“Making Tech Better” – podcast
Episode 29 – Karl Dickman (48:15)
Hello, and welcome to Making Tech Better – Made Tech’s fortnightly podcast, bringing you content from all over the world on how to improve your software delivery. My name is Clare Sudbery, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a lead engineer at Made Tech.
On Tuesday the 8th of February 2022, I spoke to Karl Dickman, who’s a Senior Product Manager at DWP Digital. And for those that don’t know, DWP stands for the Department for Work and Pensions. I first met Karl a few months ago when we had a great conversation about diversity in STEM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Anyway, I thought it would be fantastic if we got Karl to talk about it on the podcast. And in fact, it turns out Karl also has a ton of interesting stuff to say about product management. And there are a lot of points where the two topics meet. So this turned into a double topic podcast.
Clare: Hello, Karl!
Karl: Hello, Clare. How are you?
Clare: I’m good thanks. It’s great to see you, and thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I’m gonna leap straight in with the first question that I ask everybody. And I’m gonna say – who in this industry are you inspired by?
Karl: This took a bit of thinking actually, but one of my inspirations for a long time has, has been a chap called John Carmack. John co-founded ID Software. And if you’re a bit of a gamer like me, then you’ll definitely recognise his work, because he created some of the biggest franchises that exist within gaming. But it’s not just the gaming that’s the inspiration for me. It was more some of these behaviors and sort of ethics and things that he’s done as a person. So if you’re wondering, John and ID Software are the creators of Doom and Quake and Wolfenstein 3D amongst a few others, and their engine is what used to, or might still currently power Call of Duty, which is definitely not unheard of.
Clare: Ah, yeah! So what is it about John’s values that you’re particularly inspired by?
Karl: So the first one was more about his ethos around, software and coding sort of in general. So he had a view that software patents were almost akin to robbery. So he sees code as ‘our code and everybody’s code’ which is something that I didn’t really value until much later on. And it felt right to not lock down knowledge and say ‘you can’t use this’. It’s there for everybody. So he made a lot of his engines and games Open Source. Really big proponent of Open Source software. There was an incident when one of the Quake games released where the source code got leaked. And typically in that sort of era, it would’ve been, you know, “launch legal suits, let get to the bottom of it, let arrest people and sue people” – and he said, “well, no, hang on – let’s embrace it!” Because what he found was that a lot of developers that he obviously didn’t hire were doing amazing things with his code, that he just would never thought of. So rather than punish that, he embraced it, and spawned what you might call mods or patches, but just that mentality really sort of rang true with me. And I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s that sharing of knowledge and just that acceptance that there are other people out there that can do amazing things with your work that you might never have thought of. And it’s great to see that. It’s certainly, like I said, something that working transparently now, I just think is absolutely amazing. And he was a big advocate of “it’s ready when it’s done”. So obviously working in any sort of software environment, certainly gaming, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got stakeholders, you’ve got customers. And his view was he didn’t want to release something that wasn’t finished just because he had a date in mind.
He understood the frustrations, as a gamer, of getting something that was unfinished. And this was back in the eighties and nineties where you couldn’t just release a patch via the internet to fix anything. Right. If you’ve got a busted game on a disc, that was it until, you know, until the next disc came out! And he has been on a few interviews where he sort of retracted a little bit away from that, but that “ready when it’s done” mentality, especially if you enter the world of software development in Agile and you’re not from that, it’s quite scary, right. It’s quite intimidating to go to a manager or a senior stakeholder and say, “no, it’s not done, and you’re not getting it by this date”. But the genuine conversations that we have to have nowadays.
Clare: Yeah. It’s really interesting because I’m a big proponent for the idea that you release in small chunks. So actually you send it out before it’s ready, effectively, so that your users can see it and help you to test it. But I think that the idea that you shouldn’t be beholden to arbitrary deadlines is absolutely something that we’re still talking about. Let’s not just stick our fingers in the air and say, “oh yes, it’s going to be done by this date” because it’s impossible to predict and it’s not actually helpful.
Karl: Yeah. And you know, certainly in my world, certainly in government, now, if you’re gonna fix the date, how much are you willing to pay to get it done by that date? Or the more important one is you’ve said there’s features or quality. If you’re gonna fix the date, then I’m gonna tell you what you are gonna get by that date. And it just prompts that conversation.
You know, going back to John – and I think it ties in with a theme of something we want to talk about anyway – he was a real big advocate of underrepresented groups within that industry, even at the time. And in particular, women in gaming. He challenged his girlfriend to start an all-female gaming tournament, and said, “look, I’ll back it, I’ll pay for it”. He says, “I do not think you’ll get 25 people”. He says, “there’s not 25 women or girls that play this game”. She had 1500 entrants!
Clare: Oh, I love it. Yeah.
Karl: And it really helped him understand what that market was, as well, and where his user base was and totally got behind it.
Clare: Never assume, as well!
