Monthly Archives: September 2016

983 – deadline

So today was the Mind the Product conference.

It was full of fascinating insights and material to chew over. But for me there was a particular edge in that it makes a particular part of the 999 days project real.

Probably not next year, but the year after, I want to be on that stage giving a talk about what it feels like to do what we do – of which a substantial part will be me singing songs about it.

There you go, I’ve said (written) it out loud now.

I’ve got a lot of opinions about the day job. I like telling stories. But I’ve never wanted to do Just Another Talk On Product Management. I’d like to talk about what it feels like to do what I do. When you trust people to protect you and they don’t, when you avoid disaster by a whisker, when you don’t know if you can ask the team just one more thing, when you’re told to take risks – but don’t believe you’re safe. I think music is a better way of conveying some of that, and carrying the comfort of a shared emotion around with you.

But I also don’t want to create novelty records.

I think the emotions you go through doing this job are big and universal enough that you possibly don’t need to know what the songs are about to enjoy that aspect.

I’ve always liked Jonathan Coulton’s songs at the end of the Portal games, and his way of mixing geekery with pop. They Might Be Giants paved the way for this, of course. But I realised that perhaps you could do it the other way round when I heard the lyrics to Chvrches ‘Leave a Trace

And you had best believe
That you cannot build what I don’t need

…which sounds like a lot like my job really?

So a session at MTP2018 that runs chat-context-song-context-song-context-song-takeaways.

That’s the plan.

With an MVP of performing two songs at a ProductTank soon.

And this blog is part of helping me rediscover the voice to do that. As part of my mid-life crisis.

Deep breath then?

984 – your own path

As alluded to in an earlier post, I went through a phase in my 30s where a bunch of my mates were winning BAFTAs, and for whatever reason I wasn’t. While I still think it would be nice if I had that brass on the mantelpiece, I’m largely reconciled to that just being One Of Those Things.


For some reason my mid-ranking public school has started sending me their magazine after I helped out with a school careers fair when I was at ITV. At the time I was looking after TOWIE and X Factor. Strangely I wasn’t as popular as the KPMG stand – says a lot about the place.

In this issue, there’s a photo of someone in my year who’s juse become a QC. And he proper looks it as well. (He’s pulling the sober judge face. I don’t know if he burst into giggles straight after the photo)

Apart from the horrifying realisation that I’m now old enough to have had schoolmates who are acruel bloody judges – it does make you realise that everyone ploughs their own furrow at their own rate. Some burn quickly when young, others are playing a long game. And I’m…well, I’m doing whatever I’m doing. And I’m increasing realising that That’s Just Fine.

[Tomorrow brings my second visit to “Mind The Product”, so expect vast piles of random notes from that. I’m conserving my blogging energy in the meantime.]

985 – night off

Sometimes, it’s time to stop.

Sometimes, there aren’t great meanings to digest.

Sometimes, you enjoy the moments – just be in them.

Sometimes, tomorrow is definitely going to be a more interesting day.

986 – paper is a technology too

A key part of my job is being lightly (but kindly) cross.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s about wanting things to be better. If I didn’t get frustrated with how they were now, and know how much better they could be, I’d probably not have an incentive to do my job.

As a product manager, I then have to put all that through the mincer of compromise. Juggling what could be in an ideal world with what’s possible or convenient – creating something that’s a pragmatic and definite way forward where users get a better or cheaper service.

That means I can – in turn – frustrate two other groups of people.

There is a growing pool of very talented and clever service design people who work in government, who look at the very biggest picture, get excited by systems thinking like I do, and try to imagine the best things could possibly be. Sometimes that would involve changing so much legislation, mastering so much policy, training so many people that it’s not practical in the timescale – and even then the design would be another hunch or hypothesis. Occasionally, although it’s not pleasant, I have to decide that we are playing a long game and we should just make the existing process a bit better but digitised end to end. We won’t have transformed it now, but we won’t have burnt through tons of cash and – my god – when we come back in a bit we’ll have 75 tons of data to prove all those hunches we had before. Which will make all the tricky conversations with senior people a lot lot easier.

