A presentation given at Ada’s List Conference in London on 9 November 2019.
Today I’m going to cover:
- Who am I?
- What are weeknotes?
- What I’ve gained
- How to get started
A quick few points about me:
- I worked in very small (less than 50) small customer publishing agencies making magazines that you might get through your door or might look at while you’re on the train.
- Took my first “digital” job in 2010 making websites at an agency as a Project Manager
- Moved on to work in eCommerce for a bit
- Moved to advertising, making lots of social campaigns and banners
- Had a baby in 2014, advertising wasn’t a hospitable place to return to…
A friend who worked in recruitment called me and said that his friend was recruiting for the Cabinet Office, and that I should go for it.
My response was… “Sure, I know what that is…”
In reality, the Cabinet Office is made up of around 2,000 people, so it’s much much larger than any of the organisations I’d worked for before, but it’s also part of the UK Civil Service which employs 450,000 people across the UK and around the world.
The Cabinet Office is the centre of government, it’s where policy is spun up and made, it changes all the time.
So not only had I joined a massive organisation I’d sat myself smack bang in the centre of it.
In my first year there I felt completely lost, there was all kinds of bureaucracy, it felt slow. I felt like I was swimming in treacle in comparison to my previous fast-paced roles.
This is Oxford University
On top of that this was in the heart of whitehall, there are obviously a lot of very educated, really clever people there, many of whom come from more privileged backgrounds than me, private school educations and went to prestigious universities.
My background not like that, I have a degree, but I went to Cornwall to get it (anyone else know there was a university in Cornwall? Didn’t think so)
But in actual fact this was a result of being in a new environment with a new set of rules and conventions that I didn’t understand. I now see this as a social mobility issue and I try not to question my place here, but in that first year I really strongly felt like I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough.
I decided that I wanted to get a new job and I thought that one way of doing it might be to start writing on the internet about my experience so I went out looking for blogs and things to read to spot a new opportunity.
And look, we’re all here at Ada’s list conference presumably because we have some understanding of what I’m getting at.
This tech space can be really inhospitable to a whole range of different people from different backgrounds, which is why Ada’s list is such a haven and a supportive community for so many of us.
And I’m not going to tell you that weeknotes will get you through that (if you work in a toxic environment get the hell out!) but what I will tell you is that weeknotes made it easier to see myself in the space, and not to feel guilty or bad about being there.
So I started reading blog posts and more.
I discovered voices. Interesting, unusual voices!
People doing more than just working and getting by, these were people baking 100 cakes for their colleagues as an elaborate metaphor for living your principles.
One of the posts I first stumbled across was this by Dan Barrett who, at the time was Head of Data and Search at UK Parliament. Yes it’s a weird blog, yes it’s an elaborate metaphor, but what I heard was a real human voice, someone pushing at the boundaries of what was expected of them.
I realised that Dan was writing weeknotes for work every week for a whole year (you may infer from this that Dan isn’t the kind of person who does things by halves)
I started reading them religiously and went looking for more. At that point a few people were writing them, but they were almost all men and almost entirely people with more expertise than me (or who had at least been around for longer). Then something else happened.
What are weeknotes?
But wait I’m getting ahead of myself, what are weeknotes?
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of weeknotes:
- Project Updates
- Old-school blogging
I’m going to assume that most people in this room are familiar with the agile manifesto, but it’s this point “Working software over comprehensive documentation”
weeknotes have enabled lots teams working in an agile way to share openly and often, they tend to be short, bulleted lists of the work achieved or a single line in a slack channel, so they’re not cumbersome to manage, and they help teams be flexible and respond to change.
Occasionally these include what teams might be thinking or feeling about what they will do next, or include insights that might change the course of their work.
Most of the weeknotes community that I’m part work in and around Civic Tech, either within the public sector, local and central government, charities or companies that work with government.
The Government Digital Service has had a huge impact across that sector in how people in these sort of digital roles act.
When GDS was set up, they immediately broke the mould for how government would act by sharing their working openly. Their early blogs were informative, encouraged discussion, and shared insights. Most importantly they weren’t written by the organisation, they were written by real, individual human beings. With real names! For instance, this post is by Richard Pope. It moved government away from broadcasting news an announcements and into a more conversational area.
But GDS is only just 8 years old, and this sort of activity was new then. Other government departments are still risk averse when it comes to blogging, or it is controlled by a comms team, which is why, I think, more and more public servants have chosen to step outside of that and blog for themselves.