Karl: That’s what it was. That’s totally what it was.
Clare: Yeah. And it’s really interesting because we are actually planning to talk about you being a STEM ambassador – STEM being science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But you’ve got me thinking about software delivery and I just wanted to pull out out something that you just said, which is really useful, and I don’t think we’ve mentioned it on the podcast yet, which is: There’s almost like three axes on a graph. You’ve got deadline, you’ve got cost and you’ve got quality, and they are your three trade-off sliders effectively. And if one of them is a priority, then the other two have to be compromised. You can’t prioritise all three.
Karl: There’s a really good sign that, anecdotally it was in a fish and chip shop – and it simply had a sign on the window that said, “We offer three kinds of service: Good, fast and cheap, but you can only have two”. So if you have good and cheap, it won’t be fast. If you have fast and good service, it won’t cheap. And if you have cheap and fast, it won’t be good.
Karl: And I’m from a project background predominantly and you’re right about those three axes. It came down to what I would call your triangle of control. So time, cost and features. If you’re gonna fix two, one has to slide. So you can have a real discussion, but that chip shop, I don’t know if it’s true even to this day. I’ve not looked it up just in case it’s not. Cause I wanna keep the image of the best models of delivery being a sign in a fish and chip shop.
Clare: I love it. I love it. I love that idea of not looking it up either cause you want it to be true and it’s such a good story. Let’s not spoil the magic.
Clare: So we’re gonna talk about STEM and you being a STEM ambassador. So maybe the first question should be – what is a STEM ambassador?
Karl: Yeah. So as you’ve said, it’s science, technology engineering and maths. Being a STEM ambassador is being more than just an advocate for it, and sort of saying, yes, we need more people in STEM, cause I think that goes without saying. It’s actively doing something about it and actively taking part in events, and also attending events that promote it as well. So STEM Northeast is how I got into it. So you can attend events. So I’ve done career speed-dating in schools, which is interesting having 10 and 11 year olds sort of grill you about your career. And we’ve got some events coming up this year, so you can either run them yourself or simply take part.
And so it’s being active about it. It’s not just the label or something to stick on LinkedIn, you know, it’s exactly doing something about it, to who encourage more people into STEM, but it might be people that are already in STEM fields and maybe feel like they need a change of direction. Cause I think that’s quite an important conversation to have, a lot of people think that they might want to enter these fields. Some people don’t even know what STEM is and are coincidentally sort of gravitating towards some of those fields. And, and my particular passion is highlighting to people that might not think they would ever have a chance of getting into these fields or never thought of it, that it’s genuinely a path that they might want to choose because of what they can bring to that role as well.
Clare: Yeah. And it’s not just about getting more people in, is it? It’s also about getting more underrepresented groups in, because there are historically some groups that are underrepresented in STEM and it, it is trying to kind of increase that representation.
Karl: It is.
Clare: And how did you first get into it?
Karl: So STEM as a field was always something that I’ve been involved with and been aware of, and it’s something that I’m really passionate about, and I just did not have the foggiest as to how to go about it. You know, you make the excuse sometimes, you know, sort of career’s got in the way of starting a family, we’ve got all this stuff on, and I always thought I’ve never really got the time to do anything about it. And then I spoke to another STEM ambassador at a conference that we were at, and just had a real sensible conversation about what it actually involves, how much commitment it is, what I’d be expected to do. And it just sort of sank in, the realisation that it wasn’t actually much commitment at all. And what I’ve asked is that I do that as part of my own development anyway at work. So I’ve been allowed to have that sort of grace to do it as part of my working life as well, which is great.
Clare: That’s good. And you work for DWP, is that correct?
Karl: Yeah. So I’m in DWP Digital.
Clare: So Department of Work and Pensions, for those that don’t know. So it’s a UK government department. Does that mean that you get kind of given time as part of your working week or part of your working month to do some STEM activities?
Karl: Yeah. We do have allocated days that you can do volunteering work. And again, some of these events are like an hour, you know, well, you can do that as your lunch break or make the hours up, so it’s been really flexible with that as well, which has been great.
Clare: Yeah. And of course these days you can go to an event without leaving your desk.
Karl: This has definitely been one of the benefits, if any, of how we’ve been working over the past couple of years, for sure. Just the ability to attend more things, albeit virtually. I’m definitely an in-person kind of guy for some of these events, but you’re absolutely right. The access that we’ve been granted is, you know, the doors have been absolutely blown open, which is great. And we’ve seen people maybe attending events that they would never have even thought of going. So people are broadening their own horizons even internally, you know? Which is great.
Clare: I was intrigued, I earlier on, you talked about being faced with questions from 11-year-olds. I’m just intrigued at what kind of questions do 11-year-olds ask?
