Three reasons for Founding CEOs to go earlier than you think

I wrote earlier this year about how it was time to let go of Rewired and Young Rewired State, that I had reached the limits of my abilities as founding CEO, and that after five years it was time to look ahead, move to the board and let some people better than me come in and take us forward. That was at the end of April 2014, and I gave myself two years to let go.

Well… it’s done! I peaked early and my God it was so the right thing to do. I will tell you why in a minute, but for those who want the detail, here is who is doing what (skip the italics if you couldn’t care about that and just want the reasons why it is so great):

As of next week Dan Bowyer joins us to take over and head up as CEO of Rewired State, I will move to the Board alongside Derek Gannon, with Toby Moores as Chair. The central team in RS is lean with Julia Higginbottom, Kevin Lewis and Gideon Brett taking up the core roles, supported by a bevvy of freelance pools of technical people, hackers, events people, product people and project management. (And a new pa *whoop* inbox management huzzaaaaa….)

Young Rewired State is currently still being managed by me and a new exciting Board made up of Bill Liao, Annika Small and Ian Livingstone – and our brilliant Ambassador: Kathryn Parsons. We also now have project teams made up of Kait Dunning, Kate McDonald and Tanya Leary, with Ruth Nicholls leading on funding/partnership and Jessica Rose leading the community and all supported by two ex-YRSers who have been interning with us this year: Shad Jahingir  and Ben Hayman (both of whom want to work for us full time which I take to be a great endorsement of the stuff they are doing – so this makes me very happy!). In September, after the craziness of the Festival of Code has died down, I will move to YRS chair and the Board will announce the head of Young Rewired State.

Three reasons why it is absolutely right to do this now not in two years:

1. Once I had recognised that I was not the person to take either organisation any further forward, I had already subconsciously allowed myself to let go. From that moment on, nothing I could do was good enough for the business by my own measure(!) this is not good for anyone. I could see where I wanted it to be, I just couldn’t clearly see the steps to get there, so stumbling around became frustrating.

ONCE YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO LEAVE, IT’S TIME TO LEAVE IMMEDIATELY OR YOU WILL FRUSTRATE YOURSELF AND BRING DOWN YOUR TEAM

2. It was only once I had made the decision, and written it down and told everyone, that I really started at looking at what the two organisations needed. It then became so apparent that nothing less than this person was right and I started to look to see if I could see this person, and other people started to look to see if they could find this person. Until I had stepped away mentally, and made it something I was going to do publicly, only then could people become free to look at “my” organisation as if it was theirs.

GOOD PEOPLE WILL ONLY COME KNOCKING WHEN YOU STEP AWAY – AND YOU WILL ONLY BE ABLE TO RECOGNISE THAT PERSON AS YOUR IDEAL REPLACEMENT WHEN YOU HAVE GIVEN UP YOUR FOUNDER/CEO GRIP

3. It is amazing how much it frees up your team! I just did not see how my founder/CEO ethos of: MY WAY and MY WAY and MY WAY only (or if you can do a damn good persuasion job), was stifling the skills, ideas and brilliance of the people I had hired for their skills, ideas and brilliance. As soon as I told them that I was going to go and get someone better than me and that I would move to a more strategic role rather than ops, they were a bit stunned but then over the last few months each and every one has stepped forward and shone. (We have lost a few sadly, but this was less to do with their sadness at me moving away from their daily lives, and more about better offers more quickly <- there’s a lesson). The Rewired State organisation is barely recognisable now, and I am so excited and inspired by it once again, it is like rediscovering its potential all over again. Young Rewired State has developed its own character, shaped by the young (all female except for the interns) team – who in my newly-stepped-away role have taken their pieces of YRS and are loving and whipping them into shapes I had never imagined. Everyone gets what the idea is, I have spent the last six years ramming it down their ever-loving throats. Just now they get to break that better.

YOU NEED TO FREE YOUR TEAM OR YOU WILL LOSE YOUR TEAM

Final word of caution, you cannot do this without a small, engaged board of people who support your move and will help you. If you don’t have a board, choose the people you would most like to be involved to help shape, guide and steer your organisation, with skills that you do not have, and invite them. They too will surprise you with the ways they will help. I am so hugely grateful to the YRS and RS boards, and to the advice and guidance each of them give me.

