Starting a new job is one of the most nerve-racking experiences that a person goes through. We all have to face it at some point in our life, as we navigate our careers and find roles that are best suited to us; those that reflect our beliefs and how we define where we want to have an impact. As I write this post, I have worked across several organisations, and the first few days at the job have been daunting.
You have no relationship with anyone other than those who interviewed you and know of your achievements. You have built no informal authority with anyone, since you have no credibility, respect, approval, or admiration in your teammates’ eyes through your work. All you have are your roles and responsibilities, your formal authority (maybe) and the hope that your team gives you the space to prove yourself while helping you achieve the project goals.
I started as a Project Lead at Open Cities Lab (OCL) this year, facing all these scary possibilities. I realised as a lead/manager, I felt even more pressured as I had to navigate all of the above while ensuring the project(s) progressed properly - not destroying anything that was already built, while also learning about the nuances of each project. Additionally, I was joining a team whose work I had been admiring for months. They created tools that empowered people and communities such as My Candidate (we built one for Kenya recently too, check it out here), which I loved.
I would have never known what followed over the next few months and today, in December, as I reflect over my time at OCL since February, I am pleasantly surprised at how these months have passed. I have a lot to celebrate, so much to reflect on and even more learnings to share.
Learning 1: Working in civic tech is rewarding
Wait, what is civic tech again? There are many definitions here and if you Google it, you will get several answers. We have written about it too. In my view, civic tech is using technology to bring governments and residents closer together; improving decision making at government level by ensuring data is used effectively; and enabling residents to be empowered by giving them a voice through tech. A lot to unpack there and I am touching the surface of it all, but civic tech honestly has the ability to improve how we do everything by embracing this often difficult world of tech.
It is easy to be consumed, of course, by the tangible metrics that showcase the value of the products you develop in this space such as the number of visitors daily. However, the most rewarding impacts you have in this space are all intangible to some extent; the efficiency you improve by developing a service delivery dashboard or the trust people gain by knowing about who they can vote for. You could possibly never measure the true social impact that you are making through civic tech.
However, pausing at every stage makes one appreciate that this intangible impact is happening. Engaging partners on a regular basis and getting feedback on what they think about the process helps even further. In my role, I have the pleasure of engaging our partners more closely and seeing how ecstatic they are about our products. One partner I engaged recently told me that our team created a product that was easy for her to understand and use. That is the biggest compliment anyone can give us actually, because we want to build products that our users can easily engage with, to be accessible.
Learning 2: Our user is the most important person
There are problems everywhere. Often, when your client or partner (I will call them a user going forward) comes to you with that problem, they want you to take it and come back to them only when you have solved it. There are many challenges with that approach. Chief among them is that the solution may not be oriented to the person you are building it for; you never engaged them on it. It is a design for approach that rarely works.
OCL uses a design with approach, walking alongside the user towards the solution and involving them at every step. There are many benefits to that. Firstly, your final solution works for them because you have been engaging them with every change that you make, keeping their goal in mind. Secondly, you have slowly shifted your user towards the new system; the change management takes baby steps towards what, as a whole, is a huge change. Lastly, you know they will use it because it has been made for them; the last thing you want is for the product not to be used.
Ipso facto, your user is the most important person for your product; you can call them your partner or client, but whoever uses your product is the person that matters.
Learning 3: We are all learning
No team or organisation is perfect. OCL is one of those teams, we aren’t perfect but we openly admit that. We have smart people everywhere and we want to engage on these gaps and challenges so that we can become better tomorrow. Everyone in the team is happy to find a different way of doing things in the next instant if it is more optimal than the way we do things now. We are happy to try and fail if that means that we will eventually find a solution that works.
It is truly refreshing to experience this agile way of adapting to challenges and is, in my opinion, the best way of working.
Learning 4: We solve complicated, adaptive challenges
Have you ever worked on something for so long, not knowing how to explain it to someone who isn’t in your field, only to realise there is a terminology that describes it perfectly? Join the club!
OCL solves adaptive challenges. What are those? Adaptive challenges are those that are difficult to define. They consist of several parts within them, whereby when you solve a part, you create new problems. Consequently, there are multiple solutions that you need to try and test before you solve it. These problems are particularly difficult because they need to involve people to solve, who are partially the reason the problem exists.
As an example, let us go back to the COVID lockdowns during the peak of the pandemic. Hospitals are full and beds are filling up. The government decides to ban alcohol; they apply a technical solution to an adaptive problem. It is like putting a plaster over a crack. Fast forward to today and you can be sure that alcohol is filling up hospital beds again. Why, though? Because an adaptive problem requires people to be involved in it. You can only reduce the burden of alcohol when you include people in your solution and work with them to improve the situation.
Adaptive problems are difficult to solve, but we thoroughly enjoy working on them every day. They are the most satisfying to solve too!
On to the celebrations then
My blog post started by saying that starting a job is nerve wracking but I never mentioned how I deal with it. In one word, people. The people at your organisation are what help you every step of the way. OCL is full of these people. People who are happy to lend an ear and act as a soundboard when I have a problem. They will huddle with me, chat with me or meet me in-person if I want, just so that I am comfortable.
The best part is that the people I admire the most will happily tell me that they don’t know something and are happy for me to take the lead. Empowerment is the biggest thing that OCL has given me. They have created an environment of trusting me to form my role the way I see it and lead with something once I am given a task. Make no mistake, I have never felt alone, but forming my own path has given me the drive and space to lead from the front.
This year has not been easy for me in any way. There have been a lot of personal developments and challenges alongside navigating how I settle in a new work environment and a new area. I am sure even you, who are reading my post, have had a difficult year in your own way. I truly appreciate my team realising that we all have had a tough year, where we have achieved so much and come out stronger. We are excited about what 2023 will bring for us and how we will take our work to the next level in building better partnerships and products that help people.