James Inman Thoughts on life, law and technology.

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End of an era

You can do what you have to do, and sometimes you can do it even better than you think you can.
Jimmy Carter

After 13 and a half months, today is my last day at Meritec. It’s been a fun ride – I’ve spent my time building internal systems, doing a large ground-up rewrite of an e-learning system, and, most of the time, on CPOMS. I’m moving on, next week, to pastures new, and exciting things. I just wanted to reflect for a moment, though.

This product – it seems almost an understatement to call it a product – has been my life for the last two years. I’ve lived and breathed it. There’s been all-nighters, frantic days full of sales visits, even more frantic days of coding, trips to the Houses of Parliament, endless meetings with lawyers and accountants and I can honestly say it’s been one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

Rewind two years: I was up in the North East working on another software idea when after a chance conversation with a friend who was doing some work in a school I started to have a crazy idea. In the aftermath of the Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly cases, the inquiries (and indeed, essentially every local authority Serious Case Review that had been undertaken after the death of a child) had heavily criticised the communication between different agencies – social care, the NHS, schools, police, and the like. Now, it was a crazy idea to be able to fix that problem, but it was never far from my mind. I kicked off a few months of research in which I decided that the thing to do was start at the schools, and go from there. This linked well into my own schooling, too – and the fact that if one teacher knows about something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the correct information’s been recorded so a child can be adequately protected.

Fast-forward a few months and I’d built a proof of concept that was in a few schools, and then a few months later was in the process of looking for funding before various situations came to a head at once and that never worked out. It’s a good thing it didn’t – there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to develop, support and sell a product that was growing at the rate it was. Instead, last January, I took the product to Meritec, where I did or played a part in every sales visit until about two months ago, as well as writing the vast bulk of the code for the product.

I’m leaving Meritec with my head held high, and leaving behind something I’m exceptionally proud of for the team there to work on. The developments I initiated after I’ve handed my notice in have been much needed improvements to take the product – already successful and with better customer feedback from schools than I ever envisaged – to a level that’s just a little closer to that dream of integrating different schools and agencies together.

It was and still is a crazy, ambitious dream. It’d be difficult not to have gone through an experience like this without learning some lessons from it. So…

  • Hardware two-factor authentication is incredible in what it can achieve, and sends setup costs and times through the roof unless you’re doing it on a large scale.
  • Trying to make Ruby On Rails bend to handle multiple databases is really not something you should be trying to do. If you’re doing that, you’re using the wrong framework, or, more to the point, looking at your problem the wrong way.
  • No matter what accreditations or security measures you have in place (and the security has always been top-notch), nothing helps as much as honesty with your customers. We’re all human; no-one expects us to be infallible.
  • The state of software for education is a complete mess. The market is essentially controlled by Capita, RM, Pearson, and Serco. Small providers struggle, and the only way to really get “trust” in such a market is by getting in a car and visiting schools. Lots of them. This costs a lot of money.
  • Trying to break into a market without a specialist salesperson in that market with you is seriously, seriously, tough work.
  • One word of mouth referral is worth more than a month’s worth of cold sales approaches.
  • If everyone tells you you’re crazy to have an idea, you probably are. Keep going.

Mostly, I’m leaving behind knowing that my overarching principle when I built the product – get it in as many schools as possible to help as many children as possible – really, for me, ended up being what mattered, and I achieved it. If I could have found some way to do it, the product would have been given, for free, to every school in the country. Nonetheless, I finish this knowing I’ve actually made some children’s lives better. The information I’ve helped create (and sometimes, collate) has been used in schools and in court cases and has actually helped. I can look at everything I’ve done over the last two years – a lot of mistakes, quite a few lessons, and many wonderful experiences – and know it’s all been worth it because of that. In some, small way, I just changed the world.

I couldn’t have done it without these people, and many more:

Dan Kolodziej: For countless’ days help and advice in the early days. I’ll never forget the contribution you made and the help you gave me.

Nina Elphee: You’ve been more supportive than I could have ever asked for. Thank you so much.

Caius Durling: C, I think you’ve lived every single code bug I hit in this project over the last two years! Thanks for telling me Ruby was the way to go, thanks for being there to pick up the pieces and thanks for making me a better coder than I could ever have hoped to be.

Fi Stygall: I remember that conversation where I sketched that little diagram. It’s been hard and it’s broken me a few times, but I think I did what you taught me – I made it better for the ones who came after. I couldn’t have done it without you, doll. If I made a difference, it’s because of you.

Adrian Stygall: You’ve been a more supportive colleague and friend than I could have ever asked; you’ve given up your time way above and beyond the call of duty. Every development that’s in there right now (and some awesome things planned for the future!) ended up being built by a “what would Adrian think of this” philosophy. It didn’t let me down! Thank you. I hope you’re proud of what we achieved – I know I am.

Posted in: Web/Technology