A curious week, this one. Really busy, and lots of progress, but no major things that have happened or new ways I’m thinking about stuff. Or at least nothing worth sharing yet.
The good news is that, following on from the ‘new jobs are like being a new parent’ analogy of a few posts ago, the end of week five looks like a bit of a turning point. A few things are starting to make a bit more sense, I’m not quite so exhausted by all the newness, and I’m starting to see the hints of good things coming to fruition soon.
I’ve definitely been channeling quite a bit of my former partner in crime, and the wisdom of gigbuddy Victor, when thinking about ways the Heads of Profession can be more of a team, rather than merely a shared job title. There’s so much collective wisdom to draw upon, it would be a shame if we tackled any of our challenges fully alone.
Aside from this, I’m generally turning over ambiguous terms like “roadmap” and “delivery”, and starting to get my brain back into the zone for the next round of Mind the Product’s Product Leadership course in April. I’m taking a slight back seat this time round, because (for some wonderful reasons) I might be taking over from Bea in leading it in the Autumn so they need to get some other trainers up to speed.
I’m also wondering whether weeknotes are the right format for all this. The rhythm of reflection is unbelievably helpful, but I suspect I’m half-finishing thoughts that should really be stand-alone articles.
Due to a few deadlines at work I’ve been slightly neglecting exercise, meditation and a ton of my other self-care routines over the last fortnight. Just one of those “I need the fifteen minutes to prepare x before this particular day starts, so I’ll have that walk later” spirals it’s so easy to fall into. By the end of this week I was definitely feeling the cumulative effect of not looking after myself enough, so for next week I’m planning to be much more strict about being virtuous – and staving off some gloom as a result.
Oh, and I got to meet some lovely people from the US version of GDS. We were given Joe Biden-inscribed boxes of Hersheys Kisses as gifts which was very lovely. Of course, I now have to decide whether to actually eat American Chocolate, which can be a high-risk manouvre.
Underworld at the Royal Albert Hall was just amazing. It was a charity gig, and so they stuck to The Hits. But it has inspired me to finally catch up on their epic lockdown opus Drift. And to perhaps rethink a few of my own approaches to writing music. I really admire the internal rhyming scheme of fairly-recent track “S T A R”.
Each, peach, tinfoil I spy Danny Boyle Danny Boyle made my summer I spy Joe Strummer Joe Strummer up in heaven I spy Nye Bevan Nye Bevan at the top I spy Iggy Pop Iggy Pop at the wheel I spy John Peel John Peel double decker I spy Sally Becker Sally Becker is a star
V and I were in a box, which was just lovely. It was even better when we were in the correct one, so huge retrospective apologies to the residents of Loggia 4 that we couldn’t read our own bloody tickets.
Sadly we didn’t get to catch up with the delightful Kate Collins who runs Teenage Cancer Trust, and we know from early-2000s Children In Need days when we were all mere babbies – the poor thing had an incredibly badly-timed case of Covid!
Anyway, here are some videos I took on the night.
Got to toast Matt Jukes’ entry into his 50s on Wednesday, catch up with a few very lovely people, and meet two new folks I previously only knew from Twitter
Vicky’s choir performed Bob Chilcott’s “St John Passion” on Saturday, which was delightful. “Nice tunes and nice chords” are sadly hugely underrated. And I was just blown away by last-minute stand-in tenor Tim Burton who’d not even heard the piece until the night before and yet absolutely smashed the narrator role.
Daisy came down to see ‘Phaedra’ at the National yesterday, and I feel we ought to see it too.
Drove to UEA and back today to pick up all her stuff. Slightly numb, but largely doing ok.
Last piano lesson for nearly a month – but no zen moments to pass on really. Sadly it’s all about me doing the work from here on in…
This was one of those weeks where there was no one specific thing that got ‘finished’. Or even to the next stage of ‘finished enough’. There are quite a few big things in play, and I’m making progress on them all, but it’s been slow going and I started the week feeling pretty low.
Some of that emotional slump wasn’t work-related. Last Sunday the family had gone down to Brighton, to take my stepfather-in-law out to lunch for the first time since V’s mum’s funeral. Because of COVID and other factors, it was my first time visiting the house in nearly four years – and obviously the first time I’d been there without her in it. So yes. Hmmm. It’s therefore definitely been a week tending towards the contemplative.
On a more practical note…
I’ve met three more of the Deputy Directors, and we got to chat about both the “Heads of Profession” model at GDS and how I can help them/the product people in their area. I’m starting to spot a few more patterns on the former now; this means there’s enough to go on that we can start to shape a slightly more scaled engagement model – the individual chats are great, but don’t scale for the matrix of every single DD and HoP.
We’d previously sent out a version of our vision for senior folk to react to, which had elements of ‘a learning prototype’. The core felt pretty good, and nobody’s objected to that – but the surrounding document had a few Big Ideas in it, essentially to find out what people did/didn’t want us to be. We’ve had some good (and occasionally very clear) feedback on that, which has been really useful. It took a while to collate all this into a form I could share with colleagues – but time spent gathering well-written-up context is rarely wasted. The other HoPs have been getting stuck in to an updated draft and it’s coming together really nicely. It’s also been great seeing everyone playing to their strengths – my user research counterpart is already thinking about how best to do that ‘engagement at scale’, for example – rather than me inventing it for myself. We’re really working as a team, which is wonderful.
I also had my first session with the GDS neurodiversity network. They were talking about shaping recruitment processes to reduce the chances these sorts of candidates weren’t disadvantaged. Lots of the things they’ve talked about are ideas I’d put in at DIT anyway – being really clear in adverts about the process, sharing everything you reasonably can in advance (including some of the interview questions), making it as easy as possible for people to know the criteria they’re being judged against. But I also got to hear new things like the ‘six second rule’ – which is how long you should allow for someone to process the question. Tony Richards, who runs the network, has a really good blogpost about their work. We’ve also talked about ‘manual of me’, but that’s a topic for another day.
One of the other things I’m turning over is how we can better share information and feel more united in purpose within the directorate I belong to. I came up with a pretty good ‘hybrid wall walk’ process – but realised it could only support a maximum of 13ish teams in an hour’s session. And we’ve got 20. So there’s the challenge: I don’t want important learning not to be shared across and upwards; I don’t want risks not to be surfaced; I don’t want people not to have the chance to say they’ll collaborate. But I also don’t want to bore people by making it 90 minutes, or even longer. And too often I’ve seen “scrum of scrums” type activities get filled with people talking about how busy they are, and not getting into the things that really matter. So if you have any ideas/links to approaches that have worked, those would be very welcome! I’ll keep reading/researching/experimenting too, and hopefully be able to share some stuff back here in due course.
Picked up a stupid injury to the arch of my left foot, so running’s stopped again – pah.
Finally got to the bottom of the cryptic cadence of getting paid in the new gig – and sadly a glitch on the timesheet system means I missed one of the critical drumbeats where the weekly/monthly cycles come together. This means it’s going to be a few weeks still before I can do the much-anticipated hitting Rough Trade/Bandcamp in anger. Catching up on the Ladytron back catalogue will have to wait. Thank heavens for overdrafts and credit cards (and yeah, Spotify I suppose) in the meantime!
Another incredibly Zen piano lesson. A bit like work, I feel like I’ve got a load of pieces that are ‘nearly there’ but taking ages to come together. There’s a Schubert Impromptu that’s just a slog of learning sooooo many notes; Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” that I can get through, but needs a ton of polish; and Debussy’s “Sarabande” which is furthest along, but still not really where I want it. All of them feel like I’m pushing uphill, and not seeing much progress or joy. (Which has also contributed to my general gloom.) But Seb the piano teacher tried to reframe all this – that the piano is never “done”. A given piece is never “done”. You might get it to “good enough to play to other people”. So don’t be practicing too much with that target of completion – just enjoy deeply working on the four bars you’re currently trying to improve, and the bigger picture will look after itself.
I’ve been particularly looking at the few bars in the picture above, where I’ve realised that the problems I’ve been having are down to the weight distribution of my hand. Unlike synth playing, to get the best sound out of the piano you have all the weight of your arm carried through your fingers. But I was really struggling on these phrases. And that’s because I’d made the wrong trade-off (but been able to mask it with the sustain pedal, to Seb and myself). I’d been anchoring most of my weight into the thumb and second finger – but actually it needs to be focused on the third finger. This helps you bring the melody out at the start, and then helps your thumb to be all floppy and slide through the semiquavers in the second bar – while your fourth and fifth fingers are freed up to be carrying on with The Tune. I love these types of problem-solving you get in piano pieces. Compared to the clarinet, where there’s only one way to do it, the piano remains far more fascinating.
