Sat May 5, 2012
I’m starting to draft this post on the train on the commute to my new job at eLife. After almost two years I’ve taken the decision to move on from Mendeley. They were without doubt the two best and most challenging years of my career to date. Working in a start up is an amazing, frustrating, enlightening, energising and rewarding experience.
No single post can do justice to that time, and each time in the past weeks that I have drafted this post in my head it has had a slightly different timbre, so take this for what it is, a reflection in a moment.
The mechanics of the decision are easy to describe, the decision itself one of the hardest that I’ve had to make. Unlooked for, an opportunity to work for eLife arrived. Its a big opportunity, working on the side of the angels. It was a big enough opportunity to make me even think about trying it out. Myself and my wife have a very personal project on the go, and in a few months we will be three. The new job let’s me try out working from home for two days a week. The mornings of the other days I have this beautiful and quiet commute out to Cambridge.
A big change in your life often makes you reassess things, and I weighed up the pros and cons. In the end, I couldn’t get the idea of experimenting with what a journal could be out of my head.
The idea of having the opportunity to bring web scale ideas to the dissemination process. That little “ear-worm” turned and turned, and now I’m on a train to Cambridge. The same desire to innovate, to try out the new, that was the desire that brought me to Nature a few years ago, to Mendeley two years ago, and now to eLife.
I’ll be sure to write about what we ware going to be up to in future posts, but this is a time to reflect on what I have learnt over the past two years. A mini-retrospective.
There are a few things that I am going to miss about Mendeley. I had the very great opportunity to work with great people in my time there. Working with such a dedicated development team was awesome. We built things that didn’t exist before. We ran into problems that other people in the industry have been looking at, and we came up with our own solutions. Every single person was trying as hard as they could to make a success of it. There’s a lot of passion there, many macro cycles of emotion as products come out, you find the bugs, sometimes you make compromises sometimes you surprise yourself. I learnt a lot about working with developers. Getting agreement on the spec is key, I could write a whole blog post about that.
One of the other things that I will miss was the ability to experiment with process. Before working there I’d heard about agile project methodologies, one of the teams at Nature had started using bi-weekly sprints, but I’d only ever worked on projects in a waterfall approach. In my time at Mendeley I got to implement a number of different iterations on agile, saw where it worked, where it didn’t, really got a feel for it as a tool. In the end making the work visible, have agreed goals, and revising your understanding of your progress based on updated information were the core aspects that helped us. Kind of like applying the scientific method to project management.
A great thing about working in a startup is that people are willing to change how you do things, if you can explain it. There is inertia, but it’s not been institutionalised in the way that it is at many bigger organisations. Of course, sometimes the need to change quickly can throw a spanner in the works of the tweak to the method that you are trying, but successes and failures are understood quickly and can be addressed quickly. I don’t want to say that it’s painless, or that it’s a nirvana, but it does tend to lead to fast iteration, and as a vehicle for learning it’s pretty awesome.
I had the sometimes daunting task of presenting to the board on progress (sometimes on lack of progress). They are laser focussed on the metrics that will make the company a success. They put a huge amount of faith in the management team, but it’s important to also understand that when talking to your board, when talking to any party who has a vested interested, but is not on the floor on a day to day basis, that you have to be focussed too in your communication with them. Whenever you have a number of very intelligent people in the room, they are going to dive into the subject matter in front of them. Make sure then, that the items on the agenda, and the information presented about those items, are focussed, clearly communicated, and that they tell a coherent story. Where there are problems, be specific about the impact, and the plans for resolution, but don’t go into the deep technical details (either software of project details). Where there are successes put them in context, celebrate them, but be realistic about the progress you have made, and the work that remains.
The last thing that I want to mention is the impact that Mendeley has had. It’s astonishing to work on something that gets used by so many people. Over one and a half million people signed up for an account with Mendeley. In any given week we would have hundreds of thousands of people using the tools that we had built. My own background is in astronomy. I was used to dealing with big numbers, but small amounts of people. Any researcher can consider themselves lucky to get even a few citations. Most papers never get cited. The things we built had a big impact. A lot of the time, internally, we were not content with what we built. We knew the errors in the system, we knew the features that we really wanted to bring to our users. We were up close and examining each pixel. You had to remember to step back and look at the whole picture, look at the positive feedback. So many users benefiting from a workflow tool. A few months ago I was up in the peak district for a weekend of bouldering. We got dumped on with snow, and had to spend the night in a pub, the roads were impassable. There was a group of bedraggled students sitting in the corner of the pub, caught in the same storm as us. We got chatting, it turned out that one of the students was an enthusiastic Mendeley user. That kind of thing happened all the time (not the getting stranded in pubs, but meeting enthusiastic Mendeley users at the most unexpected junctures).
With eLife I’m convinced there is an opportunity to make a contribution and an impact too. It’s in front of us now, and we have the opportunity to do something great. With Mendeley I feel a pride in having helped a great team of people build something that has been so beneficial to so many researchers. I know what they are planning in the future, and that future looks really exciting. I’m going to be cheering on, from the sidelines.