Crushing dreams, but staying optimistic while doing it. That’s me. Hey ho.

But group number two get cross with me too. They don’t even know they’ve got a journey to go on. They’re doing as they’ve been asked, looking at what comes in the front door and working out how to handle all the nooks and crannies and problems that creates and try to optimise the hell out of it. They want a faster horse, and most specifically a horse exactly the same size as before. They also want it soon, because there are other projects and deadlines and budgets and resource constraints. And it’s sad, because they don’t have a mandate to deal with why all those nooks and crannies exist. All the failure waste that comes from poor design at the input stage – things they don’t have the ability to change. It’s become a habit not to look beyond “building an IT system to support business requirements”. Not to ask whether any of those requirements should just be designed out.

Gavin Bell once said that digital government can too easily feel like a 1950s paper process, converted into a 1970s mainframe, with a 1990s web front end stuck on it.

We need to remember that even the paper was once a technology.

It was once a brand-new solution to solving a user need, or a burning policy issue.

We could make – a form. And people could send it in, and we could – you know – process it. We could have a bit saying “office use only” with boxes just for us so we’d know how to move it around.

There were even people like Kalamazoo who made payroll and CRM systems that ran on paper with little tabs and holes that did things. Weird things. You folded stuff and that made things more efficient. It was just before my time in 90s IT, but it was spoken of with a reverence that showed it was clearly a massive improvement on what had come before.

They’re still doing it now. Seriously, go and admire the thought that must have gone into this payroll system on paper.

But these days we too easily take the paper as given. We take the policy as given. We digitise the form and start from there. We don’t think that they were innovations of their time.

Design has layers. In government we have a big goal, so design some policy. That leads to processes to manage how we could reach that goal – but it’s a bit lofty and not usable for the average working so leads to design in turn, which can create new needs and new policies and processes. And finally a bit of paper. Which can too easily have a life of its own, one that’s determined to ensure its own self-preservation.

We must change what we can, with an aim to changing more – but never let us forget that the form we’re looking at was once an innovation in itself.

Treat it kindly – it’s a palimpsest of processes and design past. Treat those who work with it every day kindly – it’s their life. But remember what it was actually there to do, not preserve it in aspic.

And when we launch our new thing, raise a glass to those who solved these problems before, with paper as their only technology option.


For further brain food on this kind of thing, I recommend the book New Media 1740-1915 from MIT Press. Or for something a bit more jolly, Tom Standage’s history of social media The Writing On The Wall.



987 – too many words

I look at my ten year old son, who struggles a bit with maintaining his momentum in writing, and remember that I was exactly the same when I was his age. Trying to get to the end of a written word, let alone a sentence, before something else more interesting pops into your brain? Just too much concentration and patience needed.

By secondary school this had turned into an almost pathological hatred of essays. I took science and maths at A level to get out of writing any more text than I had to. I went to Warwick to study maths because that was hopefully even less.


  • I’ve extended, subbed and polished a GDS Service Assessment report.
  • I’ve written a ton of email.
  • I’ve provided feedback to an old friend on their CV.
  • I looked at some lyrics in Evernote
  • There were probably some hopefully-wry asides on twitter.
  • And now I’m writing  this.

These days, I can touchtype (which makes it faster) and I get paid for some of the words (the possible ending of which helps on the motivation front) but I still think I probably find it nearly as hard as I did back then.

So I do wonder quite how I ended up with this as my job.

And hobby.

I do writing for my job and hobby.


All the words.

Writing the words.

Just keep writing the words.

988 – outboard

Bit of a day off from the creative crunching from me. No stamina, you see.

Instead I’ve been digging through the vast mess of our loft, doing yet another push towards readiness for the builders. That’s not until next year, but…well…you haven’t seen the loft.

Some slightly wistful things ended up at the tip this morning, including my very first mixing desk.