Daisy came home for mother’s day, which was a lovely surprise she and I managed to spring. Har har har.
I got hugely frustrated with the studio – all the electronics just felt utterly technical and uninspiring this weekend. Modular experiments that would normally have kicked off new ideas completely failed to. I fell into a bunch of clichés when trying to play synth keyboards. I couldn’t settle to anything. I ended up having a massive tidy to try and reset the space – and also the storage area where bikes and cables and camping gear and stationery and other bits of musical gear are piled up. There are now far fewer piles of “admin things in progress” everywhere and hopefully that’ll mean my brain can settle a little more without feeling oppressed by all the to-dos. And perhaps that’s sorted through some of the rest of my brain too.
Nearly finished the book of “Orlando” after seeing the play a few weeks ago. It’s got really quite weird at the end of the 19th Century, particularly when her child arrives, but it’s somehow got me thinking a lot about odd corners/side-effects of my early catholic upbringing. That’s going to be a blog post in its own right – or maybe some songs.
Oh, and it’s been twenty years since I first started having piano lessons again. They’ve been “off and on” over the years, but it’s been a hugely rewarding journey to go on.
Next week will bring Underworld, a few social things, and hopefully a lot more progress.
Last week was pretty epic, and I remember writing that I considered myself “tired, but not exhausted”. This week there’s lots less to say, but somehow I feel absolutely shattered.
Some of that is because I’ve been in many more “pretending to be extrovert” scenarios, but also I suspect I’m slightly running out of mental swap space – there’s not quite enough autopilot yet to process some of the increasing numbers of things I’m working on.
I know it’ll come though. It always does. I try to remember this phase of any new role is like the arc of when we were new parents. Week four was always the worst, because you’d run out of mental and emotional reserves from before it all started – but weren’t yet seeing many tangible benefits. You just had to endure until week six or seven, when unexpectedly things would start to make a bit more sense.
The people, meanwhile, continue to be generally lovely. It’s just my brain that needs to catch up.
My week at GDS
I had a delightful chat with another of the Deputy Directors, as I start to do my rounds of the organisation. We rather hit it off, and I hope we’re going to get the chance to work together soon. I’m seeing two more next week – and I really hope they go the same way.
I had another of my open “meet Tom/Ask Me Anything” sessions for the Product Managers to find out a bit about me and how I work. There were lots of good questions from PMs ranging from senior to associate. It was particularly nice to be able to talk about my plans for how we can make career progression a bit more transparent. In the “vanilla” DDaT framework for product managers, it merely says that staff should be able to use product techniques with greater confidence – but doesn’t actually get into the specifics of what those are. So…one of my plans is that we should actually write down our detailed expectations at the different grades. When should you be focused just on usability? When might we expect you to be confident with A/B or landing page tests? When should you be able to create a prototype to test assumptions? How do you make the judgement on the risks around concierge tests? Etc etc. And that’s just product craft. We can do the same around how people think about value-for-money (and therefore the risks associated with any given bet). This all seemed to go down well, so now I just need to get on with bringing it together. The word “just” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.
I was part of a panel sifting a large number of CVs for a new role in our Digital Identity team, and the moderation session was a really good way to beter get to know some team members and see what they valued in Product Management in their particular context.
The three of us got to collaborate on finessing the interview process a bit, bringing in some of the scenario-based techniques I introduced at DIT. The HoP did a fab job of coming up with something that I think is really going to give the best candidates a chance to shine – so 🎉.
I also got to have a good in-depth chat with one of the Lead PMs from that programme, and it was super-useful to hear in detail about their background and current work, and start thinking about how I might best help them.
And finally, I had my first “Heads of Product” get together – bringing together the HoPs from the three big directorates at GDS. We’re all so busy it took ages to find a diary slot, but I’m really glad we met. The four of us got to cover loads of really important stuff, in terms of what we’re doing for staff, how we can build a product leadership community, and how we can support each other. (We talked about early talent, mentoring, skills, L&D offer and loads more. Plus a bit of group therapy, of course.) I’m also picking up a few things they’ve had on their “I should do this for the greater good of the community, but dayjob argh” lists, which is a nice bit of help to be able to offer them already.
I’m trying to be ultra-ultra-Lean in how I approach many of these things. Do as little as possible to give people something to react to – I can fill in the detail later once I know things are ‘more true’. For example with the HoPs gathering I was pretty sure we’d end up with some sort of trello board, how our flow might work, and I had some ideas about what topics we should cover – but I knew that if I engineered flow too heavily around my reckons, I’ve wasted a big opportunity for everyone to tell me what they really need. (But yes, we do now have a trello board, and I’m very pleased that loads of the bigger things on it aren’t the priorities I first thought of.)
Similarly, we had a session about roadmapping with all the heads of product and delivery. I’ve joined a central team thinking about how we might improve things. I kicked off the session with a bit of a roundup of the thinking that had been going on – and on our hypothesis for improvements. But I deliberately didn’t over-engineer the Mural board we might use for testing the next stage work, or force anyone into an activity – because I wanted a chance to test the underlying value proposition of the work (always producting, me). We got a lot of interesting feedback to our approach, and it’s clearly going to need a bit of iteration, but we also got one team saying they’d be interested in doing a light-weight experiment with us to see how it plays out in reality, and another wanting to get involved in April. As ever, I’m always wondering about the least possible work we can do to get the next bit of insight we need.
It was also interesting when telling our story to a new group people that I spotted a slight creeping assumption. It would be incredibly convenient if it was true (which is why I’d not spotted it) but it definitely needs checking. So in some ways I’m actually glad we aren’t “go go go!” and have been gifted a little bit of time to validate. It’s funny how saying things out loud, to a completely new set of people, can reveal things like that.
An unexpected tour into meta-kanban
On Thursday evening I got to drop into a Zoom chat from one of the original masters of Kanban, Dave Burrows. Kanban isn’t a specialist area of mine, but I always like to stay curious, and Dave had come highly recommended by my fellow Head of Profession for software engineering.
(An aside on curiosity: I remember signing up for a quite expensive workshop on the “Accelerate” book about DevOps with Nicole Forsgren and Jez Humble, thinking it would be an interesting perspective on my work with PaaS – and having SOOOOOO many new perspectives and insights and tangents and books from that day, lots of which I still use. Metrics hierarchies? Corporate culture mapping? How to measure anything? Storytelling with data? All from that day. As a result, I’m always prepared to take a chance on something new. Plus, one of my favourite books is Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”, which highlights the importance of cross-pollination between disciplines to foster sustainable innovation. He calls this exaptation, and I’m a fan. I’ve rarely regretted going to a talk about something a bit leftfield.)
Mike’s talk was actually wonderful. I sadly had to join it late because I was in the first “Heads of Product” meeting mentioned above, but there was a ton of great things to think about – mainly textural rather than anything to do with what’s going on now, but a few highlights:
“Watermelon projects” – Green on the outside, red on the inside. This term caused quite a virtual cackle from all of us on zoom. We’ve all seen them, some of us have worked on them, and now they have a name.
A disaffection with the increasing process-centricity around agile. I’ve always worried about the lack of upward flows of insight within frameworks like SAFe, but Mike put it really well: “we’re in danger of reinventing waterfall, and losing all the benefits of this way of working.”
He also talked about a list of “dysfunctions” – not in the Patrick Lencioni sense – but he would occasionally use throwaway lists like “dysfunctions of power, of levels of detail, of…” that I didn’t have time to write down. And I didn’t want to ask about because it may have been in the bit at the start that I missed. So I’m going to wait for the recording, and if it’s not covered I’m going to ask him on LinkedIn! (It may be I have to sign up for his course to find out, but hey – that’s quite tempting already.) The term “dysfunction” might be a bit ‘strong’, but there’s definitely something in it.
One example he gave of this was in a context I’d simply never considered before, and was a total eye-opener. It’s what the diagram above represents. He talked about work dependencies or flows between teams – all happily working in a kanban way.
But there’s also a layer of kanban *between* the teams.
Handoffs in multi-team delivery can sometimes end up being “we’ve done our bit, it’s now on them”. (Guilty as charged here!) But he calls this a dysfunction of power: the first team feels they can push work into the next team’s queue before they’re ready for it, breaking the kanban pull flow of the team that inherits the work.
Another potential way to look at it is: why was that team working on something before it was going to be needed by the team inheriting the work? Perhaps that work should remain “not fully delivered” within the first team’s board until it’s ready to be worked on by the new team? Would that create better visibility around bottlenecks and flow to management, making it easier to spot the overall tensions in the delivery/learning system?
I need to do a lot more thinking about this, but that meta-kanban approach is something pretty new to me. (It might be buried in “Lean Enterprise” of course, but I didn’t spot it 5-6 years ago because I didn’t have enough experience/context!)
