View from our flat, Ladbroke Grove
As mentioned, a colleague approached me for the gig. I didn’t know the actual project I’d be working on, but went out of trust in my colleague, and the BBC opportunity, for the young studio in Stuttgart.
I’m not sure what to call this colleague who brought me in. I’ll call him ‘Reinhard’.
Between 1999 and 2011 Reinhard and I had worked concurrently at different firms, in different offices in different countries, with only a slight overlap in London, 2008. Until Reinhard hired me to work at the BBC.
The first firm we worked at concurrently was around the turn of the century. A firm at the height of the dotcom era. A special firm. I’ve worked at many and this particular one, is among my all time favorites. Simply because culture was first and foremost in hiring decisions. The firm placed collaboration over competition, multidisciplinary dialogue over silos and innovation before all this became a cliche.
It’s important to emphasise this early firm precisely because of its strong culture. So strong, sixteen years after its closure, the alumni community is as tight as ever. It’s unspoken, but acknowledged that the community is reliable and shares the same work values.
So, this experience with Reinhard was particularly surprising. Though it shouldn’t have been. As I wrote earlier, something similar happened with a different colleague but from that same firm. That was, San Francisco in 2006, but on a smaller scale.
I accepted the offer from Reinhard to consult and arrived in November, 2010, in London from Berlin/Stuttgart. I had the good fortune of crashing with close friends in Brixton, for as long as needed, before I found a flat.
Upon arrival in London I learned I’d be the creative director for the London 2012 digital program. The Olympics were roughly eighteen months away and things were just gearing up. The first few days I found out there were a couple, maybe even a few creative directors before me.
Various types of research had been done, ideas explored but nothing coherent nor integrative of all the BBC properties for such a momentous event. It was, of course, a special occasion for London but also an enormous opportunity for the BBC, as the host provider, to harness their talent and resources and shine in like no other.
On the first day Reinhard scheduled a meeting with myself, the creative director of BBC Sport and a newly hired art director working across Sport and London 2012. BBC Sport, News and Weather were currently undergoing or beginning full redesigns. Reinhard was the head of design for all these properties.
A design team was assembled to focus on 2012 for me to lead, along with the art director working on the BBC Sport redesign. It didn’t take long for us all to gel. The people were fantastic to work with and we all collaborated very well with one another.
Straight away we poured through previous docs and began designing concept models of how all the content, from video to olympic schedules to editorial content could fit together across BBC properties. Concept models, user journeys, visual explorations, etc. Quickly it became clear our work had dependencies on other BBC properties who were also in the process of redesign, even outside of Sport and News. This included, critically, the iPlayer, the BBC homepage, mobile, and the newly-formed TV applications.
I cannot emphasize enough, the complexity of stakeholders given the scale of the London 2012 project. It was not just a matter of working with designers across the org, but all the stakeholders within their groups, and of course, the many within London 2012, including the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG). Plus, additional external parties.
Across the six months of my work there, I brought the team to where they needed to be, including all the work across properties in conjunction with the other leads. It was a colossal effort and it was all I could do. The pressure and lack of resources was too great, even early on.
By late November I found a flat in Ladbroke Grove, and Joel drove over from Germany with Pixel and Raster. The flat was a 10 minute walk for me to work. The walks to and from were little treasures of time to myself. I remember listening to The Roots’ How I Got Over and PJ Harvey’s, newly released, Let England Shake on my phone during these walks, on repeat. I joined a nearby gym in the hope of getting out, and moving my body. I went maybe four times in the six months.
The intensity of the work was nothing new. It’s pretty much how I’ve worked since my first job. So, I really didn’t think anything of it until the end. I was working with wonderful people on another cutting edge project. Especially with regards to the unprecedented design challenge of ongoing, multiple-channel live video browsing and consumption.
Presentations of concepts were made at high levels of stakeholders, including the-then Director General of the BBC. Things were approved and we rolled onwards.
There was no structure set in place for me, I created it. Certainly, creating the structure is part of my job, especially in this case, where none existed before. I did just that, specifically for the London 2012 project. However, I never knew until the last few weeks that other creative directors handed in weekly reports of status for the head of all design (Reinhard’s boss). I was never told to do so or that this practice even existed.
As the project grew in complexity and stakeholder numbers, across the org, there was no program manager or even project manager to oversee this. I acted these parts for several months, alongside my primary role as creative director. It was clearly untenable. Multiple groups, multiple redesign dates, stakeholders, horizontally, vertically and external. Still, our little team progressed.
Several months in, after my many requests for a project manager, we (London 2012) finally got one. She was a saint. Furthermore, it became clear that a project manager specifically for design was not enough. We needed an overall program manager to oversee and plan all the moving parts across the org. All of this should have been obvious from the beginning, even before my entry, but alas…
It was 4-5 months in. We already made progress across various aspects of the project. A lot was still up in the air regarding design. It was still early stages and we required a lot more involvement from other groups. The design leads of the other groups obliged and we met regularly to discuss integrative design, held workshops etc.
Funny thing. My boss, Reinhard, head of my particular group was rarely present. Of course, he had a lot on his plate with the redesign of Sport and News. Still, he was never up to date on the latest 2012 status and we meet together only randomly, at his request, when his time allowed. Thus, he had no clue what was going on with the project.