I bought it from Hammonds music shop in Watford, probably in about 1991, when I realised that I couldn’t have the Poly800, D50 *and* SY77 synths all plugged into the back of my stereo at once. It wasn’t hugely expensive, but it worked well enough for the growing collection of line-level technology. It wasn’t until a few years later – when I started working with a singer – that I realised the mic preamps were just terrible, except at picking up taxi radios. And there were no insert points to put in a compressor. But I was skint and on the dole then, having jacked in my corporate IT job to try and become a pop star, so we just had to make do. (A 24-channel desk arrived eventually, but that’s another story)

Of course these days there’s literally no need for something like this. If you’re a young person with synths, they’re mainly going to be virtual ones inside a laptop. And if you’re recording any real instruments, you’re going to need decent mic preamps.

It’s quite literally useless. I wouldn’t even wish it on my local church hall.

At the other end of the spectrum, I threw away the best part of 300 business cards, collected over the last 19 years of webbery.

It was a lovely trip down memory lane, um….chucking the details of people into the bin. Please don’t take it personally. There were a few reminders of people I really really ought to see again soon, people who were now doing amazing things in far-off places, people who’d left the industry, some who’d never really joined it, and even the occasional series of cards from people like me who’ve repeatedly reinvented themselves over the last decades. It was odd to watch their stories unfold through these little scraps of card.

Once they were the essential record of your network.

And now – like the synths – everyone does it in their laptop instead.

989 – the slightly more soggy (but still frustrated) toe

So today, there has been a lot of this sort of thing…



There’s also been the painstaking process of going through and checking nearly every virtual instrument to check it’s actually working – and trying to have a little bit of fun in the process. I’ve been through most of my Native Instruments plugins in standalone mode, along with quite a few of the Arturia ones, just checking sounds came out and patches could be found.

Vicky was ironing nearby – with headphones on, wisely – and described this as “the expensive version of listening to all the ringtones on your new phone”. Which is distressingly accurate.

One of my hunches at the moment is that I’ve got so many plugins I need to artificially constrain myself. I can’t learn every single one at the same time, so I need to pick something and get properly stuck in. Of course it would be easy to get stuck in a rut and fall back to the ways I used to write, so there’s a need to get a bit of a mix. I’d also like that combination not to necessarily sound like the same instruments as everyone else has. The current thought was Absynth, the Jupiter 8 and – to keep it a bit different – ImpOSCAR 2. The latter is a weird old beast, but can sound rather lovely with care.

While tinkering with it, I even came up with something I thought “oooh, that’s the start of something”.

So it was with some annoyance that I discovered ImpOSCAR2 doesn’t have an AAX version so doesn’t play with Pro Tools 12.

After several hours, back to the bloody drawing board again.

But at least I know there are some pens in the cupboard now.

990 – the wet toe

For the last few nights, as I write these, I’ve had the creeping sense that I’m running out of excuses. The posts have been good at helping me remember my long-lost blogging voice, and hopefully haven’t been utterly dull, but I’m aware that they’re slightly acting as displacement activity. As close friends (or UK-bloggers with long memories) will remember I was never short of a wry observation, but some of the purpose of this activity is to help me create – not observe.

So tonight, once Daisy had been ejected from Netflix and disappeared to bed, I poured a glass of red and fired up the new iMac, ready to get on with making some music. Of my own.

It was just horrible.

Because the iMac is still quite new, I found out tonight that I’ve never actually tried using it before to make music. Firing up a Dubious Brothers set in Mainstage – just to test connections –  mainly highlighted how many Kontakt sample libraries still weren’t installed. And I’m not starting that at 10:15pm.

Bits of the midi setup turn out not to be quite right either – signals not appearing where they did on the older iMac. Which I did manage to fix. And I even got a dual-manual organ preset mapped out so it was running between two separate keyboards, with the faders on one controlling the drawbars so I could shape the sound live – which was fine until I tried to do it for the second set of drawbars and it all turned to shit.

