And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

Debunking Private Eye’s “gobsmacking” gender/race accusations

There’s a photo doing the rounds on Twitter of an extract from the current edition of Private Eye magazine. The text concerns the recent Forward prize for poetry, and the chaps from the Eye have decided that the gender/racial demographics of the Forward prize panel chair and the winners of the prize suggest a sinister conspiracy:

“Maliki Booker [the chair of the judging panel] is a British writer of Caribbean parentage, and so it was not entirely a surprise, though still rather gobsmacking, that all three prize winners were women, that two were from the Caribbean […] and that [one winner’s] publisher, Peepul Tree Press, is also Booker’s.”

Was this gobsmacking, though? Did the blokes from the Eye bother to do any number crunching to determine just how surprising it was that a woman chair would select three women as winners?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: definitely not. Let’s dig in:

For one thing, the chair in question is just one of five judges – and the 2016 panel included two men. They choose three winners each year (in different categories). How much is Private Eye willing to ignore the contributions of the four other judges, none of whom are women from “Caribbean parentage”?

If we look at the lists of past winners and past judges/chairs, we can do some analysis. If we look for panels which awarded prizes to poets of a single gender, there have been three all-male winner lists (1994, 2001 and 2003) and two all-women winner lists (2016 and 2015). The two all-women lists were chosen by female chairs, but 2/3rds of the all-male lists were chosen by female chairs, too.

TL;DR: women are just as likely to choose all-male winners as all-female. Men have never chosen all-women winners (women have done this twice).

We can also see that women chairs show a far less polarised distribution of voting:

… whereas the male chairs massively skew towards a 66% male selection of winners.

TL;DR: men tend to choose other men to win this prize. Women are much more likely to pick a mixture of genders.

Finally, to the Eye’s dogwhistle-like mention of the racial origins of the winners this year. Well, life’s too short to compute the birthplaces of 75 poets (and it looks like the Tories are about to make this compulsory soon anyway), but it’s curious that they don’t mention this for the other years where it’s probable that there was overlap in the countries of birth of the judges/winners. The fact they bring it up at all suggests they think that either a) there’s something suspicious about people from the Caribbean winning an award based on merit or b) there’s an objective “winner” in poetry prizes that will always be selected by any panel of judges, regardless of their interests, origins or reading habits.

Either way, this is shoddy journalism. The data tells us that it’s more unusual for women chairs to pick all-women winners for the Forward prize, and that the only consistent pattern—if any—is for male chairs to pick majority-male winners. That is the scandal the Eye should be complaining about.

A resolution on communication

Talking is hard. So’s writing. Self-expression is sometimes crushingly futile when we try to reduce the mad, beautiful complexity of the human mind into the crude box we call language. Even with the best will in the world we can still mess up, “misspeak”, communicate badly.

In the spirit of “do unto others”, a vaguely new resolution of mine is to tell others when something about their communication has made things difficult, upsetting or unhelpful for me. This is, of course, purely subjective – something that hurts me may not hurt others, and doubtless most times the people in question don’t intend to cause offence. These are the people it’s worth reaching out to, then – if something I said ever hurts or demeans someone else, I’d sooner know about it than not, no matter how hard it is to hear.

With that in mind, here are a couple of recent incidents where I’ve exercised this new power.

I’m a solo developer on a team at the BBC that’s not directly connected to the rest of the organisation – we don’t sit in a regular BBC office or have daily contact with other teams. While this is hugely freeing and means we can work quickly and with minimal restrictions, there’s also the side effect that it can sometimes feel isolated and lonely. At the end of last year I went to an internal developer conference along with probably a hundred or so other BBC technical staff. I didn’t know anybody else there and travelled to a different city for the day.

Some days my introvert nature is stronger than others and that day was definitely more of a “flight” than “fight”. I listened along to the talks but didn’t really feel like striking up a conversation with the groups of folks all around me who were all existing colleagues.