Karl: The first one is typically what does a Product Manager do? Which I think is a just question, cause I think we’re almost still finding our feet sometimes in this field. But it’s not so much the questions themselves. But what I have found that it does is it really helps me hone my craft, which part of that is explaining really complicated things simply. You know, I’m not a fan of jargon. I’m not a fan of acronyms and initials anyway, at the best of times. But if you can explain what you do to, to an 11-year-old, and get an understanding, it definitely helps cause a lot of our job, this storytelling anyway. So not so much the questions themselves, cause not really had any odd ones or funny ones. Just the act of doing it – it’s really helped me.
Clare: Yeah. And now I’m gonna go off on another tangent cause this terminology, this use of the word ‘product’ is becoming more and more ubiquitous. This idea of a Product Manager is all part of that, this focus on the word ‘product’. So how, how do you explain that to an 11-year-old?
Karl: So the first thing I say is, for me, it’s about solving real problems for real people. My product might be a service. It might be a team that somebody accesses. The other catch-all word is ‘experience’. That’s ultimately what you are designing. You’re designing the experience for somebody. And that experience typically involves, “I face a problem. This is what this problem costs me or does to me”. And the impact is such, and we help people solve it. It can be virtual, it can be physical. It can be something you could put in somebody’s hands. It might be an online offering, but yeah. Solving real problems for real people.
Clare: Yeah. Yeah. So the product is whatever it is that you’re making, isn’t it? But it’s looking at the product from the user’s perspective and really thinking about its impact.
Karl: It is. And user-centric design is a massive part of that for us. And whenever somebody starts the conversation of “I’ve got a product that we’d like to work on” or “we think this is valuable, can we do it?” The first two questions I tend to ask are, what problem are we trying to solve? And who are we trying to solve it for?
Clare: Yeah. So what do you think is the main problem that we all face in getting underrepresented groups involved in STEM subjects?
Karl: There’s a couple of areas that I think are worth talking about, and certainly from experience that I see. The first one’s probably the more difficult one, which is choice – and not just people making the choice, but people not having the choice to make in the first place. The easiest thing to look at when it comes to underrepresented groups, you might start at some of the ‘protected characteristics’ that we have in society. Certainly when it comes to STEM fields, sex and disability come out. So in particular, women – getting more women in the STEM fields is a massive push, and getting people with disabilities in STEM fields. Now there will be a lot of people that again, don’t choose to go into that field, which is absolutely fine. I don’t think we ever want to sort of coerce people into making those choices for the wrong reasons, but a lot of people don’t realise that it’s a choice to make, you know, in the first place.
The biggest area personally, that I think is worth talking about when it comes to diversity in STEM fields, is diversity of thought. And what I mean by that is – there are people that will have a particular skillset or a particular way of thinking that they will never ever know, can be transferred into STEM fields.
Karl: And I’ve seen some real examples. So take anybody that’s done history at university, right? I’m not aware – unless you’re gonna become sort of David Starkey or, or somebody else – there’s not many jobs in history. However, two of my best analysts started their career in history. That ability to get to the finite detail, to understand stuff, to tell a story, to narrate, to unpick, is something historians do. Mm. But would never think to transfer that across into a field like say business analysis, or even technical expertise. Presenting that choice and trying to highlight some of the skills, not just saying “we need more people in STEM”, broadening it out to say, “We are lacking this particular skillset. You might have it if you’ve done something else.”
And with disability as well, you know, certainly neurodiversity, that different way of looking at problems and looking at how we apply. It just almost goes unnoticed as something that would have a massive impact in nearly every STEM field that we have.
Clare: Yeah. And one of the examples I like is just the skill involved in running a household and looking after a family. The business of managing a family is incredibly complex. And that project management is normally done by women in the household. And it’s not thought of as a skill, but it flipping is! It’s highly complex. It involves juggling lots of parts and staying on top of a lot of things and holding a lot of things in your head at the same time. And it is a transferable skill.
Karl: It is. And you know, you could go even further, you know, if things aren’t done, they know the impact pretty quickly. And even going one step further, also know how to get out of that. And like you said, these are incredible skillsets that we need. And that’s the other area that tends to get missed when it comes to getting underrepresented or diverse groups into this, is that socioeconomic group that won’t get considered or don’t have the choice to move in these fields. And yet they are some of the most powerful people to get in on some of your pieces of work. They will have a different way of looking at things. They will have a different way of managing things. It’s been in the news this week anyway, about how people are managing money. And you know, obviously we’ve seen the 20 pound uplift be reduced. You find somebody that is already poor – They are some of the best money managers you will ever see.
Clare: Obviously, because that’s how you learn. You learn how to overcome problems and how to tackle problems when you are faced with real problems that have real impact if they’re not tackled. When you’re in that situation of adversity and you absolutely have to get through it, then you learn how to get through it. And you learn very useful skills as a result.