We were also in the presence of Dave “Cynefin” Snowden – who clearly has a “resting unimpressed face”. Perhaps he was also thinking “5:30 on a Thursday evening, what kind of a time for a talk is this?”
I got to enjoy my first tentative visit to Rough Trade East as “the local record shop”. I’m going in gently – I picked up an online order of the new Orbital album – but I can see this is going to be a very fruitful (if financially ruinous) relationship.
Managed to get out for a run on Tuesday morning before work, and also did Parkrun today – so last week’s excuse-making has been seen off, and I’m managing to hold onto the exercise habits I built up during January.
It was a really unfocused week of piano practice this week – I felt I needed to play more for pleasure than to sort out any specific problems. So I don’t know how the lesson will go in fifteen minutes or so.
Which reminds me: someone at work asked me “when do you find the time to write this”. In general I’ll write a list of key topics on Friday night – either in Notes on the phone, or maybe in wordpress if I’ve got the laptop to hand. But I simply don’t have the energy or perspective to try and synthesise anything meaningful from it all at that point. That generally comes out when I do the bulk of the writing – which is during Milo’s piano lesson, just before mine. Sometimes I realise I’ve got a lot more to say than I thought – or I spot there are bits of “thinking about thinking” that other people might find useful. Frameworks I realise I’m using, or implicit knowledge I can try to make more explicit. This is how last week’s turned into a bit of an epic, that needed to be finished off on Sunday!
SXSW has kicked off. I’m slightly missing not being there – but not $10K-levels-of-missing. I’ve signed up for the online streaming/on-demand version, so there’s now an absolute ton of stuff I’ve now got queued up to watch. Obviously I don’t get to see Self Esteem or Baby Queen or Nova Twins from three feet away, nor go to premieres of Sandra Bullock/King Crimson films – but I also don’t get horribly, horribly homesick.
So, a few things to talk about this week, but – to be honest – none of them are as exciting as Cate Blanchett’s dancing in the video for Sparks’ “The Girl is Crying in Her Latte”.
(The song is…OK. Not among their best, and it’s a bit of a grower…but hey, Cate Blanchett!)
Anyway, it’s been something of a tiring week, but probably in a good way. I’m definitely “tired, but not exhausted” – as one early books about Scrum used to say.
This is a welcome change. After the blip at the tail end of last week, working days are now looking largely sensible. On days I’m in the office, I’ve also got a shorter commute – which is hugely welcome. But these cumulative changes have definitely messed with my rhythm a bit: I’m not used to having this extra time, and I even accidentally went to bed an hour early on Tuesday because I’d ticked off all the ‘normal tasks’ and blindly assumed there wasn’t capacity for anything else.
I’m still grappling with the whole tasks/goals balance in the new role, and slightly trying to work out what the job really is. And isn’t. I’m aware that I personally took on a lot more than I really should have done at DIT, and got way too emotionally invested in far too many things, which led to getting pretty burnt out – and I don’t want to end up there again. So I’m still sifting through everything and deciding what’s a goal, or an opportunity to make an adjacent big difference, or a quest other people hope I might take on (for better or worse). Accordingly the goals list in my A3 sheet I talked about two weeks ago is getting really quite long. Nearly as long as the tasks list. Not all of that is going to be equally valuable – but I don’t yet have a handle on how to prioritise. But whatever – this all leads to good opportunities for user/stakeholder research into Me As A Product. I have a few thoughts on how to better design those sessions, but nothing solid yet.
The Vision Thing, Leaders and Leading
On Monday, a few of us presented our vision for Heads of Profession to the GDS People Board, and to a subset of our Deputy Directors. I was quite pleased with the structure and content of the story we told, and how we organised it as a set of hypotheses and opportunities. Feedback from the first session was pretty good, with good (if perhaps slighlty premature) questions about metrics. The second session was a little beige – something didn’t quite chime with them. Still need to work out why – which ties into the better stakeholder conversations in the previous paragraphs.
I had the first one of those in on Tuesday afternoon, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Got some useful confirmation on the particular issues I thought I could see in that DD’s area, and positive feedback on how I was proposing to help. I think we are going to be a good team, and I’m going to bring some useful capacity to help us improve things together.
One thing I’m pondering on the back of that discussion is how much it’s the responsibility of Product people to “lead”.
Personally, I tend to think that in high-functioning multidisciplinary teams, the vision and strategy should come from a combination of design, technology and product working together – and it should be something continually validated through user research, analytics, economics, the evolution of the roadmap to emerging circumstances etc. Product people definitely have a key responsibility for making sure the business value side is thoroughly understood – and teasing out the riskiest assumptions in the strategy/approach, so they can be dealt with ASAP. But the bulk of this work should still be done together within the core team. Of course, not all teams are equal, and there are sometimes capability gaps – so the product and delivery people are still usually on the hook for making sure there’s something sensible to go forward with, in a sensible timescale. But if all the ideas have come from the product person, that’s something of a wasted opportunity. That kind of CEO-of-the-product leadership should really be the absolute last resort.
How that plays out in practice (and how you might formalise that as a set of principles for teams) is something I want to work through with the other Heads of Profession. We’re trying to model the behaviours we want to see in our teams – and if we can’t sort this out between us, how should we expect our people to know what good looks like?
Consistent, not uniform
Another thing that’s emerging from these conversations and thinking is that I suspect many of our Heads of Profession actually have quite different jobs. We have things in common, but we aren’t identical. I’m currently wondering: where are we separately strategic, operational, coordinating, managing, inspiring? Each profession has its own balance between those, and there are different pressures in each directorate. So we need the time to think about this carefully as we iterate this vision – because we want to make the most of the areas where HoPs overlap, but shouldn’t force everyone into the same box.
Elsewhere I found myself helping our Business and People Services team think a bit about how to categorise different types of work. They’ve got a lot of things that “just have to happen”, which are definitely prone to political and organisational ‘weather’. When will an unexpected request from on high arrive, what will a role be greenlit and suddenly have to be advertised, how will you deal with a key person being on leave just as a monthly return to Cabinet Office is due? All that makes it hard to make time for important projects to improve things. And without visibility into that day-to-day, it’s hard for management to have confidence or shape what’s going on – they just see projects running late.
As we talked it through, I realised this was remarkably close to the SRE ideas of ‘service level objectives’ and ‘error budgets’. Were teams over-responding to BAU tasks as though they were “incidents”? Did they have a clear handle on management’s priorities in the most valuable BAU? And if a given project was critical to improvement, is it unnecessarily getting pushed aside by hitting an over-ambitious service level on process x?
It was a really interesting conversation, and I liked drawing up a fictional set of SLOs to help illustrate the sort of choices that might lead to – in teams and with senior management. An unexpected place to be using my creative side, but I think it’s going to lead to some good benefits elsewhere.
(I did have moments where I thought “where are Emily and Jess when you need them”, of course. 🙂 )
There’s been a lot of change happening at GDS recently. GOV.UK has a new strategy, the Government as a Platform programme is hoping to be a more unified and self-reinforcing suite of tools, Digital Identity has succeeded in replacing Verify and might be able to be less heads-down.
With all that rapid change, in a distributed organisation of way more than 500 people, that works in a hybrid way, there’s a real chance of teams and leadership becoming detached from each other. So I’m lightly pondering what leading and lagging indicators might be of scenarios around that detachment such as:
This team simply doesn’t know the strategy
This teams know the strategy but doesn’t understand why it is the strategy
This team knows the strategy, but doesn’t believe your reasoning
This team knows the strategy, but can’t free up enough mental/delivery capacity to work out how to make any progress on it in their own work, so have become passive
The team knows the strategy is wrong, understands the goal and believes in you, but needs help and context for coming up with a better idea
The team came up with a better idea, and didn’t notice you’ve changed your original plans because of their feedback
I don’t yet know if any of those apply anywhere, but it’s a first rough framework to have in my mind when talking to teams – and working out where I can help everyone collaborate and do their best work.
Funnels and Systems and Flows for our Platforms
As I mentioned above, the Digital Services Platform (formerly GaaP), is trying to be a more coherent and self-reinforcing offer. It’s also focused on growth – getting more people to use these products to make their own services quicker and easier to use. This blogpost from Lenny’s Newsletter on Duolingo’s various bets to improve usage has been doing the rounds, and I was really impressed by a few things.
Firstly I really liked how they’d managed to divide up the flows of different user groups and types, and how they measure the rates of dropoffs between them. Obviously with our services it’s more about the adoption cycle – what’s it going to take for someone to use this the first time, to then get it into production, to then use it on multiple services, and finally to try more complex products. But this was the sort of diagram I could half-feel in my head when thinking about how to explain that, had it not been for my aphantasia stopping me.
