A sketched picture of James' head

James Smith

Building a better future out of code

My Mentoring Journey

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Since January, I’ve worked at the Open Data Institute, which has been a really great experience. As well as being a non-profit with a mission to make the world better, which is already a huge win as far as I’m concerned, the organisation also puts a massive emphasis on culture and people. For a small enterprise (less than 20 people), this is amazing, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it anywhere I’ve worked.

One major part of the culture is the approach to mentoring. Not content with just professional training, the ODI wants all employees to have access to a mentor outside the company, to help develop people in ways that they need, not necessarily in ways that obviously benefit the organisation.

I’ve always felt that I drifted through my professional life in a kind of random walk, without much of a plan. Admittedly, working at the ODI brings together so much of what I’ve done over the years that it might look intentional, but it’s really just another convenient accident. However, at 37, perhaps it’s time to start trying to steer a little. Maybe it’s time to get an answer to the classic interview question “where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”. Because the ODI is about building a movement, a community, it’s OK if the answer to the question is “not here”. People leaving the ODI and starting their own businesses is a Good Thing in a way it wouldn’t be anywhere else.

So, where do I want to be? Well, barring career discontinuities, I reckon I should be CTOing somewhere that’s making a difference to the things I care about, somewhere in the openness, transparency, democracy, environmental impact sort of area, rather than day-to-day hacking. Maybe that’s still the ODI, but if so I should look to be doing more of the strategic stuff by then.

Problem is, I don’t know what’s missing in order for me to get there. Technically, I can do anything I can turn my hand to, but I know there are deeper mysteries that I know nothing about, but that are important in the wider context of a CTO type role.

The mentoring program is a perfect framework to start thinking about this. I’ve been lucky enough find a mentor who has gone through the transition from pure hacker to something a bit more strategic in the shape of Francis Irving, ex of MySociety and now CEO of ScraperWiki. We share many of our ideals, and I hope I can learn a lot from someone who is a little further down the path than me.

Neither of us really know how this process will work, but we’re starting with a bit of set reading (The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen) and seeing how it evolves. As we go along, I’m going to try to share my thoughts and learning in public, partly as a way of marshalling my own thoughts, and partly as a way to pay Francis’ generosity forward to others.

It will be an adventure, and hopefully I will come out of it with a better understanding both of myself, and my role in the better future I hope to build.


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