Karl: You do. And it’s definitely an area of product management that I’m really passionate about, is we are not our users. So whenever we design products, whenever we design services, we are not our users. You might have covered the use of personas, or people might be aware of the use of personas. These are fictional 2D representations of lots of groups of what you think are your users, grouped together on one page, that says “This is Sue. She does this. She thinks this, she reads these magazines” – and personas have been used for a while. But my two biggest issues with personas are – they don’t answer back and they don’t push back.
Clare: Mm right. So when you are testing your products, what could, is it to sort of trace it back to say, well, would Sue use this?” No. Right. Just absolutely not. It’s never gonna happen.
Karl: The second thing is: People representing those users should be in the room with you when you are having those decisions. My big mantra – and my team are probably sick of hearing it by now – but we design with users, not for them. And that mindset is such a big shift, even now. You know, if you are designing something for a persona, find that persona, find a couple of actors that can actually get them… and get them in the room with you. Because having that experience, that real lived experience is vital.
And the other part that we often miss in product management is we always think of people needing our product at the point of entry. And then we close their journey when they’ve sort of consumed or used the product and left. That’s not how real people operate. You know, people go back into their own world, people go back into their own lives. If we can get that understanding of what happens before and after, that user journey suddenly doesn’t become A to B you know, you broaden it and you might see things that you’ve missed. And you’re gonna miss them if you keep thinking of that user journey as “you know, well, Sue’s come to me with a problem that needs solved”. Well, actually what’s happened is the build-up to that. What caused that? Who else is Sue having this particular problem with? Because broadening that vision and view of our users is just vital if we’re gonna build the services that add value to them.
Clare: Yeah. And actually taking a step back, you just mentioned ‘actors’. Did you mean literally actors, people who are going to act a part, or do you mean the actual users themselves?
Karl: So I’ve done it two ways, interestingly enough. So I have had people that volunteer to take on the identity of that user, which was almost that halfway house between, you know, you drop your name badge at the door and your job title at the door, you are now this person please. But it only gets you sort of halfway through that. The other side of it is, like I said, to have actual people, actual users, acting as the people that you’ve identified that need this, and to give them that remit as well. Somebody that I met at Newcastle City Council, Jenny, who runs the digital program there, she had a fascinating story of when she was designing something back when, you know, we all met in the office and we were allowed to get together. She did that. She brought a lady called Margaret in as somebody that would use that product. It got to the point where the directors knew her. Everybody knew her, like, you know, and what a brilliant situation that is, to have an actual user in there. And she embraced it. You know, heads of departments were saying, “look, we’re gonna do this”. And Margaret was saying, “well, have you thought about what that actually means?” And that’s the sort of Nirvana of where you’d need to get to when it comes to user-centric design. It’s something that we strive for.
While I’ve got your attention, let me tell you a bit about Made Tech. After 21 years in the industry, I’m quite choosy about who I’ll work for. Made Tech are software delivery experts with high technical standards. We work almost exclusively with the public sector. We have an open-source employee handbook on GitHub, which I love. We have unlimited annual leave. But what I love most about Made Tech is the people. They’ve got such passion for making a difference, and they really care for each other. Our Twitter handle is Made Tech. That’s M A D E T E C H. We have free books available on our website at https://madetech.com/resources/books. We’re currently recruiting in London, Bristol, South Wales, and the North of England via our Manchester office. If you go to https://madetech.com/careers, you can find more about that.
Clare: Here’s a quick reminder that, before the break, we were talking about how Newcastle City Council developed such a close relationship with one of their users that she was on first name terms with their directors. So from the work that you’ve done as a STEM ambassador, do you have any stories to tell about the journeys of people that you’ve met, you know, that have been able to become involved in STEM subjects?
Karl: I only started at the end of last year, and we’ve obviously faced quite challenging times. So I’ve only managed to do a couple of events so far, but the ones that we have done, like I said, have lasted, they’ve made a difference. And I’ve started to see the difference now as well from some of them. For me, I use my own example quite a lot. And it took… it’s still taken me a while to get talking about my own journey through this. I grew up poor, for lack of a better word. You know, my mum never worked. My dad claimed benefits, you know, and that was the life that they led. We were still poor. You know, we didn’t have family holidays, we didn’t have extravagant sort of Christmases and birthdays. And growing up, even university was out of the question because even if I stayed in Newcastle, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Even with, you know, I’m from quite a working class background and family. So accepting grants just wasn’t in question, we’re not accepting handouts, right? You know, it’s quite tough, but I’ve worked and I’ve chipped away and I’ve progressed into an area that I’m really fortunate to work in, that I would never have… It’s never been presented to me. And that’s part of why I want to just highlight that there’s still people that live like that out there now. I live not too far away from an area of Newcastle where 1 in 4 houses don’t even have Internet access.
Clare: Right. Yeah.
Karl: I mean, 25%, it’s 2022, right! We take Internet access almost as a granted commodity now, or service. And to think that there’s 1 in 4 houses that can’t access it, that shows that there’s still work to do. So whilst I don’t have any stories, you know, directly from that, I’m using my own now. It’s the reason that I want to give something back now. And that was part of the reason for getting into it in the first place.
