One Direction: Why I'm still a director at Farset Labs

Andrew Bolster

Senior R&D Manager (Data Science) at Synopsys Software Integrity Group and Treasurer @ Bsides Belfast and NI OpenGovernment Network

It’s that time again where the big project that is Farset Labs is in need of another Director, and I thought this was as good a time as any to give my personal take on why I think it’s important to bring in more “Direction”, as well as a little “behind the scenes” perspective on how the position actually operates.

My relationship with Farset is a long and close one, but this time I’m speaking not as the charity, just me.

I suppose the simplest question to answer should be “What is it Directors actually do?”, however this is deceptively complex; Farset has had a 6 people sitting in the Directors chairs over the years, with 4 still sitting, and none of us have been functionally similar in any way.

I’m the bolshy, pushy, “motivator” with a stick up my ass about outreach and engagement but not much involvement in the finances or on-site management (disappearing for 2 years helps that last point), Conor is the king of logistics, operations, and day-to-day finance and does more on-site work than anyone else recently to keep the boring bits of the place going (those bins don’t empty themselves folks), Dylan is a brilliant manager and organiser and does a great job of keeping up with the classical “conservative oversight” side of being a director (what any other organisation would class as a “Trustee”), and David usually gets engaged with organisation and relationship building as well as mucking in with on-site tech stuff, and as another “Founder” like me, is primarily an experienced generalist in terms of “how the place works”.

None of these “roles” were planned or negotiated and emerge naturally from our respective personalities. When Conor and Dylan (and Ben I suppose) individually came onboard, the ‘induction’ process was very relaxed and open; the cohort of directors would simply sit in a room, talk about any “behind the scenes” relevant history that wasn’t massively public knowledge (of which there’s now vanishingly little), talk about upcoming plans or opportunities, talk about our own perspectives on how things were going (one of the reasons why Directors meetings are still held behind closed doors) and about what we individually wanted to accomplish / bring to the place.

Truth be told, I don’t remember most of those conversations, but I’d confidently say that by the time the onboarding (and the joyous paperwork that comes with Directorship) was done, each of us could reasonably predict each others positions on challenging questions, and also knew who had their finger on the pulse of different areas of the organisation so the externally-amorphous blob of Directors could actually act and react quickly, fairly, and (95% of the time) unanimously.

(As a side note, I was a little concerned about the even-number of Directors whenever Ben left at the end of last year and the last attempt at an election didn’t get enough candidates, but I cannot recall a single instance where an issue has gone down to a vote and the decision be split down the middle; decision making is done by discussion and consensus building rather than voting and it’s very rare there’s even a 3-1 vote down.)

Anyway, enough about the operation. Why am I still here and why do I think it’s a good thing to do?

Frankly, being a Director at Farset is occasionally thankless, regularly frustrating, and never boring. Especially since the introduction last year of the Non-Executive Management team, the Directors role has been much more about toiling behind the scenes keeping things on track, making sure the paperwork makes sense, and the lights stay on.

However, to me, the role and responsibilities of the role aren’t the best things about being a director; I’ve been able to set the agenda for the organisation in many areas that I care about, including the Raspberry Jam and CoderDojo Outreach programmes; I’ve been able to contribute to and represent the maker community in NI in a range of events from working with W5, CultureTech, Digital Circle, YENI and more to receptions at Buckingham Palace (currently typing this on the way to Maker Assembly at the V&A in London); I’ve built and maintained a valuable network of technology, policy, education, and business leaders (and future leaders IMHO) that, while initially useful for the development of the labs, will undoubtedly stand me in good stead in years to come, whatever I do; I’ve established a reputation where I’m known not only for my technical/academic background but for my experience as a community manager and weary-observer the NI Knowledge Economy; and I’ve worked with some of the greatest minds of our wee country, and I honestly don’t think that’d happen if I wasn’t a director at Farset.

But I have my frustrations with the place too; I want to see more arts and creative developments in the labs; I want to see more use of the projects room; I want to see a more regular and wider membership; I want a laser cutter dammit! However, the current directorship are already pushing well against our capacity for this voluntary (worse than that, we pay!) position, and it was recently decided we needed more help. Becoming a Director at Farset isn’t just about filling some abstract job description or just doing dogsbody work; it’s an opportunity to directly impact the running of the place, where limited resources are invested into the community, and where our public and strategic focus lies.

Farset Labs over it’s time has made demonstrable changes to the local community as well as the wider technical community, and elevated the discussions on making and innovation in Northern Ireland beyond “Field of Dreams” style “build it and they’ll come” ventures.

Honestly, if it had a pay cheque, it’d be the best job in the world. If that sounds good to you, think about joining the madhouse.

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