During one talk, a senior architect was asking the audience whether they’d used an internal software tool his team were working on. When almost everyone raised their hand he jokingly changed the question to “okay, who’s not heard of it?”. I raised my hand – then looked back (I was sitting on the front row) to see I was the only person in the room with my hand raised.

Now, probably nobody else noticed or cared, but in my state at the time I was already fighting back feelings of imposter syndrome, “you don’t belong here”, etc. This question all but confirmed it for me: I wasn’t part of this crowd. It took most of my self control to stick around for the second half of the day after that, trying to reassure myself that the talks on programming were still relevant regardless of whether I’d heard of some internal library.

After the event I decided to email the speaker and let him know how I’d felt. I acknowledged that he’d not meant to single me out or poke fun at anyone, and that I’d done the same sort of “put your hand up if…”-style audience participation in talks I’ve given. But I wanted to share with him the realisation that I’d had at that moment: asking those kind of “survey” questions in that sort of exclusive (rather than inclusive) way is liable to isolate some of your most important audience members: the ones you haven’t encountered yet.

To his credit, he replied and agreed with my feedback and pointed out it was an off-the-cuff comment. I felt glad to have shared my feedback with him, though – if I’d given that talk and inadvertantly made someone feel out-of-place I’d prefer to know, and correct it for next time.

The second time I’ve recently given feedback was during a particularly trying exchange of emails. My team got clobbered with some red tape: essentially, we had to undertake a (second) security review of an application we were building for boring, complex process reasons. The man who instigated the review sent our team a fairly unhelpful email (with multiple senior stakeholders CC’d in) which didn’t offer us much support with fixing the problem he’d raised.

Once we’d fixed the issue, I asked a technical question and got back a fairly patronising message from him stating that it was “concerning” that I didn’t understand the issue – an issue that he’d raised. In this reply he’d again copied in some senior folks. I acknowledged my error (which it was indeed) and thanked him on the thread for pointing it out.

I then privately replied to him and pointed out that escalating the email to my boss and the way he’d spoken to me had embarassed me and, I felt, could’ve been resolved with a private message between us. I noted that I didn’t feel he’d approached us with an attitude of wanting to help us get our product live and iron out the issues, which is the policy that particular team are meant to stick to.

Again, to his credit, he replied and apologised and said he hadn’t been out to embarass me – indeed, he revealed his own frustrations that teams like mine were left without clear training on how to avoid some of these issues in the first place. I was glad I’d given him the feedback – it might assist other teams in future if they’re dealing with these situations.

I don’t want to come off here as a special snowflake who’s constantly being offended by well-meaning folks (and then griping to them over email about it). I’m in a fairly unique position at the moment where my team is isolated from the rest of the organisation – often these kind of issues would be resolved over a face-to-face chat. But I do believe that it’s valuable to give—and receive—feedback on how we talk to one another. It’s the worst feeling in the world to find out that you’ve hurt someone without meaning to – I’ve experienced this and remember how awful I felt. But as bad as you feel when you realise you’ve let yourself down, you’d feel worse if you never got a chance to correct it or make up for it.

So I challenge you: if someone you work with or see socially (or anything else) has communicated with you in a way which hurt you, annoyed you or prevented you from doing something, don’t be afraid to (productively, and politely) tell them. Do so in the spirit that you’d like to receive such feedback: from someone who believes you can (and want to) do better. And if you’re reading this and I’ve made you feel like that, I want to know about it too. Drop me a line!

My Atom setup

I recently decided to switch my main text editor for coding from Sublime Text to Atom by Github (mostly because my old work license expired when I changed jobs, but also because I liked Atom’s open-source nature). In the six months I’ve spent with it, I’ve grown to love it and wanted to share a few tips I’ve learned in the form of packages you should definitely install for almost any form of coding.



Really simple – makes files in your sidebar show up with file-type icons. Should just be part of Atom core really.

linter / jshint

You’re linting your code for errors as you work, right?


A bit of a hangover from Sublime Text and probably not crucial but I love it just for familiarity. Again, should just be a core Atom feature.


