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Adam Maddison: from Psychology to Digital Consultant & Coach

Social media handle(s): @dog_bytes (Twitter)


A few words about me:

I’m a freelance Digital Consultant, Agile Coach (even though I strongly dislike the term ‘Agile Coach’ it’s not really coaching) and an actual, trained, qualified Coach.


I used to be a Software Developer. But the last time someone (who knew what they were talking about) reviewed my code, they laughed out loud. I knew then it was time to stop coding!


Are there any professional experiences you've had that are quite unexpected compared to what you do nowadays?


I set out to be a Psychiatrist. Me and medical school - at least me and my chosen medical school - did not get on. Later on, I spent a couple of years doing neurosurgery on insects.


Is your background more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or non-STEM related?


Definitely STEM related.


Where did your professional journey start?


My professional journey began through education. I tried, and failed, to be a Psychiatrist - which requires becoming a Doctor first - for various reasons (not least because I was distracted by the social aspects of being young, and rather carefree, in London).


I was still interested in how humans thought, so I did a Psychology degree instead. I studied Artificial Intelligence as part of my degree, and got into computer programming through that, when I started building Lego robots.


That led to an attempt at a PhD, coding mathematical models of neuroplasticity (how the connections in the nervous system can be changed) based on actual changes in insect nervous systems (hence the insect neurosurgery!).


How did you get into tech and what motivated you?


After completing my studies - at the age of 29! - I finally thought I should get a proper job. Given I could code, becoming a Developer seemed like a good option. My first full-time role was as a Trainee Assembly Programmer (programming mainframe computers) in a company that serviced the advertising industry.


Apart from earning enough money to be able to live in London, I remember being distinctly motivated to write good quality code. I could see how my team spent much of their time debugging old code, and it was clear that paying attention to the quality and the craft of good code would benefit not just me, but those who’d come after me to support and add to the code I’d written (the poor things).


Have you experienced any 'career in tech' challenges / stereotypes?


I know I’m extraordinarily lucky. Opportunities for a white, middle-class male, with more than enough education are not that hard to come by.


"A career in tech is extraordinary - but it’s all about people. Working together and respecting each other is vital. Collaborating and delivering something that actually meets the needs of your users is so satisfying."

What you wish you knew before getting started in tech...


That being a Tech Architect is where you can have both strongly held, but not necessarily correct, opinions and a lot of money.


What has been your biggest 'wow!' moment related to working in tech so far?


There are two moments that I know changed my mind.


1. When I was an Assembly Programmer, the products we built for our users ran on ‘green screens’ — simple, green text presented on a black background. I spent a couple of years working on these systems before I finally went into one of our clients’ offices. I walked into a room where dozens of people were sitting in front of green screens. And it suddenly struck me that our end users had to look at these all day, everyday, and that must have been such an awful user experience.


2. A few years later, I worked for a company trying to integrate its social care case management system with a big, central NHS system that contains demographic details of everyone in the UK, including their NHS Number. The specification for the integration literally ran to thousands of pages. And we were forced to go though the classic waterfall stages of requirements analysis, functional specification, system design and then development, submitting dozens of pages of evidence for each stage to a central body, before we were even allowed near a test system where we could actually try something. We measured the length of the project by the number of children the project team members had had throughout its interminable duration. And throughout this, there was no chance of even considering what our end users - very stressed social workers - actually needed. They only wanted sight of an NHS number so that they could confirm with medical professionals that they were talking about the same vulnerable person.


I, and my awesome colleagues, knew that there must be a better way of working. And it turned out other clever people had already worked this out, and had come up with an agile manifesto almost a decade earlier. That entirely changed how we approached developing our software.


What do you like / not like about working in tech?


I love working with teams of people, and get such a buzz from helping them work as a proper team - collaborating and delivering important work. And I know that the work I’ve helped deliver, and helped other folks deliver, really has made a difference to people. Particularly to people in pretty vulnerable situations.


But tech is still pretty elitist. And, probably related, it can extraordinarily expensive. Hiring a big team in government, where I do most of my work, costs a lot! But there’s some really exciting stuff that the Government Digital Service (GDS) is looking at to make building simple services that meet citizens’ needs much more accessible, much more affordable.


"I used to be a Software Developer. But the last time someone (who knew what they were talking about) reviewed my code, they laughed out loud. I knew then it was time to stop coding!"

What's been your favourite / most memorable / funniest 'career in tech' moment so far?


I spent an amazing, hard, but extraordinarily fun year working at GDS with an amazing team of around 150 dedicated, passionate people on GOV.UK. We had to hit a ministerial deadline of Friday 19th December, 2014. I remember the date well. I think we all do. We hit the deadline. And we celebrated well.


Some people started celebrating a little early, and I remember having to duck a flying cork while I was still on the phone to a government agency trying to get them to do what they needed to do.


And to wrap up, is there any advice you'd like to give to others interested in a career in tech?


A career in tech is extraordinary - but it’s all about people. Working together and respecting each other is vital. Collaborating and delivering something that actually meets the needs of your users is so satisfying.


But don’t forget that your ‘business’ - whether that’s government or private or third sector - also has needs. Pay attention to both.

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