I gave myself two years, it took three months.

(Thank you realitytvgifs.tumblr for Mariah)

Edit 27th July 2014

Quite a few of you are asking what I am going to be doing next; well: 1. spend more time with my family! (I sound like a politician caught with my pants down and my willy in someone else – not the case here) 2. The boards will also be very active and engaged, so I will still be involved with RS and YRS and 3. I am a Commissioner for the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy and we publish our report in January 2015; I am so unbelievably passionate about this that I am going to give most of the rest of this year up to focus on this. It is not a paid role, so I will have to work too, but yes – these are the three things I will be doing. xox0

I have two years to let go

Many of you have become my friends and kept up with me throughout my journey in Rewired and Young Rewired State. Through me doing it in my spare time in 2009, through running it from The Guardian part-time to taking the leap into it being my full time job in 2011. Since then it has grown and we have slowly managed to hire staff members and find the right space for both Young and Rewired State.

This is our sixth year, and I have been blessed with the guidance and advice from Toby Moores and Derek Gannon as we look to the next few years, and how we might grow.

So I have three pieces of news for you all:

1. We have separated Rewired State and Young Rewired State structurally and financially.

2. Rewired State will grow commercially as a social enterprise, still with the same ethos and retaining regular open and social hacks, but also delivering more of the modding series: taking ideas and prototypes through to products that solve given challenges. We will also be developing and delivering a few products of our own.

Young Rewired State will continue is its mission to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code, introduce them to each other and open data. It will extend the projects it works on, for example the Peer to Peer challenge, the Duke of York awards and YRS Google assemblies; as well as YRS Hyperlocal and Everywhere. It remains a not for profit.

3. In two years time I will step down as CEO. Founder CEOs can be lethal to an organisation as it grows up, and I am not so stupid to think that I alone can take RS and YRS forward and manage the direction they go in. I feel so passionately about what we do that if I can see that I will become the blocker to its growth and cause it to wither – I will remove myself. And this is what I will be doing by the end of 2016.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed  and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus, The Matrix

I will still have a role to play from the Board, but what this is will be decided as we roll out the next stage and see how everything starts to shape around the revised split structure.

It will be hard, very hard indeed – but I have two years to talk myself down!

So, please do continue your wonderful support – this has helped so much over the last few years! I mean look how well it is doing now, largely thanks to all the community love and action from you lot. Please help me continue to take it through the next two years so that I can hand my babies over in robust health and ready for whatever a new CEO might choose to bring.

We will be advertising a few new roles over the next few weeks, starting with a Marketing Manager role and a Head of YRS Community position. If you think you might be interested in taking a look at either of these, dm me on twitter/FB or message me here (don’t bother with email) – we will be publishing the job descriptions soon. And of course, a CEO role in 2016 :)

Onwards

*Update July 2014 – since I wrote this blog post, it started a domino effect I could not and would not stop. The upshot is on this blog post here http://mulqueeny.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/three-reasons-for-founding-ceos-to-go-earlier-than-you-think/

Learn how to code

Many people ask me many times where they can learn how to code; mainly because they mistakenly believe that Young Rewired State teaches kids how to code, we do not, we encourage peer-to-peer  learning in a community of self-taught programmers, whilst they tackle social and civic challenges.

However I do also campaign for people to know how to program, even if only for a hobby, so it is fair enough to be asked. I just can never give an answer that satisfies as organisations spring up so fast, move on, morph – and anyway, just doing a an online coding course is not really going to be that exciting.

Just now, I rattled off a response to another email from a journalist on this topic, and it being Friday afternoon and after a week of travelling I was tired and cranky so rattled this off. But as I sat afterwards with my tea and biscuit(s) it struck me that actually that is probably the best response I have managed to drum up so far. So here it is for you (in no particular order):

  • find some free online coding tuition in any programming language (there are loads play with as many as you can)
  • get into the habit of clicking the View Source link on web pages to get an idea of what code looks like
  • set up a blog with someone like WordPress and have a go with the HTML view
  • explore communities such as github to learn how to share and fork code
  • use communities like stack overflow to get help
  • go along to hack days and learn from other people

Feel free to add useful updates, anecdotes and pointers in the comments

 

 