I realise that I haven’t truly decided whether I’m writing in ProTools or Logic. Or jamming about in Mainstage. Logic has the nice drummer things to get you going, and comes with all its own instrument plugins – particularly Sculpture which I love…but it’s really fiddly to record from two keyboards at once. ProTools is proper and serious and austere – and will let me record from multiple sources easily – but is also a completely and utterly blank canvas.

I was also daunted by the sheer number of plugins and sounds I’ve slowly got installed on the damn thing – missing pianos notwithstanding. It was utterly bewildering. And in the case of some of the older plugins, nearly impossible to read on my 5K retina screen. Putting on my glasses to write music has suddenly become a thing.

But there I was, back at a keyboard, making noises.

None of them were worth recording. But I’ll be back again tomorrow night, fixing a few things. And again the night after, so perhaps slowly they will be…

991 – working methods

It’s a quiet day for me on this blog. That’s because 1,900 words by me has just appeared over on the GDS Government As A Platform blog. And although they weren’t written today, I feel the exhaustion of their long, delayed birth quite keenly.

This blog was written largely at the same time as its predecessor in mid-August. It was a long, long article, and I was happy for it to become two, maybe three posts. The first half was comparatively easy to write, subbed and – being government – get signed off by those that do signing off.

The second was a different story. It’s explaining some well complicated shit. Things that I didn’t fully understand myself so early in the Alpha phase. We’d come out of discovery saying “we think there’s a thing here, but we need to start building something to find out…whatever it is we’ll need to find out”. I just had a hunch there was a way through the mess that was worth looking into further. The article was correspondingly born in a time of instinct, intuition and slight bewilderment. It was passionate, rambling, anecdotal and also – being fair – pretty inaccurate and bloody confusing in places. For those very reasons.

The second post had the advantage of Colm’s amazing diagrams. I had one incredibly complicated piece of Omnigraffle that was part architecture, part user journey, part strategy. Colm was the one that pulled it into a bunch of different diagrams that a) looked a hell of a lot better than mine (see previous posts on aphantasia) and b) only dealt with one idea at a time.

We had the wisdom of Shan’s many years of thinking about this – but that made it tricky editorially. When you’re trying to carry all of someone else’s hopes and dreams, and running it through the filter of their many years of experience, it’s hard to end up with an article that still sounds like you wrote it. It’s a testament to content editor Claire that she managed to wrestle all of the inline comments from many people into something still resembling flowing prose at the end without me having a huff.

But – and this is the (eventual) point of tonight’s post – it was a real lesson in the opinion of software features.

The original article was written in Google Docs. It was collaborated on in Google Docs. Like mad. It was then split into further Google Docs and worked on some more.

But interestingly the first post was a lot more fun to knock into shape. Because of how we used the software.

The second half became a large number of comments, then replies to the comments and replies to those. There were also suggestions layered on top. These were all done at separate times, building a chain of argument about any given point. GoogleDocs take on “track changes” has an unwitting hint of the newsgroup about it. It also slighly encourages people to work, walk away, and wait for a reply. Just like a newsgroup, that has a very slight sense of escalating conflict about it. We’re all grownups, and we managed to avoid getting too tense – occasionally walking a few hundred feet to actually see eachother in person – but there was definitely a gravitational tug.

And, being fair, the second half was more technical and more rambling.

But the first half was subbed entirely differently.

I did this with Nettie from the engagement team, and we were under quite a bit of time pressure because of other things we had to do. And we were about eight miles apart at the time. So we did everything together, live, in the actual document window.

By ‘In the document window’ I mean that things were highlighted with I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS written in the middle of a paragraph, or AW, AM I ROBBED OF A A MILNE CAPITALISATION BECAUSE GDS STYLEGUIDE?