I would say that the weeknotes we have out there right now mix these two things, they’re about work, they tell you about work, but they also mix in that interesting personal and human stuff too.
Following Dan’s lead, Julie started writing!
It was strange but seeing a women writing weeknotes actually kinda gave me permission to think that this might be something I could do too.
Both Dan and Julie’s honesty gave me confidence that I could just go ahead and write something and it would be ok, even if nobody read it. And, the mixture of the work and the personal, in Julie’s case talking about her love of cycling alongside her day job, helped me to see that work and life could come together here.
So in June 2017 I wrote my first weeknote, complete with spelling mistakes and typos.
While Medium is a blogging platform it has inbuilt social functionality, so it meant I quickly could see who was reading my posts, what they were writing, and we could start to interact.
Matt Jukes made us a home, the Web of Weeknotes, a medium publication where we could publish our weeknotes in one place.
After not very long a little contingent of weeknoters built up.
There were less than 10 of us writing regularly back then, but this was a really lovely little support network and we quickly became friends, despite different backgrounds and organisations, despite different roles and hobbies.
Here were a set of humans within my huge organisation (or just outside of it), reading things, going running, dealing with health issues, listening to music and watching TV shows, talking about themselves and their work and how the two were irrevocably connected.
This picture was taken at UKGovCamp last January, there were more than 30 people in the room interested to know more about getting started with weeknotes.
Just as I’d gained affinity with Dan, Julie and others in those early days, by being human on the internet our little group began to grow. There are now 97 people listed as writers within the weeknotes publication on Medium and many more on personal websites.
There are now enough people doing this that I think it’s firmly gaining legitimacy and the amount of people doing it show that there must be some benefits!
But wait, there’s something we need to acknowledge here. There are so many reasons why it can be difficult for people to weeknote, and, if you look at the pictures of those who do, there are a lot of people who look like me (white people) in there.
It’s really important to acknowledge that publishing ourselves online is something that not all of us feel safe doing, that’s more likely if you’re a marginalised group like being a woman of colour or a part of the LGBT community.
And what have I gained from writing weeknotes?
- Weeknotes made it ok to be me.
When I joined the civil service I didn’t always feel as though I was being authentically me. Weeknotes gave me the space to be myself.
I was allowed to be a little bit weird because it was my space, I was allowed to talk about obscure indie bands and user centred design and my mental health all at the same time because I made the rules here. In that way it was incredibly empowering.
As time has gone on that authentic me that I carved out space for has had more room to actually be with me in the physical world of work.
2. Weeknotes helped me to build a community
As I mentioned before the most immediate and brilliant thing is that this brought me was a group of engaged, interested, interesting people many of whom I’m lucky to now call friends.
As a naturally awkward person it also made it easier for people to come to me and to speak about things they were interested in. I really appreciated people who connected with me because we had something in common.
One of the points at which I knew Weeknotes were a special community was when one of us shared their weeknote with a number of us personally rather than publishing. They had some news that they didn’t feel comfortable publishing, but wanted us to know about. Seeing the community rally around was something really special.
It also helped me to realise that in such a large organisation it’s impossible to know everything. Once I realised that it was quite freeing but what I learned through writing is that the most important thing is to have an idea of who might know something.
Growing a community of people around me meant it was easier to see the lay of the land, if I didn’t know the answer I might know someone who might, I started to be able to map my surroundings and to navigate my way through this new environment.
3. Weeknotes have given me new perspectives.
By sharing openly and often, on a community platform, I’ve been able to get feedback and other people’s views quickly and get pointers for other things I should consider. People’s comments and lived experiences all feed into how I think.
I also believe that by more people writing, we are helping to shine a light on some of those weird rules and conventions that I encountered when I joined the civil service, hopefully demystifying it and making it accessible to a wider range of people.
That also leads me on to…
4. Weeknotes have pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Writing weeknotes initially gave me a push to do more things and to find out more. If only for the reason that I was terrified that I’d have nothing to say each week! So I started going further outside of my comfort zone, visiting other organisations, meeting new people and trying new things.
But after a while, I stopped having to look for opportunities as more came straight to me through conversations and contacts.
This is me, delivering a session on sketchnoting at a big unconference last year. With me is Kim, she works in the scottish government and we met via weeknotes. We were both interested in sketchnoting and the organisers asked us to do this together.
I can’t draw for toffee, I was working with someone I had never met, I had approximately 5 minutes to put the agenda together because of other stuff, yet it was a really great thing to be a part of.