Even growing up, you know, in school we worked in sort of sets. So you had top set, which was the people that did well on SATs or whatever. And it was the lowest set that used computers to do their homework. There was no programming. There was no access to stuff. You used computers to type up your homework. So Longbenton Community College is now a Technology Academy. What it is now compared to when I went there just is worlds apart. And it’s great to see, because you will inevitably come into contact with a device now that you need to know how to use, whether or not it connects to the Internet, and having training that isn’t just typing stuff up is amazing to see.
Clare: And how did you get into the industry?
Karl: I would guess like most Product Managers, a bit by accident, a bit by luck. So I moved abroad when was young. I lived abroad for nearly 13 years and I did any job to stay out in the country that I was living in. I absolutely loved living there. And I got lucky and started working for a travel agency. And they would put me up in a hotel that was underperforming. As a result in a hotel for the whole season on the premise that I turned it around for them. I got to the bottom of why it was underperforming. Did something about it in that season. And that was my first experience of true user-centric design. You talk about walking a mile in your customer’s shoes. I mean, I was living in, you know, they made Fawlty Towers look like five star! There were some real bad places, but doing that and living that sort of gave me an idea of what it was, design and work with users.
I’ve always been passionate about technology, but at the time that area just didn’t filter in. It was about that true user-centric design, and turning around experiences into something positive. And then the time comes where you say, “I’ve gotta get a proper job, I’ve gotta move back home”. And one of the first jobs I got was in project management. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some big names, like British Airways and Rolls Royce and IKEA, as well as some smaller ones. And I really sort of immersed myself in that field for a while. But your job as a Project Manager is just to move something from a to B. And those two bits that were missing from me, which were – still doesn’t really feel like I’m doing something for someone other than the people that are paying my wage, you know, I’m just moving stuff along.
And I was curious about what happens when that stops. Cause it’s in service, it’s in operation, but you just stop and move onto the next thing. All of a sudden, this word of ‘Product Management’ started getting thrown about, so I got my product qualifications and worked in that, but product management was about seeing that big picture as well. It’s about solving real problems that will continue to be problems. You’ll always find new users. The most fascinating part of what I do personally is when it’s actually out in the wild, right. I mentioned, obviously John Carmack is a source of inspiration, and that’s why, right. Because when your thing is out there, people are gonna change it. People are gonna use it in a different way. People are gonna say, “actually, I can’t use it because you’ve never thought of this”. So you get what we would typically call sort of edge cases, but that’s just a massive source of learning for me. And just because somebody can’t use your product, it’s not a failure. Right. It’s just another way to improve what you’ve done.
And that’s where it sort of kicked off, and I’ve got roles in product in a few different areas, which was great. And ended up where I am in, in DWP. I’ve always gravitated back to, you know, helping people in doing things that I think mattered. And having grown up as a benefit user and a benefit recipient, it’s no surprise, we’ve got 25 million citizens that use benefits. The chance to impact and change lives for me… I will never get that unless I start working for somewhere like Facebook or Twitter, you know, and even then that side doesn’t interest me at all. You know, when we design things in DWP that change lives, we know it’s for the better.
Clare: Yeah. Yeah!
Karl: So it was a bit altruistic as well. So yeah, a little bit by accident, a little bit by luck! You’re always sort of torn between, do you pick something as a passion and do it as a hobby or do you try and make money out of it? And that was always it for me, it was either sport or technology, and I thought I’d make some money out of doing sport and kept technology as a passion. And it it’s flipped on its head a little bit.
Clare: Yeah. Cool. So what would you like to see change in our industry to improve opportunities for underrepresented groups?
Karl: I think that conversation has to be paramount, which is not just, “we need more people in STEM”, but generally articulating, first of all, why. What impact STEM actually has in getting more people in? Cause I think that sometimes gets forgotten about. It’s genuinely having that conversation about the blockers that you think you might have, probably aren’t even there, do a bit of mythbusting, and not just talking about it. As I said, being a STEM Ambassador’s absolutely brilliant. We can all do more. There’s not a single organisation out there that wouldn’t benefit from giving something back to its community and actively getting more people into STEM subjects.
Even if you don’t call it STEM, STEM might have a bit of a stigma already as to what it actually means. If you tell somebody you could have a career in maths. Well, if you’re not explaining what maths actually means, when it comes to application, you’re gonna put people off straight away. So mathematics, engineering, those two are… you could say ‘problem solving’. And you wouldn’t be far wrong. It’s not about building something, necessarily. It’s just having that awareness of, we are solving problems. We’ve got frameworks and things in place to help solve them. But it’s about looking at things in a different light.
