Saturday, 30 October 2021

Leaving GDS

This month I left the Civil Service. I have been a Civil Servant for nearly five years and honestly was keen to do at least another five, however this was not meant to be. There is a lot to unpack, and no doubt reflecting and processing will keep me supplied with topics for blog posts for a long while but I couldn't not write something here.

I have learned a huge amount over the last five years. I've learned a ton about digital transformation and how senior leadership in a large organisation works. I've learned about how decisions are made in these large, bureaucratic organisations and how important it is to create alignment between business functions in order to get things done. I've seen how important it is to get the foundational practices and processes right and sustainable. I've seen many instances where people have been held back by their inability to take ownership of something - frequently through no real fault of their own. More importantly, I've learned a lot about managing and leading a large group of technical staff and, if the frankly astonishing comments in my leaving card are to be believed, I have been successful in at least this last one. In short, I have seen over and over again how it always comes back to the people and I have worked with some folk who are absolutely fantastic, and I hope lifelong friends.

So why did I leave? The reasons are long and complex but fundamentally it felt like I wasn't really making anything better any more. In leadership, there is work to be done to improve the world as you see it. There is also work to be done managing wider organisational change, which can be beneficial or detrimental to one's own people. There needs to be a balance here and for me the pendulum had swung so far to the latter, it felt like my entire job was playing backstop. Ultimately, I found myself working against the wider direction of the organisation and this was neither sustainable nor healthy.

The organisation had changed, and I had to ask myself some searching questions. Am I still learning and growing? Is what I'm now doing a good thing for my career? Do I want to be part of this new direction? While doing this I realised quite how exhausted I am feeling, and decided it was time to leave.

I obviously reflected on this decision extensively during my notice period, but the point where it properly sank in as definitely the right choice was when I visited the office for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I walked in, ran in to a lot of very lovely people and felt very sad. But I also realised that I was looking at an illusion - I was very sad for the world I remembered 18 months prior, but time had moved on (as it tends to do) and the world on that day was very different. In essence, I had a huge injection of nostalgia but I couldn't go back to that world no matter what choices I made. In the new world leaving was the correct thing to do.

Looking back hurts, and detailed stories are for the pub. Time to look forward instead. What do I actually want to do with my time? Right now, I'm feeling incredibly weary and burned out so I'm enjoying some time unemployed. I've also discovered that I like the sense of possibility stretching out in front, and so I'm avoiding lining something up for a month or so away. I've often found when on a normal stretch of leave that I beat myself up if I don't do anything with a day, because I am aware there are only so many before I go back. With no number ticking down, I am finding it much easier to rest properly in a day and I think I need this at the moment.

In the short term, my mental and physical health are priorities. Both have taken a severe battering over the years - especially the last 12 months - and need pulling back to a better place. I have already started hitting the gym again, and eating better and this combined with more sleep and less stress is doing wonders for my energy levels. I also recognise what a wonderful opportunity I have here - with few outgoings, no dependants, and 18 months of enforced saving thanks to lockdown, I can afford to take my time.

Longer term, unfortunately I will have to work again. I've given everything to my job over the last five years so part of me is keen to try something less all-consuming. However, that isn't really me so I'll likely jump into another maelstrom of "interesting problems". In the last few years I have discovered an interest in organisational design and how that ties into enabling sustainable delivery and technical leadership, so I'm looking to see whether I can find some work operating in this area. Non-engineering firms (ie not Google, Facebook or Amazon types) often seem to neglect technical leadership, instead treating engineers as fungible resources. There is a whole career talking about why this is wrong, short-sighted and a waste of their people - so I'm going to see if that career can be mine.

Importantly, I'm trying to make sure I can hit my main motivator. I moved from coding to management roles because I believe the technical industry (a famously hostile place at times) can be better for the people working in it. I'm keen to do what I can to enable this future. Sooner or later, I suspect that will mean taking responsibility for people again so it's a case of finding the right match - somewhere I am excited by the problems and I can do some good.

I guess there is a pitch here - if anyone reading this wants a chat about any of the above topics, and maybe progress that into a few days consulting here or there please do get in touch. In particular if you're about to go through some organisational transformation and maybe starting to hire engineers. I'm easily contactable through Twitter or LinkedIn, amongst others.

But that is another day. For the moment, I'm enjoying the very generous send-off from my friends in GDS and the Cabinet Office and trying to understand what this rest thing is.