Useful just to go back to where you were.


Super, super useful if you’ll be using Atom across multiple machines. It uses your Github account to sync your plugins/settings across computers – I use it to keep my work and home Atom instances in sync.

Working with text



Useful if you’re a bit OCD and want your import statements, object definitions or other repetitive code to be beautifully aligned.



Like aligner, but to the nth degree. I use this frequently when working with someone else’s (messy) code or improving things I’ve typed into the browser console etc.



Some days, you just want to feel epic when you code.




This one’s handy to just help you browse for files in your current project.



Gives you a shortcut for a handy color picker meaning you don’t have to leave your editor if you just want a half-decent colour.




I was initially sceptical of Emmet but decided to give it a try when building a few sites from scratch. Being able to type out a single line and get back dozens of boilerplate is great, and its CSS autocomplete shortcuts are nice too.

Visual aids



Super useful for me as I sometimes struggle to find my place when switching between Atom and other windows.



Another Sublime feature I missed – select a term and see where it’s used in other places.



The definitive colour preview package – it’s even clever enough to highlight interpreted variable colours and Sass functions if you enable the setting to do so.

Augmenting Atom



I’d tried tern in the past and found it slow and unworkable (albeit for a massive project), but for smaller things I’ve found this handy – adds IDE-esque features to Atom allowing you to jump to the definition of a variable or function, and adds autocomplete tooltips for your own functions and modules to remind you what arguments they take (even inferring parameter types where it can).

tool-bar / tool-bar-almighty


A set of plugins to add a nifty toolbar menu to Atom allowing easy access to settings, splitscreen views and others.

In all of the screenshots above, I’m using the beautiful (free for personal use) Input Mono font, the Seti UI and the Chester syntax theme.

These are the plugins and settings I use every day – I’d encourage you to try out a new editor for 2016 if you’re stuck on the non-free, slowly-updated Sublime Text. Github are putting a lot of work into Atom and it shows – my only criticism is its slow startup time but I can live with this, and a hackable, web technology-based editor is a welcome change. Give it a try.

Postscript: Kevin Mears on Twitter pointed out a nice Atom feature where you can “star” a package and then install another user’s starred packages. I just used apm star --installed to automatically star all my installed packages, and you can install them with apm stars --user mattandrews --install which will give you all my packages (there are a couple of misc extra ones not listed here, FYI). Thanks Kevin!

Learnings so far after leaving my old job

It’s been three months, give or take a few days, since I left the Guardian—and London—to move to the BBC (I know, how imaginative…) in Birmingham. It’s flown by. Tomorrow I’m off for a visit to the capital where I’ll be seeing some former colleagues I haven’t seen since I left. Thinking about that has made me reflect on what I’ve learned so far.

The most immediate thing that stands out for me is that I’ve hugely upped my game, tech-wise. It’s counterintuitive: I’m the only developer on my team and don’t work directly with any other technical people. Really, I should be stagnating: there’s no omniscient senior dev or meddling software architect for me to learn from or query. Nobody is reviewing my pull requests (in fact, I’m mostly committing everything directly onto master… sorry, Roberto). Any technical decision my team needs to make is mine and mine alone – unlike at the Guardian, where this was rarely (if ever) the case, and any decision I did argue for was frequently challenged and queried by others.

On the other hand: being a solo dev in an organisation the size and scale of the BBC has forced me to drop some lazy habits and delegation I’d become used to relying on at the Guardian. True story: even at the point that I left that role (in June of this year), I still didn’t really have much of a grasp of what was going on behind the scenes when I hit the “deploy” button on our app. I didn’t know how to set up a new build process for a brand new app which would take code from my machine and plonk it onto the internet. Jesus, I’d never even used Heroku.