Slowly we went through the document together, live, mapping out things we wanted to come back to or discuss. And then we’d pick them off, watching where the other one was and what they were doing – but discussing it together in the lines just after the paragraph we were subbing. All of which got deleted straight after we’d resolved it. I remember writing “AH, I GET THE ISSUE NOW” in the middle of a block of text. I then waited ten seconds, deleted it and wrote “GOT A PLAN, HOW ABOUT THIS” and rejigged the order of a few sentences. Meanwhile Nettie was tinkering with something else in a similar way.

It was like improvising with text, bouncing ideas off each other, live, thanks to the way GoogleDocs works. It was actually a lot of fun.

And I think that’s almost because of the opinions of the software features we used at the time – not the people or the content. Well, maybe the content a bit.

But, next time you want to collaborate with someone on a document, I really suggest you do it at the same time, together, in the main window, and don’t use any of those Word-like features. It’ll be far, far more fun.

992 – aphantastic addenda

So a few bits to add to yesterday’s blog. There were other things I wanted to say, and points to make, but they kind of got in the way of the main thrust of the story.

And, to be honest, I had to cut quite a lot of silliness. Victoria Coren once said to Ian Hislop something along the lines of “in my family, it was seen as slightly crass to be serious about something when you could have made a joke instead”. That’s a motto to live by for me – genetics or upbringing, who knows?

Firstly, it’s to point out that I do actually recognise faces. I do know it’s my wife in front of me – and that’s generally delightful. It’s more about the ability to mentally manipulate things. I *remember* images, but I can’t combine them or do things with them. I know what a sunny beach looks like, but only as a sort of polaroid. I know what my wife looks like, with a bit more fidelity than that, but I can’t imagine her walking down the beach – they’re separate things.

I also have a sense of physical space and structure. Back in the days when I was a DBA, storing the interrelations of 126 database tables in my head, there was something slightly architectural about it – but it was always subconscious. There was a contentment or sense of ease when everything was organised and in place – relationships were known. There was a slight teetering panic when ideas that shouldn’t go together were being asked to. But it was a ‘sense’ of structure, rather than anything I could look at.

That’s causing a certain amount of stress right now as we plan for our loft conversion. I’ve got no way to imagine the reality of it, think about light and shade or what it would be like to move about. I have to make scale models and find out – there aren’t any shortcuts. Much to my very-visual wife’s exasperation.

Said wife also had a phrase for my style of photography – which I suspect is very related to this. “You took a picture of a thing on another thing”. Great artists and great photographers must construct images in their heads and then work out how to manipulate light and texture to convey what they want to say – I’m just glad I didn’t drop the camera.

This hasn’t been a recent thing either – when I was in my second year of secondary school we had an art class, and as part of the still life project we were asked to sit out in the sun and draw the art block. Or “portakabin” as I believe it would normally be known. After an hour of sketching and colouring the art teacher got to me and seemed slighly stunned. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Um, did you remember to count the windows?” he said.

This simply hadn’t occurred to me as being a thing you’d need to do – there was the idea of a building, the idea of windows, draw some stuff that’s like that.

In the years just before I had children, I’d tried to tackle some aspects of this with Betty Edwards’ amazing book “drawing on the right side of the brain” (I got to chapter three). She claims she taught people to see in a way they hadn’t before, and gives great examples of when even Van Gogh completely mis-drew faces like a child would – absolutely no forehead. So I’m hoping to throw myself into that a bit soon, just in case it makes a difference – or to find out whether I’m an edge case she wouldn’t have diagnosed because this was only A Thing two years ago.

When I gave the talk, someone very kindly asked whether they should reintroduce themselves to me so I didn’t have to try and keep notes. It goes to show what a collaborative and embracing place the civil service can be at times, but I said ‘no’. I think it’s my responsibility to do the work so I don’t come across as rude to you – but it would be nice if you were understanding should I obviously struggle to remember your actual name. I am mortified, honestly.

Finally, I do have one other thing I can do that not many other people can – a useless superpower – which I think may be related to, or compensating for, all of the above. But it’s 11:50, so perhaps that’s worth talking about another time.