Clare: That’s a really good point. Yeah. Cause I think the way that we describe what we do can be done completely differently, particularly when you’re talking to children. So exactly. If you say ‘maths’ to most children and teenagers, then that’s it, they’re gone! And I’m an ex high school maths teacher. So I know, but if you talk about problem solving, but if you talk about puzzles, if you talk about the end result and what you’re actually achieving, then that makes a big difference. Making things real for people.
I’ve had a little bit of involvement with Stemettes, who are involved in trying to get more underrepresented genders into the STEM subjects. And one of the things that they do is they get school girls to come into workplaces. So they get local businesses to just organise little events where school girls come in and see what it looks like. And one of the interesting things that the apparently… it was Anne Maria Imafidon who heads up Stemettes. It was her who told me that the thing that always makes a difference is they love food. So always involve food, have food in everything because food is a big motivator. But the other one she said, when you bring school girls into workplaces, the thing that they always notice is the toilets. Cause they’re used to school toilets, and school toilets are grim, right? And then they go into an office and see the toilets, and it’s like, wow! And it sounds silly, but actually it is kind of seeing how the other half live, it’s seeing what the lived experience, the daily experience, what it’s like to have a job like this.
Karl: You’re absolutely right. And just showing what it can lead onto as well. Right. Because STEM itself is normally an entry into how many other opportunities, and it’s showing a bigger picture, right? An old school friend of mine, she started off with mechanics. Absolutely amazing at mechanics. There’s obviously a lot of maths involved in that. She’s now a director at KPMG. Looking at it on paper, you might not be able to link that. But those foundational skills and approaches took her into to one field and progressed and progressed and progressed. If you went to university or mechanics lecture, you could probably count the amount of women on one hand. But if you could show the, the route and the entry into where else it could lead, I think that would inspire as many people as anything. Showing that ending up in STEM fields isn’t the end goal, it’s a route in. It’s a path to other things.
Clare: So ultimately, it’s a path to living a fulfilling life and, you know, enjoying the work that you do.
Clare: I think often getting people’s hands on things is helpful as well, isn’t it? So I know another thing that Stemettes do is they organise hackathons. And I went into a school for a day and spent the day helping a class of school girls to build a website. And it meant that they were making a thing, you know, and they could see the result of their labour, and could see that this was a thing that was meaningful to them. And that this was a thing that they enjoyed doing.
Karl: Yeah. And hackathons are great. I’ve run some before, I’ve attended some, and they’ve been absolutely brilliant. And I’d like to give one example because it’s definitely worth talking about: I went to a hackathon a few years ago and, and the problem was around solving homelessness. You know, quite grandiose, but we had some brilliant ideas and, you know, getting a range of different people in there. Some people were from technology, some people weren’t from that background at all. And the vision of obviously a hackathon, as you said, 9 times out of 10, building a… best idea that came out of this hackathon was – find somewhere in the town centre, like a bank or a large building that had some space to have lockers that could be used as a temporary address. That would’ve never have came out of anything else, other than having that diversity of thought in that room that said, you’re not just gonna solve homelessness straight away. You’ve gotta trace it back. Think about how somebody becomes homeless. Now I think there’s a large bank and I forget the name and other banks are available. So I don’t know if we wanna monetise the podcast. So we’ll not name them, but they’ve adopted this idea. They’ve said, we know the issues. To get a bank account, you need to have an address. To get a job, you need to have an address to get a bank account, you know?
Clare: Yeah, exactly.
Karl: So there’s like the cycle of, you know, perpetuated blockers. So just, you can register a locker in a building as a temporary address. And my God, does that start to open some of the other opportunities for you. That one idea was from somebody who had been homeless.
Karl: And like I said, there is a large bank. They will now accept, you know, a locker in a building as a temporary address.
Clare: That’s great. We’re nearly out of time. So I’m gonna go to the questions that I always ask people at the end. The first one is, I’m gonna ask you to tell me one thing about you that’s true, and one thing about you that’s untrue, but don’t tell me which is which.
Karl: Okay. I speak three languages, and my dad was in The Animals.
Clare: The Animals, the band?
Karl: The band.
Clare: Wow! Okay. So what are these three languages that you speak?
Karl: Italian, German and, and obviously English.
Clare: Mm. And when your dad was in The Animals, what did he do? Did he play an instrument?
Karl: He was, he was bassist.
Clare: Mm. And how long was he in The Animals for?
Karl: Not too long, because he then went on to be a roadie. So he didn’t want the band life.
Clare: Right. So was this before they were famous, or were they already famous at this point?
Karl: So he, my dad grew up with Hilton Valentine, who was another member of The Animals in North Shields. There was a few years between them, but being friends, given an opportunity, they started a band.
Clare: Wow. See, now at first, I didn’t think that sounded likely, but now I’m beginning to think it sounds more likely. Okay. So, where can people find you, and do you have anything coming up that you’d like to plug?
Karl: So I use LinkedIn. With a name like Karl Dickman, you will not find any other people on LinkedIn by that name, as far as I’m aware.
