Creative Lives — Alice Bartlett, senior developer at the Financial Times, talks seizing riskier career opportunities and communicating ideas

Posted 13 June 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

As part of the design department at the Financial Times, senior developer Alice Bartlett leads the ‘Origami’ team to write code for useful digital tools and products, not only for FT readers, but for the company’s internal teams too. While she’s trained in computer science, she admits that her degree didn’t prepare her for her day-to-day work, aside from the occasional “far-out” theoretical in-joke. During her time on the team at Government Digital Service, Alice founded the popular Tampon Club – a handy initiative for women to share tampons in the workplace – which attracted press from the likes of Vice and Core77. We caught up to discuss taking a riskier career route and learning the art of communication at work.

Alice Bartlett

Job Title

Senior Developer, Financial Times (October 2015–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Senior Developer, Government Digital Service (2014–2015)
Developer, Berg (2011–2013)

Education

BA Computer Science, University of York (2006–2009)

Website
Social Media

Alice's workspace at the Financial Times

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
I lead a team of developers at the Financial Times. The team’s remit is to “reduce [developer] time spent repeating work” and “unify design across FT products”. Though I’m a software developer, I report in to the head of design. The FT has the newspaper, but it has a lot of other businesses too. We own more than 10 other finance-focused publications, like The Investors Chronicle, FT Adviser, and The Banker. We also have two events companies, The 125 and FT Live. Then there are the business-to-business services, which all have websites, and that’s where my team comes in.

My team builds and runs services such as the Responsive Image Service, which will convert and compress an image of any size, ready to be used online. We also build and maintain a library of reusable components, like buttons, ads, forms and headers.

What does a typical working day look like? 
I cycle to work with my husband. It’s about 10km from our house to my office and it’s a good bit of time to get some headspace. My working hours are about 9.30am to 5.30pm but my start time is pretty flexible. Right now it’s hiring a new team member, but more typically I might be looking at how we can improve one of our components, coding some bug fixes, planning how we can roll out a design change to a component across all of our sites, that kind of thing.

Because I lead the team, all managerial responsibility falls to me as well as communicating our progress to the rest of the business. I probably spend about 50% of my time working on products and 50% of my time doing things that keep the rest of the team running. 

“I learnt about all the fun and exciting companies working around Old Street, and decided I would move to London and take a riskier job at a small company.”

Alice’s screen at work

How did you land your current job? 
The first company I ever worked for was acquired by the Financial Times a few months after I left. When I was looking for a new role few years ago I messaged my previous boss (Andrew) at that company and asked if he knew of anything interesting. He'd been finding it tricky to fill a role that was part software engineer, part advocate – someone with strong coding skills but also good at communicating ideas. I had worked with Andrew before (albeit a while ago) and I do a lot of public speaking and conference talks so he knew I could handle that aspect of the role too.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
I spend my whole day at a computer pretty much. The FT’s office is near Southwark Bridge and that’s where the whole team is based. It’s a pretty ordinary looking office, but I’ve hung over 100 origami cranes above my team’s desks which kind of jazz it up a little.

How collaborative is your role? 
Since we’re building things for other developers in the FT to use, my role is highly collaborative. I have to work closely with design to make sure what we’re building will work for lots of different contexts. I also work with other developers to make sure our software integrates easily with theirs. Because there is no obligation for FT developers to use what my team is building, it’s very important that make it easy for them to use.

ft.com – one of many Financial Times businesses Alice works on

ft.com – one of many Financial Times businesses Alice works on

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What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least fun aspects of my job are to do with reporting progress and KPIs. Because the FT is so big, it is essential that some form of reporting happens, and this is the least creative bit. The best part of my job is collaborating with the design team. 

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Since our team moved into the design department last year, we’ve been part of huge visual changes to ft.com which have a much bolder, graphic style. None of this is ever particularly exciting work, but it is stuff I’m proud of and I can clearly see where my team made the it possible.

What skills are essential to your job?
I need to be able to write code and reason on behalf of other people’s code, understanding technical systems and architectures. Because I lead and manage a team, I need to be able to do all the things they do, plus coach people, troubleshoot, advocate, make sure we remember to celebrate our successes and learn from our failures. 

