James Smith

Building a better future out of code

The Fall and Rise of ODI Labs

This is going to be a very personal post. I know others have feels in this area too, and I’m not speaking for any of them. I’m also not assuming that they’re unimportant by talking about myself. This is just my way of trying to let some things go. Oh, and trigger warning for depression and related things. Caveat emptor.

Some of ODI Labs

I worked at the Open Data Institute for a little over four years, and they were the best of my career so far. We built a great team, I worked under a wonderful boss, and we were making the world a better place.

I’m writing this because that all fell apart late last year, and the team I loved has gone away. The ODI is now recruiting a new team to replace it, and from the outside it looks like I screwed it all up. I had a team, it failed, the company canned it, waited six months, then got a new one. But that’s not what happened.

When I joined, I was a member of the tech team with Sam Pikesley, Stuart Harrison, and Tom Heath, working under Jeni Tennison. It was a great thing. We started by writing on a wall all the things we wanted to be, and then we proceeded to be those things. To do it right. We made things that made the world better.

After a couple of years, the ODI reorganised itself a little as it grew, and we created a number of different programmes. One of those was the R&D programme, and I applied for and got the role as Head. We renamed it the Labs programme, and ODI Labs was properly its own thing for the first time.

It was my first proper leadership role; I’d done software team leadership before, but this was wider. There were budgets, strategy, sales, and things got a lot less technical. This was a real challenge for me, learning to adapt, but I managed it. I learned a lot, and I honestly think that looking back, I did it well.

I remember joining the leadership team, thinking that the others there must have more experience, more expertise than me. But then I found that I was doing things well, and in many cases being more effective than some of the others. After a while, it felt good, it felt like I could do it.

Labs was part of the ODI’s mission; we were there to explore the technology boundaries around open data, to follow our instincts and solve problems that we saw out there. We made some good things that helped people, and we started setting the agenda for the evolution of open data technology.

But there was a problem. The ODI was half funded by public or philanthropic grants, and half by commercial work. Most of that money was from the UK government, and we had 5 years of it at the start. Labs was really dependent on that money. We did have income through work with particularly forward-thinking clients, or from research projects, but we relied on public money for about half our budget.

Come late last year (though things had started this way about a year earlier), we were getting to the end of that funding, and despite everyone’s best efforts, there was nothing on the horizon. The ODI was delivering brilliant value for the public money - better than most other digital organisations, but the UK government was suddenly obsessed with Brexit, and everything was chaos. We weren’t anyone’s pet project any more, and there was going to be a funding gap.

So naturally we had to change. We had to adapt into a more commercial organisation in order to survive. That meant a lot of hard decisions, and I’m very glad I didn’t have to take them. But what happened was a shock.

I expect to lose some of the Labs team, to have to share more with commercial delivery, and that would have been sad but OK. I wasn’t prepared for what did happen, which was that the entire core programme team was canned. Except for me, and our PhD students who were paid for by an EU project.

I was in shock, and that shock turned into the deepest major depressive episode I’ve ever had. During late autumn it got so bad I got my first suicidal ideation, which terrified me. I was off work, away from the team I loved as they worked towards their redundancy. And in December as I returned, one by one they left the building.

Come January, I was alone. I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was still there. I was supposedly part of a commercial delivery team, but nobody had told me anything (the failure of the commercial team to take the helm of the organisation is a whole other story best left untold lest I start swearing).

I lasted 4 months trying to keep things going until it was time to just go, to move on. There were shadows of future R&D funding on the horizon, a chance to rebuild the team, but that was too painful. I couldn’t ever rebuild what I’d lost. So it was time to go.

Now, that funding has finally appeared, and Labs is being rebuilt. It’s being led by a new person instead of me, with new energy and new imagination, and that’s a great thing. It will be a great team, I have no doubt, doing good work and continuing our mission to make a better world. But it will never be my team.

It looks from the outside like I fucked it up. I was put in charge of a team, and that team failed. It looks like the company hated it so much they canned it all, then made a new one after waiting six months. But that’s not true. I honestly believe I did a good job; that we all did. But the world was against us, and the timing was shitty.

I don’t blame anyone. It just sucks and I miss it. Now I have to find something else to do, so if you need a senior technologist and are making a positive impact on the world, hit me up.

And to everyone who was part of that team, that little family we had; to Amanda, Sam, Stuart, Adam, Sumika, Richard, Gabin, Laura, Emilia, Tom, Jeni, Stephen, Ben, Daniel and all the others around the fuzzy edges; I love you, I miss you, and I wish I could have done better for you.