (like, when you see an ex and their new partner walking towards you in the street).

So now, a year later, with my hindsight goggles firmly on, here’s what I’d tell 2017 me.

Dear Claire,

1. Get used to being intimidated, but question the mythologising

You’re going to be confused, a lot. You’re not going to understand everything straight away. This will frustrate you, immensely. Stick with it, keep asking questions. You’ll go for monthly bagels with Eliot (our strategy person), you’ll say ‘explain this agile thing to me’ and you’ll understand about 15% of what he says, don’t panic. Keep asking questions. You’ll get to 75% in no time :-)

You’ll come across people with fantastical job titles and impossibly impressive bios who look about 12 yet have 15 million followers on Twitter. Even reading about them will make you want to hyperventilate. You’ll feel like you’re being waterboarded by imposter syndrome. Breathe. There’s genuine talent in this industry, but there’s a lot of mythologising too. Train yourself to look for people’s results. If they’re good, find out how they did it and learn from them.

2. Failure is an option

You know how you’ve spent the last decade convincing people in power that your plan is the best plan, it’s definitely going to work, and can you please have some money to do it? Well, you can wave goodbye to that. No, really. There’s this thing called agile, it’s basically the opposite of everything you’ve ever done. You don’t have to make a plan (you’ll have a roadmap), you don’t have to list every activity you’re going to do for the next year and you’re going to focus on what you’ve learned.

It’s going to feel odd at first, you’ll be suspicious, you’ll worry the team isn’t moving quickly enough, you’ll feel insecure because employers have always valued you because of the numbers you’ve brought in, and there are no numbers yet because we’re learning. And learning means you have space to fail. You’ve got to do it quickly, but you can fail, and be honest and open about it. In fact, you have to be. After a decade of holding your breath, you get to breathe out. It’s going to feel great. And don’t worry, there will be numbers (big ones) but embrace the opportunity to learn this year because it’s going to make hitting those targets a whole lot more doable.

3. You’re going to love lean

You’ll read Lean Startup about 8 years after everyone else. Don’t worry, this will give you an opportunity to Google the case studies and conduct your own ‘where are they now?’ poll of the businesses in the book, giving you even more insight (#smuglaggard).

This agile/lean thing will start to make sense. It’s about being super-efficient, making bets, experimenting and of course, learning. You’ve never had the freedom to experiment before because you’ve always been expected to come up with a winner first time. With this pressure lifted, you’ll find yourself being more creative, more willing to take risks (bets?) and, let’s face it, a lot kinder to yourself.

4. User research will give you the feels

You’ll have the very peculiar experience of watching someone read what you’ve written or use what you’ve helped to design and have them tell you it’s either a) awesome or b) the worst thing they’ve ever encountered.

Either way, you’ll find it pretty electrifying. Putting your own work under the microscope like this will make you feel exposed and uncomfortable but you’ll love the immediacy of the feedback and you’ll wonder why on earth you’ve never done this before. You’ll start to think of this feedback as a gift and you’ll love your users (even the haters!) because they’re giving up their time to help you and the team be better at what you do.

5. Keep calm and iterate

This is going to be hard to read: you’re not going to get it 100% right first time. It hurts, I know, but it’s going to be ok. Turns out this tech business is all about iteration. Design the thing, test the thing, make the thing better. You’re going to spend lots of your time incrementally improving your work, you’ll never be finished. Think of it like this; instead of achieving perfection once, you’re going to achieve perfection multiple times. Version 1 will be the most perfect you can make it with the information you have at the time. Version 2 will be the most perfect you can make it with the information you learned from testing Version 1 and so on.... So, you can go about achieving perfection over and over (and doesn’t that feel nice?).

So there you have it. Five things I’ve learned from being in tech. Bring on 2019...