Secondly I loved how they’d then run the model over time to see which changes to which metrics would have the biggest effect on overall ROI. They were able to prove that keeping current users satisfied was by far the most effective tactic for sustainability in their first phase. Once that was sorted they could move onto other metrics/paths of the network.
(That they were talking about gamification as particular tactics to achieve that is of course much less relevant – analysing the network, and working out what ideas are relvant in your context, then being able to measure their impact is far more important. We need to do that at an individual product level – but also at the pan-product level. For example, how likely is a developer or designer that actively uses Notify to also try Pay? Do designers using the prototype kit understand the problems the rest of our tools are there to solve, and have we made it sufficiently easy for them to build the concepts into their fledgeling service ideas?)
Weirdly, no new gig or theatre tickets bought this week. I think.
Had a very, very Zen piano lesson. “You’re thinking about how to get from A to B, when actually you should be thinking about how to play it”. But I’m making good progress on Schubert, and it’s reassuring to see that Debussy’s Sarabande is as hard as I think it is.
Have been enjoying reading a few small Product Craft books this weekend – little essays really – by both Jeff Gothelf (Agile vs Lean vs Design Thinking) and Josh Seiden (Outcomes over Outputs). Lots of exciting ideas came out of that, but I realise that I don’t currently know where to take that excitement at GDS. At DIT I know exactly who to go to, and we’d go “oooh” at each other for a bit while we worked out how/when/where to apply it. But I don’t yet know how to share these ideas within GDS, how to get buy-in, and to understand the landscape to create some interventions. Probably another place to try some experiments – because I definitely need to come across as “here to help” rather than a troublemaker.
Hugely enjoyed seeing some old friends at Product in the Aether #42 on Tuesday evening, and was pleased to be able to blithely pass on Tom Wujek’s “mental models” exercise to a new set of people. (I suspect I’m going to need to use this myself quite soon, so it should turn up in a new blog post in time.)
So a very belated weeknote, featuring thoughts on senior stakeholder ideas, governance, community building, phat basslines, meta-theatre and much more.
Technically all this “being visible” stuff is 100% part of the new job, but it still feels a little odd taking working-hours time out from what I tend to think of as “the day job” to write everything up. Particularly as a contractor. I’ve probably been over-trained on the “Daily Mail test”, but hopefully it’ll settle down. Anyway, the upshot is I leave writing these to the weekend, and then much-more-important-real-life happens…so here I am on Sunday evening doing this.
The upside is that there’s a little more time to reflect on the various excitments and wry asides of the last week.
My big piece of work this week was drawing together an overall vision for GDS’s group of “Heads of Profession”. It’s slightly odd to be leading this as the most recent joiner – but I have the advantage of having a) come from a place where some of this was maturing, b) loads more free time in the diary than many of my peers. Anyway, I’m two weeks in and tomorrow I’ll be presenting it twice – to the GDS People Board, and also a gathering of all our DDs. We’re sharing it very much as a prototype, alongside “these are what we think are your problems” to try and get feedback on it as a whole. We want to try and improve the intent, rather than any given adjective. Let’s see how that plays out.
It’s been quite challenging doing this when I barely know many of my partners in crime, but my main takeaway has been that they’re all lovely. Yes, there have been places where we’ve needed to nudge a few of my first ideas, but it’s all been hugely in the spirit of making it better, nobody is precious or dogmatic, and everyone’s been really vocal about appreciating my work bringing together the thing for us to change. I really think we’re a good group, and I’m looking forward to working with everyone. It’s been quite a big thing to take on within the first fortnight, but very rewarding.
I’ve also been asked to start getting involved with gathering benchmarking pay data for the profession. David, who leads software engineering, has created some fascinating spreadsheets that mine websites – and I’m wondering whether it’s going to take less time to understand his code or to find my own approach. If anyone’s recently done an exercise like this, do please let me know – I’ll find a way to get you back!
Alongside this, it was nice to start reaching out to the wider GDS product profession a lot more.
I’ve had really good chats with all three Heads of Product (there’s one for each of GOV.UK, Digital Services Platform and Digital Identity) and we’ve said that we’re going to work together to set up two communities within Product. The first will be about building our product leadership, and the other will be about practice within teams. The reason for creating focussed sessions for the “grade 6” community isn’t to exclude anyone else, but because lots of the conversation we’ll be having will be too abstract for your average PM/APM. (I’ve watched too much ‘glazing over’ at events that tried to cater to a very broad audience, from either end of the spectrum, and it’s not happening on my watch.) I hope to make this group a bit more permeable over time, but let’s see. Anyway, I want to help the leadership group build their skills at understanding where everyone else is at, and designing how we’ll shape community sessions/L&D interventions to make sure people are getting the most useful skills for our current context.
I had my first “PMs, meet Tom” session, which was pretty well attended for a Friday afternoon. I talked a bit about how I’d got to this point in my career, some stuff around strengths and weaknesses, and what I valued in product craft. There were some really good questions too, and of course I ended up recommending some books.
One of the emerging themes that came out of that discussion, including the slack chats that happened afterwards, was how important it is to think about why you’re doing user research – particularly when dealing with big stakeholder ideas.
As longstanding twitter followers and many folks at DIT will know, I’m a big fan of Teresa Torres’ “Opportunity Solution Trees” and how she talks about the importance of choosing between ideas. It’s way too easy (and I’ve 100% been guilty of this) to end up doing research into “do they like the idea or not” rather than devising experiments that are focused on checking the assumptions that’ll help you choose between idea A, B and C. Which often will be a completely different prototype from anything you’ll really be building. Otherwise all you’re finding out is whether the team is competent at interaction and content design – and that’s the “colouring in” you can do once you know you’ve got a valuable problem to solve and folks are likely to care. So my personal take is that research – when done well and you have the time to think about it to this level of abstraction – should be about validating choices or getting the insight you need to take your next step.
But this also plays into the idea of working stakeholder ideas. If you’re someone senior, you are on the hook for a general goal around revenue or growth or cost or efficiency – and you might have a few ideas about ways to do that. Perhaps, with your experience, you’ll latch onto something you feel is promising – and you’ll suggest the team look into that. Now, the team may not be 100% convinced about the idea – but the danger is they’ll fall into researching to prove it’s wrong. Actually we need better ideas, more things to choose between. Saying the idea is bad doesn’t make the target go away. Only coming up with a better way of hitting the target will allow everyone to move forward. So our research/prototyping/spikes should be focused on that – because this is how we show we’re empowering teams. They’re closer to the users and closer to what’s possible right now, but they also need time to think, and have the responsibility to use that wisely to come up with improved approaches.
Anyway, hopefully I can get some more of that to happen.
I’ve also been involved in a few discussions about roadmapping and governance, and was mildly amused to find that an old talk of mine from 5-6 years ago about OKRs (as a process) was still doing the rounds at GDS. Annoyingly though, the version that’s in circulation (because an enterprising DM copied it to their personal drive) is v1.0 and doesn’t contain any of the later stuff I added about better key results and metrics hierarchies. So I’ve had to sheepishly email the old boss and say “hello, as you now own my old google drive at DIT, might you search for the words ‘Nicole Forsgren’?” in the hope there’s a copy of v2.0 anywhere.
Information Management, clearly still a thing. Sigh.
It’s nice to see that one of the fridges at work is now becoming the “this is for everyone” milkfridge.
I really hope this continues. The fear that someone might be freeloading almost certainly isn’t worth the costs of trying to ensure it’s 100% auditably fair.
So that’s all the work nonsense.
On Wednesday I got to see the amazing production of ‘Orlando’ starring Emma Corrin – my only sneaky photo is at the top of this post. I’d really enjoyed reading the book in preparation for this, but was only about halfway through by the time we saw it. I am totally in awe of Virginia Woolf’s writing, and am sad it’s taken to this stupid age to get to it. (Also, weirdly, despite my aphantasia, I find I can see an enormous amount of what she’s writing about in my head, which is a hugely strange feeling. This must be what everyone else has, all the time! Who knows how that will play out – is it possible it’s a skill I can start to build?) Anyway, it was as “meta” a play as the book is a “meta” biography. There was a truly incredible (and not 100% binary) cast, who acted as a chorus of Virginia Woolfs when they weren’t playing other roles, commentating on the action. And it was unexpectedly hugely moving when Orlando moved past 1941 – the sad end of Woolf’s own life – and the chorus said they couldn’t write Orlando’s story any more. Sorry, that’s probably a spoiler. Anyway, go if you still can.