This was because I didn’t have to worry about those things. Other people did; often the groundwork for projects was already laid when I joined them and cleverer people than me had sweated over the fine details so I could mash the “deploy” button and go and buy an overpriced coffee while my code was hitting the servers. Clearly those skills (and tasks) existed within the Guardian but I never quite got around to picking them up. We did have vague training schemes for them and doubtless most of my colleagues would’ve been happy to walk me through these tasks when asked, but quite a lot of the time it was taken as an assumption that I either a) already knew how to do them, or b) would “self-select” and skill up on my own.

Clearly I was getting lazy and unmotivated and I think this is partly what prompted me to realise I needed a kick up the arse and to get out of that environment. It took this move – a leap of faith, really – to force me to learn what I’d been putting off.

In many ways it’s been the most challenging period of my developer career so far. The BBC has a huge, complex tech stack built over long years and hard-learned lessons. It’s called Cosmos and sits atop AWS for various complex legal reasons. Because my team was a new one with no existing tech stack (and no other developers, let alone operations support), it was my job to get to grips with Cosmos and figure out how to get my silly little apps onto the cloud.

It was painful. I wrestled with internal wikis, plagued IRC channels, roped generous remote colleagues into answering my rambling questions and eventually worked out that my lack of a developer certificate on my machine was why I couldn’t get half of it to work was a problem I needed to solve. I had to learn what a VPC was, how to configure CNAMEs in Route53 and automate build jobs from Github to Jenkins to the cloud. And I did it.

Now, it probably took me twice as long as most more competent developers would’ve taken, and doubtless there are still rookie errors and configuration bugs I’ve yet to spot which will cause me troubles down the line. But the main thing for me is that I’ve definitely “levelled up” as a developer in a way that I was never going to do at the Guardian. That’s likely down to me – when I get unhappy I tend to disappear into my own little world of moodiness and introspection, and by the time I recognised it at the Guardian I was too frustrated to want to solve my problems there and it was better just to leave. No doubt I could’ve learned all these things there too, but the comfort factor of sticking to what I already knew was too easy and the lack of management support meant I wasn’t being challenged to do this myself.

I should also say that the BBC itself is great at teaching these things: there’s actually an official internal training course (a proper, real-life event lasting two days) to learn about Cosmos, which I’m booked onto. New developers typically get a better start than I did because they’ll be joining established teams (or at least reporting to other technical staff who know the workarounds and timesinks from tried-and-tested experience).

I don’t regret my experience so far because it’s taught me to learn to solve these things myself – and as I hinted at above, I have almost complete freedom to decide what I work on, how I build it and when it’s “done”. With great power comes great responsibility, of course, and I’m conscious that left unchecked this will start to see my work decline if I get blasé about my code, but in general right now I’m feeling like uprooting myself from my comfort zone has been one of the best things I’ve done in a long, long time.

Past, present and future

By the time I press “Publish” on this entry, my employment at the Guardian will be over after just shy of five years working as a developer there. I’m also days away from leaving London, the city I moved to in order to work at the newspaper. I’ll be moving to Birmingham to start a new job with the BBC. This post is a reflection on the road that’s brought me here.

The past

It feels a bit strange to think of my time at the Guardian as being “in the past”. It’s still only my second job and the longest time I’ve spent working anywhere. It’s changed an enormous amount since 2010, not least the new editor whose stint began during my final week. Most of the changes are for the best, but some of them less so.

Ultimately I left because I felt under-utilised and bored. I have to take responsibility for these things myself, at least partly: I could’ve pushed to be placed on more dynamic projects or kicked up more of a fuss when I fell through the cracks a bit after stepping down as a manager last summer. I didn’t, though, and it was when I realised that I was beginning to feel negative towards the company and my department there that it was time to go.

I was asked last year to mentor a talented young chap on the Guardian’s graduate scheme and the experience really brought home to me how much my own career was missing someone in that role who could look objectively at what I was doing and give me a nudge in the right direction. The Guardian does have a line management function (indeed, I was a line manager for three of the five years I spent there) but in my opinion it’s poorly defined and implemented.