 

 

 

How hack days have grown up

For the past five years we in Rewired State have been running hack days. Initially to encourage the UK government to open up its data, removing the fear and uncertainty of what developers might do with the information once it was made available with no limitations. Now we run them for all manner of organisations, from media giants to corporates – as well as a continuous symbiotic relationship with central and local government

To briefly describe a hack day in 2009 it was usually a weekend with a number of software developers in a space with spankingly good wifi, some data, pizza, beer and a few dodgy prizes awarded to those who got the most claps, gasps, cheers or laughs. They were informal events that brought together groups of people and individuals who would never usually have time and opportunity to meet. The results, the prototypes, were less important than the community activity for the developers, and the meercat moment for the sponsors or people for whom the hack was being produced.

As with growth of any idea or concept, as Rewired State has continued to run these events so we have refined and learned what we do to make it better for developers, better for clients and to refine outcomes to meet the need that sparked the hack. I hope that by sharing this updated learning with you all now, it will help.

Here is how a hack day looks to us now in 2013

Ideation

We found that we were spending more and more time with clients refining the actual challenges being laid down to developers during the hack. It has always been profoundly important that hack days do not turn into bootcamp for building prototypes to a specific brief. In order to enable the unique collaboration, the creative ideas, the spark of solution that generates a number of prototyped digital ideas that resolve a particular issue – it is essential to define the problem first, not design the solution.

We advise that hack days have three of four challenges laid, and the associated data made available.

In order to define the challenges, the problem must be identified and this usually requires the meeting of several people on the client side of the hack. In Rewired State we spend the majority of our time initially with the client shaping these in such a way that they are clear enough without be prescriptive about potential solutions.

The Hack

Our hack weekends are hugely crafted in order for them to be simple and open. It takes us at least eight weeks from woe to go to get everything in place, including the developers. Luckily for us our network of devs and designers is made up of over 1000 people who can create working prototypes in 36 hours or less. So we have a hugely talented pool of people we can draw upon.

We take time to initially invite specific people from this pool to try to make up a group of people at the hack made up of 50% devs with expertise and experience of the field we are focusing on, and 50% with no experience whatsoever. We find that this mix tends to create realistic yet innovative ideas, without stifling creativity. And then we open the hack up to anyone who would like to join for whatever reason – we don’t second guess peoples’ passions!

The end of the hack event will produce ‘winning’ solutions for each of the three to four problems laid out in the beginning.

Modification days (Modding days)

It was becoming clear to us as we grew up that clients were increasingly wanting to take ideas forward from the hack, as the solutions were what they had been looking for. As we in Rewired State are committed to not becoming a body shop for developers, others are doing this perfectly well, we needed to find a way to enable prototypes to be taken through to product, with the teams who had come together in a perfect storm to come up with the concept in the first place; (often people with full-time jobs and geographically separated).

And so we created a modding process: the selected prototypes from the hack day would go through a process of development whereby the client would feedback to the dev teams on what would be useful to change or adapt, followed by a day or two of scrum-style programming and design, on all three or four prototypes so still a ‘hack’ format everyone is together again, followed by client internal review and feedback, and so the iteration process continues until the products are ready for the client to adopt.

When you don’t need a hack day – we have Rewired Reality

Clearly the hack days we run cost more than sponsoring beer and pizza, well the problem-solving ones do, and so sometimes people come to us thinking they need a hack day, but don’t have the time or money necessary to get the benefit from full-blown physical event. And so we created Rewired Reality, where we have a number of our Rewired Staters and Young Rewired Staters behind an online board. Here is how it works.

IP and money

IP is always the question that must be resolved up front. We are careful to ensure our community of developers feels like they are having fun as much as building solutions to real problems, and so we try to strike a balance between commercial hack days around specific problems, and those where it is just for fun (where we have found some amazing data being released that they would enjoy having a go at, or for a cause that we know touches the hearts of many).

For the former, we pay developers for their time. They are paid to attend hack days, they are paid for modding days and in most cases, the client will retain the IP. But they don’t always, in some cases they are happy for the developers to keep IP, so there is no real defined rule, but it has to be discussed and agreed in advance.

For the latter we don’t pay developers money, but we do provide a well-run hack, with good healthy food, some pizza usually thrown in, fun and frivolity. And they keep their IP.

