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Neil Williams: from dairy farming to Executive Director for Technology and Digital Transformation

Social media handle(s):

I do a weeknote/newslettery thing at which you can subscribe to. I’m @neillyneil on BlueSky, Instagram, Threads (and still X, for now).

A few words about me:

Hello! I lead digital service redesign at the BFI, which is the UK’s lead body for film. It's my dream gig, in the middle of the Venn diagram of my professional knowledge and my favourite thing to do with clothes on, so I'm having a good time.

I previously ran GOV.UK, and did a tough but edifying stint in local gov for Croydon.

Fun facts: I can't form mental images and have no inner monologue (aphantasia) nor remember events from my life (SDAM). Which makes me focused on now and next; but can also make it feel pointless experiencing things at all!

I live in Crystal Palace in south London with my writer-director wife and our two sons. I prefer films, board games and rollercoasters to concerts, sports and parties. I’m alcohol-free, having realised by 40 I’d had enough. I like to think my not drinking is a rebellious, counter-cultural act - just like young me thought drinking was in the first place. 🤷🏻‍♂️

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

Loads! In my late teens and early twenties I did some character-building jobs in an abattoir, a naan bread factory and a coleslaw factory. I later became a “marketing executive” (actually a door to door salesman) for a company that claimed to be marketing the Playstation 2, but turned out to be hawking random knock-off goods out of hold-alls.

My first real job was sub editing film and TV listings for Sky’s customer magazine in QuarkXPress. Then I went to a comms agency, managing the production cycles of about 30 clients’ staff magazines. Looking back, I'd say this was my first product management job, prioritising and approving the work of a multidisciplinary creative team.

Now I am Executive Director for Technology and Digital Transformation at the British Film Institute. BFI is a charity, lottery distributor, and the UK’s lead body for film. We do a huge amount - from running a cool cinema programme in 5 screens in Waterloo, to funding filmmaking and looking after the largest collection of film & TV in the world. We’ve got big plans to grow our digital platforms, including our uniquely brilliant streaming service BFI Player, and to become a digital first organisation by our centenary in 2033.

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

Not STEM at all!

I grew up on a dairy farm in Devon, in near total ignorance of what careers might exist outside our small market town.

Aside from a bit of self-taught programming in BASIC on a ZX Spectrum and BBC Master, and making magazines with desktop publishing software, I had no exposure to tech, and no formal education in computing.

My A-Levels were English, History and French, and I got an English degree from Nottingham.

I wanted to be a writer, or somehow involved in magazines. I made zines obsessively as a kid, and edited both my school and university's creative writing mags - in both cases turning highbrow vehicles into Viz clones!

Where did your professional journey start?

I was at that comms agency I mentioned, coordinating magazines. I’d been tinkering in my bedroom making satire websites - a spoof eBay, a parody IMDB - and I’d shown a few colleagues. Somehow the CEO got wind of it and asked me to run the new web team he was setting up. A leap of faith for us both, one I am forever grateful for!

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

I instantly fell in love with the rapid feedback loops of the web. Building something, putting it live and immediately getting user insights you can use to make it better - it all felt so exciting, and still does. That proximity to users, and the democratising power shift of who gets to make stuff, are the things I still adore about it today.

I also enjoyed the coding - just HTML and CSS in the Dreamweaver era, and a smidge of PHP and MySQL. All long forgotten now, though.

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

The only challenge has been self-doubt about not being from a comp sci background - and the standard imposter syndrome we all deal with. I'm otherwise holding a full-house of privilege: white, cis, het, male, able-bodied and privately educated (caveat: on a means-tested scholarship). So it would be churlish to say I've had any struggle.

"Put yourself out there! My big breaks came from making stuff, and making myself visible ..."

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

As a civil servant in digital comms (from 2003-2011), I went quite far down the road of learning (and tolerating) PRINCE2, oblivious to the agile manifesto and what was happening in the tech world. I’d have loved to have known sooner that better ways were possible!

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

Discovering agile and product management when I joined GDS in 2011 was a real Damascene conversion and love-at-first-sight moment that rewired my brain forever. And being part of launching GOV.UK - phenomenal.

Plus there are some ‘wow’ people I’ve been lucky to meet: like Sir Tim Berners-Lee (twice! I spent a whole evening sitting between him and Rosemary Leith at a BFI dinner) and Col Needham, the founder and CEO of IMDB - what an inspiration!

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

I love the ethos and mindset of (most) digital folks - humility, collaboration, passion for making things better, willingness to question things and keep learning.

But our world also comes with a lot of frustration and challenges. Things like: navigating the comprehension gap, engaging colleagues in deeper change and service design thinking. And the many trade-offs, because there’s always way more to do than you ever could. I’m working at holding it lightly (to quote Ben Holiday’s brilliant blog post).

"... be part of the internet, don’t just work on it - make stuff, radiate intent, you never know what might come of it."

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

Has to be the time Peter Herlihy deleted my backlog! Now part of GDS lore: (see 30 April).

Pete was delivery manager to my product manager on the initial build of the Whitehall parts of GOV.UK - a product with 1000s of stakeholders, whose more valid needs and supporting evidence I had lovingly and painstakingly captured on a well-groomed product backlog. Unilaterally, Pete deleted it one weekend. All gone, no backup. He did it on the basis it had become overfacing and “if it was important, we’ll remember it”. He was right - the team and product gained something from clearing the decks - but it was quite the stand-up that Monday, and I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven him for it!

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

Put yourself out there! My big breaks came from making stuff, and making myself visible - those spoof websites I mentioned that got me my first digital role, and later a post on my personal blog brought me to the attention of Tom Loosemore right when he was founding GDS.

So be part of the internet, don’t just work on it - make stuff, radiate intent, you never know what might come of it.


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