Clare: Brilliant. Karl with a K.
Karl: Karl with a K. Feel free to connect with me on there. I do have some events coming up. So we are organising a Space Fest as part of the STEM events in the summer. STEM Northeast have been fantastic in particular. Dawn Ross is the person that did all of the behind-the-scenes magic that makes it work to become a STEM ambassador. So a massive thank you to Dawn. And I’ll send you a link for some of the events that they’ve got coming up, if anybody wants to sign up.
Clare: Brilliant. Thank you. So to end on a high, very last question: What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last month or so?
Karl: This was tough. But I’d have to say, so I’m a new dad.
Clare: Ooh, Congratulations!
Karl: Thank you. My two… she’s now two, is that new? Is that still new?
Clare: That’s still new. Yeah. Well, I mean, the funny thing about parenting that I noticed when I had children of that age, that it felt like simultaneously they’d only just been born, but also like I’d been a parent forever.
Karl: The best advice that I’ve received to date, somebody just said “long nights, short years”. And it’s definitely true. So Isabella, she’s just been moved up into preschool. So she’s about nine or 10 months early than what she should be. Which is, you know, obviously proud dad moment. You know, every, everybody thinks they’ve got the best and the smartest kid, but really proud be cause you know, starting school and nursery during lockdown has not been easy. We thought she was struggling socially for a long time. And, and then all of a sudden to be moved up it’s, you know, it’s just fantastic. Ah, it’s it’s a really proud dad moment. Let’s go with that.
Clare: I love it. Thank you so much for joining us We’ll reveal which of Karl’s answers was true and which was false in the first episode of Season 2. But, given we’re not quite sure when that will be, feel free to get in touch with us via Made Tech Twitter account, if you want to know the answer. But meanwhile, here’s the answer from Katy Armstrong’s episode on servant leadership. She told us that either she has two cats and a dog, or she started her career in publishing,
Katy: It is that I started my career in publishing. Although I want a golden retriever and I have three cats.
Clare: “I have three cats”. You see, that’s always a good way of doing lies, is to make them close to the truth!
Katy: That’s right!
Clare: As always, to help you digest what you’ve just heard, I’m going to attempt to summarise it.
Deadlines can cause us to release software purely for the sake of the deadline, rather than focusing on releasing small chunks frequently, and then keeping going until we’re done. Also understand that if the data fixed, you’re going to have to compromise on either cost or quality.
So, STEM stands for ‘science, technology engineering and mathematics’. STEM Ambassadors are actively doing something about the lack of people pursuing careers in STEM, and specifically underrepresented groups in STEM. Being a STEM Ambassador involves getting involved in events, such as career speed, dating for schoolchildren. But it’s not just about encouraging people into STEM fields; It’s also about helping them to move around between them. This work can be done on an ad hoc basis. It doesn’t require a high level of commitment, and it often involves answering the questions of children, which has the great benefit of forcing you to explain yourself in simple terms, which can often result in you deepening your own understanding. For instance: “What is Product Management?” – And the answer to that is that it’s about designing experiences that solve real problems for real people, looking at digital, and sometimes non-digital products from the user’s perspective.
So how do you get more underrepresented groups into STEM subjects? Well, two of the biggest problems with diversity in STEM are around gender and disability. And it’s not about coercing people into STEM. It’s about making people aware of the choices they have. People often aren’t aware that skills and ways of thinking from other areas can be transferred into STEM. And another lack of diversity in STEM happens around socioeconomic groups. But people from different economic backgrounds might for instance, be much better at managing money because they have to be.
This idea of different people having different skills and experience brings us right back to product management. We are not our users. You can use personas to imagine different users, but they don’t answer back or push back.nYou need your users in the room. You need to design with users. Not for them. Also don’t assume that user journeys start and end at digital entry points. People’s lives wrap around their digital journeys, and you can’t understand one without the other. For instance, understanding what life looks like for the 25% of houses in one area of Newcastle that don’t have Internet access. But if somebody can’t use your product, don’t see that as a failure. Instead, you use that as a challenge to improve what you’ve done.
So how do you get more people into STEM? Well, first of all, remove the stigma around the concepts of science, maths, engineering and technology. Don’t call it ‘maths and engineering’ – call it ‘problem solving’. Show children what workplaces and working lives for people doing the actual jobs in STEM look like. Show what jobs people from STEM backgrounds end up doing, which are often miles away from what people imagine, and use hackathons to get people hands-on tackling real problems like homelessness using tech.
Okay, that’s not all. Stick around for extra content.
Every other episode, this last short segment will be devoted to ‘story time’. Storytelling is useful for teaching, for unlocking empathy, for creating a sense of shared connection and trust in your teams. I love telling stories to both children and adults. I’m actually a lapsed member of the UK Society for Storytelling. So the plan is that I’m gonna be using stories to illustrate various points about effective software development.