This balance works for us right now, it may well change as the hack day continues to grow up.

Hack day Prizes

Originally hack days had some token prizes, often deeply ironic or just downright funny. As they began to become a thing outside of the developer-only zone, prizes became more valuable, cash sums or shiny kit. For a while we grappled with this – trying to strike the right balance.

A high sum of money would skew the attendance and reason why the hackers chose to come along, change also the dynamic of the event, less collaboration and more secrecy, and attracted a different kind of developer, often entrepreneurs with an unwilling and exhausted coder in tow. Not what we are about at all!

A low sum of money could be seen to be insulting.

So we try to avoid financial prizes.

“Stuff” is always hard, because it is tricky to second guess the number in a hack winning team, and if an individual but amazing thing is donated, such as a 3-D printer, how does a group of four strangers who have come together to create a prototype over a weekend, share that?

So we try to avoid “stuff”.

Experiences are good. Vouchers are good.

But actually, the conclusion at the moment is that we need to make the hack weekend itself so enjoyable that it is about that experience and not the prize – for our open and non-commercial events. Prizes more in line with the original ironic/playful times and a well-stocked bar at the end.

We do not award prizes for the winners of commercial hacks as the process continues through the modding days. but we maintain a consistently high standard of service to those devs who come along.

With thanks to Hudson Hollister who presumed that I had written all of this up and shared it, ad nauseum, as did I. But then I realised that this was all in my head, or in my conference slides, which is no use to anyone.

Young Rewired State: bringing back open government data

Young Rewired State was born back in 2009 when a small group of us decided that we needed to bring the open government data revolution to the next generations. Our intention was to show them what had been fought and won on their behalf for democracy and scrutiny, introduce them to the potential for open data, open government or otherwise, in a non-dull way.

Google hosted that first weekend for us but the legend now goes that it took us three months and a massive credit card bill for hotels and trains to find 50 coding kids in the whole of the UK for a single weekend hackathon at the much-lauded Google HQ in London. Our original sign-up was three kids… three… for a free weekend in Google HQ London.

Photo by Lettuce
We wanted to introduce coding kids to open government data, instead we discovered
  • schools were not teaching programming, computer science, or anything really other than the PE/Geography/any spare teacher showing the kids how to turn on a computer and use Word/Excel/How to photoshop a kitten pic (the only nod to programming – some of you will get this)
  • this was not something the teachers were happy about and I found acres of frustrated geeky teachers fighting a Latin Goliath
  • young people were being driven to teaching themselves, something well-served online with a tonne of lessons on YouTube, websites with individual lessons in the greatest detail, should you care to look, but these kids were isolated and bullied
  • some/many were being failed at school <- when I posted that blog post 25,000 people on Hacker News clicked on it within the first hour…

M’esteemed colleagues were well-renowned software engineers and designers and did not have the capacity to fight this particular fight, except by continuing to do good – most of whom are now in the UK Government Digital Service – but I was able enough, and I was a Mum and I was an entrepreneur, and I was an open government data campaigner – and I had to stay to do something.

Through personal and professional means I turned myself into a lobbying machine to teach our kids to code and, through Rewired State, continued to run Young Rewired State as an annual event, growing from 50 kids to 600 kids, now 1000.

I gave up my job.

I fought battles.

I lost battles.

I won them.

I did school runs.

I got cross about girl engineers (lack of).

I wrote.

I did.

I talked (although I am not a natural speaker – BetaBlockers FTW).

And I found a community of fabulous people: Mathematica, CodeClub, Mozilla, Nominet, Nesta, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Jam, MadLab, Birmingham City Council, CoderDojo, Treehouse, General Assembly – seriously so many people… and now I feel like I can step back from that fight now. I have been as much use as I can be… and a *lot* is happening.

I need to look to the future and I need to re-focus the kids we are now finding in increasing numbers, and as the others teach them how to code, and as the others fight the battle with institutions and education – I want to go back to what we wanted to do in the first place.

And so I think now is the time, as we grow beyond the UK, to re-focus what we are doing on finding these kids and introducing them to Open Government Data. I will always fight for education, but I fight for democracy, transparency and accountability over all – and I would like our children to grow up understanding Open Data as freely as they understand Open Source.