Apart from it being the Beeb, I took the gig because it was a reliable, ongoing source of income for the young firm in Stuttgart. As it turned out, though we invoiced monthly, our firm in Stuttgart was not being paid. I brought this up with Reinhard, the colleague and ‘friend’ who hired me.
By March, five months into the contract, we were still not paid. I brought Reinhard aside and said we need to get paid. “It’s not my problem” is what he replied. I told him he needs to figure this out in the org and make sure it happens. During this chat, Reinhard escalated and began yelling at me only a few meters from our colleagues. “It’s not my problem you’re not getting paid!” “What are you doing anyway? There is no work, what have you done?” And on and on.
This was the beginning of the end. There was no reason for this treatment of me. It was extremely disrespectful and discriminatory.
Given the scale, complexity and ongoing requests for project management resources and not getting paid. Well, it felt like David vs. Goliath whilst shouting in the wind.
Around this time, the BBC underwent massive layoffs and restructuring. Not by choice but need. The Tories in office, under PM David Cameron, began slashing the funding of the public broadcaster. Clearly an attempt to favor Rupert Murdoch’s Sky operations. The political relationships of Cameron and Murdoch’s organisations would only be even more apparent during the trials of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, et al. Cameron’s private emails to Brooks, revealed in the Leveson Inquiry and the seismic rocking of News Corp worldwide, later in Spring, 2011.
The BBC cuts were across the board. Nobody was spared. There was a mandate to especially layoff foreign workers requiring visas. A design colleague who held a leadership position for several years was laid off, clearly because he was an American and, thus, required a visa.
The layoffs, as large and loud as they took place, were still in the background for me. I was not a ‘contractor’ really but part of a startup design studio. Of course, the risks and fragility of my situation were clear. In the end, the layoffs would not impact my work, personally.
I left the BBC in April, 2011. I was forced out not by the organization’s turmoil going on all around me but directly by my boss, Reinhard. Due to his lack of participation in my project (I assume), he had no idea what we were up to, nor the traction we made, across groups. I don’t know but can surmise this ignorance of his was misunderstood by his own boss. I was then, “let go”, via SMS, by Reinhard.
During this late period, I orchestrated various meetings across stakeholders to discuss status and challenges. More senior level directors became involved. I had a good relationship with one and spoke of my situation with them, about not having been paid yet. About Reinhard letting me go. This person was astonished. Not only at not being paid all this time but of relieving me of the contract. The surprise was immediate: “We can’t lose you on this project.”
Solace. The boyz, some random morning in Ladbroke G.
This senior director then spoke directly to Reinhard’s boss to keep me on. Reinhard’s boss said no. I’d only ever said hello to Reinhard’s boss in the hall. He had no idea what I was doing. Still, he said no straight away. The business director who fought for me, wanted me to stay, could not impact his decision, unfortunately. Though, this director was the one who made sure our firm was paid, immediately and for the rest of my work.
I told my team about my imminent departure. They were shocked. “You can’t leave”. “What are we going to do?” “Do we have to deal with Reinhard all the time now?” etc. I stayed calm and laid out some possibilities for going forward, including referring them to people in the org who they could rely on, without a doubt.
Reinhard and I would never speak directly again. He requested I document all the work thus far and send it in. I did just that, and then some. I spent the last week of work, at my flat, documenting everything and sent the report to the entire team. The document was both extensive and deep across all the complexity. I’m certain this put to bed any notion of me “not doing anything”.
I did feel it was critical to facilitate this knowledge sharing across the organization. At that stage, I was in fact, the only person who could see all the moving parts, challenges, and so on. It was necessary to take a snapshot of everything in time, for the team, across the board, moving forward.
As it goes with large projects for me, I got a horrible flu as soon as I stopped going into the office. It was during this I documented everything. Sick as I was, I am really glad I spent the time to do so with such care and detail.
And so it goes, again. It was an incredible project for me and I’m grateful for the people I worked with and the opportunity overall. The results were spectacular, and the BBC won many awards for their whole digital program. Randomly, much later, maybe 2013, I learned the original team listed me on the design award with the rest of the team. Very sweet, very thoughtful. That was later.
At the time of my dismissal, after a long string of being fucked over by (white, straight, male) bosses and firms, I was entirely spent. Overspent. Emotionally and physically.
This experience, after so much of what I’d already been through was entirely crushing.
An article came up recently prompted by the gender discrimination at Uber and the upswing in press about this systemic problem in technology.
“…in the male-dominated technology industry, female staffers and workers of color say sexual misconduct, discrimination and retaliation are rampant – and that men in powerful positions are routinely protected while women are often pushed out of their jobs by harassment.”
Nothing truer. Not just for startups but established firms too. I can say these discriminatory experiences, for me, caused our inadvertent European odyssey to begin. But worse, they contributed a great deal to my complete mental and physical meltdown in the fall of 2013.
It is largely because of these factors I’ve chosen to leave technology, or at least the part I was involved in, successfully, for over twenty years. Design and technology will certainly have their part in my next work, but not in the same sector as before.
In April 2011, there was no option for me but to continue working as the only work visa holder at the time and still working on the Stuttgart studio startup. In retrospect, I should have forced at least a month’s break. Hindsight…
Before we left London, I visited Torino to meet with a 3rd party sports media firm we hired at the BBC. And a new relationship formed.