September 2012: five years ago.
The paralympic and olympic champions were parading down the Strand. David Cameron and Nick Clegg were crowdsourcing ways to cut red tape. GOV.UK was still an alpha.
Luke Oatham quit his newly permanent civil service job to come and work with me. Like all good business decisions, neither of us had much of a plan for what we might do next, but we reckoned it would be interesting.
As I explained at the time, I hired Luke because he exemplified for me – and still does – what a digital hero is. He’s a creative user of cheap, simple technology to solve problems people actually have. He’s a natural tinkerer, explorer and geek. He’s no loudmouth but he’s chatty enough one to one, helping dig someone out of a hole or teaching them a new skill. He’s modest to a fault. His blog posts aren’t boastful case studies; they’re cathartic, useful sharing. His knowledge of the back catalogue of Kate Bush at karaoke outings is… impressive.
In our first year in our tiny office off Trafalgar Square, Luke and I built websites for the Audit Commission, Wilton Park and the Committee on Climate Change amongst others – big, complex ones that I’d never done before in WordPress. We ran UX training and crisis simulations (though trolling on fake-Twitter is more my cup of tea than his). But most importantly, we started building a brand as a small company, not just a freelancer with connections. From I to a proper We. In the years since he joined, Luke’s had a key part in some epic creations, from the British Antarctic Survey to the Grantham Research Institute.
But as a former intranet manager, when the brief came in from DCMS to re-do the departmental intranet in the style of GOV.UK, Luke was all over it. The result was a task-focussed intranet platform, GovIntranet, which tens of thousands of people use today, in organisations all over the world. Luke’s led it not just as a company product but as an open source platform which has been extended and refined by developers from charities to police departments, churches to media agencies. That makes it sound glamorous, and understates the endless forum replies, pull requests, Zendesk tickets and late nights that Luke has put in to help users get the best from it. Because intranets, and good internal comms generally, are His Thing.
And from today, they’re his business.
We’re saying goodbye, on good terms, and Luke is gradually taking the intranet work formerly part of our business off into his own, Agento Digital Ltd. On the build side of our work, we’ll be focussing on our policy and engagement website clients, alongside our digital capability work. The range of work we do and they way we do it has changed hugely since those early days, but we’re fundamentally about the same principle: giving people the confidence to use digital tools and techniques for themselves.
We’ve been breaking the news to our intranet clients over the last couple of months, which has been a more emotional experience than I was expecting. The people we’ve spoken to are full of warmth for Luke and how he’s helped them over the years. They’re buzzing with ideas for their intranets and questions for Luke. And like me, I think they’re intrigued to see what he does next now he’s able to work solely on his passion. You’ll have to stay tuned to his blog to find out more about that.
For now, farewell Agent Oatham. You’ve been the heart and conscience of Helpful these five years. Good luck.