Starting now…

Our aim is to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code – and introduce them to open government data

http://youngrewiredstate.org

No exit strategy intended, anyone else here for the long game?

As a social entrepreneur, someone who is leading an organisation that is about longevity/good/jobs not an exit strategy, I am learning fast as I build Rewired State, Young Rewired State and Rewired Reality.

It is hard work, this is year five and it is harder than years 1, 2 nd 3, they were great fun. Four was the portend of things to come and now we face a year of scaling down rather than up, consolidating and dealing with employment and HR over strategy and innovation. Not necessarily fun but just as important to secure the future of our dedication to open data, open government, open organisations and young programmers. The future as we see it.

As we scale, so the community spirit that imbues young start-ups dwindles and it is difficult to retain the call-to-arms enthusiasm we all have when starting something new. Big lessons are learned and sometimes trust can be tested, especially when the bill for sustaining your battle cry begins to become about proper sums, ones that can’t be appeased by offers of free pizza and wifi, and more about salaries and data bills.

Money destroys those discussions, in communities, start-ups, social enterprises and even charities. Yet we all have to find a way to sustain our work, beyond begging for a slice of a CSR budget.

I am just at the beginning of year five, and will of course chart its course through this blog as ever, for those interested. For those who are in a similar position, I would like to share a little of the pain, and the ways we can continue the work we started, fund it, employ people, make it all sustainable, and still have these organisations in business when we retire – years hence.

Right now I am a bit lost, a bit frightened and do question that I am the right person to continue pushing for what I believe is sensible, right and good. At the same time I think it is OK to feel this frightened; to feel as if I had conquered it all and egotistically *the one* is usually a hiding to nothing, and we would be doomed.

But it is scary.

If there are any more of you out there, please do make yourselves known either privately or here. It would be good to find some others who are in it for the long haul and therefore about to enter the scary years, and take some forced time out to support each other.

Scary – but not giving in…

Young Rewired State – an update

For any of you who are unaware of Young Rewired State, here is a video from this year’s Festival of Code

To date we have made it our focus to find and foster every child in the UK driven to teach themselves how to code; to support them through community and peer-to-peer learning, and introduce them to open data, primarily open government data. If you would like to read up more on what we do and why, here is a White Paper written by Dominic Falcao, a student at York University.

So we have come far in the last four years and as we enter our fifth year we really are going hyperlocal and global – as I mentioned in a previous post.

Since that post I have had some very great discussions with developer communities in several regions outside the UK, including Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Kenya and San Francisco – and the narrative has become more clear, why this is so important and how this very well could be the beginning of a game-changing, independent, worldwide community.

Let me explain…

The idea is to start as we did in 2009 in the UK with one weekend in a number of International regions. Find 50 local children, aged 18 or under, driven to teach themselves how to code, and introduce them to open government data in a traditional hack-style event. During these weekends these young programmers will be mentored by their local coding community, as they are in the UK, but as well, they are remotely supported by the worldwide members and mentors for YRS, through twitter hashtags and IRC channels.

If history can repeat itself over the following five years, each of these first 50 will continue to be mentored and add to their number, growing to 500 in five years, maybe more – and then becoming hyperlocal.

The dream is for a child in Berlin to find it completely usual to be supporting a child in New York, for example, with a local civic problem, or just in their learning. For them to grow up expecting and understanding open data and open borders. And almost more importantly to be forever a part of a worldwide community of like-minded people – never again coding alone.

The beauty of this network is that it is so local, we are working with established developer networks and organisations in all of the countries, and as these children become 19 they *typically* fold back into Young Rewired State as mentors. This is important as it creates a support network for teachers and educators worldwide that is so needed.

We work also in partnership with those organisations teaching young people to code, giving them somewhere to continue the learning through collaborative, peer-to-peer education that can scale according to talent and desire.

YRS Scotland

This weekend sees the very first of these hyperlocal events in the UK, with a group of young programmers in Scotland starting their YRS journey. You can follow the action and add your mentor support by following the hashtag: YRSSCO2012 on twitter.

I really do believe these children can actually change the world, and I am grateful to the huge community who have supported us in the UK and overseas to get to now.

We are run as a not-for-profit social enterprise. Here is how you can get involved

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