The Wine Society sent me a brochure about 2021 Burgundy ‘En Primeur’. This is where you buy it while it’s still outside the UK, and often from producers who can’t supply at the scale supermarkets need – so it’s a good way to get interesting wines early, if you can afford to buy 6-12 bottles at a time. However there is a euphemism printed on the outside of the envelope it came in. “Small quantities”. Burgundy growers know people will pay regardless, so I suspected – as I opened the envelope – that this meant “really bloody expensive”. And I was right. So just Rhone for me this year then.
My friend Des was getting rid of his Behringer Model D – basically a modern clone of a Minimoog. This is the synth used by Stevie Wonder for all those amazing funk basslines, Gary Numan on “Cars”, Rick Wakeman on blistering solos etc etc. I spent an hour or two with it earlier and the (appallingly mixed, clichéd and shonky) thing above gives a sense of what a monster it is. Just incredible bass sounds. Really looking forward to getting to know it better, and treating it with a bit more taste and respect.
What else to note?
I got the film BAFTAs wrong, as I always do. Virtually none of my choices won awards. Hey ho. I mean, I genuinely love Cate Blanchett, but was her performance really as innovatively vast as Emma Thompson or Michell Yeoh’s?
I’m managing to keep active despite being back at work – two runs this week, and walking to the station every day I went in, despite the temptation to collapse onto the bus.
Someone at GDS kindly referred to me in their own weeknote, and linked to the homepage of this site – a page I’d not looked at for years. Dear me! Anyway, I managed to find an FTP client, and remembered how to use vi to edit the raw html…
And I’ve booked tickets to see Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at King’s Place, and Orbital at the Cambridge Corn Exchange – both of which I’m hugely looking forward to.
So I started at GDS. It’s been lovely to be made so very welcome by so many people – lots of old friends and a growing number of new ones.
There’s a lot that’s changed here in the last four years. The new Digital Identity programme is delivering a lot of stuff very quickly. GOV.UK obviously went through supporting Brexit in the COVID era…and had to do that while also supporting the COVID era. Basically, quite a lot of “it just has to be done”, for quite a long time. There have been lots of changes of leadership. And “Government as a Platform” has evolved into a new third directorate. Plus, of course, CDDO split off from GDS.
It turns out that the Head of Profession role had drifted away a bit while I was gone. It may have even been on the way out when I left, but I was probably too busy to notice.
As a result it now looks like most of the staff/craft development has been happening within the individual programmes, or on an ad-hoc basis through informal communities, for quite a while. Each programme has its own Head of Product, looking after their own team’s needs, which was probably a decent option when everyone was heads-down. (They also seem to have been doing pretty well under the circumstances.)
The return of Heads of Professions is therefor a bit of a working hypothesis – that coordination between these programmes and shared leadership is for the greater good – but we are all having to prove our actual value. Which is no bad thing, to be honest. It’s also something of a relief to be more in “Pioneer” or even better “Settler” mode – because I get a bit twitchy if I’m in “Town Planner” mode for too long.
One of they key things I’m being asked to look at is a shared roadmap for GDS. The teams have been making good progress on creating this – but I know that I’ve fallen into this trap before, and we probably need to be focusing more on articulating the principles behind our product strategy, and getting consensus around those.
There are a lot more PMs to consider than I first thought – the number I was given when onboarding was just civil servants, not contractors or suppliers. So the job’s potentially about 50% bigger than expected. But I don’t have to tackle everything at once. In fact, a lot of the week has involved me reminding myself “it’s only day four”.
One of the things I was relieved to be able to do by the end of the week was start pulling my notebook scribbles into some kind of structure. When you start, you’ve got no idea which things are important, or a theme – every potential person to see or thing to do feels the same size. For probably fifteen years I’ve been advocating “only have one to-do list” to people (although I split home and work contexts into different apps – home stuff is completely in ToDoist so I’m not accidentally getting work panics at the garden centre). However there’s nuance to that, because some things are bigger than tasks, they’re goals – and you need to keep being reminded of those. A to-do list that just smashes all those together is no use. So, for the last year or so, I’ve always wandered around with a bit of A3 set out like this:
Top left are the main goals, the things I’m really trying to achieve. But there are other things creating mental noise, and sometimes that only goes away if you say “yeah, subconscious thanks for the reminder, that’s not important this week, but I’ll write it down to make sure you feel heard” so occasionally there will be wider goals just as handy reminders.
Then I have a column that’s for small tasks – everything I have to do that emerges through the week. And as you go from meeting to meeting you just add more tasks as they occur. But having them in the context of the goals can help you make sure you’re ticking off the right things.
I usually have a small list of the meetings that day, and clearly work out how much Actual Time To Get Things Done that leaves – so I know I’m choosing the most important things for my 90 minutes of Real Work.
And the rest of the A3 sheet is for other scribbles.
And at the start of each week I rewrite it completely. This re-processing reminds me of what the goals are, if I’ve not ticked them off. It allows me to filter the tasks from the previous week, because some of them might turn out to be new goals – or actually not that relevant after all. And I pull any important notes into a document.
Let me know if that sounds like it might work for you? Or you can see ways to improve it?
Anyway, it was a huge relief to get to the point where I felt I could start building that picture of “what’s important, and what are the next most urgent steps to get there…and what is Just Admin”. Thanks to everyone who gave their time so generously in the first week while I was flailing around – the Heads of Product, the other Heads of Professions – particularly Nick, and my new boss Neil.
I’ve also been rebuilding workflow habits around GSuite, after two years in Microsoft-land. I don’t have to use Teams any more, and the laptop is an M1 Macbook, so everything feels really fast – but email threading works differently, I’m switching between tabs or windows rather than applications, there aren’t the same sort of conversation-specific shared drives. I’m sure it’ll feel normal really quickly, but it’s definitely extra cognitive load right now. (And astute observers will notice that a bit of my leaving present from DIT has joined me here in GDS towers).
Anyway, I’m definitely “tired, but not exhausted” which is a good thing. Going into the office for all five days was qute tiring – particularly after six weeks at home – but I’m really glad I got to meet so many people face to face, and build that sense of belonging in the new office. I’ll even have a pass by next Friday!
The Carly Rae Jepsen gig was just delightful. It’s the first time in ages I’ve driven to and from a gig, but it was lovely to be home so quickly and I managed to cope with not having all the pints better than I thought I would. It was a lovely kind crowd too, with very little elbowing or shoving in front of, or being aggressively danced at. The set list wasn’t what I’d have expected – big singles like Call me Maybe, Really Really Like You, In My Room all happened pretty early on – but I think she judged it right that this particular audience were all hanging on to hear “Boy Problems” etc.
Then on Friday I got to see Hannah Peel perform her wonderful Delia-Derbyshire-based album “Fir Wave” at Kings Place, with my new gig-buddy Victor. She was incredible, as was fellow musician Hazel Mills (often to be found with Goldfrapp). I’ll listen to the album in a whole new way now I’ve seen the additional vocal, violin and piano layers I’d never spotted before, thanks to seeing them played live. The encore included her performing ‘Sugar Hiccup’ on a custom music box with lots of live processing, and I definitely had something in my eye at that point.
Next week brings Emma Corrin in Orlando, and a lot less commuting thankfully. Some tickets to see They Might Be Giants at the Roundhouse were acquired, and I’m probably getting some for Orbital and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith as well. I’m taking things a lot more gently for a bit, while I get into the new rhythm – but so far it’s all looking really good.
I’m writing this after a lovely lunch with Vicky in a railway arch in Forest Gate.
It was a truly delightful way to bring quite a momentous week to a close.
Last week’s weeknote was a bit late because I was wrestling with quite a lot of stuff. I mean, how was it that, after nearly a month away from work, I was still feeling…not exactly “burnt out”, but knowing something still wasn’t quite right? I was reminded of something Michael Rosen said in the Guardian about his son Eddie’s death, where he felt he was still ‘carrying around an elephant’. On a much smaller scale, I still felt there was something I’d still not quite managed to shed. And I’d really hoped to do that before I started in the new place – a particular reason to take the extra week off.
Obviously the ‘machinery of government’ move at the start of the week was all over twitter, so I found myself lightly dragged back into that world. A few friends at DIT needed reassuring words, that sort of thing. I didn’t mind, but I was hugely aware that I was having to do it all in a mental landscape with this…thing that wouldn’t quite go away. And I really wanted it to.
I’m not just lying on the sofa eating all the chocolates and hoping to feel better, of course. I’ve been trying to look after myself as much as possible, and keep perspectives broad to try and shake things off. Channelling every bit of Laurie Santos and Paul Dolan I could muster.