The Guardian has a fantastic reputation technically and people are always attracted to it as a workplace for tech/software as well as the obvious journalism draw. This is all completely valid and I’ve worked with some of the smartest, most intelligent people I’m sure I’ll ever encounter. On the other hand, I often felt the dreaded imposter syndrome as people made assumptions about my experience and knowledge which were widely off the mark. Similarly, several times I had the unpleasant experience of way smarter people than me pouncing on things I’d been doing and telling me how wrong they were. Again, this is down to me: better communication could’ve avoided these things, but equally, my department over the last year saw a rise in the pursuit of senior engineers, which I think exacerbates this aggressive mindset towards coding ability.

Really, I just didn’t feel like I was fitting in: I’d had a go at being a manager because I thought I could at least get my head around working with people, if not senior software engineering. That was a challenging experience which I don’t regret but definitely reached my limits with (for now). When I saw the Creative Technologist role at the BBC advertised, I knew that this was closer to what I wanted to be doing: using tech to make things. I’m never going to be the super-smart engineering guru who can grok monads while debating the finer points of graph theory. But I can usually hack something up which does what I need, and even learn how to do it better next time if I’m lucky enough to be working alongside someone who’ll explain it to me and not just do it themselves.

The present

That brings me to the current day. I resigned from the Guardian, worked out my notice and am about to begin my next role at that other big liberal media organisation, the BBC.

It’s going to be hugely, dramatically different. The team I’m joining is (I think) seven people strong – my immediate project team at the Guardian had eleven of us and that was in a department of 130+ people. I’ll also (as far as I’m aware) be the only developer. This is both terrifying and liberating.

The stuff we’ll be building won’t be directly related to news journalism, which has been my bread and butter for the last five years. This, too, though, feels exciting: the Twittersphere and the London media bubble do a great job of sucking you in until you end up feeling like either a) everybody else in the country experiences things just like you do, or b) who cares what people who aren’t in it think?

I took a few months off Twitter while I worked through my job frustrations and it was really valuable: I stopped missing it pretty quickly; found myself thankful I wasn’t there when things like the Jeremy Clarkson sacking took place; noticed the proliferation of media reporting on what essentially boiled down to Twitter drama (whereas before I’d usually find such write-ups relevant and newsworthy). I also stopped going to London media meetups which tended to be overly schmoozy/cliquey. This helped me remember why I got into writing code in the first place: to make cool stuff that people would look at and enjoy, not to fart around in a filter bubble with the same few dozen faces.

Before I get too self-righteous, I also should be clear that I’m about to start working at the BBC so I’m hardly some provincial everyman. I’m super excited, though, to be part of what’s unquestionably the greatest broadcaster in the world: it still hasn’t really sunk in yet but I got a little tingle of pride when they emailed me my staff ID number.

The future

And that brings me to London—or to be precise—makes me leave it. I’ve written here in the past about my frustrations with the capital and it seemed the right time to try going somewhere else.

I love the city and I’ll never regret the years we spent living here. I’m sure I’m going to miss it hugely too: while I’ve reassured myself that Birmingham has all the things I need for my daily quality of life, it’s not London and never will be, and I’ll miss the capital for its abundance of random interesting events, unbeatable culture and sheer scale: it’s been inconceivable to me to imagine being unable to travel to some part of the city at an unusual hour, buy something outlandish even on a Sunday evening or sample the cuisine of a nation on the other side of the planet as I wander down my local high street.

But then, London doesn’t have the monopoly on such things, and indeed, that’s the snobbish attitude many Londoners have about the rest of the country. I’m proud that the BBC is bucking the Londoncentric trend and excited to see what living somewhere that’s definitively up-and-coming (compared to the less salubrious parts of London I’ve lived in that have doggedly been claiming just that for the better part of a decade) is really like.

So, what’s next? Well, Maddy and I are both 28 (well, she has a few weeks left of being in denial about graduating from Club 27) and starting to think about what’s next for us. I’d like to start thinking about having kids one day and this is all just another step on the path of settling down. Probably. Let’s see what happens, right?