Alice worked on the team at GDS before joining the Financial Times

Alice worked on the team at GDS before joining the Financial Times

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Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
I run a group called Tampon Club, an organisation encouraging people to start keeping tampons in their workplace toilets. I started it when I was working for the Government Digital Service and I kept having to carry tampons in my hand between my locker and the toilet which was quite a long way. In the end I figured out that if I kept my tampons in the toilets with a sign that said “Hey, these are for everyone! Replace what you use.” 

What tools do you use most for your work? 
bullet journal obsessively for work because there is so much going on it’s really the only way to keep track. I always use a yellow Leuchtturm1917 with dotted pages. I write code using Atom, and I use an 11-inch MacBook Air. All of the team’s code is publicly available on GitHub (you can see my work here).

Alice’s team is responsible for Origami, whose services include image compression – used extensively across ft.com other financial publications

Alice’s team is responsible for Origami, whose services include image compression – used extensively across ft.com other financial publications

Alice’s team is responsible for Origami, whose services include image compression – used extensively across ft.com other financial publications

Alice’s team is responsible for Origami, whose services include image compression – used extensively across ft.com other financial publications

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up? 
The only thing I remember wanting to be was a police officer when I was about 10. Probably because I liked rules and things being orderly. What a cool child I was.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied computer science at university, and though I’m still in this field I don’t think I’m using my degree much now. Earlier today I made a joke about ‘grey goo theory’ which is the idea that one day computers will be very small and able to replicate and evolve and will eat literally all biomass on earth, so all that will be left is grey goo. But aside from making bad jokes about far-out computer science theories, my degree is not useful day-to-day.

What were your first jobs?
My first job was in telesales selling conservatories over the phone. I lasted two weeks before I left because I hadn’t sold anything. It was a very grim job. I did a couple of internships at IBM while I was studying, and these taught me what working for a huge multinational is like, and the extent to which people can hate their jobs but still put up with them.

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career? 
When I was at IBM, I met someone called Roo Reynolds. Roo had and a really good network of friends working on the web and he introduced me to many of them. Having that network of people back in 2007 was extremely helpful. I learnt about all the fun and exciting companies working around Old Street, and decided that rather than returning to IBM when I graduated, I would move to London and take a riskier job at a small company. 

“Growing up I always thought being analytically smart was the most important thing you could be, but it’s clear to me now that diversity of thought is essential for strong teams.”

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
It’s pretty important to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the industry. I confess I find this aspect of my job quite boring. Reading tech blogs about the latest framework or best practice is just not that interesting unless it relates directly to a problem I’m trying to solve. But with the pace of change in the tech sector, it’s important to keep your finger somewhere near the pulse. Some skills never go out of use though – the ability to explain things clearly, to reason about what some code is doing, to not panic under pressure when a large system breaks, these will never stop being useful.

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
I don’t think I had any idea what my job would be like before I started doing it. I probably wildly undervalued communication when I begun as a developer, which is very typical in tech. Growing up I always thought being analytically smart was the most important thing you could be, but it’s clear to me now that intelligence comes in many different forms and diversity of thought is essential for strong teams.

Tampon Club, an initiative Alice founded

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I don’t know, I’m not really a planner in terms of my career – I just do what’s interesting. Maybe that’s because I’m still only 10 years into my career and at some point I’ll get my shit together.

Could you do this job forever?
I think I would get bored with this specific role, but I doubt I’ll ever get bored of making things with and for computers. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
There are two career paths for people in my current position. The technical one – where people get more responsibility for technology choices that a company makes, or a managerial one – where responsibilities are around employees and the company culture.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a developer?
If you want to become a software developer you’re going to need to learn to code. This is not the trial that it used to be. There are many resources online to help, sites like Glitch, or coding classes now exist in cities all over the world, which cost less a university degree and are only 12 weeks long. There are also a lot of free tech Meetups aimed at teaching underrepresented people to code such as Codebar, Black Girl Tech or Code Your Future.

Posted 13 June 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Digital, Design
Mentions: Financial Times, Government Digital Service, IBM

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