I’ve been keeping pretty active – getting out of the house every day. I’ve had two runs already this week and am probably heading to parkrun #52 tomorrow. I’ve been spending over an hour a day playing the piano, and more time in the studio (although ‘the elephant’ has made me pretty numb and I’ve not felt at all inspired). There have been loads more BAFTA films watched (how on earth will I choose between Michelle Yeoh and Emma Thompson, eh?). I’ve managed to meditate every day, sometimes for 30 minutes or more – although my inner monologue always seems to be a bit like this track from Phil Hartoll and Murray Lachlan Young (link should be to full version, or there’s a spotify clip below which gives the vibe):
But somehow still things wouldn’t shift, despite doing all that good stuff.
And then yesterday afternoon I was thinking about something a friend had said about three months ago: “how do you wrap it up as being a good thing to have happened, and metaphorically put a bow on it?” In four years of huge ups and huge downs, how do you reconcile all those different scenes and feelings? And so, out of curiosity, I opened up a document I’d written in December that was some bullet points listing things I’d done while at DIT, and…
It was just massive. Absolutely huge.
I really don’t want to come across as blowing my own trumpet – because yes I also made a lot of mistakes and learned loads and defiinitely didn’t do it all on my own – but there were probably about a hundred people whose working lives I’d made a big difference to. In some cases their personal lives as well. And finally the ‘welling up’ that I’d been expecting at my leaving do hit me like a massive wave. And I realised that I’d found the elephant at last. I’d just never truly looked at the whole thing and tried to assess it. I’d just assumed that it would organically get assimilated over time – but that hadn’t happened.
[Some belatedly added context here: it’s worth saying that when I joined DIT it was still pretty new and things weren’t in a great place, and I had to do a lot of culture/governance/process change – and not everyone wanted to go along with that. There were lots of people who were pretty new in their roles too. So I had to shoulder a lot of stuff that was out of my comfort zone – and take a lot of blows from different directions. And then I moved into Brexit, where a lot of people were under a ton of pressure, and they didn’t always handle it brilliantly. And after that we went into a restructure in a matrix environment, and I often found myself on the frontline when this affected some of the other teams and their ways of working. Plus there was creating a profession from scratch…and then having to give it away again. Along the way, through all that almost-violent change, you pick up a lot of ‘moments’ – good and bad. But what I’d discovered was that this was too big to just deal with without some sort of ritual or process.]
So I sat down and opened a google doc, and wrote a massive load of goodbyes and acknowledgements. And, as I was writing, I decided that this was going to be it. Closing the document would be the end of the story. I could write down every delightful moment, every agonising choice that had kept me awake at night, every regret – but knowing that at the end I could look back at the story of it all, be glad it had happened, say adieu, and not look at it again. Every cinematic vignette that I had ever mentally replayed went into the document, so I could press “close” at the end.
[Some more belatedly added context on this process: as I was going through the document the ‘close document’ idea became more and more momentous. It stopped being just a list of stuff I’d done, and more of a gathering of “everything you ever wanted to say about this, because we aren’t going back here, so if you’ve got anything…ANYTHING…else left to say, get it out now.” The idea was that I’d genuinely have no unfinished business – everything would be laid to rest. So “close document” really meant “close this chapter of my life”.]
Having done that: yes I am glad that it all happened. Those four years were really really hard in places, and writing them down was similarly emotional (and drawn out), but they’re done. It’s done. The document got closed. There is a bow on it. It was worthwhile.
And I’m ready for the next thing. 100% ready.
So maybe that’ll work for you if you’re ending big complicated chapters of your own?
(Interestingly there have been a few bits that have popped into my head since, but the thought process is either “yeah, but that’s in the document and we know how it fits into the bigger whole” or “does this matter so much that you want to reopen the document again?” It’s all much, much quieter.)
What else has been going on?
Went to a John Mitchell gig on Wednesday, where it was lovely to catch up with old friend and incredible musician Jem Godfrey, and delightful futurist/singer Mark Stevenson
Popped into a GDS leaving do on Thursday for one of the devs I’d worked with closely four years ago – Phil Potter. Bless him, he played the bassoon on “tears of a clown” at my 50th birthday party, despite it being miles out of his comfort zone. I only stayed for two drinks because I’ve not truly started yet, and I didn’t want to get into being lobbied, but it was lovely to wish him well, to see old faces and know that people are Actually Quite Excited I’m joining next week. I’ve also got a bit of a sense of what I’m really there to do, as well.
I’ve taken the baby grand piano off its little wooden riser blocks. As I’m playing more than an hour a day, getting to the sustain pedal is now causing more pain than not being able to fully get my knees under the keyboard. The tendons in my big toe are very pleased as a result. And the knees will cope. Of course, this is a reminder that the days are numbered for this hand-me-down, but we’ll get another year out of it at least.
I started playing the clarinet again – going back to page one of (a new copy of) my old tutor book “A Tune a Day”. During which time I’ve discovered that, despite having got to grade 6 and been 1st clarinet in the school orchestra, there was a whole missing bit to my technique that nobody had ever spotted or tried to fix. I’d been trying to do staccato with my diaphragm, which is apparently wrong.
For what was allegedly a week off, this has felt ever such a lot like being at work. It’s definitely been an important time, and with some insights that I really ought to write up later, but still quite ‘worky’. A week where I didn’t really get to switch off much. So I’m truly delighted that the nice people at GDS have agreed that I’m going to start on the 13th Feb rather than the 6th. This way I get next week to truly wrap up some loose ends, with no niggly paperwork hanging over me, and be properly ready for the new job.
Onboarding noise aside, I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of an approach about a VERY big strategic project I haven’t really got time for. Weirdly, the more I tried to kindly get out of it, saying “I’m too busy, but here’s a principle or two to keep you going in the meantime” the keener they became – which is definitely a lesson my impostor syndrome needs to heed.
I might still help this big programme’s leadership out with some coaching, but there’s a lot of legwork to do – which I won’t have time for. As a result I spent the beginning of the week doing quite a lot of briefing chats with various ‘friends and relations’ to see if they had the time/inclination to get involved. I’m still not sure whether much will come of it personally, because the ‘friends and relations’ can probably cover my bit as well – but it’s nice to help build some bridges between sensible decent people. (And it was also very heartwarming to hear that some people I hugely respect thought they might learn a thing or two from working with me. Bless you!)
Of course, now that I’m definitely free next week, I’m feeling the pressure. How do I strike the right balance between ‘relaxing’ and ‘doing worthwhile things with this time’? Because the two really don’t always align.
For the first few weeks of my break, I’ve massively enjoyed pouring hours of my time into traditional piano practice, because learning a piece doesn’t require tons of creative thought. Someone else has already done that bit. And yes, now there are two Debussy pieces I can play end-to-end that I couldn’t get through previously.
This approach to my artistic side worked really well for a period where I was feeling a bit bloody raw, and didn’t massively want to write much music about that rawness – because the entire point of this time was moving on. But I’m in a much better place now, and am comfortable with the idea I can start to be a bit more creative again through looking forward. I feel like I can escape the gravity well. Although, being fair, creative fulfilment is only one option: just watching a ton of films and finally finishing “Ratchet & Clank: a Rift Apart” is also pretty tempting. So I’m going to test the water on the creative side early next week – but not to the level of turning it into another project.
Related: One of the odd sides of having the Big Scary Project conversations has been that I became slowly aware I definitely have a set of principles for how I think product strategy should happen. This isn’t just a boilerplate copy of stuff that exists elsewhere – it somehow makes people say “ooh”. An approach that is very much my own. So I should probably write that up at some stage.
Although – given the breathing out – this really isn’t the week for it.
On a similar note, it’s been slightly sad to see a bunch of calls for conference sessions saunter past recently…particularly where I know I have things to say, but also know this isn’t the right time to be trying to pull a pitch together.
Likewise, I’ve seen tons of social media updates from former colleagues where I’ve been hugely tempted to ask more – but know I just need to breathe out and let things take their course without me. For everyone’s sake. Because others have to grow into the space I took up. Even though, dear readers, nobody is forgotten or uncared-for.
But space is being created, things are being gently walked away from etc etc. And that’s a good thing.
I went to Tannhauser at the Royal Opera House. What a truly bonkers story. Stefan Vinke was still suffering a bit from a throat infection, and went a bit Rawwwwk in places, but his enforced ‘back seat’ actually gave space to show just how much it really should be Elisabeth’s story. The whole “saintly pure women on a pedestal” thing hasn’t aged massively well, but…my goodness, the tunes!
In traditional Wagner over-production style, we had THREE bloody harps. It was amazing. And I now wish I could play the oboe.
This week brought another visit to the Wanstead Tap for book-related culture. Former UEA creative writing professor Meryl Pugh was talking about her new book “Feral Borough”, which is a collection of hyperlocal psychogeography – based largely in the tiny Bushwood area between the north-east of Leytonstone and the south-west of Wanstead. And just over the road from where we live.