5. Weeknotes enable me to reflect and reframe.
My weeknotes have become a really important tool for me to be introspective and to examine and understand my feelings. It’s really important decompression and “me” time. I think of them as being like weekly personal retrospectives.
Around the time I started weeknoting I also got involved with a cross-government movement called One Team Gov. This community have a set of principles people come together around, but the one that speaks to me the most in the context of weeknotes is that first one — work in the open.
But it’s the “and positively” but that’s important to me. And important to my weeknotes.
What you’re seeing in this picture is a work by Olafur Eliasson which you can go and see at the Tate modern. It’s a sheet of water mist, like the spray from a waterfall, but at certain angles when the light hits it, you can see a rainbow.
I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for a long time, and I’ve done Cognative Behavioural Therapy.
There’s a technique used in CBT called reframing. It’s where you look at a negative situation and try to see another perspective. I’ve been able to use my weeknotes to do this, at the end of a rough week, I’ve been able to take stock of the good things that happened and see that it wasn’t all bad.
That’s not about glossing over the bad stuff and making it look lovely and instagram shiny. It’s about shifting the story and looking at it from another perspective
I’ve been able to look at a tough situation and examine my responses to it. For example I was clashing with someone in my team at work over and over again about the same issue and getting frustrated with the person, when I sat down and wrote my weeknotes I considered why I got so frustrated with them and wouldn’t with other people and realised that it was because I thought that the person was really good at their job and I had unrealistic expectations of them.
That story didn’t make it into my weeknotes exactly, but it meant I could have a conversation with someone and think about my actions more clearly.
6. Weeknotes have helped me to gain clarity on my values
It’s helped me to have a better understanding of the things that are important to me, the work that I want to do (and am good at).
They’ve helped me to understand the things I want to say yes to, where I want to go and what I might do next.
They’ve also helped me to see the kind of person that I want to be when I’m doing those things.
For example, that story I told about getting frustrated with people, led me to start thinking about what traits I value in a leader, and I realised that Generosity was one of the key things for me, and something I had been missing when I’d been getting frustrated with my colleague.
For me, generosity is about being available, making time for people, being helpful — but also in believing that everyone else is trying to do their best work, that generally people don’t come from a place of disruptiveness or negativity on purpose. So I created these stickers to remind myself and others (I’ve got some with me so if you want some just stick around!)
How do I get started?
Just start. Who do you need permission from, really?
- Be aimless.
I would say don’t set yourself goals, it’s ok to be aimless and just try something.
Remember, I’m giving this presentation 2.5 years down the line, it’s only now I see the benefits more clearly. If you start, you never know where it will take you.
Don’t pile on the pressure, you don’t have to write every week if you don’t want to, set your own rules.
And again, we’re here at Ada’s list because it can sometimes be difficult to take up space when you work in tech, but its so important that women in this space are visible, because if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
Putting yourself out there and thinking “why would anyone be interested in what I have to say?” Is so common! But it’s not until you start talking and thinking about what you do, and how you do it differently to other people, that you will shine a light on what you bring (and enable others to see themselves doing the work you do).
Read other people’s blogs and weeknotes to see how they are doing it, get into discussions, spark ideas.
If you’re thinking about getting started a structure can sometimes help. I’ve collected a list of styles here:
3. Choose your platform.
If you want to make connections, choose a platform with some social functionality built in. You can join us over on Web of Weeknotes (it’s easy to add yourself to the publication)
If you want to publish quietly on your own, get a website or blog somewhere else.
You can even publish an email or a message in in a slack channel depending on what works for you.
4. There are no rules.
You don’t have to do them every week, you don’t have two write them in the same style. This is your space, make up your own rules.
These are Lizzi’s weeknotes, she loves toy photography, so her weeknotes are dotted with images she’s taken.
Matt uses the same set of questions each week to hold himself to account.
Sian and Joanne both do #tweetnotes, either as a thread or a single tweet.
Dan has experimented with a number of formats, but I loved this one, Sketch the week, a three part comic strip.
Weeknotes are a practice
So to wrap up, what’s the most important message about Weeknotes? It’s this, weeknotes are a practice.
Remember, writing weeknotes are like anything, it’s not something you become good at overnight. If you want to become a good writer, you read and you write regularly.
And, just as with mindfulness is a practice, the more you do it the easier it gets. That self reflection, the learning and reframing, they get easier the more you do it too.
And with practice, often it can feel like nothing is happening, but then occasionally little chunks of gold fall out. Like a fully formed blog post, and opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted to do. Or some clarity that helps you in your work, or to get a better job. All of those things have been happy side effects of my weeknotes practice.