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What it’s like to be Harry the Outlander

By Harry Robbins, 25 Feb 2016

The clock struck 13am and Harry Robbins awoke to discover he had been transformed into a giant eyeball.

Outlandish is an unusual place to work. There are desks, computers and clients but there are no bosses, managers or jobs in the normal sense. We’re a worker co-operative aimed at achieving lower wages for better work. We’re a tech co-operative full of geeks, but no one likes faffing around with computers – we just wish they worked.  This article is the second in a series – currently published at a rate of one every 15 months – about what it’s like to work at Outlandish and why we endure the pleasures that it entails. If you’re not interested in Outlandish, companies, anarchism, philosophy, love, grief or me (mostly me) then this article is probably not for you. Read Abi’s much more sensible account or some cool javascript stuff.

What I do

We don’t have jobs or formal roles at Outlandish – everyone is free to do what they like but expected to turn their hand to tasks they’re good at. When I started I was solving coding problems and sketching interfaces, now I find people, clients, collaborators and do business and strategy, darling.

 

Things-that-need-doing-04

The things I’m attempting at the moment are:

Happiness/Personal development/Contentment – working out what everyone at Outlandish wants or needs and trying to steer Outlandish in a direction that helps by finding suitable projects, funding, training, support or whatever

Sales/Business Development/Partnerships – finding interesting organisations and working out what they need that we’re good at.  

Product Ownership/Information Architecture/Account Manager – on a particularly big and complicated data/UI project for a financial services company

Politics/Philosophy/Economics – designing and implementing systems and processes that are more effective, inclusive, fairer and happiness-inducing. I’m currently working out how we can make sure there’s always printer paper and how co-operatives can take over the entire tech-agency market, etc.

Delegation/Project Sponsorship/Advice – “everyone is entitled to my opinion”, as they say.

Tech R&D/You Must/Be Joking – once upon a time I did programming at Outlandish and Tam and Raz very kindly put up with me. Now I occasionally indulge myself and build an initial version of something using what Rasmus would describe as “pretty terrible” and, when pressed, as “terrible in every way”. Still, it does the job and that’s all I care about. My latest project is an isomorphic newspaper website using RiotJS, node, backbone and the fabulous WordPress REST API. Not your granddaddy’s code, fo’ sho’, though my bits are not compliant with any standard or quality metric either.

Why I work at Outlandish

When my friends wanted to be astronauts and firemen I wanted to be an anarcho-syndicalist. More poignantly, when I got home from university and told my mum that I wanted to work in a think tank she asked me if they needed any more middle class white boys and told me to get a proper job and learn a skill that was actually useful to people. So here I am to make my mother proud, amongst other things.

I got into tech stuff via TV where I helped develop – and then worked on the first series of –  BBC One’s The Big Questions, where I worked 70 hour weeks to enable Nicky Campbell to ask such big questions as “Does God care what you wear?”. Working in TV was a fascinating experience and did offer an opportunity to make a difference – I got the programme to change “Why do we all hate muslims?”, which apparently everyone would “get the meaning of” to “Why do so many people hate muslims?” which apparently related to the same thing anyway. Why all the fuss? My main objections to TV however were that there are plenty of great people queuing up to do the few meaningful jobs, and the industry is very slow to innovate.

The web offers an unfathomable number of ways to help the world and (best of all, if I’m honest) no one has got the slightest clue what they’re doing. If you’ve got a harebrained scheme and you think it might work then it probably won’t, but it might be amazing. But probably not. But this next harebrained scheme… And that’s the best we can do. Hardly anyone has tried this before.

I used to be frustrated that nothing seemed to work in tech – the servers broke and the APIs were wrong and the parsing logic had become unsynced with the validation logic and it was all a total nightmare. It Wasn’t Like This In TV, I thought. Then I went to an exhibition about the pioneers of photography at the British Library and it struck me that we were much more like those poor bastards who had to lug a dark room up a mountain on the back of an elephant and dip a six foot glass plate into silver nitrate to take a portrait, only to find that the solution had become exposed, or was under the required saturation, or had become contaminated, or the glass was coated with the wrong bonding agent, or something. Anyway, must persevere and that – soldier on, sally forth, tally ho and all that.

There’re lives to be saved
And hearts to be gladdened.
And servers rebooted and that.

If I woke up tomorrow and a miracle had happened Outlandish would have developed two products – one that saved the world and one that extracted tonnes of cash from people who had too much and funded the subversion of corporate capitalism. Part of becoming a co-op means that we can never sell Outlandish and that it’s wealth is held in common for the purposes of the members, we we’re never going to own diamond hummers with whale-foreskin seats. The compromise that we agreed is that if Outlandish ever gets super rich it will pay the outlanders that helped it get there a decent salary to do whatever work they want and fund their nice projects. All the good bits of being rich (doing what you want) without the bad bits (worrying about your yacht and screwing everyone over).

What I like about Outlandish

The main thing I like about working at Outlandish is that I get to work with my friends – all amazing people who I love socialising with and whose work and opinions I hugely respect. I’ve known some of the Outlanders for a long time – my cousin Matt Kendon since he was born, Raz since we were 11, Ellie since sixth form, Tam since university, Abi since the BBC and Sam since he was a we bairn being packed off to university – my little sister’s friends little brother – and one of the best fullstack developers in christendom.

Outlandish is a very open organisation and I’ve made a lot of friends through it. I can honestly say that I’d love to have any one of the outlanders over for dinner – I’d also invite them all to meet my parents or take them to a rave, which perhaps says more about my judgement than their characters. One of the reasons that we’re so close is that we’re all part of the same team by virtue of the fact we’re trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to make the world better by matching up all the nice tech people with all the good tech projects in a way that’s nice for everyone and doesn’t result in some twat who does no work getting all the money.

The clients are nice too. [They made me write this bit]. In all seriousness, if you have to have clients, you should have ours. We work with some thoroughly lovely people and many of them are extremely competent. 

The future

The current plan is to work out a way that all the nice people that want to do good digital things can work in co-operatives. That way all nice people know where to go when they buy their digital services. And because it will make amazing things even people with loads of money will want to buy nice things for their averagely nice but interesting projects, and their money will fund good things and fun things and taking over the world and that. Not really thought this through – first things first.

I’ve got carried away. Outlandish is awesome and I’m super proud to work here. That said, it’s by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.