Written by someone with OCD during lockdown, the book touches heavily on mental health…but also gets into plantlife, children’s parties, bluebell species, boa constrictors and so much more. I’m feeling like I really ought to be paying a lot more attention to our walks around the flats and park – there are many interesting things I’ve found out I’m missing even on emergency treks to Tesco!
As part of the ongoing simplification and decluttering, Vicky and I finally accepted that the “to read” pile of books in our bedroom was becoming a lurking threat, rather than a calming opportunity. This led us, in turn, to realise that we’d got far too many other books shoved horizontally into the shelves we had. So on Friday we cracked and became a six-bookcase couple. (More if you count the kids, obviously)
The breathing space it’s given us is really quite remarkable. We now see our book collection as an opportunity, not a threat. And we can also work out far more easily what we want to keep, what we want to read again, and what it’s time to say goodbye to. Meanwhile our bedroom feels beautifully serene in a way it hasn’t for ages – only the “active reading” books are up there.
Of course it was nice to dust down the tools to prove I am still adept at flatpack furniture, but this weekend I’ve also been performing surgery on a Toyota Aygo with dodgy indicators. It’s a LONG time since I last took any car to pieces, but it was wonderfully reassuring to realise I still have the skills (and tools) to do it.
Taking the bloody steering wheel off a car is still pretty daunting. Particularly when you’re also dealing with an airbag, plus removing a ton of the dashboard and lifting out the speedometer to make room to get your indicators out. It’s also really hard physical work. These things are *incredibly* well attached. Which is a good thing, right?
Thankfully I managed to find the torque wrench, which probably last got used in the nineties, and so I am pretty confident we’re safe to drive it agin.
But why, given all my talk of “no projects”? This was one of those really stupid repairs that I know from youtube is just about cleaning up some internal connections on a component that’s otherwise fine. I slightly resented the idea of paying a garage a few hours of labour to blindly swap in an (expensive) replacement…but I also didn’t know if the car would still be on the drive, unusable, four months after I first started. So I was delighted to actually get the damn thing working again, in less than three hours.
When money was scarce and time was abundant, I used to service and tweak our cars all the time. So it was a huge relief to find I could still do all this, and wasn’t going to have to get the garage to come and pick up a bunch of broken bits that needed to be put back together.
The cultural list of ‘things to look forward to’ continues to grow.
We’ve booked to see Emma Corrin in “Orlando” in a few weeks’ time…so I really ought to finally have a go at reading it. Although I’ve heard it may not entirely help.
We have a very fancy view of Underworld at the Albert Hall (where we also hope to see fellow ‘Children in Need’ alumnus Kate Collins, who now rather impressively runs the Teenage Cancer Trust – and who we’ve not seen in at least fifteen years. So that will be lovely.)
I’m going to be seeing Suzanne Ciani at King’s Place, and Vicky’s suspending her disbelief around rambling modular improvisations to come with me
In a similar vein, I’m going to see Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith in April.
I’ve also finished watching “The Fabelmans” which was delightful, marvelled at the under-appreciated spectacle of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (and also Letitia Wright’s amazing performance that outstripped “Aisha” by miles in terms of range), enjoyed but wasn’t wowed by Pinocchio, and took in a few other rather lovely films. With still more to watch next week.
So, bring on the rampant leisure. I’ll let you know how I get on!
This has definitely been quite the week of contrasts – some losses marked, some incredible gains, some new potential futures, a few frustrations, and even some getting wiser. But it also feels like it’s just flown by. So this is very much “in no particular order”…
The good bits
Let’s start with an upside. I had a wonderful day at the Tate Modern – meeting an old guitarist/techarch friend for coffee and then wandering round everything. I heard good things about two of the exhibitions, but trying to buy tickets was a bit painful and so I ended up just signing up for membership. Criticisms of poor UX that led to this situation aside, it was great just being able to show a barcode and amble in to whatever I felt like. Cezanne was a bit overwhelming, and very full of people much older than me, but that was a bit of a “whatevs” compared two other exhibitions I got to see.
Magdalena Abakanowicz produced these incredible billowing organic textile pieces on a truly epic scale. I just stood being with them for ages, soaking them in. One of the centrepieces of any previous Tate visit was always the Rothko room, which I’d normally just settle into for well over half an hour – writing in a notebook in the company of their hugeness. The Rothkos are out on loan at the moment, which I was gutted about, but this nearly made up for it.
The other thing about her work was the smell. They were all made of reclaimed rope, so there was this incredible seaside/gym rich dusty oily aroma around everything. It’s not often you go to see an exhibition and spend a lot of time just breathing in next to the pieces.
Maria Bartuszová produced some amazing tangible sculptures too, using all sorts of media – but often plaster cast in amazing soft analogue forms using distorted rubber sheets.
The pieces below were particularly delightful – they were sculptures designed specifically to be enjoyed by people who couldn’t see, so it was all about feel and exploration:
Of course there was a great irony that these days they are locked away in a glass case where we can’t touch them – but you got to see the joy they produced in others when they were still able to be used:
However, while I was sitting in the members’ bar of the Tate Modern, inspiration finally struck on another front.
More leaving gifts!
The kind people of DIT DDaT had also given me Quite A Large Amazon Voucher as part of my leaving present, which was (again) very generous and thoughtful. But I was slightly stuck to know what to do with it. I’m a former catholic after all, and I’ve been very well trained that rituals matter. I couldn’t just quietly spend the voucher on a few useful cables that would get mixed up with all the others – it needed to be on something notable and distinctive I’d remember, and remember them with it. But I’m also a bit of a shopaholic – there’s a lot of stuff I’ve already just got for myself (even if I may not have been entirely candid with Vicky about how much it cost). So, what to get the man who has everything?
And in the bar, staring out at the Thames and imagining the sounds of the wind and the rain, I remembered.
I’ve always had an element of ‘found sound’ and ambient texture in all my music. Back when Vicky and I were creating our own tracks in the 90s, I’d adamantly refuse to use any presets – and any samples from libraries/CDs couldn’t be used “straight”. I’d have to create, capture or distort as much of my stuff as possible.
Even today, I’ve often got the “voice memos” app sitting ready to go, for interesting ambiences or textures. That escalator that makes a funny noise, the particular way two lift chimes work together. It’s nicely inconspicuous to have your phone in hour hand, even if the app then compresses the audio and makes it harder to recover the fine details.
These types of field recording are buried in the works of Leafcutter John, Haiku Salut, and so many more. I have a few running under some of my tracks – but they’ve always been a little bit crap – so I’ve always been after a proper field recording setup. But I know it’s frivolous. I’ve therefor never been able to justify the thing I wanted, and knew I’d be slightly disappointed with the thing I could financially justify.
But no longer. Because ‘added frivolous’ is exactly the point.
Thank you DIT DDaT folks, for enabling me to get my Zoom H5n at last!
Getting deeper into piano
New ways of perceiving also cropped up in the piano this week. I had an odd piano lesson on Saturday, where – for once – I didn’t actually play a single note. Seb helped me understand the shape of a Schubert Impromptu – because I was finding it impossible to make any tangible progress through the vast sea of twiddly notes. He pointed out, really usefully, that I was looking at the wrong hand to understand the structure. I think I’ll start making a lot more progress on this very quickly as a result.
I’d got a bit dispirited by progress on Debussy’s ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ which I linked to on Spotify the other week. It’s quite incredible that I’ve come far enough that I can kinda-play it end to end within six weeks of my first focused attempt at learning it. But with that comes new frustrations – that there’s still a lot of embedding it properly to be done, which previously would have happened while I was chiselling away at it in small chunks over potentially two terms. So there’s a new type of trajectory in my practice, as the inital learning gets easier – but other bits are exposed as a result. All progress, but still.
The final thing we did a bit of work on was one of my old Debussy favourites – “Sarabande”. This piece is almost the bedrock of Art of Noise’s amazing “The Seduction of Claude Debussy” and I’ve known 80% of it for ages – but not been good enough to get through the rest of it until now. But there’s a really horrible section near the end with a huge load of descending chords where I couldn’t see any fingering that worked. In the second half of the second bar below I couldn’t see any decent way to make it legato across all three chords of the phrase.
That turns out to be because there isn’t one. You’ve just got to make the best of it, and try not to give up and play three staccato chords. But the really interesting thing is that – after the lesson – I noticed there are also some really big clues in the dynamic and phrasing markings on how to pull it off. You’ll see I’ve now circled the staccato marking on some of the chords. They buy you a bit of time and really separate the phrases. And look at the hairpins in bars two and three: the third chord at the end of each bar is the quietest – so that’s the one to sacrifice. Similarly in the last bar, you can see it’s two small sighs – and that’s your clue about how to handle where to move and where to be legato. The phrase markings in that bar echo this too. So I now have a much better sense of how to interpret the pianistic markings to avoid RSI – which can only be a good thing.