This is a special episode for me because, not only is it the last episode of Season 1, it may well turn out to be my last episode as host. I’m moving on from Made Tech, and I’ve got a bunch of exciting new stuff ahead of me as a freelance technical coach.
Quick plug: I’m speaking on the topic of “Compassionate Refactoring” at LeadDev London on Wednesday the 8th of June, 2022. But anyway, naturally this leads me to look back and reflect on the whole podcast journey. It started over a year ago in December 2020, when I suggested the idea of a podcast, and then set about working out how the hell you go about making one! None of us had done it before, and I spent a good few weeks researching, experimenting, trying different stuff out, looking for music (that was a big one, that mattered to me!) And then we released the first four episodes in one big splash in April, 2021.
We committed to publishing one episode a fortnight, indefinitely. And this was not a simple ask. 5AM every other Tuesday, almost without fail. The only time we missed it was when we were a few hours late one time because of a technical hitch. And we took a fortnight off at Christmas, but we’ve managed to keep it up for a whole year. But anyway, this story is about delegation. I am not one of life’s natural delegators. My inclination is to do everything myself. It’s not that I don’t believe other people can get stuff done – It’s more that I hate mithering people! Why should someone else do stuff? Yeah, it matters to me, but I often feel it would be presumptuous to assume that it matters to other people, and people are busy. And I hate the idea that I might piss people off, and none of us in the podcast team have ever worked full time on the podcast, we all have other stuff going on, but it made no sense for me to be doing things entirely alone, and to be clear, I never have.
So come on Clare, get to the story! Okay. Well, not long after we launched, it was beginning to dawn on me how relentless it was, and how every time I wanted to take a holiday, I was gonna have to work extra hard before and afterwards to keep up the fortnightly cadence, to make sure we didn’t miss an episode. And it was also becoming clear that I needed to stop hoarding all the work and make the most of the fact that I had a team around me. Even if they, like me, didn’t have a lot of spare time, but what was I going to do? I didn’t feel I could demand that everyone else did more. But at this point we were getting into more of a rhythm.
It became a lot clearer what needed doing for each episode, and in what order. I drew a diagram. I was very proud of my diagram. And then I remember the technique I’d used before as a Technical Lead. I think I’ve mentioned this in a previous episode, uh, maybe the one on servant leadership with Katy Armstrong. But when you’re tech leading, it can be very tempting to think there’s a bunch of stuff that only you can or should do. And this is wrong, wrong, wrong!
Leadership is all about helping other people to come right up the ladder behind you. You want other people to take on responsibility, and you want them to want to do it. And a great way of doing this is to give people choice. So I created a sort of menu, a list of all the jobs that needed doing for the podcast on a regular basis, and I offered it up to the rest of the team. What would they like to do? What would they like to take responsibility for? This had the double impact of allowing people to choose the things they were enthusiastic about, but it also encouraged everyone as a group to take collective ownership, to understand what needed to be done and feel a sense of responsibility about making sure it was done. Cause the thing is, the less you try to take control, the more you encourage others to share the burden of control. And what happened is that people enthusiastically took tasks away from me.
And here we are, a year almost exactly since we launched – the first four episodes were published on the 13th of April, 2021.
And if all goes according to plan – and our machine is so well-oiled by now. I have no doubt that it will – This episode will go out on the 12th of April 2022, 364 days after the first episodes. And it’s very much a team effort. Thank you to Gina, Katie, Rose, Kyle Chapman, Jack Harrison, Karsyn Robb, Laura Plager, Viv Andrews and Fiona Egan. You’ve all been amazing, and I’ll miss you. And to the rest of you, it’s goodbye for now!
And that’s the end of another episode. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, please do leave us ratings and reviews because it pushes us up the directories and makes it easier for other people to find us. But of course, this isn’t just another episode. This is the last episode of Season 1, and possibly my last episode as host. Don’t worry about the podcast. It’ll be back after a short break with some new faces and voices from Made Tech and beyond, all with a passion for using technology to improve society. As for me, I’m going to be focusing on my new work as a freelance technical coach, but also delivering various talks and workshops. You can see the details on my event page on Medium, which is linked to from my Twitter profile. And you can find that @claresudbery, which is probably not spelled the way that you think. There’s no, I in Clare, and Sudbery is spelled E R Y at the end, the same as surgery or carvery. You can find Made Tech on Twitter at M A D E T E C H. Do come and say hello. Made Tech are very interested in hearing your feedback and any suggestions you have for any content for future episodes or just to come and have a chat.
Thank you to Rose, our editor; Gina Cady, our podcast co-ordinator; Fiona Egan, our transcriber; Richard Murray for the music (there’s a link in the description); and the rest of our internal Made Tech team – Kyle Chapman, Jack Harrison, Karsyn Robb and Laura Plaga. Thank you for listening and goodbye.
[music outro]Back to the episode