It turned out the clues were out there all along. And now I’m cracking on rather wonderfully.
You can miss that you’re relaxing
One of the odd contradictions about the Tate, and the piano time, and the field recording is that they were almost too effective as a break from work. I ended up in such a flow state – being in the moment and totally absorbed – that it felt like I didn’t do much of note. Unlike a clear project or task where you can say “I made that happen”, this is almost the opposite. You emerge feeling like you’ve not achieved anything. Where was The Leisure? Instead you were just ‘being’.
Which is kind of the point.
Meanwhile, your subconscious definitely knows you’re relaxing and processing things. It’s busy moving on, even if the conscious bit of you hasn’t spotted. This can unexpectedly lead to new ‘old unresolved things’ expanding into the new mental space you’ve created. So, in the immediate moment, it actually feels like you’ve even taken a step backwards because you’ve got a sudden new worry that’s come from nowhere. It’s only with reflection you can see that the stillness, and the emotional mining, are actually making really good progress.
I also finally managed my 50th Parkrun on Saturday. I really like parkrun as a format – a non-competitive way of using others to set a pace you might not quite have chosen for yourself on your own. But 9am? As a friend once said, “it’s a bit blimmin early”. It takes real willpower to not have a second cup of tea and settle into the crossword in bed. And then there was the stupid ankle injury that wrote off the second half of last year. But anyway, it happened…
So that was the upside. But there were a few rubbish bits last week.
The biggest was the funeral of my godfather Hedley, who died from a particularly grim form of cancer. He was the first person I was ever aware of who talked about mental health, and it had been a struggle for a few big periods of his life. But he accomplished so much – as a bass player, a chemist, a gardener, and a parent. He was my dad’s friend since primary school, and he’ll be sorely missed by all our family.
I also had to take Daisy back to university – which is a mixed experience. The house feels emptier without her, and she’s off facing a new term of challenges, so we are a little apprehensive. And carrying her heavy bags up all those flights of stairs was really bloody hard work. But also, there’s a little more space to think. Even if I feel slighlty guilty about that.
As a result, I spent a LOT of time in the car between London and East Anglia last week. And I had a long-booked day trip with Vicky too.
This all coincided quite poorly with onboarding into the new job – as I was suddenly nowhere near the Big Computer during working hours, at precisely all the times I had a very gated sequence of tasks to undergo. I’d fill in a form, dash out of the door, and get to my destination only to find that this had unlocked a request for another new bit of paperwork or evidence or contact information I had to look up that evening. Each individual step was hugely tedious and rather mundane – but with a lot riding on it. It was a hell of a lot like certain aspects of being back at work, and definitely not helping with the relaxation.
As a result, I currently suspect that I won’t be starting at GDS on the 6th, but wonder if that might be a good thing.
I’ve got a chat with another potential coaching client, which could be very interesting as a complement to the GDS work
I’m trying to sort out someone to help them do more of the deep work on the strategy they need, as I won’t have time to do more than the highest level principles, so have a few chats with people to see if they’re interested
Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House on Wednesday evening
Meryl Pugh’s “Feral Borough” book launch at the Wanstead Tap on Thursday evening
Going to see a friend who’s recovering from an eye operation, and maybe will be in a fit state to enjoy a glass or two of something comforting
Planning to continue to stay off Twitter and LinkedIn as much as possible – deleting the apps off my phone has been very good for my wellbeing. There have been a few interesting debates I’ve seen on the few moments I’ve dropped in, and I’m very glad I managed to draw breath and walk away.
A lot more music, hopefully. And definitely some being still.
I don’t really have much work stuff to share, but I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the anti-work things that are going on. How I’m going through the process of untangling myself from people and places and habits, in case it’s useful for others.
Obviously I’m still absolutely blown away by the kindness and generosity of DIT at my leaving do. The presents were so incredibly thoughtful, and I’ve been rereading the card every few days – not least because it helps me work out what on earth it is I actually *do*. Supporting, being wise, being kind – those seem to be the main themes. And that’s not a bad thing to be known for really, is it? Oh, and gossiping in pubs, of course.
I’m still trying to work out when in my life I’d do anything notable enough to warrant opening that bottle of Bollinger Grand Année – but I’ve got until 2040 to find something. I’ll take it as a vote of confidence that something I do will warrant it.
But with the flurry of all that behind me, this was a full week of looking at all the plans I made and dreams I’d had for this time, and work out what really matters. Where to focus.
It’s come down to three simple things really:
Getting over the emotional burnout from my time at DIT
Getting ready for the new job at GDS in February (but not in an impostor syndrome way – I don’t have to prepare, I just need to be in good shape)
Maaaaaaybe having some kind of creative artefact or have some stories to tell
It’s odd how the list has shrunk. Yes it would be great to have a whole load of songs written, to have got better at the bass again, or have seen a bunch of friends in remote places,…but not at the expense of those first two things. And definitely not by taking on some new stressful personal project that’s going to lead to any steps backwards.
So the days have become much simpler. Each morning I just think about those three things, almost like they’re OKRs, and say “what do I need to do today to get closer to those”. And that’s shown how much other environmental noise I’ve been carrying around with me – and how that’s been getting in the way of everything.
So this is the new desktop. All the postit notes that covered the desk/surrounded the monitor – gone. All those principles to remember, the Laurie Santos checklists, or inspirational musical half-ideas I ought to explore at some stage – all transcribed and thrown in the compost bin. The good ones will be back.
I deleted the Twitter and LinkedIn apps from my phone at the start of the week too. Even with notifications turned off, they felt like unhelpful patterns. I need to be looking in to myself and tidying up, not getting nudged into social validation during all this spare time.
Also, controversially, I’ve taken down the modular synth. I love it dearly as a place to get lost and discover the unexpected, but it’s too broad and exploratory when you’re just trying to cover ground quickly. I find that I get caught up in obscure technical problems when trying to make recorded audio from a sequenced jam link up with things I’m adding on later – and that sends me spiralling into gloom because that kind of task feels too much like Being At Work.
So for the next week or so: it’s just me, Ableton Live, the Push, the Prophet 12 synth and the plugins I had already. A large canvas where I can get tons done, but not so vast I don’t flounder. And I’m finding that work is more focused as a result. I’m getting more stuff to happen. I’m finding it easier to amass ideas for collating later. Sound design is less of a distraction. And I’m actually having more fun and feeling better about myself as a result.
Alongside this, I’m getting deeper and deeper into the piano again. I stopped having lessons when the kids were little and there wasn’t time any more – and then they were the ones being dragged along to Seb’s. But in late summer I decided it was time to broaden my horizons again, and so I signed up after over a decade away. Last term I was really just consolidating all the pieces I’d been working on solo – and fixing things. But since Christmas I’ve managed to get at least an hour of proper depth practice in every day, and I’m making just the hugest amounts of progress. A wonderful thing to be getting out of this time.
In other news:
I spent the best part of a day dealing with onboarding onto the systems needed for my new contract and the ensuing queries. That was a bit miserable.
I’ve booked myself two nights out – completely on my own. They’re quite me. On 1st Feb I’m going to see Tannhauser at the Royal Opera House; on the 15th I’m off to Ally Pally to see Carly Rae Jepsen.
I’ve had two very nice afternoons in a pub with a notebook. One of them followed on from a nice lunch with Daisy. These have been amazing for recovery. Just that feeling of being in a bubble while the world happens around you, while you try and stretch out 2-3 pints as long as you possibly can.
I’ve watched a lot of fabulous films. Living, The Fabelmans, Tar, Brian and Charles. And some less good ones.
I’m managing to meditate for a good while every day.
I’m having a run or a big walk every day. (Although the injury from September is sending me some warning signs right now, so I’m going carefully)
My posture’s definitely getting better.
Of course, I’m a product person, and really it’s down to measurable impact – against the goals I set myself, not some vanity metrics. And really that’s come out in terms of one big thing. For various reasons, I’d not really slept properly since April-ish last year. I’d wake up in a panic after about three hours, and just lie awake turning things over in my head for a few hours more, trying to work out how to fix whatever was bugging me from work. This had become utterly normal, and carried on all the way through family holidays, Christmas, whatever. And on Tuesday I slept through the night. It was bewildering to be woken up by Vicky getting up at 6:45am…but bloody brilliant. I’m hoping that’s the cycle broken, not postponed.
I’ll leave you with Carly performing one of the greatest songs ever written. Have a fabulous weekend.